Melissa Peterman: ‘Don’t Worry So Much About What Other People Think’

For six years we all loved Melissa Peterman as the fun-loving, sometimes feeble-minded, Barbra Jean on the WB’s hit comedy series ‘Reba.’ These days she can be found stealing our hearts as Bonnie Wheeler on Freeform’s ‘Baby Daddy.’ The Minnesota maiden has also been host to CMT’s The Singing Bee’ and made her film debut as “hooker #2” in the Coen brothers award winning ‘Fargo.’

Peterman makes it a habit of being on long lasting sitcoms. ‘Reba’ and now ‘Baby Daddy’, made it to six seasons. She takes pride in the great writing and ability to improv on both shows. There is no doubt, Peterman leaves a mark on all her work and continues to be a fan favorite. She is one of the ladies of comedy, out there in the trenches.

We had a chance to chat with Melissa about what it’s like for female comedians in the industry today, being a mom, and the importance of female friendships.

Comedy seems to come very naturally to you, when did you know comedy was what you wanted to do?
I don’t think I knew; I don’t know if there was an exact moment, but I do remember a moment where I realized that the power of making people laugh, you know, like the ability to get somebody to laugh, that’s a very powerful thing. And it was in junior high, realizing that I might not be the cheerleader, I might not be this, but if you made somebody laugh it sort of is like ‘oh, this works! This is something that I can do, and I think I can do it well.’ You know when you’re a tall, spiral permed junior high girl, you want to do anything to deflect a little bit; and so I remember thinking “people that can do that are really special.” As a little kid I did watch Saturday Night Live when I was at my aunt’s house – when I wasn’t supposed to probably – and watching Carol Burnett, and watching those shows and I just thought that what they did was the coolest thing in the world and I wanted it. And when you get that first laugh, you know, you realize, not to sound like some evil you know like ‘mwahaha,’ like ‘oh the power‘, but it is, the minute you get a laugh it’s a very addicting sort of thing.

Do you feel it’s harder for female comedians to find their place in the industry?
Well, I think it’s getting better, but I think funny is funny, and you know we were always taught that men – that’s who you saw when you were growing up – and you were taught to laugh at the men. We talk about this now and it’s been since Bridesmaids and you’ve got Tina Fey and you’ve got Amy Poehler, you’ve got these amazingly strong women who are creating their own careers and people are calling them to be in charge. But I think for stand-ups it’s really hard. I’ve done it and I think that world is still really hard.I look at the people I know, we’ve got Heidi Clements and Janae Bakken who are writers on our show. I’ve been lucky enough to watch some really fierce women make it happen. I mean even like look at Reba, I mean you know not in comedy but Reba’s certainly in a music career and she was the one who was like “I’m going to be in charge of the band.”, “I’m going to make this career the way I want it and I don’t want to be beholden to anyone else telling me how I need to do my job well.” So no, I do think it’s harder, I think we’ve been taught that men were funnier.

Who are some of your role models in the industry?
Well, I mean Carol Burnett was the first one that made me bust a gut. And she was the first comedian that I remember thinking, and it was a sketch for Mama’s Family, and it was Eunice, she was going to go on the Gong Show, it’s horrible, it’s hysterical, it’s also really sad. She just wanted her mom to love her, and I remember I’m laughing so hard but then it was really sad and I thought that was great. She killed me because she always brought so much humanity to these outrageously funny things. I still think that’s the secret of being funny, you can get away with anything if you’ve got humanity and you’re vulnerable. So Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, I loved Andrea Martin and she’s still hysterical, Katherine O’Hara, Madeline Con, Terri Garr – who is just really funny. And then currently I do love Tina Fey and what they’re doing, I think they should be running for office – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And what I like to know, you know you live in LA so you do kind of hear “word on the street is…” and I like hearing and knowing that they’re also really good people. I know people that have worked on Parks and Rec and my friend does Amy’s hair and makeup sometimes and I like to pretend that means that we are best friends. I like hearing that they’re good people too and I think that counts for a lot, I look up to them and I’d love to work with them someday. Amy Schumer I think is really funny and I think she’s really fearless.

In 2012 you co-wrote Happily Ever Before with your friend Amy Pitta and as busy as you are do you have any plans to write again in the future?
Yeah, I think I want to write. I always kind of keep writing or at least jotting things down that I think are funny. I just was at a wedding the other day and my friend said to me “you need to be writing stuff down. You forget.” And he’s right, but I’ve been really good about it. And I think I’d like to write something about being a mom, you know that kind of funny stuff. I think yeah, there’s a book in me whether it’s an essay book or sort of my take on, because you have to write what you know, I’d sort of write my point of view, so like you know I would love to be on a writing staff, but for a book I think I would write my point of view of being a mother, and being a somewhat just working actor in Hollywood, and a wife you know, and from my point of view which is you’re never going to be good at all of it every day.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment or have you not yet achieved it?
Well I hope I haven’t, I guess. No, I have, I really have, my son – that was one. Again I don’t believe that if I hadn’t become a mother that I wouldn’t have a wonderful fulfilling life but because I did and he’s here I think that I’m really proud and I think he’s the best thing that John and I did ever do. That’s an accomplishment for me. Getting to be on two shows that, once we start season six of Baby Daddy, I will have been on two shows that were 100+ episodes; that sort of feels like an accomplishment – I was on two shows that made it to a hundred episodes plus, and I think that’s awesome. I think the greatest accomplishment is that I have been in this business for a long time, but I still have the same friends.

You were really good friends with your ‘Reba’ co-stars, Joanna Garcia-Swisher and Reba McEntire. Have you maintained those friendships since the show ended?
Yeah, Joanna sends me videos of her most darling beautiful children. I’m going to see Reba in about two weeks. We’re going on a little trip for this amazing charity, this ‘Celebrity Fight Night’ thing to Italy which is one of those very dreamy trips I get to do with her. We text or talk a couple times a week, and this is the longest stretch. These last few months is the longest stretch where I haven’t seen her face so I’m excited. And I forgot to say her earlier, because you always forget the person that you see all the time. But she is a huge role model, one of the best role models for me as far as what I would want, how I hope people will talk about me who work with me on a TV show. You know because it starts from the top and she set a tone, and she is one of the hardest working, gracious, everyone is respected on the set. She is just really such a good leader, and I watched her lead a show and be the lead of a show and do it with such grace and style, and also such humor.

Do you think it’s important then that no matter your age – married, single – do you think it’s important to keep strong female friendships in your life?
Absolutely, I mean The Golden Girls wasn’t on that long for no reason. I always look at that show, and it’s such a great show that really just shows that at the end of the day your female friends are really your life. I think about my mother-in-law who when my father-in-law passed away she was devastated. They were married 56 years but you know she had her girls with her and I think even the next year when her best friend passed that was harder. You see how women really do lift each other up and it’s hard to maintain friendships.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Eat those French fries, you’re not fat. I had this conversation with my mom recently; we were all looking through photos and you know you always look at those photos from the time you were like ‘oh my god, I’m hideous’ and you look at them now like ‘oh my god, I was gorgeous! Look at my skin!’ and my mom and me, we were both doing the same thing. I’m 45 and my mom is 73 and we were both looking at pictures like, let’s remember, every picture we take now — let’s remember that in five years we are going to think that we are gorgeous. So, that’s a silly superficial one – but I would say, don’t worry so much about what other people think.

If you weren’t doing comedy or television where could you see yourself right now?
I think doing something with kids – teaching. Hopefully, maybe teaching theater or improv to kids. I like kids a lot, animals I also really enjoy – I always said I wanted to be a veterinarian. But I think right now if everything ended as it is today I think I would love to be doing something with kids and bringing theater to people that don’t often get an opportunity to do theater or something like that – bringing the arts to places that don’t have it,or you know, selling candles in Venice. Or producing, I like the idea of working behind the scenes too, I’ve learned so much. I think about my first day on the set of Reba. I had no idea what went into making a 22 minute show. I think producing or writing, I would love to explore those options too.

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