Nancy Stanley is back. Maybe. Probably.

click to enlarge Nancy Stanley is back. Maybe. Probably.
(Nancy Stanley/Submitted)
Nancy Stanley pioneered women’s comedy in Tucson with The Estrogen Hour at Laff’s Comedy Cafe.

After a debilitating stroke, COVID-19 isolation, the loss of her mother and retirement doldrums battered her soul and dulled her vaunted self-assurance, Nancy Stanley is ready to play, and to fall in love all over again with her audience.

She’ll be headlining Ladies’ Night Comedy, Uncensored at 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, at Unscrewed Theater. Filling out the bill are three of Tucson’s funniest women — Amber Frame, Bethany Evans and Cathy Sproul. Unscrewed’s Kataya Plett hosts. Tickets are $8 in person or via Zoom. Make reservations at unscrewedtheater.com.

When her long-time friend and mentor, comedian Lewis Black, hooked her up for a short set at the 2021 Chautauqua Assembly in New York, Stanley couldn’t say “no.” She was going anyway; she goes every year.

But it would be her first set since mid-May 2020, when, two months into the pandemic, she had a stroke, and then another one. It was months before she began to trust that she might be able to function as before. Slowly, physical and mental acuity began to return, but, she wondered, “Am I still a comic?”

She was getting there. “For (months) I thought I’d been ready to get right out there,” she said, “but when presented with an actual date and an actual show, I either I got out of it or really limited my role.”

She was haunted by dilemmas that seemed beyond her control. What if her memory was unstable? What if she had another stroke? The risk is higher after the first one. And what about the social skills she had lost, along with the rest of us, during the pandemic? “The ability just to relate to people,” she said. “All those patterns that you have that make it easy to get up in front of a group and talk.”

Luckily, she ultimately felt validated by the Chautauqua show. She was able to remember and deliver the core of her standard set. She could still be that spicey older single woman joking about dating, sex and the dilemma of back fat. “I just needed to stand up and get words out,” she said. “I proved to myself I could get up and do it again. I wasn’t this person who was lost and unable to do things.”

But Chautauqua didn’t provide the audience of supportive, like-minded women she’s grown used to in her long-running local comedy benefit series, The Estrogen Hour. Nor was it the liquor-lubricated night-club crowd for which she’s performed in Tucson and all over the country when hobby-traveling or occasionally on business as assistant dean at the UA Law School.

The Chautauqua crowd is a middle-aged, well-heeled, intellectual bunch that shows up to learn big ideas and make big plans. Their approval was . . .modest, her material, not so much. “They were a perfect audience. And I did a perfect set. I just did the wrong set for this audience, you know? It was a little too racy, I think.”

Still, the experience gave her enough confidence to later host a comedy benefit for Tucson Values Teachers, and to perform a character soliloquy in David Fitzsimmons’ annual Arroyo Café Holiday Radio Show last December.

She missed the engagement, though, the collaborative energy, and the ultimately intimate relationship a standup comedian can create with their audience. That was what had attracted her to comedy in the first place.

“(Chautauqua was) my Guinea pig audience. I said what I knew rather than talking about things that might engage them. That scared me. I wasn’t sure that I had the intellectual ability to get feedback from the audience.”

She hopes to find that sweet spot again at Ladies’ Night Comedy, Uncensored. The key, she thinks, is play. The show’s format has improvisors riffing on each comedian’s set after she finishes. “I haven’t been playful with comedy for a while,” she said, “and that’s the great thing about pairing improv and stand up. There’s a greater sense of play with the improv people, and the stakes are low because improv audiences (tend to be) really accepting and generous.”

As she builds trust in the extent of her recovery, she also ponders recent shifts in the comedy environment. “Comedy is playing a different role as an art form right now,” she said. “I’ve always said that a really brilliant artist could make anything funny, but there are some things I can no longer joke about.

“I’m a very political person, but I do think that people need a little respite. I think a general audience is not coming to be validated or to laugh so they don’t cry. So it’s hard to find something that feels meaningful on stage but stays away from the radioactive.

“I think we might be entering an era where there might be such a thing as ‘too soon.’ It’s not that you can’t say anything you want, but I think you shouldn’t be surprised when audiences let you know that something is too soon or too far.”

For instance, she said, with a comically rueful attitude, “There may be no such thing as a stroke comic.”

Stanley said she and her colleague, Mary Steed, look forward to rebooting the popular Estrogen Hour series that as of its last show in 2020 had raised about $20,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. That series was the first in town to support comedy by, for and about women, and to encourage LGBTQA+ to find their own voice in comedy.

THE REST OF THE WEEKEND

• Jim Jeffries, AVA Amphitheater at Casino del Sol, 5655 W. Valencia Road, (presales at casinodelsol.com), $15 to $75, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26

• Catalina Craft Pizza, 15930 N. Oracle Road, Suite 178, $8 or free with a donation of food or clothing, make reservations at 520-825-0140. Comedy in Catalina features Phoenix comics Dana Whissen and Mo Kitazumi plus locals Phil Gordon, Nicole Riesgo and Allana Erickson-Lopez, and hosted by Valdez, producer of The Frank Show, at 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27.

• Dickey’s BBQ Pit, 775 N. Ocotillo Road, Benson, reservations required at 1-575-200-7182. The $40 ticket includes dinner, The Faultline Players present “The Disco Ball Murders,” a send-up of “Charlie’s Angels.”

• El Jefe Cat Lounge, 3025 N. Campbell Avenue, (presales at eljefecatlounge.com/reservations) $18, 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 2, BYOB and snacks. Kitty Ha Ha Comedy for Cats hosted by Lady Ha Ha Comedy.

Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress Street, (presales at eventbrite.com) $15, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, the more-fabulous-than-life Retro Game Show, now in its 11th year, presents Family Fuss. Prepare to laugh hard for the duration.

• Linda Ronstadt Music Hall, 260 S. Church Avenue, (presales at ticketmaster.com) $25 to $120, 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4. Adal Ramones and Adrian Uribe, ChavoRucus Tour

• The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress Street, free, 11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27. The Late Show with Chris Quinn, featuring Joh Jon, Rich Gary, Cody Stucki and Roxy.

• Tucson Improv Movement/TIM Comedy Theatre, 414 E. Ninth Street, (presales at tucsonimprov.com) Thursday, Aug. 25, $5 show: 7:30 p.m., Improv 101 Class Showcase; 8:30 p.m., free open mic. Friday, Aug. 26: 6:30 p.m. free improv jam. $7 shows: 7:30 p.m., The Soapbox featuring designer, social worker and comedian Josiah Osego; 9 p.m., Stand Up. Saturday, Aug. 27, $7: 7:30 p.m., Game Show; 9 p.m., The Dirty Tees.

• Unscrewed Theater (presales at unscrewedtheatre.org), $5 kids, $8, live or remote/ 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, Family-Friendly Improv Comedy; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, Family-Friendly Improv Comedy; 9 p.m., Ladies Night Uncensored Comedy with Nancy Stanley.

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