Comedienne, feminist firecracker, creating inclusive spaces.
The world of comedy is brutal. It’s relentless and often thankless. Often heralded as the platform for cynics and critics, traditionally comedy, and in particular standup, is a predominantly male, no-holes barred free-for-all. But Maryellen George is on a mission to change that!
Diminutive in stature, but an absolute firecracker in personality, Maryellen breaks the mould on your grumpy, acerbic comics. She is happy and bubbly, and her main mission with her comedy is to spread joy. And she is completely unapologetic about that, much to the disdain of some of her contemporaries.
Growing up in a creative family, she knew her path would lead her somewhere in the arts, and it was her love for writing and making people laugh that ultimately led her to an all-women’s comedy room where she first flexed her comedic muscles.
Now she is mapping her own path, and taking other ‘underrepresented’ comics on her journey with her comedy platform Bits and Pieces. Oh and not to mention she’s also a full time personal trainer! Girl is busy!
I caught Maryellen to discuss all things comedy, including navigating the space as a woman, some of the safety pitfalls of the industry, and how Zoom became the international comedy room. We also spoke about her passion for helping women love and accept their bodies, Can Jam and her upcoming show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival show Open Bike.
Maryellen George is…
Maryellen George is attempting to spread joy. Oh gosh, this is such a tough question. I would like to think that I’m trying to do good things in the world, and then along the way, I find interesting things out about myself. I’m quirky and I like people, but I’m an introvert.
The typical introverted extrovert.
Yeah, one of those in the middle!
What is it that you do and when did you get to the point where you knew this is what you wanted to do with your life?
Well, I’m from a family of creatives. There are five kids in my family, my mum and dad, a nuclear fam, and everyone’s creative. I think my oldest brother broke the waters for us all when he went back and studied graphic design after working in insurance.
But I think for the rest of us, it paved the way for us all to go, yeah, I want to do the creative thing. I admire anyone that is doing a regular nine to five job. But in my family, I think we all discovered that we really wanted to follow our creative ambitions.
And my dad is a lawyer, which sounds like a very regular nine to five thing, but he loves what he does. He showed us what it’s like to love what you do.
It happens that you all love to be creative!
Yes, exactly. I started off doing a lot of acting in school and I did a performance degree. Then over time, I realised that acting is such a tough one. I know so many incredibly talented actors. I know successful ones and people who haven’t been successful, to what society’s idea of success is. They’re all incredibly talented to me.
So I began to realise that it’s not really about talent; it’s luck, timing, all of that stuff. So I needed to get that creative outlet elsewhere. And that’s actually how I got into fitness as well.
So I was doing spin classes, getting up at 5:00 AM and bombing in front of groups of people, just absolutely dying in front of them. You know, some mornings it’d be great and full of energy. That’s how I got through it. And that’s the energy that I present in a class. And sometimes people are really up for that and they find that helpful. And sometimes it is not people’s cup of tea. They are like, don’t smile at me. I’m just here because I have to get it done before work.
So I’m bombing in front of people quite often, and it doesn’t feel as bad as I thought it might, so I could probably try comedy. And then I just love comedy because you can write and get up there and perform it and you don’t need permission. You don’t need to wait for someone to tell you that you can do it, you just try stuff out and get an immediate response. So that’s how we landed here!
Can you tell me a bit more about your journey to doing standup and the comedy circuit? From everything I’ve seen it looks terrifying and sometimes humiliating!
I’ve been writing for years, but I wasn’t sharing it with anyone initially. And then as I started to share and get feedback, I was like, okay, I’m good at this. I can keep doing this.
But then obviously with stand up, you get to also perform it. Whatever you’ve written, you get to say it out loud. I had gravitated towards it mildly and tried a few things out online. I did the Steve Martin masterclass, cute little things like that.
I really think what it was that got me out there was an all-women’s comedy room in Sydney. My friend told me that she was doing it and I was like, I’ve always wanted to do that. Do you mind if I do it too?
The whole focus of that room at the time was trying to encourage women to get up and do comedy, and they were one of those rooms that was a safe space – no racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, none of that’s allowed.
And I’m so glad that those spaces exist because it really does get people to come out of the woodwork and try this stuff out. So yeah, I would say that because it was a space for just women that made me feel like I could do it.
Because the terrifying thing about comedy is you’re trying to be funny in front of a bunch of people. There’s the public speaking aspect as well. But for women, it can be a terrifying atmosphere. It is still rife with sexism and there are a lot of spaces I still won’t go. I won’t bother to go because I know they’re not going to find me funny or like my sense of humor.
There are plenty of brave women that tackle those spaces and they get something out of it, but that’s not for me.
I can imagine, because historically I see women have had a really bad rap as comics. Especially from other male comics. And I can imagine how hard and disheartening that would be to try and step into those spaces where you don’t feel safe.
Yeah. And that’s the thing, it was a real concern for safety. When I started as well, we hadn’t quite hit the MeToo movement. It was also around the time things with Eurydice Dixon came to pass. And that was massive for me. I was like, I don’t know if I should be doing this. This is really unsafe, just getting home is terrifying.
Comedy shows are things that tend to be late at night. And if they’re male run spaces, hopefully you get a progressive male room runner who even wants to book women in the first place, but also to try and get not just one woman on an all-male lineup.
There are some places with some very old school attitudes, and you do feel unsafe exiting the stage with the kinds of audience members those places attract. It’s a very saddening, but classic scenario when a woman starts in comedy is being told by other female comedians who to watch out for who to avoid.
So it’s real and it’s gross. But it is changing and that’s what’s exciting.
You’ve said your parents are supportive of you and your siblings’ creative journeys, what did they think about comedy? Do you ever test material out on them?
That’s so funny. People often ask me these questions, which is strange to me because I really don’t have a memory of them having a strong reaction to that, because I think they’re just so used to me trying stuff. So it probably made sense to them.
But then actually coming to shows, that was the part where it was like, oh, I’m not just going and doing this by myself in a dingy place. It was really nice, it was good for them to see me in that space. They’re obviously very proud of me.
But then again, there’s the interesting thing with comedy where you reveal a lot about yourself, if that’s the kind of comic you are. I have a mixed style – I reveal a lot about myself and I will say a lot of absurdity too.
So there have been times where I’ve done some material and they’ve been like, no, no, don’t do that. This is too much. And with my comedy, I really don’t want to hurt anyone, and so that often comes to mind when I’m writing stuff for the audience. Because I can forget about the actual people in my stories.
There’s an old school comedy idea that comics should be able to talk about anything, and that’s our job, which I really don’t agree with, and that makes me a bit of a party pooper for some people. But there’s a lot more people now, like James Acaster and Beth Stelling that talk a lot about comedy that doesn’t hurt. This thing that has been held for so long by straight white males – and they’ve created the rules for this – it was held up so high, this freedom of speech idea.
But me, I’m always careful to go back and edit and change things, and be okay with family members maybe telling you they don’t like some things. I’ll take everything on board and usually still say what I want, but I’ll find another way to do it.
As well as doing your own comedy, you run Bits and Pieces – can you tell me about that?
So I moved to Melbourne at the beginning of 2020, and I was ready to start my own comedy room because I really wanted more spaces to exist for women in comedy. It was a selfish motivation too, cause I wasn’t getting that many bookings. I got down here and we hadn’t really moved into a place yet, we weren’t set up and the COVID took over the world! So we moved back to New South Wales, to country New South Wales, because my parents had a place there that we could crash at.
I was getting a bit antsy as everyone was. Some comedians took that time off and were like, we can’t do stand-up, It doesn’t work in this current world. But for me, I discovered this whole online world and was like, oh, it’s actually really easy to do Zoom comedy. So I started Bits and Pieces as this!
It was accidental actually, because I started producing shows again, I just wanted somewhere to go and do it. And people were telling me that they really enjoyed it and that they wanted it to keep happening. It was giving people a place and a platform, and right from the beginning I wanted it to be a platform for women and underrepresented comedians.
Then I got a friend in to help with the design and the branding; it’s how all those sort of things start. It was really small and cute to start with and then this community started growing, and it was just so nice. Because sometimes you’ve got a mission in your head, but when you actually see that start to take place, you’re like, okay great, I’m onto the right thing.
For me with my comedy, the thing that I come back to all the time is I want to spread joy. Which is so simple, but important. And that’s what happened with Bits and Pieces. And then obviously from there, I want to have in-person shows.
We had a crossover at the end of last year in New South Wales, where we could have some guests; we had a bunch of American comedians on Zoom, with a live audience as well and some Australian comedians. And what was beautiful about that is you have this international mix. And I think everyone really got to experience what this community was.
Bizarrely, without COVID you probably wouldn’t have a worldwide audience for one show!
Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of people that were saying, it’s not stand-up comedy if it’s on Zoom. And I get that because it is a different space. You have to deal with things in the background, maybe your partner crawling behind you while you’re doing your set, all that sort of stuff.
And sometimes there’d be a delay and comics have to wait for their laugh. Which is also funny because if the joke doesn’t land, then you’re literally just waiting.
That would actually be hilarious!
It was really great fun. And for the comedians, it was a chance to keep up their writing skills and help them really hone stuff because they had somewhere to go.
It would have been quite the melting pot, being able to draw on the experience, the skills and the knowledge of these people that you may not come into contact with otherwise.
Yeah, exactly. And it was great to be able to go to three or four mikes in a row, where in real life you’d have to get in your car, drive to the next location. Whereas on Zoom, you just hang up and get on the next one. So a lot of people were really able to really practice.
And then yeah, moved down to Melbourne again, round two and a friend suggested a location straight away, The Improv Conspiracy in the city. So within a week I was producing a live show with people in the flesh, and it has kept going from there!
Can I just take a step back and can you just explain what Bits and Pieces is, and what your mission statement is with the platform?
Bits and Pieces is a platform for women and underrepresented comedians. And we preference women and underrepresented comedians unapologetically. That’s the idea behind it. At the moment we just want a space for people to come and be able to get their voices out there, because there is still a lot of doors closed to those people.
When you talk about underrepresented, who are you talking about?
Basically anyone other than a straight cis white male, I consider an underrepresented comedian. We do have straight cis men who perform with us as well, but our lineups are always above 60% women and we’re always reaching out to people to come and perform with us.
And if you feel underrepresented, then that’s what you are, because the difficulty with it is that people feel like they need to come out and identify themselves. It’s a tricky line to tread, because I don’t want people to have to feel like they have to justify why they’ve come to us or have to out themselves in any way.
And when you’re trying to run a progressive space, those are the issues that you come into. But we’re just trying to do it the best we can. And we try to be a safe, inclusive space.
But being a safe space in comedy is also a tricky line to tread, because no space can ever be entirely safe. And I think there were a lot of rooms a few years ago that were really aspirational, trying to be a really strictly safe space. But then that would often turn into now what we of think of as cancel culture. Not the cancel culture has gone too far, but that sometimes it’s less helpful, the conversation becomes less productive.
Our audiences should be able to come and feel like they’re going to see a show, they’re going to have a good time and they’re not going to be attacked. That’s what safe means to us. There are a lot of more traditional comedians that poo-poos safe spaces because to them that means censorship and that’s not comedy.
They still have their spaces to perform and they’ve had them for a very long time now!
You do work as a personal trainer as well, can you tell me, how did you get into fitness and where does it fit into your greater purpose?
Let’s be real. I got into it because I had body image issues. But I also had an autoimmune disease – at 16 I was diagnosed with arthritis. So that experience really taught me to value my body, because I couldn’t use it. I was bedridden. I couldn’t walk around by myself.
Soon I started feeling really empowered. I knew how to use my body. I was more agile, more mobile. And stuff just naturally started to take over.
Being in feminist spaces I would start to see and hear feedback about the fitness world about unhealthy messages out there. As I started training people, I realised, my god, so many of us have these body image issues. And if you grew up in the nineties, how you come out of that unscathed!
Even the publications that we were digesting – Dolly, Girlfriend, Cosmo were all “How to lose weight, how to do this”. Pretty much how to conform.
Yeah, exactly. We’re not all meant to look the same. All bodies are beautiful, it just takes us time to realise that. I think it’s great to have fitness goals and to achieve those things. But sometimes it’s more important for me to look after other aspects of my life, like my mental health. It’s always going to ebb and flow.
So I started a fitness company a couple of years ago called Slashy Movement, because I wanted movement and fitness to be not just about being in the gym, but actually what are you doing outside of that? Because that’s a really good motivator. If you’re a drummer in a band or a chef in a kitchen, there’s physical movements that you’re doing there every day that you can be supporting in your fitness. And that’s just such a more exciting motivator than what you look like.
You’re completely correct in saying that it’s not about aesthetics. It is about the longevity of your body and your life.
And it just feels so good once you kind of can wrap your head around that. I mean, it’s all part of it and you just get better and better at accepting it, just enjoying your life. That’s how I feel, I want to enjoy this while I’m here.
Speaking of joyful things, you’ve got your show Open Bike as part of the International Comedy Festival. Can you tell me about what the show involves?
So Open Bike takes it back to where it all started. I’m teaching a spin class, and then we’ve got a lineup of comedians. They all get up on the bike and do five minutes. I host the whole thing. We’re all riding on bikes. The whole audience are on bikes!
We had our trial show a couple of weekends ago and it was so fun. I’m really excited, because again, we’re trying to create a new and inclusive space for comedy. So it’s not about fitness levels or any of that. You can come in, however you are.
Good! I’ve booked a ticket and I thought I’m going to want to die by the end.
If you’re used to spin and you really want a hard workout, you will get that and we can give you the kind of journey for that. But if you just want to come in and have a little stroll and just experience the space, you can get that as well.
I am really excited because we proved our concept when we did the trial show – there were endorphins, everyone’s sweaty. You get this great physical feeling on top of the comedy. We’ve got 11:00AM shows, which to me is also what Zoom brought about as well, this idea of having shows at different times. Because the people that want to see comedy aren’t just the people that can get out at 11:00PM at night.
We’re seeing more mums at our shows, just a much broader audience because of the way we’re trying to make it accessible. Obviously this is on bikes, so you have to have a certain amount of ableness for this particular show. But I’m so interested in other ways we can continue to explore taking comedy out of context and making it more accessible to people.
I really hope the Zoom shows continue as well for that same reason. I think it’s made comedy really accessible for people that wouldn’t have been able to go to shows before. But yeah, so Open Bike, on a bike, the audience on bikes, it’s so exciting!
That’s going to be really fun. I’m quite excited about it. And I am going to one of the 11:00AM Saturday shows. You can double up as my fitness for that day!
The floor is sticky from sweat and not alcohol!
Oh boy, haha. I’ve just got one last question for you, what would you describe as your perfect day?
Oh, my perfect day. I love getting in the ocean and there’s just no better feeling than just being completely submerged in salt water. So definitely a beach swim, followed by a coffee, and then just being around family and friends. My family loves activities. It’s so silly, but like probably a game of Can Jam. I’m being very specific now with this very serious way.
What is Can Jam? Please explain!
Can Jam is the most brilliant game! It’s like Frisbee, but you have this can at either end. It’s got a slit in it, so you either try and get the Frisbee in through the slit or the top is open. It’s ridiculous.
So yeah, I think that’s my perfect day. And then there’s pizza at the end!
Beautiful. I love it.
Find out more about Maryellen George’s upcoming gigs here.
Follow Bits and Pieces here.
Buy tickets to Open Bike at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival here.