Richmond's comedy sweetheart L.E. Zarling is a triple-threat, bringing the city improv, stand up, and coaching young comedians in the art of the laugh.
Ash Griffith | October 31, 2018
The phrase “triple threat” is so overused, but there is hardly a better way to describe Richmond-based stand-up comedian and improviser L.E. Zarling. She teaches comedy workshops in the area as well, so you, too, can be funny like her.
L.E. is pretty well-known and respected in all facets of the Richmond Comedy Scene. From improv to stand-up, she does it all. I decided to meet up with her for coffee to see just what exactly makes her such an unmovable powerhouse. I love meeting folks who are so seasoned in their field, and I knew she’d be able to tell me just what makes her so phenomenal.
L.E. sat in front of me, drinking her coffee with a wry smile on her face. From the moment she says hello, she has a calming and relaxing presence. For someone with such a confident attitude who has accomplished so much, she is also remarkably humble.
Originally from Charlottesville, she first found her way into comedy with a college class at Marquette University, which was taught by a Jesuit priest …who also happened to be in The Blues Brothers. Naturally. However, she didn’t delve further into the world of comedy until after she’d finished college.
One day, while walking through downtown Charlottesville, she happened to see a sign for an improv class. She decided to sign up, and as it turned out, she was one of only two students in the class. “For three months it was just the instructor and me, and this other woman,” said Zarling. “It was kind of fun, because you got all of this super intense [instruction].”
Most people who do comedy can tell you for a fact that after awhile, you start getting itchy. There are so many different facets of the comedy world, and so much within each to learn and accomplish. For Zarling, the itchiness arrived once she had conquered her improv hurdle. She decided the stand-up mountain was next on her list to conquer.
When people get started in comedy, one of their first questions tends to be, “When do you start making money?” For L.E. Zarling, the point arrived when she decided to say “screw it” and do her own special. “My third time doing stand-up, I found a bar that let me use it for the night,” said Zarling. “I spent six months, and wrote and performed a full hour of material. I had someone who had done one [five minute set] open for me, and she did twenty minutes, which is insane.”
She made $90 that night.
That undeniably monumental moment encouraged her. “I was just looking to grow as a performer,” she said. And since you have to branch out and try new things in order to grow, she did just that. Her eye fell on Richmond’s Coalition Theater, an improv-based comedy theater that also does sketch and stand-up.
Zarling was still living in Charlottesville at the time. While she knew she would be dedicated to attending practices, she wasn’t so sure that the theater would be able to handle her being located over an hour away. But despite those concerns, she decided to audition anyway. Spoiler Alert: They were okay with it.
“You’ve gotta have this fearlessness,” Zarling said. “So often, what holds us back is being afraid of failure, and I’m just like ‘Shoot, let’s just do it and see what happens.’ Every time I do another project or another run, I’m like, ‘Let’s just push more chips on the table and see what happens.’ ”
Zarling has always been somewhat gender non-conforming, but when she began her comedy career, she kept this out of her act, using male pronouns and presenting as male. It wasn’t until several years into her career that she began following in the footsteps of other gender non-conforming comedians, like Eddie Izzard, by wearing women’s clothes during performances.
“The first time I went out dressed was at PrideFest, and I was host of the main stage,” said Zarling. “I got all dressed up, I got in front of however many people at Pride. My sister saw the pictures and was like, ‘Oh, is this because of the divorce?’ No, I’ve been doing this since high school! I do what I want.”
Today, much like Eddie Izzard, Zarling has gone beyond her days of exploring gender solely within her comedy performances. In recent years, she’s changed her name and begun using female pronouns. What’s more, she’s brought material related to her experiences of being a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community into her stand-up act.
Besides all of the work that she does and is known for in Virginia, Zarling has another passion close to her heart. Every summer she drives down to Alabama to teach improv at a comedy camp for at-risk kids who otherwise probably would not be exposed to it. She discovered this passion serendipitously, meeting a woman who worked for the camp while she was teaching a workshop. That summer, she drove down to the camp to check it out. Thus began what has become an annual tradition — one that dovetails nicely with her desire to see the world of improv incorporate more diverse viewpoints and experiences.
“Improv is the last bastion of the white male,” said Zarling. She sees some women and people of color getting involved, and hopes her work at the camp will help encourage participation by these groups. “It’s a segment of America that has its own vitality, and can bring something to improv that improv is lacking.”
Some of the kids she meets at the camp are also passionate about stand-up. Zarling wishes the camp offered a stand-up class for them too. And she’s hoping to do something about that.
“There are a few kids who are just natural, who just get it right away,” said Zarling. “Some of them, when I talk to them I just think, ‘Improv might not be your thing, but you could really do stand-up.’” She hopes to inspire these young talents to explore their abilities in ways she didn’t until later in life. “I didn’t start stand-up until I was 38, so whenever I meet someone who started when they were eighteen, I’m just like, ‘Ahhhh… I didn’t even know that was an option!’”
Zarling doesn’t buy into the idea that today’s youth want the world handed to them. She thinks they’d be glad to do the work themselves if someone would just show them that it’s possible. “That’s part of the problem in America,” she said. “Not that kids are lazy or don’t want to work hard. They have their skills, but no one [is] there to help them develop them.”
“That’s part of the reason why I love to do this,” she continued. “I wish that someone had said to me when I was 15, ‘You could use your hard earned comedy skills to make a living!’ I would’ve been like ‘What?!?’”
Comedy is a daunting, intimidating art form in and of itself; if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, it becomes that much moreso. But Zarling’s confidence is undeniably infectious and inspiring. And her advice for everyone out there who might be considering diving into the comedy world is to do it — but be smart about it.
“Go to all the shows in town and find out which one you think has the best vibe,” she said. “[Which ones make you feel], ‘I can do this and I won’t have to worry as much.’ Check out the lay of the land, and which one makes you feel comfortable.”
While comedy continues to be the playing field for cis straight dudes, that wall is crumbling more each day, and LGBTQ comedians like Zarling are helping to tear it down. With her fearless confidence as an inspiration, it won’t be long before that wall is nothing but crumbs under our feet.