Interview: Tess Rafferty (2011)
“You mean it was this easy? All I had to do was get knocked up at 16 and I could have a place in West Hollywood right now.”
Image courtesy of New Wave Entertainment
If given the opportunity, Tess Rafferty could rule the entertainment industry. She’s beautiful, with curves in all the right places. She has well thought out opinions on everything and can articulate them at length. She has no compunction about getting lewd and crude when hanging with the boys. And she has enough Hollywood fashion sense to wear dark, large frame sunglasses for the entirety of this interview. More than that, however, Tess Rafferty is brimming with creativity and has the determination to turn her imagination into reality, but as a full-time writer for The Soup on E!, a part-time stand-up comedian and a sometime Web series creator, she definitely has her work cut out for herself. Rafferty spoke with Working Author over coffee to discuss the many facets of her entertainment life.
For those who can’t get enough of pop culture and television or simply don’t have the time to consume it all, there’s always The Soup on E! Entertainment Television. Hosted by Joel McHale and written and produced by very talented individuals, viewers can tune in and catch up on what’s funny and/or horrifying in entertainment for the week. On the show, Tess Rafferty wears many hats. In addition to being a supervising producer, she’s also an actor – well-known for her recurring role as the Dancing Maxi-Pad – as well as the only female writer.
“I got really lucky,” Rafferty admits, regarding her male-dominated work environment, “because I work with a great group of guys. I know it’s rough out there. I’ve heard horror stories from other people, but my MO is just to go in there and try and horrify [the guys] more than they’re going to horrify me. And that seems to have worked so far.” She smiles at the thought. Her main weapon is to tell dirtier jokes than her male counterparts. “If I can get an ‘Oh Jesus’ from at least two other guys in the room then I’ve done my job.”
Even after roughly seven years on The Soup, Rafferty is still quick to point out how much she enjoys her job. “Our head writer (K.P. Anderson) is really fantastic…. When he came on board he put together the writing staff he really wanted…and let us write to our own voices and from there took what blended together to make the voice of the show.” That’s not to take anything away from Joel McHale, which Rafferty made sure to point out. She added, however, that “In terms of the written word, it really is the amalgamation of all of [the writers]. We still get to go in every Monday morning and write what we think is funny.”
Rafferty had nothing but great things to say about her fellow writers. “It’s great. We’re a very tight-knit group. The new guy came on four years ago. We like each other a lot. We see each other every day and have a great time.” At the mention of job security, Rafferty knocks on the wood tabletop for good luck. “It’s a writer out here’s dream for sure.”
When asked about her favorite moment on The Soup, Rafferty takes a moment to sort through her mental archive and fills time by saying, “I have lots of favorite moments!” She settles on recently having performed a bit with Diddy. “He was so much fun. You don’t know what that’s going to be like going into it, because he’s a very busy, important person.” In the bit, Nic DeLeo played his recurring character Mankini, who is a man in a bikini, and Rafferty played her Dancing Maxi-Pad. “It was a really fun afternoon. You don’t really know what to expect and [Diddy] comes in and he just really wanted to have fun and he was great and he wanted to do multiple takes and wanted to do it different ways.”
Ironically, comedy is not Rafferty’s first choice for personal television entertainment. “I would come home,” she says after describing a day of shooting comedy at work, “and all I want to see is people getting killed. I want the exact opposite of comedy! I want to turn on something like Criminal Minds or SVU or something just horrible about death. I can’t say what the thing is in me…. I just need to see lots of serial killers and people getting killed, dying horrible deaths.”
As someone who studies television shows for a living, Rafferty has very strong opinions about the quality of entertainment available. “In some ways it’s very exciting, because with all of these cable networks…there’s a lot of great scripted TV out there available for almost anything anyone wants to see in a lot of ways. It’s just not on the major networks anymore. But at the same time you are just frightened by…the people who really want their lives opened up so that everybody can see them, but then…it’s not even real anymore. I think that’s why people love The Jersey Shore. There’s still some weird element in there that they’re not faking. But so many of these [reality shows], you watch them and go ‘well that didn’t really happen’ and they shot that scene from completely different camera angles.”
Rafferty wonders about the Real Housewives and how narcissistic they must be to present something completely fake and set up as reality. She also marvels at Teen Mom and recoils from the news that teens were getting pregnant just to get on the show. “I’m reading in People Magazine that one of those teen moms says she’s looking for places in West Hollywood. I’m like, ‘I don’t get to live in West Hollywood!’ You know what I did? I was smart. I went to college. I used birth control! I have a job. I live in North Hollywood. I live near a RadioShack that has a burnt out couch in front of it.” She laughs. “You mean it was this easy? All I had to do was get knocked up at 16 and I could have a place in West Hollywood right now. It’s so sick and sad. You know for every three who get on that show that means that there’s probably thirty chicks out there who now have babies they don’t know what do with.”
Still, despite some of these darker aspects of television entertainment, Rafferty says, “I want people to watch as much TV as possible and keep us all employed.”
In the age of YouTube, high speed Internet and camera phones, it seems like anyone with the ability to record video can create their own Web series. The problem is that most of this content is terrible. Not so with Grace Church, Tess Rafferty’s Web series produced in partnership with fellow The Soup writer Nic DeLeo. The series stars Rafferty as the chronically temping titular heroine who tries to balance her temporary day jobs with auditions and a bartending gig. Because of her versatility and resiliency, she’s recruited by the FBI.
“I got the idea back when I was still temping before I started working at The Soup and I was thinking about all those skills I had learned as a performer and living in LA…. You know you learn some things as a temp. You learn that everyone’s got the same password – it’s four ones or it’s one, two, three, four, five. And you learn how to get from one side of the town to the other within your one hour allotted for lunch so that you can make an audition or something.” Other skills Rafferty found necessary were being able to do accents and creating costumes. “You get calls for stupid auditions where they make you come in like a prairie prostitute or something. ‘Come dressed in Elizabethan garb’ because they can’t imagine what you would look like in Elizabethan garb.” In short, Rafferty became a master of disguise.
Nevertheless, despite having a diverse skill set, Rafferty wasn’t landing any acting gigs, but she imagined her amassed knowledge would make her a wonderful secret agent. Thus, the idea for Grace Church was born. Unfortunately for the Web series, but fortunate for Rafferty, she got her job with The Soup and didn’t have time to write for her pet project. “Nic DeLeo and I spend a lot of time staring at each other in our office. We’ve shared an office together for years now. We were just like, ‘Why don’t we actually film this’ and do something different and do something fun?”
There are currently four episodes of Grace Church which can be found on YouTube and Funny or Die and they are all funny, well acted and surprisingly well produced for having almost no budget. Regrettably, while Rafferty would like for the series to continue, she’s unsure if it will. “The problem is we really got overly ambitious and then sort of got overwhelmed by our own ambitiousness. It becomes overwhelming with the day job and everything else. And it’s not a day job; it’s a real career job.” Still, DeLeo and she still talk about getting back to work on Grace Church and the comic duo may have another episode finished by the end of the year.
On top of everything else, Tess Rafferty has been doing stand-up comedy for the past 15 years. “I started out in Boston before I moved out here.” Attending Emerson College, Rafferty wasn’t happy about the roles available to her as an actress. She wasn’t content to simply be someone’s girlfriend, mother or wife. “In addition to wanting to write character or plays or movies or whatever, I just had a lot to say personally,” she adds. “I started out kind of doing performance art…but it was really stand-up. It was me doing monologues. It wasn’t too long before that became stand-up, really.”
Even though Rafferty currently has plenty of experience in front of the camera and on stage, she still considers stand-up its own unique kind of performance. “I enjoy it. It’s different from performing in a play and there’s a different set of skills. It’s like a different muscle group. And like everyone else who does stand-up, I have the unfortunate circumstance of having done well the first time I did it. Every other time after that sucked, but you do well once and that’s all you really need.”
“At the end of the day it’s the only thing that’s really your own as a writer-performer,” Rafferty explains. “You don’t need to cart around a cart full of props like you do in sketch comedy. As long you can get someone to actually put you on stage that night…it doesn’t need to go through notes. It doesn’t get re-edited. It doesn’t get cut at the last minute for time. You go up. You have your 10 minutes and it’s all yours.”
“It is the ultimate freedom. Going up and being able to do stand-up got me through some tough times. If I do great…nothing else can really take away from that and it’s all me.” As much as Rafferty obviously enjoys doing stand-up comedy, it’s not a very big part of her life anymore, because of how busy she is, but she considers the balance the best of both worlds. “I can only really do stand-up a couple times a month, but it’s really nice. I’m not driving five hours out to the middle of the desert to make a couple hundred bucks so I can make my rent, which is a lot of pressure. And when you get in those situations you have to worry about what people think and what kind of job you’re doing and how stupid the audience might be and do you have to dumb it down and whatever the situation is.”
For those who haven’t caught her act, Rafferty offers a brief overview of what to expect. “I talk about my life. I do a whole section that starts with ‘All my friends are getting pregnant and having babies, which is really weird because I’m just used to them getting pregnant.’ So it’s a little edgy.”
All things considered, Tess Rafferty’s relationship with stand-up comedy might be the perfect scenario. “I do the gigs I want to do, I do what I want to do and I have the freedom that nothing can go really wrong in those 10 minutes.”
You can catch Tess Rafferty’s stand-up at:
Malo (in Silverlake) @ 9:30 p.m., March 25
4326 West Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90029