Please Pay Attention to Esther Povitsky (Please?)

In Esther Povitsky’s new Comedy Central special, “Hot for My Name”—part family documentary, part stand-up set—there’s a scene that takes place at the public library in her native Skokie, Illinois.

“I want to show you these different books,” the comedian’s father says, leading her to a shelf of memoirs by Amy Schumer, Bob Saget, Judd Apatow, and other well-known comedians. “You can write a book,” he suggests, in a fatherly tone of encouragement. He reconsiders. “For you, it might be a comic book.”

It’s one of many subtly searing exchanges between Povitsky and her endearing yet perpetually unimpressed parents, Morrie and Mary, in segments that serve as interludes to the special’s more traditional stand-up bits. These home videos drop us directly into Povitsky’s coarse family dynamics, giving her onstage punchlines—about her midwestern roots, attention-seeking habits, and deep-seated longing for approval—even more bite.

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When Adam Sandler signed on to produce the special, Povitsky had no plans to actually make one. Her friend and eventual director, Nick Goossen, called with the news. “He’s like, ‘So I just showed Adam Sandler your stand-up, and he wants to produce your special,” she says. “I was like, ‘What? I don’t have a special.’”

After a recurring role on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend raised her profile, Povitsky, now 32, was in a scripted series headspace. She co-created Alone Together, a buddy comedy in which she and creative partner Benji Aflalo played their exaggerated selves, and the day it was canceled two seasons later, Povitsky received the script for Hulu’s Dollface. She now co-stars alongside Kat Dennings and Brenda Song as an insecure millennial who craves approval from her co-workers at a Goop-like company. (Or, as Morrie describes the role, “another loser desperate to be accepted.”)

To shift gears and get her stand-up ready in time, Povitsky had to move fast, ultimately taping at L.A.’s insider comedy club Dynasty Typewriter. But the idea to share the spotlight with her parents was born much earlier, through an accidental act of espionage. A few years ago, Morrie and Mary agreed to look after her dog Pepper for a time, and, after enough pestering, let their daughter install a surveillance camera in their living room so she could check on him. “Then I realized, ‘Oh, I can just see my parents sitting on the couch any time of day,’” she says.

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Povitsky shared some highlights during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2018, including a snapshot of the couple on their anniversary, huddled under the covers on the living room couch, flossing their teeth. The footage bested anything she expected from a puppy cam, and for the special, she had all the documentary segments shot on one hand-held camera, rejecting Comedy Central’s cushy production budget proposal lest it “kill the magic that is honest, real people being funny in their own lives.”

For Povitsky, who grew up on Seinfeld, comedy is in these quotidian details of human interaction. “I like the tone of reality,” she says, acknowledging the similarities in many of her characters, including her stand-up persona, because they’re all, in some way, a version of her. “I always say to my friends, ‘We’re the people who like funny TV shows a little too much, to the point where we needed to make our lives like them.’”

As a kid, Povitsky was often overlooked, or else the butt of the joke. “I like to say that I wasn’t raised, I was watched,” she says with a laugh. “Like, I was kept safe, but nobody interacted with me. I was always fighting to get someone to play a quick game with me.” She idolized her glamorous older half-sister, who wanted nothing to do with her at the time, and felt like no less of an outsider during her three years at the University of Illinois, where the party culture seemed to appeal to everyone but her. “It’s one thing when you’re somewhere and it sucks,” Povitsky says. “But when you’re somewhere and it sucks, and everyone else loves it, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m the problem.’”

In a sense, bottling that “lonely kid inside” gave her a lens through which to see the humor in uncomfortable realities, both others’ and her own. She lampoons her tweenish appearance almost as much as she does her childhood scars, switching effortlessly between deadpan self-deprecation and a peppier naiveté. At 5-foot-1, Little Esther, as she’s nicknamed online, accessorizes with butterfly hair clips and scrunchies, transforming onstage, as her close friend Chelsea Peretti puts it via text, “very convincingly into a dream kid-sister at a slumber party.”

esther povitsky

Comedy Central

“Esther’s comedy isn’t just funny and smart, it’s also personal in a uniquely self-aware way,” B.J. Novak, a friend and attendee of her special taping, says by email. “The way she presents herself, she both is the joke and is ‘in on the joke.’”

That ragging is part of her family’s language and the comedy world’s alike, Povitsky says. “That’s like a form of love for me. I sit there with a big smile on my face, and I’m like, ‘Make fun of me!’”

She met both Novak and Peretti at the Comedy Store, the famed West Hollywood stand-up venue that launched comics like Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle, and where she found her band of “weirdos and misfits”—including collaborators Whitney Cummings, Marc Maron, and Aflalo—after dropping out of college and moving to L.A. It was her younger self’s vision of freedom: no rules, no adults, and, seemingly, no concept of time. “I would show up at 8 p.m. and stay until 3 a.m. and babysit during the day,” Povitsky says.

“I always say to my friends, ‘We’re the people who like funny TV shows a little too much, to the point where we needed to make our lives like them.’”

Through the stand-up community, she also met her fiancé, comedy writer Dave King. Since lockdown, Povitsky’s been posting videos of him mocking her limp grasp of sarcasm and inability to name any famous movies. “Before the pandemic, I tried to keep him a little bit anonymous,” she says, acknowledging that she loves to poke fun of him onstage but never by name. But after several months in their Silver Lake home, “everything’s blending together. Home life is professional life.”

In “Hot for My Name,” Povitsky recounts strong-arming King into proposing, but two years into their engagement, she confesses that weddings are not for her. “I’m honestly having second thoughts about getting married at all,” Povitsky says. “I think I’m gonna put him back at boyfriend level, lock it in there.”

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When I reach Povitzky on Zoom, it’s mid-May and she’s wearing a freshly tie-dyed oversized T-shirt, her hair half up in a scrunchy. Tie-dyeing has become her near-daily ritual. It suits her personal style, which King has christened “celebrity at the airport.” It also may be the first hobby she’s had in 10 years. “Before this happened, I didn’t know how to handle any downtime,” she says. “I couldn’t not be working or thinking about work. I was in that mindset of, ‘I dropped out of college. I have to make it.’”

Even before the pandemic hit, Povitsky says, “I was basically going through a mental breakdown.” Last year was one of the most successful of the comedian’s life, and that was sort of the problem. Povitsky had wrapped Dollface’s first season, shot her special, and finished a stand-up tour. “I was like, ‘I did all the things I wanted so badly to achieve, and I don’t feel better. It didn’t fix my problems. I’m still chasing something, and I don’t know what it is.” Had it not been for the coinciding global health crisis, “I may have come out of this mental dip,” she says. “But then I was also afraid.”

Povitsky went home to Skokie, started on Lexapro, and asked for help, widely. “I let everyone know, ‘I’m not doing well.’ Of course, you have the friends who are like, ‘Exercise and get sunshine, and you’ll be fine!’ and I’m like, ‘Fuck you.’ And then you have the friends who stay persistent on your ass.”

For her, that was Peretti. “Chelsea kept calling until I finally had to answer, and it forced me to talk to someone who was able to help me,” Povitsky says. Once she returned to L.A. and lockdown began, she and Peretti helped each other through isolation, meeting in their backyards, taking socially distant walks together, and sharing recipes in a group text with their mutual friend, comedian Kate Berlant.

esther povitsky

Comedy Central

Povitsky got used to slowing down. Both filming for Dollface season 2 and a stand-up tour she had planned for the fall were delayed. So she finished writing a movie she calls a “grounded comedy-mystery,” about working at a Walgreens, and decided to continue her stream-of-consciousness koffee klatch podcast “Esther Club.”

“In theory,” she adds, “I should also be planning a wedding.”

But right now, why not just tie-dye? Watching friends grapple with the continued effects of COVID-19 while L.A. struggles to reopen, Povitsky finds herself on a now-familiar hamster wheel of fear and anxiety. The main thing getting her through is dyeing clothes (and masks, of course) in her backyard. In addition to its escapist appeal, the experiment offers her a way to feel helpful by donating proceeds to COVID relief efforts.

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It can be difficult, as someone who does creative things for work, to not turn all creative things into work. “In my fantasy, I want to open a Shopify, where each product is limited-edition. It’s like a business a little kid would do. I ordered a bunch of mailers,” Povitsky says, seemingly in jest. A week later, though, she announced her soon-to-open tie-dye business on Instagram. And by the beginning of July, she officially launched Sleepover by Esther, whose new Instagram account touts candy-colored merch, “carelessly handcrafted in Los Angeles.” It sold out last week, to her surprise but maybe not to others’. If there were an official uniform of the COVID era, it may very well be, as the Sleepover by Esther website reads, “24-hour basement wear.”

Povitsky will no doubt don her pieces for the special’s premiere, a concept that’s vanished in the quarantine age. But being confined to her apartment hasn’t stopped her from putting comedy into the world—she posts casual, stream-of-consciousness monologues on social media daily, riffing on her pandemic practices, guest spots, and growing collection of pet projects. Her latest? A “Hot for My Name”-branded iced coffee, she announced on Instagram Tuesday, calling it “definitely illegal” with a giggle. “The coffee shop collab is why I have a standup special, and I think you all know that.”

“Hot for My Name” premieres Friday, July 17 at 10 p.m. ET on Comedy Central.

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