Sunday evening, Los Angeles’ Unknown Theater. “I’d like to see a preppy transvestite. Just ’cause you’re a transvestite, you’ve got to dress like a whore? Clean it up! Show a little self-respect! You look nothing like Diana Ross, P.S., so lose the feathered boa, and get yourself a nice, crisp, white polo and an argyle sweater vest … This might be just a Los Angeles thing. It’s very unsettling to me when I see a homeless person who’s clearly had work done. Like, ‘Ah, man, no shoes, no shelter, but what a rack!’ Another person in Los Angeles who has made a series of poor decisions.”
Tiny and slender, in a dark striped short-sleeve shirt and white headband binding ordinarily cascading dark hair, veteran comic Elizabeth Beckwith isn’t really doing too hot. This is a woman whose signature has adorned the dotted line for countless production and writing deals. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Though the food poisoning contracted last night doesn’t help, bottom line is, she’s a bit out of practice. There are a few laughs, more for politeness’ sake than anything. Frankly, the 10-minute set is kind of a train wreck, but it’s a masterfully orchestrated train wreck. The rambling, breathy exclamations are infinitely endearing; the unintentional asides spent arguing with the OCD-derived directives splintering her focus are honest and engrossingly of-the-moment. It’s an unpolished, halting guise, and yet it’s not. Offstage, after thanking the crowd “for indulging me,” she’s equally as self-deprecating, but she’s also louder, somehow more quintessentially Italian, quick to pepper her speech with “Oh my gawd!”s and let loose a toothy grin or curiously timed honk of laughter.
“I get nostalgic for the autumns of my youth, growing up in New York City. Riding my bike past the brownstones on the way to school, the sound of the leaves crunching beneath my tires. And then I remember that I grew up in Las Vegas. The only things falling onto the sidewalk are exhausted hookers. And they’re a lot harder to ride your bike over.”
Growing up near Sam’s Town, there was no Summerlin; Green Valley was in its infancy. But there was Maryland Parkway coffeehouse Café Espresso Roma, where a 16-year-old Beckwith—already going through “my cool, ‘I’m not drinking’ phase: ‘I’m just drinking coffee, and I’m going to talk with my friends about really important things!’”—happened upon an open-mic night. Emboldened by an early love of stand-up and a nonexistent turnout, she went home, devised a routine and returned the following week to an intimidating packed house. Though it took a fatherly pep talk to finally get onstage, things went well. Beckwith returned week after week, eventually invited onto small-potatoes one-nighters at the Escape Lounge II and Fuddy Duddy’s.
“Audiences seemed to like me,” she recalls. “I was somewhat of a freak show, because I was a teenager and looked really young. I had no idea I was a novelty; I just fancied myself a comedian.”
The sudden success, coupled with the dramas of schoolwork and simply being a teenager, quickly became overwhelming. “A lot of people from my high school started coming, and believe me, I wasn’t advertising it. I was under the radar, and I was comfortable with that, and all of a sudden it was like, ‘You’re that comedian girl! Tell me a joke! Be funny!’ That’s awful now, but it was 100 times worse then. The pressure was too much. I couldn’t handle the hot guy from physics coming to my show.” Aside from one quickly abandoned improv group at Loyola Marymount, Beckwith wouldn’t perform again until nagging feelings of procrastination and avoidance called her to a Culver City open-mic five years later.
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A renewed sense of purpose and a television-production degree under her belt, she soon scored spots at mainstream clubs the Comedy Store and the Improv. At Largo and Luna Park on the alternative-room end of the spectrum. Beckwith’s Mitch Hedberg cadence-meets-Sarah Silverman’s coy deception helped the freshman comedian win approval from seniors such as Zach Galifianakis, Greg Behrendt and Paul F. Tompkins.
In 1998, Time magazine singled Beckwith out as a standout “New Faces” performer at Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival. In 2001, Variety named her one of its annual “10 Comics to Watch.” She had a deal with ABC/Touchstone. She sold two pilots to 20th Century Fox. So why is it she never starred in a hit network sitcom, or provided a kookier, rootsier alternative to Judy Greer in any number of bland romantic comedies? Why has no one ever heard of Elizabeth Beckwith?
Sure, there were the appearances on Premium Blend, in Coyote Ugly, at the Chicago Comedy Festival, a short tenure on a long-forgotten Alfred Molina/Betty White series called Ladies Man, an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and three stand-up sets on The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. But Kilborn hasn’t hosted TLLS since 2004.
“Priorities changed,” seems a decent reason. Ditto “wanted to explore other options.” Life simply happened as it did.
The realization that the burning dreams of youth might not come to pass as planned is inevitable. And yet the day the shock hits, it’s followed by another: The realization isn’t that much of a shock. Somewhere along the progression of age and experience, making it at any cost ceases to matter as much. While a Loyola Marymount student might look on the person she would one day become as a failure for letting all that heady ambition wane and fade, the person she had become would know just how unrealistic that TV-production major was. Plus there are other aspects of adulthood providing their own fulfillment.
Beckwith married. In 2005, she had a son. A daughter followed last year. “It’s madness!” she marvels. “My house is crazy! But they’re so fun, and they’re so cute, and you’re trying to juggle everything. I mean, people have done it before. Here I am acting like I’m the only person who’s ever tried: ‘No, listen! I’m trying to have a career, and I have kids! It’s just crazy!’ ‘Um, a lot of people have done that and done it well.’ ‘Oh, okay.’”
As stand-up opportunities dwindled, Beckwith’s formidable writing muscles hardened, and the seemingly divergent threads of her personal and professional lives came together. “It all started because I had an idea for a title. All those parenting guides scared the crap out of me: ‘I have not thought this through!’ I just decided I would copy my parents. I didn’t want to be one of those people they were clearly disgusted by. I thought, ‘If my parents wrote a book it would be called … Hey, I should write that book!’”
Raising the Perfect Child Through Guilt and Manipulation hits shelves this month. Part half-satiric parenting guide, part memoir of growing up surrounded by eccentric relatives in Vegas, the Harper Paperbacks release is balanced and fast-paced, sating her comedian’s need to ridicule while illustrating how much she loves and respects her own parents (she visits them in Vegas every month or so). “It’s faux instructional,” Beckwith explains. “On the other hand, I totally believe what I’m saying. If I just said these things straight-up, people would be outraged.”
Chapter titles “Mind Control: Why It’s a Good Thing” and “How to Scare the Crap Out of Your Child (In a Positive Way)” may raise eyebrows, but they also prove Beckwith isn’t just another harried hipster mom with a liberal-arts degree looking to cash in on the death of a once-envisioned life. Guilt and Manipulation is legitimately funny, showcasing a mind more firmly grounded in reality than her daffy onstage alter ego implies. Her dozen-date book and corresponding stand-up tour will bestow all the familiar, fleeting rock-stardom from 10 years back, and plenty more comedy festivals, talk-show appearances, acting roles and even hit network sitcoms could dot Beckwith’s future. But is that even what she wants?
“With writing, right now I feel more in control. And I like being in control. I get more creative satisfaction out of writing,” she says.
“I started out in stand-up, and that naturally lends itself to writing and acting ... and then I got writing jobs, and that kind of snowballed. I found that to be really satisfying. Then I had kids, and it actually made more sense with my lifestyle not to leave the house as much. I didn’t sit down and write out the pros and cons or anything like that.”
One thing she has recently written? A screenplay currently in development at Plan B Productions. Coincidentally enough, there’s also the deal in the works with Fox and Imagine Television to create a Guilt and Manipulation-based pilot. “A show where people yell ’cause they can’t open the pickles and they’re pissed,” Beckwith envisions. “A sitcom from a real mother’s point of view.”
And if the 16-year-old, big-dreaming kid could see where she’d end up? Would she be happy with how her life unspooled?
“Totally. The little kid is me, who I consult with on a daily basis. And I am very happy.”