Martha Kelly is tiptoeing on the edge of a breakthrough.
The Austin-based stand-up comedian landed a featured role on Zach Galifianakis’s new FX comedy Baskets. It’s her first-ever acting gig, which, she’ll tell you as a 40-something woman is a feat unto itself. But despite the career score of a lifetime falling square in her lap, she’s celebrating with caution.
"There are shit-loads of times when it looks like someone’s about to have a big break and then it just dissipates," Kelly says. "So I can’t be resting my happiness on, oh my god my life is about to be incredible!"
Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, a man who flunks out of clown school in Paris and is trying to piece his life together—and slumming, as he sees it—in Bakersfield, California, as a rodeo clown. Galifianakis also stars as Chip’s mincing twin brother Dale, alongside Louie Anderson in drag as their mother, Mrs. Baskets. It’s a hilariously bizarre world Galifianakis and executive producer Louis C.K. have created, but one in which relative newbie Kelly owns as Martha, an achingly sweet, somewhat simple Costco claims adjuster who instantly clings to Baskets and becomes the deadpan foil to his delusions of grandeur.
"It’s weird because initially when I read the script I didn’t separate the character from who I am in real life as a person, so I was a little insulted," Kelly says. "Zach’s character is lonely and down and out in Bakersfield and my character is a person who’s even lonelier. She envies and admires that he’s going after his dream of being a clown. Instead of seeing it as, 'You’re a failure because you’re a rodeo clown,' I think she sees it as 'Wow, you’re going after what you really want to do and I’m just working at Costco.'"
The less-than-dynamic duo bumble into misadventures like trying to get rid of coyotes and suffering through the most painful Easter brunch on record, but it’s all a thin layer of humorous absurdity over that bleeding-heart loneliness and longing every character feels—and that Kelly delivers with such understated poignancy.
"I definitely feel like Zach and Jonathan [Krisel], the director, are both responsible for any good that I do because I don’t have any professional acting experience," Kelly says. "All my background is in stand-up, so when Zach asked me if I wanted to be in the pilot, I told him I’m not an actor. And he said, 'Just say your lines the way you would if it was something you were doing in real life—just be yourself,' which is really sweet but it still was like he and Jonathan helped me not ruin the show."
Kelly first met Galifianakis in 1998 while she was doing stand-up in West Philadelphia. They stayed in touch but weren’t "super close," as Kelly puts it, which makes what happened last year so surprising.
"We hadn’t really talked probably in over a year and then he just, out of the blue, left me a voicemail in January 2014 saying that he’s doing a show—I saved the message—he said I’m going to do this show and I wanted to know if you want to do it," Kelly recalls. "A lot of comedians will hire their friends on shows; they’ll put them in movies; they’ll hire them as writers, but we weren’t close friends, and Zach has a lot of really close friends who are super talented. So on one level I’m totally mystified that this is what he wanted to do for his show. I’m mystified and over the top grateful and happy about it."
But it wasn’t the first time Galifianakis reached out to Kelly.
Back in 2012, Galifianakis switched guest/host roles with Jimmy Fallon on Late Night and he invited Kelly onto the show for a bit where he would yell at her for no apparent reason. She turned him down because she admits she was insecure and didn’t want to look stupid on national TV, which is ironic because her character on Baskets is routinely belittled by Galifianakis. To be fair, doing a one-time skit on a late night talk show is hardly the same as having a recurring role on a network show. Yet Kelly still wasn’t 100% in at first.
"I felt like I can’t do it, I’m not an actor. Also I was like 50 pounds heavier than I am now and I was like I don’t want to be on TV. But I felt like I can’t not try [Baskets] because I’m scared," Kelly says. "The first scene that I did with Zach was the one of the side of the road with his broken scooter right after he crashed. And as soon as I saw him, he came up and hugged me. He was like, 'This is not a big deal—it’s supposed to be fun. Don’t let anything make you feel stressed out.' And the whole time we were shooting the pilot and all the episodes, it was like having a brother who was just always like, hey don’t worry about it—everything is going to be okay."
Executive producer Louis C.K. also extended brotherly support toward Kelly.
"The first day I met him I said I’m really nervous that you’re here because I’m a huge fan of your stand-up and he said, 'You don’t have to be nervous—this is your guy’s show. I’m just here to help if you need me,'" Kelly says. "Sometimes he would make suggestions for jokes but he never was like the big boss looming over everybody making you feel like you have to measure up."
Although many stand-up comedians have managed to transition from a club stage to a sound stage, the move isn’t always so smooth. Kelly has been performing stand-up for years but grafting that experience onto a TV show was a lesson in deeper storytelling.
"It didn’t even occur to me to do anything to prepare beyond memorizing my lines because I can remember sometimes where Zach and Jonathan would give me directions like, I think that the character is feeling this right now or this is the emotion going on in the scene so maybe try it a little different. I just was so inexperienced that I thought you just learn your lines and you hope the way you say it, people like it," Kelly says. "[In stand-up], you memorize your set, but you don’t think ahead of time, this is what I should be feeling during that joke."
Baskets could very well change Kelly’s life. Having a breakout (knock on wood) role on a show produced by the likes of Galifianakis and Louis C.K. isn’t something that comes along every day for most comedians—and Kelly is carefully preparing for the best with plans to record a stand-up album, go on tour, and pitch writing projects. However cautiously optimistic Kelly is about Baskets, she can be satisfied with seizing an opportunity that has allowed her to grow not only as a comedian, but as a performer.
Kelly says, "Even if when the show comes out people hate me like they hated Jar Jar Binks at least I got to have two months getting to know the great people and having one of the best times in my whole life."