Melissa Bowler is a comedian and a creator. She is currently the Executive Director of the Providence Improv Guild, a Simulation Specialist at Women and Infants Hospital, and a Communication and Teamwork Consultant for various companies and universities – all positions she has either created herself or helped to create. I had the pleasure of taking an improv class from Melissa about 6 years ago. At the time there was no formal school to take improv classes in Providence, so Melissa (you guessed it!) created her own curriculum and was offering classes. I have followed her career since then and while Melissa may be kind enough to call me a friend, at this point I am probably more of a fan.
In addition to her varied and accomplished professional life, she has also created a small person: her son, Luc. I sat down to chat with her at Panera to see how she makes it all work – while staying funny.
PMB: We could talk all day about everything that you do. First, let’s talk about the Providence Improv Guild or PIG. You’re currently the executive director, but you also were a founding member. Can you explain what exactly it is?
MB: PIG is a community of comedians who work together to make amazingly funny shows 3 nights a week, a comedy school focused on improv and sketch, and paid opportunities to teach and perform. We’re all about making the art while also finding ways to make that art make money for our community members.
PMB: So how does improv comedy make you a better mom?
MB: I think in my ability to “Yes And” my own son. [Note: “Yes And” is the golden rule of improv. It suggests that the participant should always accept what their scene partner has said and then expand on it.] So when he says something that is just ridiculous, like four-year-olds do, by just sort of playing along we have fewer fights than if I didn’t improvise with him. Often times he’s only combative when I’m not playing.
When I’m like, “let’s go brush your teeth,” and he’s like, “I don’t want to brush my teeth,” I think, “okay, I gotta make this a game.” And so the toothbrush has a voice. [Melissa suddenly sounds like a combination of a muppet and Larry David.] Ahhh….Brush your teeth, brush your teeth. [Her regular voice seamlessly resumes.] I think it makes me more playful and I think that it avoids conflict. And it’s not everybody’s parenting style. But for me, I’m way more comfortable. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like pulling “because I said so,” because I remember being frustrated by that as a kid. I’d much rather distract him or explain why I have this rule to the best of my ability.
I try to stay playful and find the game work of motherhood.
PMB: How does being a mom make you better at improv comedy?
MB: For me, it gives me that much more life experience. There’s so much stuff that before you’re a parent you just are so ignorant of. And then when you become a parent you’re like, “oh wowwww!” Like I remember thinking I would never take my kid to the grocery store without shoes. Before I had kids I was like, “that would never happen to me.” But then when you’re a parent you’re like, “they’re like, kind of clean. This is fine. They’re not currently crying and I have a two-minute window to get groceries for tonight.”
It’s something that I just couldn’t relate to until it happened. Then once I was in it I was like “oh wow! I was always super judgmental to parents before I became one.” Now that I am one, when you see a fellow mom handling a breakdown in Target you’re like, “I see you sister. I know what this is and it’s okay. You’re gonna get through this.”
PMB: Running PIG is just one of your three careers. How do you balance all these moving pieces with being a single mom?
MB: Umm…great question! It’s not easy. Having split custody helps. Luc’s dad has 50-50 custody. He’s a very good presence in his life. And when he’s there I don’t have to worry. It’s different I think than if I was a single mom and putting him in daycare. I think there’d always be, “I need to go pick him up.” He’s still your responsibility at the end of the day. But I dropped him off this morning and his dad’s gonna pick him up. And now I’m off the clock until Sunday morning.
Which as much as I miss him, and it’s super hard that adjustment of 50-50 going from seeing your baby every single day to only seeing your baby halftime. And every time we have a transition day, I’m like, “I’m really sad tonight.” And my boyfriend’s like “You know why!”
With that said, I put sort of extra work in there when I don’t have my kid. And sort of try to balance out so that I work when he’s at school and then when he comes home and I do have him, I’m able to be a full-time mom. So that’s how I balance it. I rotate through which multiple jobs I do. So when he’s here I work at Women and Infants and then I’m a stay at home mom – those two careers. And then when he’s not with me I do all my other jobs, so it kind of balances out like that.
PMB: That’s impressive.
MB: I am slowly driving myself crazy. My doctor is like, “please cut down on the things you do.” So I’m doing it, but not that well, according to my doctor.
PMB: In October the New York Times published an article entitled “Moms at the Mike, on the Verge of a Breakthrough in Comedy,” which is basically about how moms are becoming more prominent in comedy and might actually be funny.
MB: What an amazing new concept. That’s so ridiculous when you think about it. In my family, my mom is so much funnier. She’s what gave me my comedy. My best stuff is just imitating her.
PMB: Do you think there’s any explanation as to why suddenly moms in comedy are becoming more prominent?
MB: I think it’s because it’s also become more prominent for men to do more of the parenting so women have more time to pursue this sort of stuff. I think a generation ago men didn’t do a lot of the parenting. That just was the norm. It didn’t mean you were a bad dad, you just weren’t as hands-on with the kids. Now it’s just more and more the trend towards equality and equal division and emotional labor. There are articles that my boyfriend will share with me about emotional labor and ask me, “did you see this about emotional labor?” and I’m like, “You know what this is!” I don’t think any man in the generation before us would know what emotional labor is or even identify as a feminist. I feel like identifying as a feminist is a newer thing for men to do. I think that is the wave that’s actually given us more room in our schedules to pursue this and feel like we have we have more of a right to say, “No, no, I’m gonna do this too.”
PMB: Does Luc think you’re funny?
MB: You know, I know he does cause he laughs. But if I asked him, “am I funny?” he’d be like, “no, you’re not. I am.” He knows he’s funny, for sure. I tell him a lot. He’s got this natural gift. But I think if I asked him who was funny, he’d never admit to me that he thought I was funny. Even though I see him laugh. I can get him to the hiccup laugh. I’m like, “I know you think I’m funny.” But I don’t think he would ever give that to me. He knows that being funny is important to me just like I know it’s important to him. And he’s like,“I don’t know, lady. Sometimes.”
PMB: How can moms get involved with improv comedy?
MB: Start with a class. Level 1 is really and truly for any person. And a lot of people stop there. They take Level 1 and they’re like, “okay, that was super fun and I would do that again some time!” and that’s it. And some people are like, “This is a new passion of mine and I want to pursue this and this is has been a missing thing in my life.” And they keep going. I think both are really valid. On the one hand, even if it’s just Level 1 and that’s it, you’re still getting the cathartic adult conversation time that is so desperately needed for moms. You’re also getting an outlet that is very accessible. Anybody can do anything because you’re not a mom when you’re up there. You could be a ketchup bottle. You could be a linebacker. You could be a baby. Because with improv if you say “that’s what I am,” that’s what I am. And so it’s so fun and freeing that way.
And I think it’s so easy to succeed with improv and get to a functioning level with a team. That level comes quick. So you have that nice payoff of “oh wow. I just made a room full of people laugh at a thing I said. Cool.” And that I think is – I don’t know, you don’t get the pay off at the gym.
And if you do pursue it as a new passion then even better. Because the world needs more women who feel confident about their comedic skills and are pursuing that. It doesn’t need more funny women. We’re already out there.
At Providence Moms Blog, we are passionate about the amazing multi-dimensionality of motherhood and aim to support mothers in their role as “mom” while encouraging them to honor all the other aspects of their identity. We believe that the arts are an essential part of what makes us human and encourage all moms to make the arts a part of their own and their children’s lives. We are proud to partner with Rhode Island School of Design’s Continuing Education Program for this series.
RISD Continuing Education educates students of all ages in art and design with high quality, accessible programs, courses, lectures, and workshops.
RISD CE offers courses for adults in the fine and applied arts and design at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. You’ll find a range of options to explore the world of art and design and RISD’s flexible course schedules meet the needs of today’s adult learners and their busy lifestyles. Options include 3-hour and weekend workshops, 6-12 session courses, and full certificate programs.
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Saturday courses are offered year-round, and week-long vacation camps are offered in the winter, spring, and summer. Teens can enroll in one of four certificate programs to broaden their skills or prepare for a future in art and design.