Mary Lynn Rajskub

[ACTOR (MEAN SISTER IN PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE,
SPACE NERD IN DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR?, CHLOE IN 24)]

“I’M OPPOSED TO EXPERTISE. FOR SOME REASON, WHEN I FEEL I AM BECOMING AN EXPERT,I SABOTAGE THE WHOLE THING.”
Where Mary Lynn doesn’t fit in, and why:
On sitcoms about young guys who want to have sex (she’s not a temptress)
In
Magnolia (no room for character to be developed)
At Hollywood parties full of people from north Detroit (she’s from south Detroit)
At poetry slams (she’s not competitive)
The Comedy Store (people felt bad for her)

Mary Lynn Rajskub is an actor whose characters evoke worry. It’s an ache like the one brought on when you see a person who takes her cat with her wherever she goes.

She always plays the weird girl on the verge of tears or trouble or joining a cult. She’s never sexy-weird, or secretly foxy beneath the tight bun and glasses, she is simply bizarre: the person you might not watch if it were real life. Onscreen, however, it’s hard to avert your eyes. In Punch Drunk Love she was Adam Sandler’s stentorian sister, the loudest element in a movie rife with jarring sonic fluctuations. On the hit show 24 she plays Chloe, the runt in an otherwise highly capable litter of government agents. The other characters heave an exasperated sigh whenever she walks into the room, while fans on the show’s message board call Chloe “inept.”

Yet it is portraying ineptitude and its dark underpinnings that Rajskub has mastered. She is a brilliant physical comedian, eschewing grand gestures for a series of nuanced tics, twitches, and stutters. Her communication style is Morse code rather than megaphone.

It was her skill at dismantling the audience’s ability to distinguish performance art from real life that earned her early roles on both Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Upcoming projects include the Fox series Kelsey Grammer Presents: The Sketch Show and the Gregg Araki Film Mysterious Skin.

If you can, get your hands on the bootleg “Girls Guitar Club,” a short video where Rajskub and writer Karen Kilgariff portray a pair of surly vintage-store sales girls who spend their days honing their song craft behind the counter and singing about the process. The melodies are interspersed with saccharine, hilarious personal affirmations. Rajskub and Kilgariff really can play and sing, and it’s a blurry line between earnest endeavor and comedic fodder.

This conversation took place in Los Angeles, in a coffeeshop. Mary Lynn rode her bike to the interview.

—Carrie Brownstein

*

CARRIE BROWNSTEIN: Was there a moment [in your performance art career] when you thought, “I’m just doing stand-up comedy at this point”?

MARY LYNN RAJSKUB: I still don’t even think I’m actually doing stand-up comedy because my brain doesn’t think of jokes, and I don’t really write jokes, but I am funny onstage. I’ve just kind of figured out how to make it work in some comedy clubs. In San Francisco, the comedy clubs were closing, and we’d get comics, really great people who are out here now that I met there, to come into these poetry readings. And I noticed right away—they’re so much more polished, and they’re so much more aware of their personae and what they’re perceived as, which I think is just a basic thing of comedy: that people use themselves. They had clearer ideas and the writing was stronger, and that was really exciting to me. And also the comedians were doing weirder pieces. They didn’t feel like they had to tell jokes. So it was some of the best stuff that people would do at these weird open mics. And I saw how working on different parts of your performance can make you a stronger performer, rather than someone who’s like, “I just scribbled this in my notebook and I’m going to go read this.” Take into account where you’re at, who these people are, what it sounds like.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Carrie Brownstein is a writer and musician living in Portland, Oregon. Her band Sleater-Kinney’s most recent album is One Beat and her writing has appeared in the books This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project and Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens.

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