Olivia Stadler is a Toronto-based comedian and aspiring screenwriter. The 25-year-old former competitive dancer earned a Bachelor’s degree in Media, Information, and Technoculture from the University of Western Ontario. Last fall, Stadler entered UCLA’s Film and Screenwriting program. She hosts and produces Literally Dead. The comedy show runs the first Saturday of every month at Comedy Bar.
Last month, Joyful Magpies spoke with Stadler about starting in comedy, her career aspirations, and women in entertainment.
How do stand-up comedy and screenwriting fit together?
Stand-up comedy has helped me learn how to write jokes. Stand-up comics will write down every funny idea. It’s a weird thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If you have an idea that comes into your head, you have to write it down, or else it’s gone. My notes — I have upwards of a thousand notes. Some of them are so useless. Some of them make me laugh, but I have never figured out them out as a stage joke. Later, I figure out — oh, this is dialogue. You write down every funny idea, and then you figure out places to plug them in after.
And when you perform stand-up, you receive immediate feedback on your material.
How do you handle feedback?
Poorly. I handle it very poorly. On the outside, I’m good. I don’t make anyone feel weird. I let it sit on my shoulders, though, but I think everyone is like that.
It also depends on who it’s coming from. Like if it’s well-thought criticism and coming from one of my friends who understands what I’m going for on stage. Sometimes people will give you feedback, and it’ll be like okay, but that’s you. Someone the other day said to me you get into talking about cum way too fast. It’s a totally clean comic. And I’m like you don’t talk about cum at all, that’s my criticism for you!
Are you transitioning from stand-up comedy to TV writing?
When I was in my third year of university, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at all. Going into first year, I wanted to be a news reporter. I liked the idea of being on TV and talking for a job. That would be me. I didn’t realize you would have to do journalism first. You do that forever. You have to be passionate about that. I didn’t know what I was doing or what I wanted. I’ll be a writer of some sort because that’s what I like doing.
My roommate in third year was a huge TV nerd. Growing up, I never watched TV because I was a dancer. After school, I would go straight to dance, and then come home, do my homework, and go to sleep. I watched TV with my roommate. I fell in love with TV.
I got into The Mindy Project. It one of the first shows I got into. I’m always Googling and IMDBing when I’m watching TV. I got obsessed with Mindy Kaling’s story. She was a TV writer first then got into comedy. That’s how she got into creating her own TV show. I want to be like that.
Then, it clicked. I want to be a TV writer.
I remember that day I had dance. I was really dreading dance at that point in my life. I loved it growing up. It made me realize that I like performing. I didn’t like dancing in class. I didn’t like technique. I didn’t care about feeling the movement. I started to dread it in university. I didn’t go to dance that day. And then, I stopped showing up.
This is going to be my new identity.
That’s when I started trying to write things down. Looking back on everything I wrote in those days is very awful, but it was a start. I bought a bunch of books. I learned if you want to be a TV writer, you need to learn how to articulate comedy, so try doing stand-up or improv. I signed up at Second City for improv and stand-up classes. I fell in love with stand-up. I kept doing it. I like this. I have a knack for it, so I just kept doing it. And now I’m here.
I’m only in my second year of doing stand-up. In my first year, I focused solely on doing stand-up. Then, I realized I needed something else because no one makes money from just performing stand-up comedy. I applied for the UCLA program. I got in, and I was psyched. I started doing that. This feels right. I’m so glad to be doing this. And I have been doing it since.
You just spoke about how dance turned from a passion to a grind. With comedy and writing, has that happened to you?
If I’ve stopped enjoying it?
Yeah. I love writing, but sometimes I’m like this sucks. I feel like I’m going through the motions. Why do I do this? But then there are those moments that make you like it again. Oh, I remember why I like doing this.
I find that it goes in waves so much.
I started panicking the other day because I’m a server right now. I don’t know when I’ll ever have a TV writing job, so I think I should try to get a full-time marketing or social media job. Something I’m qualified to do with my degree. Then, I was looking at all these jobs, and I was like — oh, I don’t remember how to do anything. Comedy has been my life for two years. I don’t remember anything before that. I have put all of my time and energy into harnessing this skill set, so I probably have to make something with this work.
Shortly afterward, I called my agent. I reminded him that I want to be a writer. He said: okay, these are the things you need. Oh, I basically already have all these things. Great. We’ll start setting up meetings. Because of that, I’m able to find my way into meetings with TV writers.
I’m just doing the work. I don’t really know what the end goal is that I’m working towards. It is cool to see some of the work, which often feels arbitrary, paying off and that things are starting to fall into place. My dreams are going to come true, hopefully.
In the creative fields, there are so many things that are not tangible. Everything is so abstract, like a theatre production. You rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. The final product doesn’t really come together until opening night.
It is interesting what you find rewarding as an artist, because it’s not always tangible, as you said. That phone call with my agent meant a lot to me. It made me feel satisfied in a way that nothing really has in awhile. I can’t really — I told people about that conversation. And they were like okay, cool. That conversation means nothing for anyone else. It’s just validation for myself that I’m on the right track.
Let’s talk about this track you’re on. You’ve been doing stand-up comedy for two years while also pursuing screenwriting. How have you been carving your path? Do you visualize it as an uphill battle? How do you see the road ahead?
Honestly, not really. I feel like this is the first thing I have ever done in my life where I haven’t had to consciously think about what my steps are to establishing myself. I want to do it, so I ended up doing it. I want to do comedy every night. I want to put in a lot of effort. I want to be good at it. From that, you make a name for yourself. I’m doing the thing I want to do. It’s adding up.
I guess the one conscious thing you have to do if you want to carve out a positive image for yourself is staying out of drama, that’s the hard part.
Do you find that’s easier some days than others? You’re very active on Twitter.
That’s different. Wait, what do you mean?
I’m on Twitter, and someone says something dumb. I want to call them out, but then I’m like I don’t know if I should get involved.
Usually, when I talk about drama, it’s something that’s happening on Facebook. It’s something that’s happened in real life, in the comedy scene, and then someone has posted about it. Everyone comments their take on it. That’s the stuff you got to try to stay out of. You have to silently observe instead.
Comics are weirdly less active on Twitter than they are on Facebook, which is so dumb. You’re not gonna go viral on Facebook. Why are you wasting all your energy and time on Facebook? You could be creating a writing portfolio for yourself on Twitter. You could be getting followers and potential fans.
That’s how you see your Twitter profile, a writing portfolio?
Yeah, kind of. A diary. A log of my mental illness. All of the above.
I remember back when I discovered what I wanted to do with my life. I spent a lot of time on Twitter. I remember feeling like it was productive for some reason. Then, I realized — oh yeah, I’m learning how to write jokes. It was probably the most productive thing I could have been doing.
How did you find my Twitter?
You followed me after I posted my interview with Michelle Shaughnessy.
That was the phase where I was like I need followers on this site. I followed everyone who seemed to be in the surrounding area and anyone who liked Toronto comics’ tweets.
Thanks for the follow back.
It’s such an odd thing, don’t you think? When people get upset if someone doesn’t follow them back. Do you ever feel that?
I don’t care on Twitter. I get it on Twitter. On Twitter, it’s mostly about content. I want to read someone’s tweets, and maybe they don’t want to read my tweets.
Instagram is the in-between point of Twitter and Facebook. When you follow someone on Instagram, it’s more like a friend request than it is a follow. You kind of expect the reciprocation there. When people don’t follow you back on Instagram, I find that it hurts a lot more than on Twitter. It is so weird.
Whenever I wake up and check the app that tells you who unfollowed you it puts me in such a bad mood. Even though it’s like — yeah, people should be unfollowing me if they don’t like my content.
You have an app that tells you who unfollowed you?
Yup, I know. It’s bad. I guess I have it because there’s a bunch of people I don’t want to follow, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings by unfollowing them. I should just delete the app and unfollow people I don’t want to follow. That’s my reasoning. It’s still not really logical.
You know what it is, you and I grew up with social media. I’ve had a Facebook account since Grade 9.
How old are you?
So, we are around the same age.
When I mention it to older comedians who are in their 30s, they’re like Instagram doesn’t matter. It’s the only thing that matters, actually. First of all, no one that’s not a comedian uses Facebook, unless you’re in your 80s. Your posters on Bloor Street West, no one is seeing your poster. Everyone is seeing what you’re posting on Instagram. Everyone spends all of their time scrolling through Instagram. It doesn’t make sense to not take it seriously. It’s weird to me.
Have you ever gone viral?
I have a few times, yeah.
What’s that like?
It’s a cool experience. I really like it.
What has been your most viral tweet?
That one bothered me because it was so formulaic that I’m like, eh, anyone could have thought of this. It just wouldn’t be the tweet I would choose to go viral. “Bisexual means you’ve had sex twice.” It’s formulaic, but I guess it works.
Tell me about your monthly show Literally Dead. The show runs the first Saturday of every month at Comedy Bar. You’ve been doing it for almost a year now.
December will be the 12-month mark. We actually just got renewed for a full year.
How did you manage to get the timeslot?
I produced a few one-off shows that were sold-out and successful. And then I asked Gary Rideout, who owns Comedy Bar, if I could have a regular slot. He offered me a few Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Honestly, I would rather host a weekend show. I know everyone would rather have a weekend show, but I would like to hold out if something becomes available. I waited long enough and eventually, something became available. I’m glad I waited for it.
The whole first year felt like a trial. He was only giving me a month at a time. And now, I have the full year, so I can finally relax about that.
Can you talk about the work that goes into Literally Dead?
That’s definitely the hardest part. That’s the skill set that doesn’t come from doing comedy. I don’t feel like I’ve completely mastered it yet. I just plaster my social media with everything related to the show. I try talking with audience members after the show, too. We have a lot of repeat audience members.
I’m still trying to figure it out because this is the part of comedy that I have found the most challenging. It’s really meaningful for me to put on a good show because there’s not a lot of good shows in this city. Not as many as you would think. A show will have a cool poster. You’ll go, and there’ll only be two audience members. Or it’s cancelled. It’s just crazy how much time and money will be put into a poster when you should be putting money into advertising and making sure the show is good.
There’s so much talent in the city that I want to showcase.
What kind of talent do you book?
I try to book a super diverse line up. Shows are way more interesting when your lineup has a bunch of diverse voices and perspectives. I have new comics. I have queer comics. There are people of colour. A good balance of men and women.
What are some future projects you have planned?
There are so many things I want to do. I’m working on a podcast with my best friend, Allie Pearse. When Allie and I launch the podcast, we are going to do a comedy show in celebration of the launch. We’ll do a live podcast along the way.
I was going to do a fringe show with my friend Sam. It was going to be about dance. We’re still thinking about that.
Do you miss dance?
I do. I’m starting to miss dance now. I think I stretched it out for too long. It was at my peak when I was 18. And then I feel like instead of keeping at as a happy memory in my past, I stretched it out for too long and grew to dislike it. I actually really miss it lately.
Next semester, we are going to be working on a pilot. My idea is going to have to do with dance. If I ever have my own TV show in the future, It would be about dance. There are three girls in my family. We always went to the same dance studio. I would be the main character, obviously. The show would be about being a young dancer.
You are a few years into your entertainment career. Looking ahead, how do you feel about the state of Canadian entertainment? Are you optimistic or a realist?
I oscillate a lot between both of those. I’m good friends with Sandra Battaglini. I admire her so much for what she’s trying to do for Canadian comedy. It would be nice to stay in Canada where my friends and family are and to be able to make a living here. But I am also realistic about the fact that I will probably have to move to the states. I’m optimistic about that idea. I think it would be cool to go and conquer a new city.
It also depends. As you said, I’m still so new. I don’t have to think about that much right now. I’m just trying to do as much as I can in this city and hone my craft. It would be at least five years before I even thought about moving to the states if that’s what I had to do. Who knows? Maybe Canadian comedy will change in those five years, and I’ll get to stay here.
There’s people that want to be famous, and they’ll say you have to move. There are people happy to make a living. I don’t know which one I’ll be five years. When everyone starts, they want to be famous. You have so much hope. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few years. Right now, I want to shoot for the stars. I’m always daydreaming about how far I can get. Maybe that will change. I don’t know, I just want to be happy. I just want to do my craft and feel fulfilled.
Is that an awkward conversation within the community?
I find that people are judgmental towards those who choose to leave. They’ll be like that person is not ready yet. Who cares? People in New York and Los Angeles are starting with zero experience. Either way, you have to start from the bottom when you move to the states. It’s a weird thing.
In any other industry, people tell you to bullshit your way to getting things. I find that people will get mad at people if they do a longer set than they’re ready to do or accept a festival before they’re ready. None of this really matters. There are so many shitty people on TV. Why not accept a stepping stone? I don’t know. I think people are so self-loathing in this industry.
In sports, a lot of it is objective. This guy can run a minute faster than me. He should be picked over me. You have no such metrics in the creative fields.
That’s right. There is no metric. It’s all subjective.
In any industry, it’s not always the best people who rise to the top. It’s not a fair system. Nothing is ever going to be fair. People are going to get things that they don’t deserve, and other people will get screwed over. You got to learn to play the game. People are so hung up on justice in comedy — what you deserve, what you don’t deserve.
People are adamant that you have to be completely at the top of Canadian comedy when you leave. That seems like a harder fall. Once you get to the top of the rankings, I feel like it would be harder to move. I’m already doing well here. Why move? You are older, which I try to tell myself doesn’t matter, but I’m a woman in entertainment. If I’m going to move to the states, then I’d like to do it sooner than later.
Could you elaborate on that?
As most women do, I struggle with self-esteem and all that. I have a hard time with that kind of stuff. Sometimes I’ll get panic attacks. Your Netflix special better be when you’re still pretty. Wouldn’t I rather be funnier than prettier in my Netflix special? Why would that not matter more? Having been told your whole life that it matters how you look, it’s hard to undo that, especially when it is true. When you look at the evidence, attractive women tend to do better in Hollywood. You can tell yourself it’s a lie, but then you can also look at the facts. I know that the whole landscape is changing, but I can still see that it’s an asset. Maybe it’s not necessary anymore, but it’s an asset.
Is there anyone you would like to shout-out?
I’m reluctant to give any one shout-out and then later feel that I forgot someone. Check out Lexa Graham. She started DNAtured Journal, a Reductress-style magazine about science. I want to shout out Evelyn O’Driscoll and Sophie Hayes, two comedians from Ottawa. They are the funniest people on Twitter. Their podcast Dumb Bitch Media has amassed a large following. I think they’re going to be a big deal.
What would you like to plug?
Look for mine and Allie’s podcast in the new year. It’s called Wait, Am I Gorgeous? Allie and I suffer from a lot of self-esteem issues. The podcast will be about dealing with self-esteem and ego in this industry because it is an industry that both attracts people who have self-esteem issues and fosters more self-esteem issues. We’ll talk amongst ourselves and with people who work in the industry. The tone of it will be comedic self-help.
January 4th, 2020: Literally Dead celebrates its one year anniversary! See event for more details.