Don’t feel too special if Natasha Leggero high-fives you. It probably means you were just the butt of one of her cutting jokes. That happened many times last week at the Comedy Store in La Jolla, California, where I saw Leggero perform as part of a tour that will bring her to Chicago beginning Thursday 26.
At the top of the show, the diminutive stand-up lamented all the recent environmental disasters, “like the shortage of diamonds,” she quipped, a wry smile on her face. “The only way I know how to make a diamond is to jerk off an old man,” she said, pointing at a silver-haired gentleman sitting by his lonesome in the front row, drinking Champagne. High five.
As a judge on the most recent season of Last Comic Standing and a regular panelist on Chelsea Lately, Leggero (the gs are soft) is a pro at rapid-fire banter, whether it’s aimed at the vapidity of celebrities (the Kardashians, Amy Winehouse) or just everyday shit. “Having a baby is like a DUI from the universe,” she says.
Not surprisingly, the Rockford native was a classroom troublemaker. “My whole life, making fun of things and people and hurting their feelings was my problem,” she tells me between sets in the Comedy Store’s greenroom, where she’s curled up on the couch with her tiny Chihuahua–Jack Russell terrier mix, Mayor Cutie. “That’s the thing I love most about stand-up: It’s sassing for money. You’re professionally making fun of people.”
Leggero, 36, says she couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge. “Growing up in Rockford was kind of sad,” she says. “The guidance counselors just wanted you to work at a Walmart.” When not performing with a regional theater, Leggero mowed lawns, worked a paper route and cashiered at a grocery store (where Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick was a frequent customer). Rockford “did influence me,” she says of her barbs about stupid people, “but it’s not so much making fun. It’s drawing attention to the fact that there’s a lot of people going through life not thinking. I’m just reacting to the idiocy around me.”
After two years at ISU in Bloomington-Normal (“I could not handle that,” she says. “Too many rows of corn”), Leggero made a beeline for New York City, earning a degree in theater criticism from Hunter College and, she says, working nine jobs to pay the rent. It wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles in 2001 that it occurred to her to try stand-up. “Maybe it’s coming from the Midwest. I just always thought that in stand-up comedy you had to be an old man in a suit like Jackie Mason,” she says. “I thought you had to have a wife.”
Her stand-up led to appearances on Reno 911!, The Tonight Show and The Late Late Show. But if you haven’t seen Leggero work a room, you don’t really know her at all. “Standards and practices make every joke less funny,” she says of her spirited, albeit G-rated, talk-show appearances. “The nature of stand-up is that you get to go into this dark room and say whatever you want. It’s such a subversive art form that way.”
At the Comedy Store, Leggero banters with the audience, dissects pop culture and delivers one zinger after another. “Have you ever noticed how your ugliest friend is the most afraid of getting raped?” she asks.
In the greenroom, she’s reflective: “I really have to experience something to write a joke about it,” she says. “Something terrible has to happen, like someone cutting their fingernails in your face at the Rite Aid or Beyoncé releasing a new album.” High five, Beyoncé.
Leggero plays Zanies Thursday 26 and Friday 27.