A few years ago, I smashed the Follow button on comedian Alison Stevenson's Twitter like an overzealous Jeopardy! contestant with their buzzer. Since then, I've been provided with endless laughter, from her laugh-out-loud Tweets to her two full-length comedy albums, Eat Me (2017) and Mommy Issues (2019), to her podcast (co-hosted by author and creator of the viral Instagram account @byefelipe Alexandra Tweten), V Single.
After wanting to write about her relationship with her mother for years, Stevenson pivoted to the world of scripted podcasts to release Like Mother, a semi-autobiographical mother-daughter comedy written and starring Stevenson herself and the incomparable Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Broad City), now available from Audible Originals.
After getting fired from her job in San Francisco, 30-year-old Allison (Alison Stevenson) moves back in with her mother, Sarah (Susie Essman), in Davis. While trying to figure out how to live under the same room, both mother and daughter find themselves realizing they're a lot alike, despite their fervent belief otherwise. Like Mother is a funny and intimate portrayal of a complicated relationship between mother and daughter, and asks us to consider our relationships with not just those we hold close, but with ourselves, too.
In their first interview together, PAPER sat down with Stevenson and Essman to talk about starring alongside each other, mother-daughter relationships, body positivity and more, below.
Like Mother is semi-autobiographical. Like anything that's somewhat based in real life, I have to ask: has your mother listened to it? What does she think?
Alison Stevenson: She has not listened to it in full. At least not yet. I've described it to her and gave her the rundown of the plot. When it comes to what she thinks, I was pleasantly surprised to find that she was mostly cool with it. Our relationship is a lot better today than it was a few years ago and the relationship in Like Mother is more like the one we had then. We are more communicative with one another now. I mean, we still argue plenty, don't get me wrong, but I am less afraid to show her this side of me and I think she appreciates it. She's proud of me and the project, but she still thinks I should consider a full-time career in marketing (which is actually progress, because before it was a lawyer).
Why this medium and not say a book or script?
Stevenson: This medium was presented to me more so than me seeking it out. My friend and fellow comedian Nick Stargu was working for Audible, and asked me if I had any ideas I'd like to develop. That's how it all started. The more I developed this idea though, the more I saw the value in it being auditory. It's a story about the friction between a mother and a daughter. That's something super-relatable for so many women. Even though this was more specifically about me and my mom, auditory storytelling creates the same effect that reading a book does. As you listen, you can envision the world that's happening and make it all your own. I really love that about this format and I think it makes the story more personal to the listener.
Why was Susie the right fit for the mother?
Stevenson: Because she's Susie fucking Essman. She's an incredible actress with great timing. So funny. We knew she'd understand the role and bring life to it in a way few other comedic actresses could.
"Having had a contentious relationship with my own mother, it interested me to explore the mother's point of view. The relationship felt very real to me." —Susie Essman
What drew you to this project, Susie?
Susie Essman: First and foremost is always the script. If it's not on the page, especially in a genre like this, there's not much that can be done. I was attracted to the style of writing and to the dynamic between mother and daughter. Having had a contentious relationship with my own mother, it interested me to explore the mother's point of view. The relationship felt very real to me.
What was it like working in this medium, in the studio with Alison?
Essman: It felt very intimate. I've always felt that way about radio. There's a power to it and an intimacy. As an actress, I use my face so much in so many subtle ways to express things, but when it's only audio, one's voice and tone and rhythm become much more important. I didn't strive for the same kind of eye contact with Alison that I usually do in scenes because I didn't want to take away from what I was conveying vocally. But I knew she was there. Being a big phone-talker, it felt like one long phone call.
I love that! And you're both stand-ups, so performing is very much a part of something you both do. But what was it like performing in a scripted capacity for you, Alison?
Stevenson: It was fun! I had to get over my weird embarrassment of reading my own words out loud to a room full of people. Stand-up is pretty second nature to me at this point, so if I bomb or mess up in any way or hear nothing but uncomfortable silence it's not that big of a deal anymore. You learn quickly to suck it up and move on and blame the crowd for being a bunch of idiots. This being a whole new world for me, I found my performance anxiety coming back. Luckily, I got over it. The podcast's director, Ben O'Brien, was a big part of helping me with that. He did a great job of making the space supportive and comfortable. Plus, he gave great direction, duh. Once that happened, I found acting this all out to be really exciting. I've always wanted the opportunity to show my acting chops, so I'm glad all it took was me spending a couple of years writing a 10-episode series about myself to finally get to do it.
What part of Like Mother do you relate to the most, Susie?
Essman: I think the mother-daughter dynamic and the love between them. The pain of loving someone that much and wanting so much for them to be happy and have a fulfilled, wonderful life but not being able to separate and see them clearly is what all parents and children deal with for their entire lives. Our parents are so deeply embedded in our psyches and visa versa. It's an endlessly interesting relationship to explore, an epic battle that never ends, even when our parents are no longer alive. The power struggle over who we really are and whose life we are living, your own or the one envisioned for you by those who love you and supposedly want the best for you, is a lifelong pursuit.
I want to touch a bit on spirituality, since it does come up in Like Mother. What role does it play in your real life?
Stevenson: Honestly, I don't even know anymore. As detailed in the series, I was raised to believe not only in God but in superstition. I feel like it's all so ingrained in me that I can't help but believe in there being something out there. More like, I want to believe that. Though I still consider myself to be a loud and proud Jew, I don't believe in the Jewish God or the God of any particular religion. I just find that there's something pleasant in believing that the universe knows things about us that we don't know yet and, hell, maybe there is some sort of afterlife for our souls or whatever. I don't fucking know. I'm open to it, okay? I'm drawn to things like tarot, astrology, and crystals, but am never all in. Coupled with that, I take time to learn about physics and the universe and the scientific studies debunking these things (AKA watch a lot of PBS specials). Balance.
All this is entirely different than the superstitious aspect of my upbringing though and how a lot of it kind of fucked me up. Particularly, the "Evil Eye," which is essentially the belief that someone who envies you can curse you with misfortune because of it. That's the kind of shit I'm in therapy for and am putting a lot of effort into unlearning — the way it became one with my anxiety and turned me into a person who clings obsessively to catastrophic thoughts and doomsday scenarios over every little thing. I know that's not what my family sought out to do when they told me to knock on wood, wear protective jewelry and be careful who I say certain things to, but that's what happened. To this day, I still wear a red string around my wrist (protection from the Evil Eye). I can't seem to fully let it go the way my character did in Like Mother. I am working on it though and have made a lot of progress. All I have to say is, thank God (who I only sort of believe in) for the gift that is therapy. To sum this up more succinctly: superstition = bad, spirituality = not bad.
"Having to write from my mother's perspective on this helped me forgive her, actually." —Alison Stevenson
You are a radiant light in the body positivity movement. Why was it important to touch on body and being within the mother-daughter dynamic?
Stevenson: Why thank you and damn, where do I begin? This story is about the key things my mother and I don't see eye to eye on and body image is a major source of contention for us. I think that's the case for a lot of people, especially women. Our families are in many ways, the first to body-shame us. Parents have a magical ability to make us feel like shit no matter how good we were feeling seconds before talking to them, and that's why I wanted to include the fights me and my mom get into about my body. I stand my ground. Even if she doesn't fully get it, she leaves me alone about it. Sometimes, that's the best we can do and that's okay.
I know my mother's intent was never to hurt my feelings or make me feel bad, but that's what would end up happening every time she suggested I go on a diet or get a gym membership. Having to write from my mother's perspective on this helped me forgive her, actually. I understand that her intent is for me to be "healthy" and attract the right romantic partners, etc. But what's hard about this is convincing people like her, of her generation, that there is so much wrong in the way society views fat bodies in relation to health. For instance, there are studies that prove BMI is bullshit. Fatphobia is an invention. It has been perpetuated and turned into an entire industry looking purely to profit off of body insecurity. I had to learn that the hard way, after years and years of never fully believing I was capable of being attractive because I wasn't thin. In my mid-twenties, I had the aid of the body positive movement becoming more mainstream, coupled with pockets of social media being inclusive and supportive in spreading these messages and validating my worth. I remind myself that my mom didn't have that. Where I'm at today is drastically better than where I was when I was younger and living at home. Today, I proudly call myself a hot, fat slut. Twenty-two-year-old me would never! She'd be mortified to see my Instagram. That's growth for ya.
What was your favorite part of working with each other?
Stevenson: Well obviously Susie's hilarious, but I also loved how down-to-earth she was. I was intimidated at first, but she quickly made me feel at ease. I really appreciated hearing how much she could relate to the script from the daughter's perspective, and she'd regale me with stories between takes about her and her family. That was a huge confidence boost, plus it was great to get to know her in that way.
Essman: I loved her voice. I think she wrote a beautiful script filled with humor and emotion that so many people can relate to. I learned a lot from her.
Like Mother is available exclusively from Audible.
Greg Mania is the author of the memoir Born to Be Public.
Cover art by Siobhan Gallagher/ Photos courtesy of Brandt Hale.