HUMOR PEG INTERVIEW WITH LOLA GILLEBAARD:
When you meet Lola Gillebaard, you are at once struck by her elegance. Her beautiful face, framed by lovely silver hair is dominated by big blue eyes. When you hear her lovely Southern drawl, you feel as though you should be on a wide veranda, perched on a rattan chair sipping a Mint Julep as you look out at acres of Live Oaks dripping with Spanish Moss. You would, of course, be discussing only the most civilized topics in hushed tones.
If you look closer, however, you see the merry twinkle in those blue eyes, the first indication that this genteel picture may be misleading. Nowhere in the literature featuring fine Southern ladies was there ever a heroine who could crack people up like Lola Gillebaard. Oh, sure, Rhett found Scarlett amusing, but not because she knew how to punch a line.
Although hardly the shy and retiring Southern Belle of romance novels, Lola’s humor is always ladylike, whether she is delivering her one-woman show, GROWING OLD DISGRACEFULLY, or sharing laughs with fellow cancer survivors as a shining example of what there is to look forward to. Today, at 76, Lola says, "I have to live forever, because I'm just getting started!”
Lola, an Emeritus member of NSA was a keynote speaker at the national convention in Orlando last July, despite having broken her wrist in two places. She was also honored this year by her Greater Los Angeles Chapter with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Her acceptance speech was vintage Lola: “What does this mean? Am I done? What am I supposed to do now?”
“It IS kind of a funny name for an award. I’m just getting started. And that’s the way it should be.”
For once, she’s not joking. She IS just getting started, even though she’s been making audiences laugh for some 20 years, and friends and students even longer.
The following is from a recent Humor Peg interview with Lola.
Silver: The theme for the Humor Peg this year is “Crank it to 11” What pops into your head when I say, “Crank it to 11”?
Lola: I wonder if I’ve gotten to 10 yet!
What number AM I?!?
It’s not any fun if you get there. It only is fun GETTING there.
So, keep on cranking.
Silver: How did you get your start in speaking?
Lola: Through Patricia Fripp whom I met in the mid-80’s right around the time she became President of NSA. I am a writer first and I was teaching some workshops in Sacramento. Fripp (who looked like she was 12 years old at the time) was in two of them. She came up afterwards and told me I should join NSA. I do everything everyone tells me to unless I have a reason to think it’s wrong, and so I did, and was glad that I did.
Silver: Have you had comedy training?
Lola: Yes. I took an Improv class. I also did a stand-up comedy class at a junior college at a time when stand-up was very popular. They wouldn’t take but six people to a class ,and it was a three hour class, twice a week.
I tell you, they were the least funny people I’ve ever met in my life! I thought I was going to walk in to a group of these funny people and just have the best time, but they were NOT. Why they took the course I have no idea, because they did not get any better. They would not take advice. The class was 10 weeks and the teacher urged us by the end of the second week to have some sort of set together, to know at least what we were going to talk about. They each brought something and it wasn’t funny but they just kept on DOING it! We had to go to a Comedy Store for the graduation and the teacher kept saying, “I have the right to tell you that you can’t be in the graduation, but I knew she wasn’t going to do that because you can’t do that in a community college.
Not one of them ever changed their story. It never was funny and it never did get funnier. There was one girl who told this story that her grandmother had told her. It had absolutely NOTHIN’ funny about it. NOTHIN’! One night she was parked way away because she couldn’t get a parking space and I offered to drive her to her car which I did and I said, as tactfully as I could, “Ya know, you ever thought about changin’ the story? Maybe another story would…” before I could finish, she interrupted me and said, “No! This is the story I joined the class to tell and this is the story I’m going to tell and she told it the night we graduated at the Comedy Store and it wasn’t funny then, either.
Even so, I had a GRAND time, and that’s where I met my friend Tom. He wasn’t in my class. He came one night to make up for another class he had missed. We looked at each other like, “Oh, my GOODNESS! We’re normal! I’ve met someone who’s not whacko!” It was instant recognition and we’ve been good friends ever since.
That same teacher invited Tom and me to work at the fairgrounds. It was a real trade show with people walkin’ around. Our job was to be funny enough that people would come over to our little corner booth. The teacher handed us a bullhorn! Tom and I just about fell on the floor. He said he’d go first and I went second. That was a wonderful experience because it taught me something—it worked! People would say, “Who IS that over in the corner with that bull horn?” And they would stop by our booth. And I thought, “Wow! If this works, just think how well it would work if you had a real audience and a microphone!”
Silver: I know you write your own material. What’s your process?
Lola's Tip #1 - Carry index cards with you everywhere
Lola: I carry index cards with me all the time. And when I see something or hear something that I think I could use, I write down keywords. Earlier this year I broke my wrist in two places and that was the worst problem for me because I couldn’t write. You cannot imagine what it does to you if you can’t jot things down when you get ideas. It was just terrible.
When I’m ready to begin writing my speech, I write it all on the computer because I am first a writer and I’ve been writing this way for years. Without sounding it out, I know the difference between writing it to be read and writing it to be spoken, so I don’t have to go through that transition which I probably did, in the beginning. And then I read it out loud and catch all those extra things—the dohs and the duhs—and fix them.. Then, even if it’s not funny enough, which it usually isn’t – it can never be too funny – I just leave it and come back to it later.
That’s one of the secrets. Once you’ve written your draft, you can go to a movie or have a conversation and it will open up something that gives you an idea on how to fix what you’ve already written. That’s why it’s so important to get something down on paper as soon as you can because you have to start right away on the rewriting process and a lot of that happens subconsciously. As long as you put off sitting down and doing it, even if it’s terrible, and sometimes it’s terrible, but it’s that terribleness that will give you ideas for something better. And even though I know that’s true, sometimes it’s just so hard to start when I don’t have a starting place. I still force myself to do it.
Once I write it, I can’t learn from a whole page of stuff. So I break it down into key sentences or key phrases. That takes bigger note cards. I know I’m ready when I can break an hour and a half keynote down to two sides of a 5 x 3 index card. And they’re usually just one word. I always put the running gag in red and the rest of it in black. I think transitions are the hardest thing to learn. I’ll put my transitions in red, too, and then I memorize the transitions and try to remember what comes under each transition. You can use up a lot of energy when you’re telling something—even if you know it well and enjoy doing it—if you’re trying to remember what the transition is to the next point. You’re taking away from your performance.
I then start with the learning. I go to the library and I sit in one of those study rooms and look at the wall. And that’s how I learn. I can hear it in my head so I don’t have to talk out loud and there’s no distractions. The focus is there. An hour and half keynote will take me at least four days in the library. I go to my car for lunch. That’s my big break. And it works. You have to do whatever works.
By the way, I cannot work on two different presentations at one time. I can write them but I can’t learn them at one time because I forget which one goes where. There have been times when I’ve had to memorize a new speech on a four-hour plane ride to the next one. That’s where the pre-work pays off.
Once you’ve memorized your speech, you carry that 3X5 card with you everywhere. Let’s say you go to a conference and you don’t go on until the next day. You’re taking notes on what’s happening because you’re going to add to what you’ve got. You could put that little card from your original script in your pocket and, as you’re practicing in your head, if you forget anything, you just whip out that card wherever you are. And it doesn’t look like you’re studying. It really works.
When my arm was in a cast and I couldn’t write, I could never get down to that last 3X5 card. It was like, “I’m going to have to quit….’til I can write again. I’m just going to have to get out of the business!’ I had to get Hank to write the cards for me, which was challenging because English is his second language.
Silver: From the beginning, you always did humor?
Lola: Yes, because it’s my style. I was very serious about it. I didn’t call it comedy then; it was strictly humor. I got into stand-up comedy later when I took that course and found out how much fun it was or could be AND how bad it could be. You know, I mean this in the nicest of ways, you don’t know how good you are until you see how bad some other people are. I think that’s kind of what happened to me when I took that course. But you still couldn’t use the word (comedy) a lot if you wanted to get paid your fee because even though they say you have to use it to get paid, there’s that other end of it, too.
Lola's Tip #2 - Hold a Q & A session at the end of your speech
I think a Q&A, even if it’s not but 5 minutes, is such a wonderful thing, especially for a humorist. If I only had 20 minutes, I wouldn’t do it. But if I have 30 minutes or more, I always do. This one woman asked me, “Did all that stuff really happen?” I told her, “You know what? I taught creative writing for years. I was just awed by my students who could write fiction. I’d ask them where they got all that stuff because I can’t do anything but non-fiction. I think that’s why God gave me such a hard life because he knew I wasn’t going to get material anywhere else.
Q&A is my favorite part of the program, always. You get material. People will ask you ANYTHING. It’s amazing.
At the beginning, the hardest part of getting into that Q&A pattern was waiting for the first question. That was scary. It seemed like forever. I have some lines that I put in, like “I know everything and I’ll tell you anything,” or “Ask me something. It makes me feel important.”
Lola's Tip #3 - Venture off a little bit in a different direction than your speaking takes you. You'll pick up some new stuff.
(Fellow NSAer) Eileen McDargh is a very good friend of mine and lives close to me and she’s always saying, “Why are you doing THAT?!?” and I say, “Well, it’s an experience. I think I’m gonna learn something.”
When I joined Clean Comedians, I was thrilled to death to be a part of that. Then I competed in the Funniest Person in Orange County contest last year and that was a scary thing because it’s not what we speakers do and everybody was so much younger and kind of looked at me like, “What are YOU gonna do?” and I’d just look right back at ‘em. I said that my purpose in getting in that contest was to prove that Clean Comedy is #1. It turns out Clean Comedy is actually #3 because that’s where I placed in the competition!
I was the only women out of over 100 people. That was another experience that I really enjoyed. My friends back in Rocky Mount, NC where I grew up said “Oh, you were always like that.” They think you just walk out and just be like you always were. It’s amazing to me how people think that. But then, that’s what you want them to think, too.
Silver: Yes but admit it, you want a little recognition for having the guts to do it.
Lola: Yeah. (laughing) You’re right. You’re right. You want ‘em to know it’s not as easy as you make it look.
I was just in a movie, another new experience. The guy who wrote the movie had been the President of Clean Comedians before he sold the company and I had worked with him. He said, “You really should come and audition because this part is you,” so I did and I got the part. In fact, the character’s name is Lola so I guess he wasn’t kidding when he said it was me.
It’s called a Mock-umentary. It’s a spoof on multi-level marketing and it’s very funny. That was a whole different experience for me because, for one thing, we speakers are used to learning our “lines” in advance. When you work in a movie, my gosh, you do two lines so many times that you don’t have to learn them before you get there because you’ll know them backwards by the time you get ‘em right and then you can go work on the NEXT two. So, it’s a whole different way of working that I caught onto pretty quickly. I was the only one that had never been in a movie. They were all actors and actresses.
Don’t ask me to explain it because I can’t, but I learned to expand my speaking from doing that part in the movie. I know because the speaking I’ve done since I finished the movie was different, I could tell, but I don’t know how.
Lola's Tip #4 - Find a situation that forces you to constantly come up with new material quickly.
I worked for 12 years on cruise ships. One of the reasons I did that, even though it doesn’t pay (you get the trip for free) is that you have the same kernel of an audience every single night. We would usually stay on the ship for six weeks and there were at least five people in the audience that are also there for the whole six weeks so you can’t repeat anything but your name.
It’s a wonderful atmosphere to come up with new material because you don’t have to think about anything except being good and enjoying yourself. You don’t even have to think about what to wear because you’ve already decided that before you left home. It taught me a lot. I learned that, when you have to come up with new material, you do. We have to believe that about ourselves. I needed that experience to believe that I could do it.
Lola's Tip #5 - (on marketing): Keep doing it. Don't ever stop!
I hear so many hot tips and they’re fine tips but they don’t really apply to humorists. I think we are a different breed. I discovered early in the game that if I said I was a humorist, the person would sometimes say, “We don’t hire comedians.” In the old days, I used to try to change their minds and explain the difference. When I worked that hard, I usually found that, even if I got the job, it never was right because they never had the right frame of mind. That’s getting better and better and better. But if anybody even relates my work to comedy in that way, I just say, “Well, thank you very much,” and hang up.
I market to and do a lot of work in the healthcare industry. I’ve had 17 major operations and I need to get some of that money back!
I’m a breast cancer survivor and I will often speak to other cancer patients or to professionals who take care of patients. I’ve been there. They don’t get a whole lot of former patients who are funny. So that works.
I also work with a lot of associations and I just LOVE women’s conferences and women’s retreats. There is nothing like an audience of all women and I say that even though there’s nobody who loves men more than I do.
Silver: If you could gather around you every speaker who wants to make the world laugh, what advice would you give to them?
Lola's Tip #6 - Laugh yourself
The comedians who don’t laugh, and I don’t mean laugh while they’re doing their materials, but the ones who don’t have fun and really enjoy themselves (and a lot of them don’t)… well, I sure wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.
Lola's Tip #7 - If you don't think it's funny, your audience won't either
I remember reading an article awhile back written by NSAer John Kinde, who has an improv group in Vegas. John told the story about this guy in the group who had a set and when he would say this certain line, even though John thought it was really funny, the audience just didn’t laugh. Then one day the guy’s wife said, “You know, that’s really a funny line!” and the guy who was saying the line said, “You think it’s funny?” and she said, “Yeah, it’s really funny!” and so he decided it was funny, too. When he did the line the next time, everybody laughed. The problem was that, deep down, he didn’t think it was funny and that’s why they didn’t laugh. I’ll never forget that story. It taught me a lot.
Silver: Who’s your favorite funny person, and why?
Lola: I have always and will always love Carol Burnett. She’s at the top of my list because she’s got everything else that goes with it besides funny. She’s got compassion, she’s so darn likeable, she doesn’t have an ego anymore than the rest of us have (you gotta have a little bit). I just think she’s a wonderful, wonderful person.
I did the warm-up for Bill Cosby and Dana Carvey and I have to say that they both have that same warmth. It’s just that I watched Carol for years and years and when we moved to California, we went to her show where you stand in line and get in for free. In person, she’s everything that you would want her to be from watching her all those years. She’ll always be at the top of my list.
And, as far as NSA is concerned, there are so many funny people and they are all different. I think Jeanne Robertson is the queen or the empress or whatever you want to call her. She has that same Carol Burnett “thing.” She’s such a nice person and so much fun and all that good stuff.
Lola's Tip #8 - Take full advantage of your NSA membership
My 20 years in NSA has shortened my learning curve. It introduced me to plenty of people to talk to when I have a problem with my work. There’s always somebody in that organization that knows exactly what you’re talking about.
Without NSA, I wouldn’t have met Patricia Fripp – she calls me “Mom” and she calls Hank “Dad”. She always signs her emails to me “AD” which stands for adopted daughter.
I certainly wouldn’t have had the experience of keynoting in Orlando which was wonderful.
In the beginning, I have to say, I said, “My gosh, I’ve never belonged to anything that cost this much money.” I didn’t go to any of the things for the first year and finally I went to a Western workshop and Patricia said, “Oh, you finally decided to come to one of these,” and I said, “Hey, I was doin’ good to pay the dues!” I’ve missed some workshops but I haven’t missed but one national conference. You hear people say to go and participate. They tell you what will happen when you do but you have to experience it for yourself before you truly get it.
Silver: What might surprise people about you?
Lola: There’s very little left for me to surprise people with. Once you look at me – everything’s just right out there. In fact, when I was working with NSAer Dick Bruso last week on my branding he said, “Lola, you would make a terrible poker player.” And I said, “I know, I know, that’s why I never play.”
Silver: What you need to know about Lola is that, not only is she funny, she takes her craft very seriously. I learned so much from her in just an hour about the process of becoming an artist and I trust you did, too.
Thank you, Lola, for exemplifying what NSA is all about—getting in the kitchen with the Humor Peg to bake a bigger pie! Of course it’s good old Southern pecan—what would a humor pie be without nuts?