Fortune Feimster is willing to go the extra country mile for a laugh. Even if it means squeezing into an ill-fitting Hooters uniform or taking a punchline for the team.
The rising Southern comic caught the eye of two influential women in comedy. She landed her first major break as a writer and performer with Chelsea Handler’s “Chelsea Lately, ” and now she’s working on an ABC sitcom pilot with Tina Fey, which begins shooting next month.
“It’s nice when any woman is opening doors for other women,” Feimster said. “There are more men in this business and so it can sometimes be a little daunting as a woman to try to break through.”
The “Last Comic Standing” alum kicks off an Acme Comedy Co.-sponsored series at the Woman’s Club celebrating female comics on Sunday — coincidentally International Women’s Day. The series continues with MTV’s “Girl Code” regular Carly Aquilino (March 21) and home state hero Maria Bamford (April 2). With preproduction ramping up on her “Family Fortune” pilot, Feimster’s Minneapolis date is a rare stand-up show she hasn’t had to cancel recently.
Switch to acting
A year ago, Feimster took a leap of faith. Before learning “Chelsea Lately” was ending last summer, she left the show to focus on acting.
“It was a tough choice because the one thing that any entertainer wants in this business is stability,” she said. “So, to leave a steady job to chase a new dream that you’re not sure is going to pan out is scary.”
The curly-haired comedian, 34, whose full name is Emily Fortune Feimster, landed a role in a previous pilot executive-produced by Fey and fellow “30 Rock” writer Matt Hubbard. But when Fox passed, she sold Hubbard and Fey on “Family Fortune.”
Based loosely on her life, Feimster’s character comes out as a lesbian to her divorced parents (played by Annie Potts and John Carroll Lynch) and military brother in the pilot. If picked up, the show would explore the Southern family’s dynamics and its journey to accepting each other, while serving as an antidote to TV caricatures of ignorant, uneducated Southerners, she said.
In her real life, it wasn’t until Feimster left small-town North Carolina for Los Angeles that she came out.
“I think I knew deep down that I was gay, but it was not something that I had come to terms with,” she said. “Growing up, I didn’t have many examples of out gay people. Anybody that I knew who was gay was … in the closet. It’s not like I saw two people holding hands down the street who were gay.”
Her stand-up style is whimsical and self-deprecating, whether she’s recalling her Mason jar-sipping upbringing or text messages from mom. She’s quick to crack jokes about her “lack of fitness,” unusual name or Richard Simmons-evoking hairstyle. Feimster credits her flat-out silliness and honesty with helping bits about serious topics — such as her awkward first “gay date” and coming out to her father — resonate with mixed audiences.
“At the end of the day, it’s something very human that a lot of people have had to experience,” she said. “To find a way to make it light, it makes people more open to it. Even if they’re not gay, at some point a kid has had to tell their parents something very difficult.”
Feimster spent her pre-“Chelsea” years honing her laugh craft at the L.A. improv and sketch comedy school, the Groundlings. She worked as the personal assistant to “CSI: Miami” co-star Emily Procter (also a North Carolinian), whose neighbor eventually helped her land a gig as an entertainment journalist. She interviewed actors and musicians for seven years until comedy could pay the bills. The press stint sharpened her writing, she said.
While her comedy career has taken off, Feimster still sounds like a journalist at times.
“I just want to tell real stories and also find a way to make people laugh,” she said.