Nardos Osterhart has a rather unique origin story. For one thing, she was born in Ethiopia, and political turmoil took her family to Germany and Oklahoma as a child. But it’s here in Michigan that she found her real calling: stand-up comedy. In 2013, she was named the “Funniest Person in Grand Rapids.” Now, she's created a one-woman show, Halfrican, a kind of half-memoir, half-comedy show detailing her life and childhood. Osterhart will perform Halfrican at Louie’s Back Room in Kalamazoo on April 29th.
WMUK interviewed Osterhart at her house in Grand Rapids. She started by talking about how she ended up in comedy -- as a way for her to get rid of her fear of public speaking at work.
NARDOS OSTERHART: I mean, you've heard of toastmasters, the Dale Carnegie program. They were all only available during the day, so that would always conflict with my work schedule. So I just kept thinking about other options. My husband and I have always been fans of comedy. We've been to comedy clubs downtown, Dr. Grins @ The B.O.B. We were aware of an open mic down there and thought about that opportunity.
And I know it wouldn't make sense to anyone else, but I remember looking back, there were many people who got on stage for three minutes to say whatever they wanted. They weren't always funny, but they sure had presence and they sure had confidence. And I just remember thinking, Man, if I could do that, then I would be completely improved and comfortable in front of my peers and a room full of colleagues! So that's an option.
ROBBIE FEINBERG, WMUK: What was the first show like for you?
OSTERHART: Terrifying! (laughs) I sent out an email making a request of stage time at this place I'd never ever set foot on stage before. I thought it would go into an abyss and I'd never hear back from them. But immediately, Stu McCallister -- he's the emcee for Dr. Grins -- reached out. Truly 30 seconds after that email. And said, "Here's your date. It's December 2nd. I'll see you soon. You've got three minutes." And I thought, oh my gosh! That's easier than I thought it would be!
So, I panicked. I walked from one room to the next and told my husband what I was doing. And he turned off the television and looked at me to say, "What? What are you really doing? I can't imagine this for you. I'm really, suddenly, afraid for you."
I thought I'd have to work on jokes. That was clearly my next step. And he said, "What jokes? You don't have any jokes! What are we going to do?" And I appreciated that this became a team approach, and we'd have to figure it out together. And I remember writing a few jokes, sharing them with my husband. And saying, "Is this funny?" And he would say, "No." And I'd say, "How 'bout this? Is this funny?" And he said, "No." And I said, "Is this funny?" And he said, "...kind of."
And I said okay, this is going to be helpful! I've got an honest critic who will tell me what I should work on and what I should throw out. So that was my approach.
WMUK: I watched a few of your videos, some from back before you put together Halfrican. But so much of it, even back then, was so personal to you and your background and your ethnicity. Was that natural for you to do?
OSTERHART: That's interesting. I remember asking the first comic, Stu, what I should do. How do you decide to say and what jokes to start writing? And he had said be original. Be yourself. The more you do that, you'll never have to worry about people stealing your material. Because they can't be as specific as you without people thinking it's a total rip-off. And it's genuine. That comes across as relatable or appreciative to the crowd.
So I think that's where I started. And I've kind of stayed there. Because I feel like comics talk about what's a "hacky" joke or a "hacky" premise. Something that's been done so many times that it feels like anyone could write that joke. And I think the more personal you get, the more interesting it is. And the less likely anyone has thought of saying it yet but has had it in their mind, but you have put it down on paper and shared it with the crowd.
WMUK: So putting together Halfrican, did you feel like you had a story to tell?
OSTERHART: I did! And I remember thinking, maybe people would enjoy understanding the background for this material. So what if they knew where I was coming from? Would they laugh a little bit more easily? Would they feel less conflicted about what I'm saying? Where race matters, or gender matters, or where culture clashes matter.
So I decided, over time, that what I would write would be a one-woman show. That it would have two parts. The first part would be the story of my life. People said they think it's an interesting. I never thought it was an interesting one. I figure everyone just has some story to tell. Mine's not that unique, besides the fact that I'm an immigrant. But who isn't, if you go back far enough? So I thought I would tell the story of my life. Then the second part of my one-woman show would be me telling jokes in a sequence that correlates with the story of my life.
WMUK: Can you give me an example of how you would set up a joke in the first half, and then have it pay off in the second half?
OSTERHART: Okay. So there's a part in the first act. I'm talking about a time in my life when I was really young and my father was unemployed. My mother has left. So my brothers and my dad are all that's left. And my dad is the only person we can lean on for everything. And he decides to leave his job. So now we feel like we're completely screwed and have no opportunities, as far as going forward and having the things that we need.
So with all that in place, my dad goes through a series of selfish encounters to meet his needs. I think clearly he was depressed at the time and feeling also that he didn't have a lot of options. But telling that story, and telling the story of what my brothers and I had to do to be a little more independent then leads to the second act, where I tell a joke. This is the joke, if you want to hear it:
Growing up, we were really broke. I remember my dad would just spent hours filling the space of our government housing with his expert, non-stop whistling. He would brag about how great he whistled. And the only thought that ever occurred to me was, how about a full- time job? Could you get great at that? Because I'm pretty sure it's whistle while you work. And not instead.
So it really happened! There were these strange long stretches growing up where my dad wouldn't work. And we just looked at each other and thought, he's suggesting this is a relief to him! And this is more of a stress-free life. And we're feeling more stressed out! So how is this gap going on? It's interesting.
WMUK: You talked in an interview with Revue Magazine a few years ago about your father telling you as a child to hold on to your culture and values from Africa. Do you think Halfrican is a way to do that for you?
OSTERHART: I think in some ways, Halfrican is a bit of an explanation to people. To Ethiopians that I don't necessarily connect with because I don't have all of my culture intact. And also an explanation to Americans of why I am the way I am. And it's a little bit of permission to myself. Because I've had to make changes and deviate from a cultural path and expectation that was sent in front for me.