Interview with Ali Davis, Porn Clerk, Screenwriter, Improv Comedian

Ali Davis is funny in many formats, but like far too many women comedians and comedy writers, not nearly as famous as she should be. While performing improv in Chicago back in 2002, she got some attention for a blog she wrote, True Porn Clerk Stories, about a day job at a video store with an extensive porn section. An agent in L.A. connected with her and she moved to California, where she continues to perform, work a day job, and attempt to break into the currently writerstruck industry. This interview is from her own words.

I've kind of always wanted to have a job where I somehow got paid to be funny. I remember being fascinated by Carol Burnett when I was in the first grade -- I still just love her -- and Mom letting me stay up to watch Saturday Night Live when I was way too young.

I got my first little taste of improv in rehearsals for a one-act play festival in high school, then joined my college improv troupe. I looked hard at my double major and realized that, assuming those were my only options, I'd rather be a struggling performer than a successful anthropologist. After college, I took six months to hone my bartending skills - arguably the most valuable bit of education I had - then moved to Chicago to study improv and try to get into Second City.

I joined Second City's touring company (as an understudy at first), started working as a writer for the You Don't Know Jack CD-ROM series, and became one of the original members of Baby Wants Candy when I was 24 -- pretty good year. Baby Wants Candy is a long-form improv group that [is known for] improvising musicals. Second City's Touring Company is rightly known as a comedy boot camp, and You Don't Know Jack was a 45 to 60-hour work week of writing and rewriting jokes and trivia questions. It was a lot of good training -- nothing teaches you how to handle an audience fast like a room full of drunk Cubs fans -- and not a lot of sleep. I remember leaving work at Jellyvision so late some nights that I crossed paths with the strippers who were coming in for the late shift at Crazy Horse Too down the street.

People don't usually recognize my name unless they're already in the improv community. [True Porn Clerk Stories] comes up every once in a great while, and usually that's fun. As a rule, I like it better if it comes up after I've known someone for a while, though - my porn journal is kind of a weird thing to deal with if I'm just meeting someone. It's tough to ratchet back down into getting-to-know-you chitchat when you've started off with bukkake. Oh, that's not entirely true - if everything goes just right, you make a new friend immediately, because once you break the ice that way it really stays broken. I guess the closest thing to a celebrity moment would be the time a guy realized who I was in the middle of a first date once. I actually saw his face go goink! when he put it together. We definitely didn't run out of conversation.

It's kind of not cool to say you like Los Angeles, but I really do. It's much more welcoming than I expected. Everyone tells you it's going to be a snake pit, but it isn't - even fellow actors and writers, with whom I'm theoretically competing, have been fun and warm and helpful. I think a lot of the bad stereotypes about L.A. get perpetuated partly because they're true, yes, but also partly because Angelinos have a self-deprecating sense of humor about the city that I find charming. My friend Stuart Ranson summed it up best: "It's exactly as good or as bad as the people you choose to surround yourself with." Yes, there are sleazebags who move here for all the wrong reasons, but you don't have to hang out with them, and so far I've been lucky enough that I haven't had to work with them.

My dream hasn't changed much since I moved to L.A., but it has expanded to include television. I've really grown to appreciate well-done TV. Oh, um, and world peace. I'd love to be able to write screenplays and have a few good comic roles a year and be able to do all that without having to give up improv. Making movies every day and playing with Baby Wants Candy every Saturday night would make me a pretty happy woman.

I sent out some writing samples that got me some nice attention right... before... the strike... so that part's sort of on hold at the moment. (I'm not WGA yet, but no one is buying or hiring right now. And I support what the writers are asking for and very much want to be WGA, so there's no way in hell I'm scabbing.) But you get used to that out here - bursts of heady excitement over crazy-good opportunities that often don't pan out. It's not like one can't write during the strike - you just can't try to sell it. And, really, pitching my stuff is the part I like the least, so in a way it's a small release of pressure. Auditions have gotten weird since the strike - you see casting notices for worse and worse reality shows. (Yes, "reality" shows send out casting calls to talent agents and casting web sites.) I don't go out for reality shows, but I still get notices from a couple of casting sites. Be warned: You are going to start missing the writers a lot in the coming weeks. No: a LOT.

But in the end, it's not hugely different for me personally since the strike started, (except for the part where lots of my friends are striking or getting laid off - that's painful). A lot of being out here is having things on the burner so you're ready to be seen and/or met with. And I like writing and I like performing, so that's what I do. I tend to scatter my energies a bit, which is either a terrific strategy or the worst idea ever, depending on who you talk to.

So I'm chewing an idea that I like for a new one-woman show and tackling a longish humor/anthropology essay about an interesting experience that I won't talk about because out here you guard ideas like they're the last samples of the smallpox virus and working on a pilot on my own and on a screenplay for a romantic comedy with my friend Molly Hale. Molly and I also do a podcast together called "Science Refuses To Heed My Warnings." It currently has an audience of about 20 people, but it makes us laugh. And I still do improv.

A typical week is... less exciting and artsy than that earlier paragraph might lead you to believe. I freelance write and edit, but right now that's on-site for one client and pretty much 9 to 6. It pays the bills and the people I work for are terrific, so I'm grateful for it. And then I have a couple of rehearsals and a show or two, and with luck an audition, and then there's little things like finding time to write and see friends and loved ones.

So, busy. But fun.

I'm lucky enough to get to work and play with a lot of people I admire and want to emulate. Baby Wants Candy, case in point. Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, and Amy Poehler come to mind because they're all hilarious ladies who do a ton of writing. And it's cool to see them succeed - I was a little behind them in the Second City system and can confirm that they're all great people. It's satisfying when Karma works. I'm also a huge Stephnie Weir fan, both as a person and a comedienne. She might be the best improviser I've ever seen.

I'm more and more a fan of old-school funny ladies with deadly timing. Mae West and Rosalind Russell - I love how ugly Russell lets herself get in The Women. And Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White all get major props.

Also people like Lauren Weedman, who you can see doing pop culture commentary on VH1 and she's funny, but when you go see one of her one-woman shows like Wreckage or Bust, you start punching walls and screaming "Why is she not hugely famous?!" I love watching Megan Kellie and Marion Oberle of Karla, and Angela Shelton and Frances Callier of Frangela. Mary Pat Farrell, Irene White, and about 30 other improvisers I can name off the top of my head should also be way more famous.

And you can see all of those people for less than the cost of a movie. Go see live comedy.