How grief, creating characters and wigs helped comic Heather McMahan to build a loyal following

When Heather McMahan recently debuted her first Netflix comedy special, “Son I Never Had,” the fan reaction was as though their best girlfriend had achieved a major win.

“The coolest thing about this job is a lot of people have been on this journey with me from the beginning,” said McMahan recently over Zoom. “They found me on social media years ago and they’ve been rooting for me. It kind of feels like I’ve been in this giant life sorority and everyone’s like, ‘She did it.’”

McMahan moved from Los Angeles back home to Atlanta when her father died from pancreatic cancer in 2015. As a distraction from grief, McMahan would create characters and post short bits on social media and built a following. There was boozy Brenda Carlyle, Mississippi’s (self-proclaimed) No. 1 real estate agent and “Hollywood assistant to the stars” Margie McDaniels.

“I just said, ‘I want to make stuff that makes me laugh’ so I started doing a ton of characters on Instagram, and that’s what really took off,” said McMahan.

Amassing a fan base has helped McMahan stay busy. She just taped a second stand-up special premiering next year and is selling tour dates for 2024, including shows in Australia. McMahan also hosts a weekly podcast called “ Absolutely Not,” has a development deal for a TV show, plus plans to write a book.

McMahan talked to The Associated Press about her career, living situation and how to handle other people’s grief.


AP: You and your husband, Jeff, live with your mother, Robin. Do you ever feel like you have to explain that to people?

MCMAHAN: Every day of my life. I was talking to somebody the other day, and they were like, “So, like, when are you moving out?” And I said, “What do you mean?” They’re like, “I thought this was just like a (comedy) bit” or “I thought you were just doing this through COVID.” I said, “No, no, no. My mother lives with us. We live with her. We’re doing this life thing together.” It’s a very hard concept for people to understand, but if you look at any other culture, the grandparents live with the family. The parents are there. You have multi-generations of people under one roof. I guess it’s just weird for Americans.

AP: Your comedy special addresses your dad’s sudden death from pancreatic cancer. Did that loss teach you anything about how to react to someone in that situation? So often people don’t know what to do or say.

MCMAHAN: Most of the time when you’re grieving, you want people to validate how you feel. Start with, “This sucks. I’m so sorry. What do you need?” Also, six months down the road, check in with those people. You’re always surrounded by people as soon as something happens but what happens when it gets quiet and nobody’s calling? That’s when I was like, “Oh, wow, this is when it really hits.”

AP: You’re constantly touring, posting on social media, and you have a podcast. How do you have so much fresh content?

MCMAHAN: I’m such a well of stories and jokes, but it’s really hard. I’m just living life and writing it down. I’m keeping very, very thorough notes.

AP: Do you feel female comics are held to a different standard than men?

MCMAHAN: It’s funny. This guy was like, “Man, you really go in on married life and your husband.” Guys have been doing this forever. It’s just because I’m a woman, it seems a little jarring. Ali Wong talked about her family. Amy Schumer talks about her family. All these other fabulous people talk about their families, but when the girls do it, people have something to say about it. How long have men been talking about how crazy their wives are and how their kids are driving them nuts?

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