Funny Girl

Career in comedy comes full-circle for UM grad Maggie Carey


Carey, top, directs Aubrey Plaza, right, Alia Shawkat, left, and Sarah Steele. (Photo by Bonnie Osborne)
Carey chats with Andy Samberg on the set of The To Do List. (Photo by Bonnie Osborne)
The movie poster for The To Do List. (Artwork by Ken Perkins)
Carey played soccer for UM in the 1990s. (Photo courtesy of UM Athletics)
Carey was recruited to play soccer at UM by Betsy Duerksen. (Photo courtesy of UM Athletics)


Categories: Alumni

Story by: Nate Schweber

Carey, top, directs Aubrey Plaza, right, Alia Shawkat, left, and Sarah Steele. (Photo by Bonnie Osborne)
Carey, top, directs Aubrey Plaza, right, Alia Shawkat, left, and Sarah Steele. (Photo by Bonnie Osborne)

On a stuffed Southwest airlines flight in 1994, Betsy Duerksen settled into the seat that would take her home to Missoula and waited for her plane, and her team, to take off. Steely eyed and intense, she had just been hired to coach the first-ever University of Montana women’s soccer team, which was sitting behind her. It was a bumpy ride.  

Missoula didn’t draw many visiting women’s soccer teams its inaugural year, so the UM kickers had to travel. And they got clobbered. Movie-style clobbered. Some players put their uniforms on wrong. An assistant coach moaned to Duerksen that Montana was a soccer wasteland. A man in the Los Angeles airport saw the UM squad and quipped that “Montana soccer” sounded as far-fetched as “Mexican hockey.”

“We looked like a disaster at first,” says Duerksen, who coached at UM until 2003 and now lives in California.

Duerksen loved her players, including a tall, athletic brunette from Boise, Idaho, named Maggie Carey. Duerksen recruited Carey based on her impressive credentials: All-American soccer, honor student, class representative, lifeguard—an overachiever who made lists of her life’s goals. But Duerksen didn’t yet know Carey’s sense of humor.

As the jet pulled away from the gate, Carey jumped up. She pointed to the emergency exits, deadpan. Duerksen gaped. Carey mimed how to snap a seatbelt. The team howled. A stewardess giggled and gave Carey a prop oxygen mask to keep on mocking the pre-flight safety demonstration.

“I only recruited her as a soccer player,” Duerksen says. “It wasn’t until she got here that I realized, ‘Oh, this kid’s a gem.’”

Today, Carey writes and directs comedies, and her work has shown on movie screens around the world. She also has written sketches for an HBO show and co-created a comedy Web series for Warner Bros. Her work features some of the world’s best young comedians giving their twisted takes on scenes that Carey created from the perspective she developed growing up in Idaho. In 2013, she released her first full-length feature film, The To Do List, set in early-1990s Boise.

Now, she’s coming back to Missoula—on screen.

“My next film is set in Montana,” Carey says in an interview from her office in Los Angeles. “It’s about a women’s soccer team.”

Maggie Carey, who graduated from UM in 1997, now writes and directs comedies shown on screens around the world. (Photo by grew up in the rolling brown hills of Boise. She dog-eared a book about Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, she idolized Hillary Clinton, and—more than anything—she loved soccer. After graduating from Borah High School with honors in 1993, she studied for a year at the University of Idaho. Then Coach Duerksen recruited her to be among the first women ever to play soccer for UM.

“I was so, so nervous because it was like a dream come true,” she says. “I wouldn’t let my parents talk the whole eight-hour drive from Boise.”

Missoula seemed perfect, with its evergreen mountains and cozy campus. Plus, the town gave Carey new opportunities for self-expression. Her teammates, she discovered, were like an ensemble cast.

“They were some of the funniest, most sarcastic girls I’ve ever met,” she says. “So diverse and so talented.”

Combined with Carey’s taste for gags, their chemistry was potent. When hotel bedsheets didn’t fit, they were booby-trapped by Carey. When new players fooled their coaches by grunting as though easy weights were heavy ones, the acting lessons came from Carey. One April Fools’ morning, Coach Duerksen found the goal from the practice field sitting on her front lawn. It must’ve taken six players to carry.

Wonder who led them?

“Maggie would be the ringleader for all the pranks,” says teammate Courtney Jenkins, thirty-eight, now an attorney in Helena. “I mean all of them.”

But jokes were on Carey, too. The first UM women’s soccer team had to practice at a forgotten field with no bleachers across town at Fort Missoula. Their miles-traveled to goals-scored ratio was terrible. So were their clothes.

“We had old sweats and shorts that were hand-me-downs from the football team,” Carey says. “They were huge and they did not fit and—I don’t know a nice way to say it—they weren’t made for women.”

Carey admits that when left to her own choices, she didn’t dress much better. Sometimes when she and her teammates hit the town, Carey put on her best outfit: men’s pleated khakis with a button-down denim shirt—tucked in, of course.

“We went to Charlie B’s,” she says. “Because that’s where all the cool kids were.”

Carey developed a sense of clothes as conduits for humor. In a tiny three-bedroom house just off campus, she dressed her five roommates in leggings and rainbow headbands and led them through aerobics routines. Richard Simmons crossed with Punky Brewster was her idea of funny.

“It was hilarious and awesome,” says teammate Margo Young, thirty-six, who now works for the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle. “I’ll often laugh to myself about that.”

Some moments rose above humor. Like the day Pearl Jam played Missoula, and Carey had to lift weights in the old Harry Adams Field House. She heard the band soundchecking just outside her door. Sneaking into the arena, Carey and a few friends crawled on their hands and knees across the bleachers. A sleepy-sounding Eddie Vedder said the band would play a new song, “Corduroy.” The teammates got their own private concert.

But the team changed fast. The Bad News Bears of 1994 became by 1997 the Big Sky Conference champion Grizzlies. For Coach Duerksen, this meant she could recruit young players better than those who came before. For Carey, this meant a new position: the bench.

“Oh, it’s awful, because you’re not a freshman waiting to get your chance to play, you’re a starter sitting on the bench,” she says. “It builds character.”

Were she someone else, Carey’s situation might evoke pity. But Carey already was thinking about a career in comedy, a tool that turns embarrassment into joy.

Carey was part of UM’s first soccer team.Soccer was Carey’s best source of material, but it wasn’t her only one. For a time, she cooked scrambled eggs at the UM cafeteria, pouring big cartons of goop onto a griddle. She also put on a happy face for families at Montana Snowbowl, where she operated a ski lift and told her parents she worked as a “recreational transportation technician.” And she waited tables at The Bridge restaurant to see free films in an old Missoula movie house below the eatery, the Crystal Theatre.

She took whatever classes seemed interesting and ended up with a degree in English with an emphasis in literature. Her grades were all A’s, except one that still rankles.

“I got one C one semester in a Middle Eastern history class, and I’m still upset about it,” she says. “I never even got a B. It ruined my transcripts.”

During her final semesters at UM, Carey took classes in broadcast journalism to learn how to use a camera.

“She was probably one of the smartest students I ever had,” says John Twiggs, a producer at MontanaPBS and adjunct UM professor. “And I always had a feeling she wasn’t going to go down that journalism trail. I always got a sense she would take it in a different direction.”

Carey made highlight films for her soccer team. They spoofed popular music video countdown shows on MTV and set great plays to soundtracks featuring Steve Earle and Snoop Dogg. The team loved them. In her benchriding seasons, Carey twice won her team’s award for “most inspirational player.”

“Being on that team was one of the most influential experiences of my life,” she says. “There’s something special when your team loses horribly together.”

In December 1997, she graduated and soon after went skiing at Snowbowl. Carrying a video camera down a run, she fell and tore a ligament in her knee. Her injury forced her to take a break from sports.  

So she tried something new. A comedy troupe called Bob’s Family Improv Group, inspired by Chicago’s Second City, staged shows inside the woody confines of downtown Missoula’s Old Post Pub. Carey joined.

“All of a sudden I found an improv group in Montana,” Carey says. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

Downtown Missoula then was a nursery of talent that would soon take the national stage. The band Tarkio, featuring Colin Meloy—who would go on to become the lead singer and songwriter for the Decemberists—performed down the block from Carey. So did ska band The Skoidats, who later toured the U.S. Walking the streets after shows, Carey was stopped by strangers who told her she had made them laugh.

“The crowd was so nice,” Carey says. “Missoula had such a fun scene. Tarkio was a band that played at that time, and at the Top Hat, whatever that weird reggae-ish band was—probably a ska band—it was kind of cool to feel a part of that community.”

Bob’s did weird gigs in small-town bars across Idaho and Montana. When they came home to Missoula, Carey’s soccer friends sipped margaritas and marveled at how their teammate morphed so easily into a comic actor.Carey works with Aubrey Plaza on the set of The To Do List. Carey wrote and directed the film, a comedy set in early-1990s Boise. (Photo by Sam Urdank)

“I was just so impressed, because that takes a lot of guts,” says teammate Young. “That was the launch point for her getting into comedy.”

Carey was inspired by the American independent film surge of the late 1990s. Movies such as Clerks and the Blair Witch Project became hits, and cinephiles raved about the Sundance Film Festival. Carey thought about moving to Los Angeles to work in movies but opted instead to go to film school in Austin, Texas.

“Texas is hot, and I still acted like I was in Missoula,” Carey says. “I ran and I rode my bike, and people looked at me like I was crazy. And I was crazy, because it was awful.”

She wasn’t done with Missoula, though. The starter for the first Griz soccer team came back in the summers to make a documentary for MontanaPBS about pioneer women who homesteaded in the Sun River Valley.

“She wanted to tell stories,” says Ray Ekness, a UM journalism professor and PBS producer. “I don’t think it mattered if they were serious, if they were funny. She’s just a natural storyteller—she sees everything.”

Carey’s husband, Bill Hader, left, Carey, Clark Gregg, and Plaza attend the Las Vegas premiere of The To Do List. (Photo by Alex Berliner)Carey used her eye for detail and knack for skewering settings from her past when she moved to L.A. after getting her M.F.A. in Texas. She started making comedies. For HBO’s Funny or Die Presents, she wrote and directed a series about hardcore soccer referees called Lady Refs. For a Web series for Warner Bros., she made skits about a soccer mom who hosts a talk show while running errands in her minivan, called The Jeannie Tate Show. Carey’s success earned her an opportunity to make her first full-length movie, The To Do List.

She created a main character named Brandy Klark, an overachieving teenage lifeguard from Boise who decorates her bedroom with pictures of Hillary Clinton. Sound familiar?

Filmed in less than a month for around a million dollars, The To Do List starred two comedians borrowed from hit NBC shows. From Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza, whom Carey befriended in an improv class. And from Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader, better known to the world as his flighty character Stefon—better known to Carey as her husband since 2006 and father of their two daughters.

“It’s just like being at home,” Hader says of making movies with Carey. “She tells me to do something and I have no choice but to say, ‘Yes, dear.’”

Movie executives released The To Do List in the middle of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. Coach Duerksen and a half-dozen Griz teammates traveled to Los Angeles for the red-carpet premiere. Some critics panned the film for its raunch, showing Klark’s clumsy quest to lose her virginity, but The To Do List held its own against megabuck blockbusters like The Wolverine, Iron Man 3, and Man of Steel. It earned Carey an opportunity to make another.

Carey says her working title for her next film is “The Underdog Women’s College Soccer Movie.”

“It’s unique,” she says. “I don’t think you hear a lot of stories from women athletes.”

The plot is still under wraps, and Carey says she doesn’t know if it will film on location in Missoula or in L.A. But she revealed that Hader will play a role. And she has lists of vivid details from her days at UM: an oxygen mask, egg goo, a soccer goal on a coach’s lawn, benchriding, Ed Vedder.

When asked which ones might appear in the movie, Carey offers one hint.

“Men’s football sweatpants,” she says with a laugh.

Web Exclusive

Q & A with Maggie Carey

Why did you come to the University of Montana, and what was your impression of Missoula?

I was recruited by UM. They had just started their Division I soccer program, and I really wanted to play college soccer. Once I visited the campus I fell in love. Missoula is such a cool, fun, liberal town. I love skiing, too. That was definitely a draw. And the M, which, sadly, with my soccer team, we ended up running quite a bit.

What was it like at the beginning of the women’s soccer program, back when you had to practice at Fort Missoula?

It was intimidating. There was not a soccer community in Montana. We were really the forgotten child of the athletic department. But we had the most loyal, awesome, group of guys who were diehard soccer fans. They would come and dress up and beat drums and they were also always incredibly smart. They wouldn’t just harass the other team; they would have these really witty comments. I wish I could remember some of their names.

What did you major in?

I’d look at the course book every semester and see what looked interesting. I usually took women’s issues classes. I was late to declare a major. I had the most credits in English, so I ended up graduating with a degree in English literature. My mother said, “You need to pick a major. You need to graduate.”

You also had an interest in film, right?

I took broadcast journalism. I just wanted to work a camera. I had no interest in working in news. I worked at the PBS station my third year there. When you grow up in Idaho, there’s not a lot of access to filmmakers or the industry. So, I started working at the PBS station in Montana. I used what they had, and I ended up directing a documentary about women homesteaders in Montana.

Was it odd to go from documentary to comedy?

I think I’ve always had my sense of humor, so that wasn’'t much of a jump. I made the highlight videos for my soccer team, so that was part of this culmination. I ended up, my last year there, riding the bench. So I made the highlight video instead of playing.

Tell me about the first comedy troupe you joined, Bob’s Family Improv Group, in Missoula.

I didn’t tell anyone I auditioned. I’d always been a fan of Second City in Chicago, but we didn’t have access to (improv) in Idaho. All of the sudden, I found an improv group in Montana.

What was it like?

I was with Bob’s for a year. I feel like we did shows twice a month at the Old Post, and we sort of toured around. We got paid to perform in bars, and that could cover my rent in Missoula, which was probably like $200. We went to a lot of tiny towns in Montana and Idaho. People were a little bit starved for any kind of alternative entertainment. It was easy to book shows. It wasn’t easy to get people out.

Do you remember any skits that you did?

No, and I don’t think they were worth remembering.

But you were fascinated with improv?

I always had been. In the 1990s a book about Second City came out and everybody got it for Christmas that year. That book just kind of stayed with me. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City, when I started at the Upright Citizens Brigade, that I really understood improv and what it could be. There’s a real philosophy behind it. I had to take classes, study it, do longform improv, which had really helped my writing. It was good to be in a college improv group, and even better to move to a city where there’s a real passion for improv.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Probably I wanted to be Hillary Clinton, whom I still admire. I definitely wanted to be a director—I just didn’t know how to get there. And I always had an interest in writing. I loved documentary and storytelling.

Tell me about your decision to go to film school in Austin.

I stayed in Missoula for a year while I applied to grad school. It was either go to film school or move to L.A. Clerks had just come out, and Kevin Smith talked about this film school he went to in Vancouver. This concept of film school was new to me. It seemed to make a lot of sense. I could go to school and find my voice. I really would have had no contacts in L.A. I don’t know what I would have done if I would have moved out there. So school made perfect sense.

I understand you’re still friends with a lot of your old teammates.

I’m really close with the soccer team. We have these reunions every year.

Some of the funniest parts of The To Do List were the little details, which I read were taken directly from your old high school diaries. What details from the first UM Lady Griz soccer teams can viewers expect in your new film?

We’ll still have bad hairstyles. And have no concept of fashion when we go out as a team.

Will it be filmed in Missoula?

It’s set in Montana. The To Do List was set in Idaho, but it was filmed in LA. So we’ll see.

Nate Schweber

Story by: Nate Schweber

Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist who graduated from UM’s School of Journalism in 2001. His work appears regularly in The New York Times, and he is the author of Fly Fishing Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places. He lives in Brooklyn and sings in a band called the New Heathens.

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