Nina Tarr Superstarr
Nina Tarr is a comedian, DJ, and actor who splits her time between Los Angeles and New York City. She is a creative force of nature, known for her outsized comedic personality (and the hilarious characters she embodies on stage), her impeccable music taste, and her flawless sense of style. Cell Vision correspondent Andrew Rinehart caught up with her to find out more about how she balances the worlds of comedy and DJing, growing up in Orange County, being a comedian during a global pandemic the importance of diversity in booking, and what it's like being a woman in two traditionally male-dominated fields.
Nina Tarr is an amazing comedian and DJ, and one of my most inspiring Los Angeles friends. We met while she was DJing one night in Hollywood and instantly connected on music and comedy, two worlds we both frequent. We've made several comedy sketches together under the name Adults Incorporated.
I cooked up a few questions to help shed some light on her experience as a DJ and comedian and how she balances the two worlds.
CELL VISION: How old were you when you started really delving into records?
NINA TARR: I was 14/15 when I started collecting vinyl.
CELL VISION: Were there any specific bands that opened you up to more off-the-beaten-path type artists?
NINA TARR: When I was 13, I pretty much exclusively listened to punk—specifically early 80s hardcore, anything on SST and Dischord peppered in with some outliers like The Fall, Butthole Surfers, Gun Club, X, and The Birthday Party. Then when I was 14, I bought The Velvet Underground and Nico as well as Crocodiles by Echo and the Bunnymen, and both albums were seminal in my future pursuit of and relationship with music. It changed the way I listened to and thought of music in a way that was extremely pivotal for me.
CELL VISION: How old were you when you started actually DJing events?
NINA TARR: I had a fake ID and was able to start DJing at bars and house parties when I was 19.
CELL VISION: Were there a lot of other women DJing around you when you got your start?
NINA TARR: Not too many, however when I first started DJing, it was with my friend Taylor Burch, who is an amazing musician (Dva Damas and Tropic of Cancer are her projects). Our taste was really simpatico with one another. My first ever DJ residency was with Taylor when I was 19 at this nasty dive bar in Long Beach. It was a monthly party called Dark Continent (named after Wall of Voodoo's first album). We'd play mostly post-punk, no wave and new wave and then incorporate these interludes of bizarro exotica tunes by Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny. We thought we were so high-concept, haha.
"[Comedy is] so much more personal than DJing. But because it is so personal, the chances of getting scathed are much higher. You're really like an exposed nerve when you’re on stage doing stand-up."
CELL VISION: You bounce back and forth between doing comedy and DJ nights very fluidly. What are the pros and cons of each?
NINA TARR: I love DJing and comedy, and they each offer a very cathartic outlet for me in different ways. I love making people dance; it feels really special to pick up on the energy in a room and play to that, or even alter that energy by way of music selection. I also love making people laugh—comedy is really my bread and butter. I feel like stand-up is a more direct way of expressing myself that I don't quite have full access to while I'm DJing, because when I’m DJing, I'm playing other people's music to express myself, whereas with stand-up these are my thoughts and ideas transmuted from my head to paper, then said in my own voice on stage. It’s so much more personal than DJing. But because it is so personal, the chances of getting scathed are much higher. You're really like an exposed nerve when you’re on stage doing stand-up; it can go south at any moment, and it's your responsibility to buoy the spirits of the audience in real time. You and your material must be accessible. You must not only be sensitive and emotionally porous to the audience, you have to be able to be vulnerable and resilient simultaneously. It's no easy task, but believe me when I say it's completely worth it. But don't get me wrong, I delight in playing music for people too—especially introducing someone to a song or artist they’ve never heard before—it legitimately makes me giddy. That and sharing a laugh with friends and/or being the reason why people are laughing are true joys.
CELL VISION: What does it mean to be a comedian and a DJ in the middle of a global pandemic? What have you been doing with your time, and have you found new ways of engaging with your audience?
NINA TARR: Seeing as how I was working with crowds and now crowds are basically an illegal form of congregation, it’s been interesting to say the least, ha. I’ve had to adapt quite a bit to adhere to the changes, as we have all had to do. The silverlining is that I’ve found new ways to approach my work, and it’s been really illuminating. I have a weekly live stream show called “Cosmic Platform” on the iheartcomix Twitch channel, where fellow comedian and very good pal Tashi Condelee and I interview comedians for a round table discussion of all things cosmic, spooky, celestial and extraterrestrial. It’s been really silly and fun and sometimes even enlightening. That is on every Wednesday at 7pm pst / 10pm est. I also have a weekly radio show called “Topless Romantic” that I’ve had so much fun curating and recording. That’s every Tuesday at 8pm pst / 11pm est on eastsideradio.org.
"I vividly remember someone in a banana suit arguing with another person dressed as Che Guevara. It was the funnest nightmare experience I've ever had the pleasure of enduring. I guess that's what you get when you invite an acid dealer to a costume party in a hotel room in Santa Ana."
CELL VISION: Where did you grow up, and how did you eventually find your way to Los Angeles?
NINA TARR: I grew up in Orange County and started spending a lot of time in LA when I was about 15. I would go to shows at The Smell and 6th Street Warehouse. House parties in Echo Park would rage on, and I'd sneak my little angsty teenage self in. When I turned 18, LA felt like the natural progression, so I made my way 37 miles north and have been here ever since.
CELL VISION: Any funny OC stories that come to mind?
NINA TARR: Orange County can be kind of bleak for teenagers; there's not much to do but go to the beach or have pop-up keggers next to the train tracks. On special occasions, we'd get someone who was of age to get a hotel room, usually at a real budget place like Ramada Inn or La Quinta, and we'd throw an all-out rager. One time, it was a friend's birthday, and we had a costume party at the Key Inn, and our friend Micheal (nicknamed Mycool) dosed the entire party with liquid LSD. Pure, unadulterated chaos ensued, coupled with bouts of terrifying hilarity. It was truly insane. I vividly remember someone in a banana suit arguing with another person dressed as Che Guevara. It was the funnest nightmare experience I've ever had the pleasure of enduring. I guess that's what you get when you invite an acid dealer to a costume party in a hotel room in Santa Ana.
CELL VISION: How long have you been doing stand-up comedy shows?
NINA TARR: I started doing stand-up over 8 years ago.
CELL VISION: What's the stand-up comedy scene like in LA compared to NYC? Are there any notable differences?
NINA TARR: There are definitely more shows in NYC. Not only more places to perform but really great crowds too. I chalk that up to the fact that NYC has such an affinity for live performance, with the theater scene being a big part of that. I think live performance in general is more celebrated on the east coast. That being said, there are a lot of great shows and rooms in LA, and a ton of amazing comics in both cities.
"The biggest trepidation for women is combating the ingrained stereotypes we've been systematically subjugated to since for, well, ever. For example, whenever someone says, "he has a good sense of humor," the takeaway is that 'he likes to make people laugh.' Whenever someone says "she has a good sense of humor" we assume "she likes to laugh."
CELL VISION: Do you feel like it's harder to be a female comic? Is there any feeling of a battle of the sexes between comics?
NINA TARR: I think being a comic is hard regardless; it's a struggle that you arduously pursue and stubbornly attempt over and over again. Anyone who does it is nuts, myself included of course. In terms of it being harder for female comics, I'd say the biggest trepidation for women is combating the ingrained stereotypes we've been systematically subjugated to since for, well, ever. For example, and I'm speaking generally of course, whenever someone says, "he has a good sense of humor," the takeaway is that 'he likes to make people laugh.' Whenever someone says "she has a good sense of humor" we assume "she likes to laugh. Historically, women have been relegated to being the passive participant in comedy and not the driving force. I think that's a big reason why fewer women pursue or even attempt stand-up and therefore have remained a minority in comedy for so long. That being said, it has changed dramatically in the last 20-30 years. We are getting more opportunities on stage and in writer's rooms. People are listening more to women and more intently as well. I'm really optimistic and excited for what the next 10-20 years of comedy is going to look like for us.
CELL VISION: Does the comedy scene feel diverse in terms of types of people, or does it lean more towards one type?
NINA TARR: It's definitely getting more diverse, which is not only amazing, it's what’s needed in the comedy community. It's important that we foster an environment that is welcoming to all different groups of people that are pursuing comedy. Diversity in comedy means diversity in perspective, and that can elicit a myriad of different subject matters. It's amazing when you go to a show and the bill is stacked with people of varying ethnic backgrounds, genders, races, sexual orientations, etc. It honestly just makes for a better show that's way more interesting, rather than being confined to a homogeneous line up of seven white dudes in their 30s from the Midwest. And don't get me wrong, I'm not hating on white dudes in their 30s from the Midwest, all I'm saying is that when you prioritize variety in booking a stand up show, the result is a way more fun experience for the audience.
"Diversity in comedy means diversity in perspective, and that can elicit a myriad of different subject matters. It's amazing when you go to a show and the bill is stacked with people of varying ethnic backgrounds, genders, races, sexual orientations, etc. It honestly just makes for a better show that's way more interesting, rather than being confined to a homogeneous line up of seven white dudes in their 30s from the Midwest."
CELL VISION: Has the increased activism and energy in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders affected the way that you think about your approach to comedy and DJing, as either a performer or a booker?
NINA TARR: I’ve always been proactive in making sure I book an inclusive and diverse lineup of comedians when I produce any comedy show. I think it is of the utmost importance to raise the voices of those who haven’t had the same access, and I make it my priority to use the privilege that I have to make sure that is of paramount importance. And in the DJ world, about eight years ago, fellow DJ and friend Victoria Rawlins and I started an all female vinyl collective called All Girls, All Vinyl, where our goal was to not only highlight and support all female identifying vinyl DJs, but also use our experience and connections to share work opportunities. Making sure the collective operates and practices on the primary principle of intersectionality and equal pay for equal work regardless of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual identity. Here’s a few women of color who have been integral members of All Girls, All Vinyl for years with links to their social media: Mama Sophia, DJ Edie, DJ Pickpocket.
CELL VISION: What are your long term goals for comedy and acting? Would you be interested in more dramatic roles, or are you happier doing comedy-oriented stuff?
NINA TARR: I'd really love to be working more frequently as an actor. I've been acting for 12 years and have done a lot of work that I'm proud of, but it would be great to be a series regular on a TV show. That's been my goal of late. Though my specialty is comedic acting, I've actually been cast in a few dramatic roles over the years, and I really like expressing myself in that ton. I think acting is acting regardless, and genre is kind of arbitrary for an actor. It's just about inhabiting a role and performing to the best of your ability, and that's always going to look a little different each time.
CELL VISION: Outside of performing, have you found any ways to engage with the present moment?
NINA TARR: I’ve been cooking a whole lot (i.e. I have learned to pretty much cook every vegetable known to man) and doing lots of reading, writing, hiking and communing with nature so basically I’m a 65 year old retiree. I’ve been embracing the change of pace and trying to squeeze every bit out of rest and relaxation that I can. So I’ve been low-key enjoying… or at least trying to.
CELL VISION: Are there any comedians working today that you especially admire?
NINA TARR: Absolutely. Rory Scovel, Kate Berlant, Johnny Pemberton, Zach Noe Towers, Sarah Squirm, Usama Siddiquee, Hannah Einbinder... just to name a few. There are so many more comics that I'm inspired by and admire.
CELL VISION: How are you feeling about the future?
NINA TARR: Optimistic!
CELL VISION: Any specific goals for the rest 2020?
NINA TARR: Not die.
You can find Nina Tarr online on her Instagram, her livestream show 'Cosmic Platform' on the IHEARTCOMIX Twitch Channel, or her radio show 'Topless Romantic' on eastsideradio.org.