“Rods and Cones” and Perpetual Free-Falls: An Interview with Beth Lisick and Tara Jepsen

by Kira Garcia

rods and cones1

Twelve years ago I fell in love with Carole Murphy and Mitzi Fitzsimmons, two characters developed and portrayed by Beth Lisick and Tara Jepsen. Like Beth and Tara, Carole and Mitzi are performers. Unlike Beth and Tara, they are also codependent platonic life partners, bath house custodians, and terrible dressers who inhabit a gleeful, carefree limbo that is somehow both geriatric and adolescent. Their reliably hilarious misadventures remind us that there’s something inherently weird about womanhood.

In their new web series, “Rods and Cones”, Carole and Mitzi are navigating a burgeoning rivalry. Their opponents are the MILFies, a pair of performance-artists-turned-comedians played by the brilliant Jibz Cameron and Erin Markey. Carole and Mitzi flail while the MILFies strategize, serving as frenemies and perfect comic foils. The resulting interactions between stylish cool girls and blissfully unaware weirdos are both deeply satisfying and totally hilarious.

I sat down to interview Beth and Tara at Beth’s apartment in Brooklyn as they put the finishing touches on “Rods and Cones.” We talked about their fifteen-year-long collaboration as Carole and Mitzi, as well as the amazingly detailed backstory they’ve developed for their characters, one which nests quite neatly inside their own.

“Rods and Cones” is a new show, but you’ve been performing as Carole and Mitzi for twelve years. Can you tell me how and when these characters came into existence?

BL: Well, this is how Tara and I hang out; I mean, we’ve gone out to eat, but we’re not like, “Let’s go to the movies.” We’re always like “Let’s get together and work.”

TJ: It’s the best way to have fun.

BL: Carole and Mitzi originated in 2002. I was in a comedy group and we did this one bit where we were all going to be ‘comedians’. So that’s how Carole Murphy was born. There wasn’t that much interesting stand-up at that time. My references were people I’d seen on TV in the 80’s and 90’s —

TJ: Essentially, Gallagher and Paula Poundstone —

BL: And then Tara was at the show [where Carole made her debut] and was like, “What if Carole had a special friend?” We had been performing together since 1999; we had a history of doing duos. So Tara went to work on who Mitzi would be.

TJ: Watching Carole for the first time, I was like, wait wait wait…CAROLE MURPHY. FUCKING CAROLE MURPHY. When I saw it, I knew it was so funny. It distilled a lot of things I wanted to play with. My body said YES. I had to say to myself, just sit still.

BL: Carole talked a lot about like ‘women’s issues’, and a lot of like “Men, take a break — ladies, do you know what I’m talking about?” And a lot of jokes about her husband, and you weren’t really sure that she had a husband.

So Carole was closeted at first?
BL: Yeah, she was! We had a very big show in which Carole came out during Pride at the LGBT center in San Francisco. She was embraced lovingly.

TJ: However, Mitzi worried about not getting as much attention and being left behind, so she came out as a cutter. They both came out.

So Mitzi needed her own issue…
TJ: It was an attempt to, if not match, perhaps overshadow.

Well, Carole seems very loving. She’s a caretaker.
TJ: They both are. Carole and Mitzi have no prejudices, they don’t judge other people. That’s just not in their mindset.

And how did Mitzi come about? What’s her origin?
TJ: My grandma had a miniature schnauzer named Mitzi. And then Fitzsimmons seemed like a stupid name to put with it. It just sounds weird to say mitzifitzsimmons, like you were going [squirrel noises].The name is like Mitzi herself. There’s always been this praying mantis shape to her. Paws forward, you know…when you see her walking, she’s in her body in a very zig-zag way.

It’s kind of like she’s on an invisible bar stool all the time.
TJ: Yeah.

Would she have existed if there were not Carole? Would the character have happened?
TJ: She’s completely tied to Carole. They had just agreed on this dynamic: [Mitzi] rode roller coasters inside herself, and then occasionally, ‘blah’, something came out — a noise, an emotion, whatever — but over time I wanted to do more with her. I want her to play out that weird interior more.

Beth, tell me more about Carole.
BL: Something about my friendship with Tara freed me up to be a straight lady playing a lesbian. It wasn’t like ‘”I’m going to do this lesbian comedian character,” it was like “Oh, I’m Carole, and that’s who Carole is,”

TJ: People have had intense crushes on Carole!

Oh, I don’t doubt it! And how do people respond to Carole and Mitzi as a duo?
BL: People think they’re clueless, but they’re not. They take everything in, but everything just goes right off of them.

TJ: They take the path of least resistance all the time. And they’re in a total free-fall always.

rods and cones2

Let’s get to know Carole and Mitzi. How did they meet?
TJ: They met in grade school in South San Francisco.

Have they aged at all? What age were they when you guys started?
BL: They don’t know how old they are! They have a really bad sense of time…so whenever they go back to talk about a story they’re like “It was ten…twenty…thirty? Forty? Years ago?” Right now, they’re between the ages of 35 and 55–60.

Who did they vote for?
TJ: They don’t vote.

BL: They’re not even sure elections happen.

TJ: I don’t think they’re even sure that they’re allowed to vote? I think they think that’s for another kind of person, with like, a driver’s license.

Celebrity crushes?
TJ: I think Mitzi’s really into Moon Zappa. Or John Ritter.

BL: I think Carole’s got a crush on like, a newscaster. Like “here’s my favorite traffic lady!”

Pet peeves? Are there ways they irritate each other as roommates?
TJ: Well, I think the bathroom is —

BL: Oh, their bathroom is disgusting.

TJ: It’s really intense. But Mitzi uses the shower curtain to support herself as she gets into the tub. It gets torn down a lot and that drives Carole crazy.

Have either of them ever had a long term relationship?
BL: Carole has had some longer relationships; she had a crossing guard girlfriend for a while. Mitzi, as we call her, is ‘all play’. Mitzi will screw anybody. But Carole is a lesbian. But they’ve slept together — just by accident — before.

But Mitzi’s never had a long term relationship?
TJ: Nope. And in Carole’s case, how long was it with the crossing guard?

BL: 3 months or something? But they were emotionally tied to each other for a very long time.

TJ: I thought it was even shorter than that, like 2 weeks, but the emotional ups and downs…[laughter]. Mitzi was a little bereft when Carole connected with someone else.

I can only imagine!
TJ: Well, she ended up finding a free counselor at a local Lutheran church. She was trying to find a surrogate to give her attention…but I don’t think it totally worked.

BL: But Carole definitely included Mitzi in the relationship with the crossing guard.

There’s so much tenderness and love in this!
BL: [laughter] Yeah, that’s a fun thing to write! I mean, we can write a fight scene, and we do, but it always ends in a moment where they check in.

TJ: People use conflict as a way to build interest, and it’s fun to be like, well, that’s not an option, so how do we build a story that keeps a fun, harmonious center?

Without making the characters conflict with each other.
TJ: Yeah. It seems like it’s too easy to make them fight!

BL: And also when we’re on stage when Carole and Mitzi are totally pumped about something, it’s the funniest thing ever! It’s like when you have a friend and you’re like oh my god we’re gonna do this thing and it’s so exciting! To do that as Carole and Mitzi is the best.

Is it always about being funny? Or was there some other motivation or need you’re trying to fill in performing?
TJ: Always, at the heart of it, we’re trying to make each other laugh. I do think though — I’m hesitant to put too fine a point on it — there is a very strong feminist bent to it and a general anger and cynicism about being female.

When I saw you guys for the first time, in 2002, I was frustrated that the range of kind of ‘accepted lesbian identities’ seemed narrow and a bit cheesy…you seemed to get right at the heart of that. Twelve years later it seems like there’s more room for different kinds of identities.
BL: I think that’s definitely true. I think also our initial collaboration and friendship was born at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and we were not in the frame of mind to enjoy or embrace being there. I think like 3 times we left to go thrift shopping. There was something about it that made us want to escape. Maybe it’s the thing that you’re talking about.

You were pushing against the defined safe space for women.
TJ: And the, “Is this the only shape that a women’s thing can have?” No! [Michigan] did have some rad aspects. But the culture was not quite right for us.

So you performed live as Carole and Mitzi on and off for years, and did other short films and stuff. How did Rods and Cones finally come about?
BL: So much of this has been our friendship, so we didn’t really have the need to put stuff out there for a long time. We’d do shows, but we weren’t on any kind of schedule. And then we realized we had these amazing characters and we had so many stories for them and situations they could be in! Finally, after twelve years, there was a sense urgency!

TJ: It was whimsical. It feels like there’s a place for it now, in comedy.

BL: We’ve had meetings over the years, and people have told us we’re funny, but the sense was that it was just too weird. And then the more shit you see…Tim and Eric came around, and it was like, ‘come on!’

rods and cones3

Why this rivalry in “Rods and Cones?” Why a foursome instead of just the two of you?
BL: I think we just wanted to write for Jibz and Erin because we love them so much. Initially the MILFies were just going to be a rival comedy group. But after a while, we realized we can’t expect them to be one-dimensional. It’s way more interesting to make them performance artists who are trying to break out of that world.

TJ: And how funny would is it to have these two characters who seem like the more obvious winners at life, who are beautiful and fashionable, and they are just consumed with jealousy for Carole and Mitzi?

BL: Carole and Mitzi just have so much confidence in their relationship. People look at it and go ‘fuck, I wish I had that!’

“Rods and Cones” premieres Monday on Wifey.

Kira Garcia enjoys puns, feminism, textiles, and history. She lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and two handsome cats.