Fortune Feimster used her relatable voice in comedy to write her own success story

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Fortune Feimster
(Todd Rosenberg Photography)
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Fortune Feimster used to do this — interview celebrities for the newspaper. As an entertainment journalist for Los Angeles Daily News in the mid-2000s, she worked red carpets at the Oscars and Grammys and talked to movie stars at press junkets.

She has a bit in her 2020 Netflix special “Sweet & Salty” about her first red carpet assignment where her very first celebrity interaction was with Will Smith. She had to ask him “Who are you wearing?” while she was wearing a blue velour tracksuit from Forever 21 with a giant pink cupcake on the back.

“I’m just so grateful that he didn’t look at me and go, ‘Who the f— are you wearing?’” she says.

The stand-up comedian has always been unapologetically, hilariously herself, even when she didn’t fully know herself. In that same special, she recounts how, at 25, she suddenly realized she was gay while watching a Lifetime original movie, and she’s found plenty of humor connecting the dots from her childhood to that late discovery.


But ever since she arrived in L.A., she strode — unembarrassed by her Carolina drawl or her unconventional appearance. She’s certainly used her shape and Southernness for comedic effect, like the chain-smoking Hooters waitress Darlene Witherspoon she used to play at the Groundlings. But it’s not an act of self-deprecation or masochism — it’s more childlike play and an expression of joy.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who met Fortune and didn’t just love her,” says Chelsea Handler. “That’s what’s so great about her. She kind of breaks through any sort of right or left politics, or any sort of divisiveness, and she’s just a pure bundle of joy.”

Feimster was a writer and performer on Handler’s late-night show “Chelsea Lately,” but before that she struggled to find representation or land auditions. She credits Handler with launching her career.

“She was putting people on TV that no one else was putting on TV,” Feimster says, “and not really caring if you fit the mold of who should be on TV. ... She was the first person who gave me the ‘yes’ when everyone was telling me ‘no.’”

Now Feimster, 42, is flying high. She released a second special last fall, and in the new Netflix action-comedy series “FUBAR” — which was just renewed for a second season — she trades quips with Arnold Schwarzenegger. She’s currently on a national tour, selling out arenas.

Stand-up allowed Feimster to “cut through all that red tape, and just show people who I am,” she says. “While the industry was kind of like ‘We’re not sure about you,’ people watching me were like, ‘Oh, we can relate to you. You’re like one of us. You’re not some fancy person. You’re not like some supermodel.’ I’m like, thanks a lot,” she laughs. “I always seemed to connect with audiences before the industry really knew what to do with me.”


Emily Fortune Feimster — her middle name is a family heirloom — was always a bit of an awkward fit. She was a tubby tomboy in the debutante culture of Belmont, N.C., who always had the same androgynous cloud of blond curls and who felt straitjacketed in the hyper-feminine dresses she was sometimes forced to wear.

Woman with short blond curly hair smiling in front of yellow background

“I always seemed to connect with audiences before the industry really knew what to do with me,” says Fortune Feimster.
(Todd Rosenberg for Fortune Feimster)

But she was also formed by the sweet Southern ethos — a “no-one’s-a-stranger mentality” — and by her mother, a schoolteacher who taught special education and whose two brothers, Feimster’s uncles, had intellectual disabilities. Mrs. Feimster took her high school students to the local hospital every week to volunteer.

“That was just always a part of our life and our world,” says Feimster. “That’s where she would really shine, was in her classroom. She was so loving and good with her kids, and they loved her so much.”

Feimster’s mother would always quiz her on grammar rules, and she developed an aptitude for word-craft. She was good at sports, but she didn’t understand what she was feeling when the waitresses at her family-favorite restaurant, Hooters, surrounded her on her 18th birthday. Much clearer was her response to an ImprovOlympics show she attended in college: “That was when I go: ‘I really love this, and wouldn’t it be cool if I could do this?’ But I never thought beyond Raleigh, North Carolina.”

After majoring in communications at William Peace University, she made a connection with alumna Emily Procter, and moved to L.A. to become the actor’s personal assistant, then jumped from that into entertainment journalism. She was lonely in her new city, so — inspired by her “Saturday Night Live” heroes like Will Ferrell — she signed up for classes at the Groundlings.


Initially it was just a hobby. “I started it as a way to make friends,” she says. “And my teachers just kept encouraging me. They were like, ‘This seems to be your lane. You’ve got to keep going.’ And then it quickly became a passion.”

Wanting more stage time, she and four friends started their own improv troupe, Gas Money, and did shows at random bars on weekends. Soon they were renting theaters and producing sketch shows. By the time she graduated to the Groundlings main stage, she had more experience than most of her peers, including future “SNL” stars Nasim Pedrad and Taran Killam.

“She’s the greatest,” says Killam. “Effortlessly funny. Consistently kind. Her Hooters sketch is iconic.”

At Groundlings, Feimster invented several wacky characters, including a Richard Simmons impression and an old lounge singer named Tina Martin. She tried out for “SNL” twice — “You walk down that hall, your nerves are through the roof, and you get on that stage and your whole career flashes before your eyes” — but didn’t make the cut.

“I’m always a believer of ‘things happen for a reason,’” she says. “I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I tell myself and it makes me feel better.”

Feimster was initially terrified of stand-up — she didn’t do any in her “SNL” auditions — but was constantly encouraged to try it by her friends.


“That was a time in my career where I was getting a lot of people telling me that they liked me, they thought I was funny, but they didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “It was before being different was celebrated. Now it’s like, ‘Oh, we want everybody to be unique.’”

She found her voice taking stand-up classes, then getting stage time in the Belly Room at the Comedy Store. Her material was less refined back then, she says, “but I was always me.”

Feimster built a set and a following with her routines about Hooters and her mother, about growing up obliviously gay in the South, with a homespun storytelling style that is instantly disarming. She’s as proudly lesbian as she is Southern and food-loving — she often tells jokes about her wife, Jax, a former kindergarten teacher who is now part of Feimster’s creative team — but she doesn’t seem to kick up political dust like other comedians.

“FUBAR” let her stretch her acting — and action — chops. She and comedian Bert Kreischer recently did a morning workout with Schwarzenegger, who clearly delights in her company. She’s developing an animated series inspired by her childhood, and she’s interested in producing and writing more scripted material — possibly even doing drama.

“Would people see me in something that’s serious and not buy it? I don’t know,” she says. “I do have a very funny look. Maybe a horror movie,” she jokes, “start there.”

Basically she would love a career like Will Ferrell’s, a hyphenate who also seems like a solid family man with a good head on his shoulders — and “one of those people that you see and makes you happy.”