Esther Povitsky has been one of the rising stars on the L.A. comedy scene for the last few years and appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough moment with several projects, including a comedy special, a series and a film.
But the COVID-19 pandemic brought Hollywood to a standstill, and Povitsky is now wondering if things will ever get back to normal.
"I'm lucky that I was able to do so much, and I'l be glad to get back to it when everything is safe," Povitsky said in a phone interview this week, just days before her first stand-up special, "Esther Povitsky: Hot for My Name," premieres Friday on Comedy Central (postponed from its initial date in June).
"It's so weird," she added. "The special is kind of an advertisement to come see me perform, but who knows when that will be? I may be the last comic to come back."
On one hand, she is kind of fine with that scenario. But she has also had an unexpected revelation.
"I feel so fulfilled that I accomplished all these things I always wanted to do," she said. "But I also know that achieving all your goals doesn't necessarily solve all your problems. It's like, 'Be careful what you ask for.'"
The special is a vehicle for Povitsky's quirky, self-deprecating humor as she riffs on her insecurities, sex and her relationship with her parents. The one-hour special contains segments from several performances at which she appears with her hair tied up with colorful ribbons and butterflies.
She also shows off her singing and dancing chops, performing a musical number in which she laments inheriting the looks of her unattractive father rather than her "hot" mother.
Those parents, Morrie and Mary, are prominently featured in the special as Povitsky hangs out with them at the Skokie, Ill., home where she grew up. Their humorously deadpan response to Povitsky's assertions that they were not nice to her when she was a child defines their barbed but obviously loving dynamic.
"You told me I was bad at stuff as a kid," she says during a moment in their car. "I'm not going to be in this [special]," proclaims Morrie. "I'm going to get arrested!" They also follow her to New York, where she performs at a club and meets with Comedy Central executives.
The special, produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, is the latest milestone in a career that started to pick up in 2018 when Povitsky played a version of herself in Freeform's comedy series "Alone Together," about two neurotic, platonic friends trying to make it in L.A.'s stand-up scene. She executive produced and co-created the comedy with costar Benji Aflalo.
In addition to a recurring role on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and podcasts such as "Glowing Up" and "Esther Club," Povitsky has proved to be a scene-stealing standout in Hulu's "Dollface," playing a loopy friend to the romantically challenged character played by star Kat Dennings.
But that momentum stopped when the pandemic struck.
"Everything just changed completely," she said. "I was getting ready to do a movie. I was going to go to Canada, going to get a couple of tour dates lined up. Now that's all gone away, and I'm afraid it's going to take a really long time to return to normal."
She is more philosophical than bitter.
"I've had a good past couple of years," Povitsky said. "Making 'Alone Together' was big. Getting on 'Dollface' was a huge accomplishment. And doing the special, of course, was a big dream of mine. I felt like I had all the experiences I wanted.
"As far as having a breakthrough moment, I really don't think that way. If you think you're going to break out or break through, you never will. It's been a slow and steady climb, and I'm happy with that."
Still, that success also prompted emotional turmoil she never saw coming.
"There was kind of a breakdown," she said. "In January, I was thinking about moving into a shed in my parents' backyard. I've seen a lot of comedians talk about that when they have reached a certain level but nothing really changes. So I've been trying to heal."
She realized that putting so much focus on her comedy career had taken over her life so much that she had not prioritized her mental well-being.
"It was always go, go, go. I was terrified of taking a break," Povitsky said. "I missed friends' weddings. I missed funerals. I missed dating. The thought of taking a vacation was so scary, [I was] so afraid to do nothing. Now I'm forced to embrace all that, and it's been kind of freeing."
Trying to adjust to "the new normal" has been challenging. Doing live streams and shows on Zoom is a far cry from what she used to enjoy all the time — driving over to the Comedy Store on Sunset around 9 p.m. to perform a set.
"What I do a lot now is like open mike, where I just speak freely, and maybe I'll say something every 10 minutes that sounds interesting that I might want to write down and revisit as material," she said.
Still, much of the thrill of performing and the immediate response that comes with it has been lost. "Comedians need that crowd to build our act," she said. "We need them to produce our material. I miss that fun, exciting feeling, the experience of performing."
For Povitsky, her craft was more about getting laughs. It was therapy. She and other comedians have heard criticisms about trying to be funny during dire times.
"There's an attitude like, 'Can't you sit this one out? Why do you need attention?'" she said. "But for some of us, opening up and being creative is our coping mechanism. For some folks, consuming other peoples' creative failure may also be a help to them. I'm not one to judge anyone doing weird experimental comedy right now."
The tone of her comedy has not changed. "This is a time when I have no choice but to be silly and experimental," Povitsky said. "I find humor in everything because you can't not find humor. That's how I cope with sadness and hard times. Some people might be pissed at that, thinking I'm making fun of a pandemic, which I'm definitely not doing. I just need to find the humor in everyday life."
She's also found a new hobby — tie-dying. She's been tie-dying shirts, which she sells through her Instagram and through sleepover-by-esther.myshopify.com, with the proceeds going to charity.
"I really get a lot out of that," Povitsky said. "Like I said, I'm doing the best I can."