Comic Martha Kelly Says a Lot With a Little in FX's Odd, Endearing Baskets

Martha Kelly can say that working on the charmingly off-center new FX comedy Baskets was "the most magical time of my life" without betraying even a hint of an expression.

In fact, she does say it that way, which is exactly the skill she needed to play a character also named Martha in Baskets, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m.


Martha is an insurance adjuster who becomes the assistant to Zach Galifianakis's Chip Baskets, a rodeo clown in Bakersfield.

Chip and Martha are a perfect team because he emotes a lot and she emotes hardly ever. When she needs to convey a major emotional shift, she stops looking blank and starts looking expressionless.

That's an exaggeration. A slight exaggeration. Kelly also says it's just part of her skillset.

"I had never acted before," she says, "and I did nothing to prepare for this experience except memorize my lines, most of which we changed anyway.

"Good actors think about the emotion in a scene. That didn't even occur to me."

Her biggest burst of preplanning was checking out her wardrobe.

"Martha wears some really goofy clothes," she says. "We had a fitting and I was a little concerned, because I didn't want to look like an idiot on TV. But when we got to the scenes, they seemed appropriate."

In real life Kelly is a standup comedian who recently moved to Austin from Los Angeles. She has an impressive comic resume, with appearances on Conan O'Brien, Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show and Comedy Central.

She's been friends with Galifianakis since 1998, but admits she always resisted his attempts to get her into acting. Until Baskets.

"It had Zach and the two Louies," she notes, referring to Louie Anderson and Louis C.K., whose production company developed Baskets with Galifianakis. "I didn't have to know anything about the show to trust them."

In fact, she says, "I felt intimidated the first time I met Louis C.K., because I'm such a fan."

The premise of Baskets is that Chip wanted to become a clown in France, so his mother - played by Anderson - sent him to French clown school. Trouble is, he speaks no French, so he washed out and came back home, where he took the only available clown job, at the rodeo.

This leaves him with a lot of family issue, some involving his twin brother Dale. A small vehicular mishap brings Martha into his life, and she immediately begins doing whatever he wants or needs, despite the fact he takes out much of his life frustration on her.

"I was attracted to the absurd humor of Martha being really nice all the time to someone who's so mean to her," says Kelly. "I love that stuff.

"And Dale is even meaner, to everybody."

As the show goes on, she admits, Chip occasionally softens a little. But he stays a long distance away from nice, which keeps the dynamics intact.

Whereas most shows with single male and female characters eventually get to a "will they or won't they," Baskets feels like it's continents away from Chip even entertaining that possibility.

This might sound like it could make Martha seem sad. Or creepy. Kelly says she feels neither.

"There's a sad and sweet undertone," she says. "And I don't see any creepiness in any part of the character. To me, she's just fun to play."

Kelly says the show was fun to film, too.

"Acting is completely different from the standup world," she says. "You have these 12- or 14-hour days, but you have a great time doing it. It's like hanging out with your friends."

Interestingly, she says, "Standup is very social, too, offstage," and she likes that world. But with a twist.

"I love to watch standup," she says. "I love a whole range of standup. Janeane Garofalo, Cedric the Entertainer, Patton Oswalt, the Louies and Zach of course. I'm on Facebook, so I keep up with the comedy world. I know who's been booked on shows, who's going to Montreal.

"I'm glad for them. But there's also jealousy, even when it's people I love. When you have everyone vying for a few jobs, you get this conflict of envy and happy."


So in that spirit, she says, "I'm trying to really appreciate every single thing I get to do, like this show. A lot of people work hard for an opportunity like this, and it fell into my lap. I want to realize that and enjoy it."

And no, her fans are unlikely to hear any Baskets comedy in her upcoming sets.

"Most of my standup is about stuff that makes me uncomfortable," she says. "There are also things I don't joke about. I don't do jokes about the people who helped me get sober.

"But nothing on this show made me uncomfortable. When there's nothing traumatic, I usually won't be writing any jokes."

Besides, sometimes just a straight face is enough.