In her sophomore year of college, Nikki Glaser decided to transfer to the University of Kansas for one reason: to become a famous standup comedian.
“I wasn’t shy in class anymore like I’d been in high school. I knew what I wanted to do, so I was constantly working on material once I got to KU,” Glaser recalls.
She sought her parents’ support for this dicey new career path, but they had certain stipulations.
“They were like, ‘Just get a degree so we won’t freak out for you.’ A college degree was very important for them; it wasn’t for me. So I picked English because I’m fluent. I thought it would be the easiest to do.”
Glaser says her BS-ing skills came into play while pursuing her English degree. These would also serve her well in Hollywood.
“I don’t know that I read any of the books. I used SparkNotes online,” she says. “But it was a good experience because I learned how to write essays and stuff. College is good discipline. That’s what I learned there: pull an all-nighter, get it done and get an A. I’m the biggest procrastinator, and I learned how to be an efficient procrastinator.”
The plan worked. Or at least Glaser worked hard enough to make her success inevitable. Now the Cincinnati-born, St. Louis-raised performer reaches a much wider audience thanks to material that often earns an A for both clever innovation and sheer fearlessness.
Her Comedy Central series “Not Safe With Nikki Glaser” debuted in February and can be seen at 9 p.m. Tuesdays.
The network describes the show as “a free-form venue where comic and curious perv Nikki investigates the issues the rest of us are too timid to ask about through a mix of panel discussions, field pieces and social experiments. If there’s a sex or relationship topic that would make a normal TV host blush, Nikki will tackle it with an enthusiasm as shameless as it is entertaining.”
Some of her best-received comedy bits this season include attending a Donald Trump rally and asking supporters whether they’d perform a sex act on the candidate if it would guarantee his win. (A surprising amount of men agree without condition but refuse to consider the thought of such an action with rival Hillary Clinton if it would guarantee her loss.) Glaser also partners alongside fellow comedians such as Kristen Schaal and Kyle Kinane to feed dialogue via headsets to porn actors while they shoot a scene.
“Not Safe” often compels Glaser to tread in comedic waters few entertainers are willing to brave. But it’s the lanky blonde’s unfiltered throwdowns with her own anxieties that truly bolster the show’s appeal.
“I did a piece about how I used to be insecure about my vagina in college and how now I’m kind of owning it. But I had to describe my vagina to a bunch of people. Saying it while looking down the barrel of a camera, that was the hardest thing,” she says, defining her genitalia as looking less like Ariana Grande and more like nachos grande.
Sure, much of Glaser’s humor revolves around sex. Yet that’s not the only topic influencing her material.
“I’m talking a lot about dogs recently because I just got one,” says Glaser, calling from her home in Los Angeles. “But my favorite thing to tackle is misogyny and double standards with men and women. I’m not a bleeding-heart feminist, but I do like to call out that stuff in my act. It’s nice when you find a perspective that no one has hit on.”
As an example, she points to the presidential race. According to her, sexism is so ingrained in the culture that people don’t realize they’re being sexist.
“Hillary just got called out for wearing a $12,000 jacket or something,” she says. “Yeah, she’s a celebrity; that’s how she dresses. All these Trump supporters are like, ‘I can’t believe she wore a $12,000 jacket.’ Isn’t that why you like Trump? Because he’s rich? Ridiculous. Her clothing is constantly an object of discussion because she’s a woman.”
KC comedian rising
Comedy wasn’t always an object of discussion for Glaser. The 32-year-old originally attended the University of Colorado for a year before experiencing a revelation: She needed to pursue a fresh career path elsewhere.
“Nikki was a student in my first class ever at KU,” says Adam Desnoyers, who teaches creative writing at KU.
“Back then I used to make the students write the usual why-are-you-taking-this-class kind of note on the first day. She wrote something like: ‘I am taking this class because I want to be a comedian, and I hope it will help my comedy.’ She was hilarious the whole semester; the class adored her. At the end of the semester I said, ‘Let me know if you ever start performing and I’ll go see it.’ ”
And she did.
“When I saw her perform, I was stunned by how she transformed into this amazing presence onstage and how commanding she was,” Desnoyers says. “Even on the bad nights, when the audience just didn’t get her, she never cracked. I realized I was lucky to be able to witness her at this early point. You just knew she would be a comedian. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone so committed to something as Nikki was to comedy.”
Glaser explains, “I didn’t want to be a student. It was in my way of doing what I wanted to do. I was driving to Kansas City at night to do standup at Stanford and Sons and different open mics around town. I was always leaving Lawrence to do what I wanted to do.”
She admits her last name gave her an instant connection to Stanford and Sons, which was run by Craig Glazer — who, as the different spelling implies, is no relation.
“Craig would make a joke about it, like, ‘She’s my wife.’ It was a funny name to have in that town for sure. I loved Craig Glazer. He helped me out a lot. Say what you will about him, but he was always good to me,” she says.
“Nikki is going to be around for a long time,” says Stanford’s Glazer. “She’s very talented, and her writing skills — much like Ellen DeGeneres — are what will make her stand out from the other female stars. … Besides all the sex stuff, she has a really good insight into the ups and downs of being a young woman.”
The veteran club owner believes his former open-mic standout to be “as big as anybody in the comedy world right now.” As for her place in the local pantheon of entertainers, Glazer asks a simple question: “How many people from Kansas City have ever gotten their own TV show?”
Despite such recent success, Glaser yearns a bit for her KU days.
“There is so much to miss from the Midwest when you’re living in L.A.,” she says. “I miss a small college town and its peaceful Sundays — like when everyone is chill and Mass Street isn’t wild. I miss Aladdin Café. I worked there all during college. I just miss a nice Midwest town. Nice people. Pretty liberal. I miss the quietness of it.”
That time in jail
Glaser headed straight to L.A. upon graduating in 2006. While doing standup wherever and whenever possible, she supported herself as a nanny.
“Like if a director was in town shooting for a week, I would watch the kids,” she recalls. “But I don’t have the energy for kids. Every game I wanted to do with them was something I could nap through: ‘Let’s play morgue!’ ”
By 2010, she earned a nationwide audience as a semifinalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing.” This led to her first headlining TV gig as co-host and co-creator along with Sara Schaefer of “Nikki & Sara Live,” a late-night talk show on MTV.
That same year she began appearing on “Inside Amy Schumer,” right as the series’ star was becoming one of the most-renowned standups of the era.
“Amy is the same person onstage and off,” Glaser says. “Any time someone has an encounter with her and is like, ‘Amy Schumer’s a bitch,’ it’s because they were being annoying, and she’s always been that way if someone is annoying her. It’s not like she just became this person who has boundaries now that she’s a celebrity.”
Schumer is not the only celebrity comedian Glaser counts as a close pal.
Last year in a Star Preview cover story, actor and comedian T.J. Miller (“Deadpool,” HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) mentioned the bond he shared with fellow performers traveling on the Oddball Comedy Tour prior to a KC concert.
“I’m very close to these people,” he said. “I’ve even been to jail with some of these people.”
When pressed, he confessed that lucky individual was Glaser.
“He’s the perfect person to be locked up with,” Glaser says of the ordeal, which took place in New York six years ago.
“We were arrested for smoking pot in the street, right in front of a police precinct. It seemed like an undercover precinct because we were approached by undercover cops who were like, ‘Hands against the wall!’ We had almost no pot on us — just enough to share between us. We got locked up for the night. He was in the cell next to me. I couldn’t see him, but we could talk. He was so calming and sweet. He took care of all my legal bills; I was broke at the time. We all went to court together. He felt responsible, which he wasn’t. He totally took care of me. I owe a lot to T.J. Miller.”
That was Glaser’s last brush with incarceration, but it wasn’t her first.
“I did get arrested in Lawrence. I snuck into a hot tub at Jefferson Commons with a friend of mine who lived there at the time. The cops busted us. They were going to let us go but ran our names just to see if we had warrants. Of course I had a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket. But the thing is, I was positive I had paid the ticket.
“My friends bailed me out. Then I went to the precinct the next day and told (the officers) I got arrested for a parking ticket I already paid. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. We forgot to enter it right.’ They didn’t give me any compensation for my time or tears, obviously. So there’s a Kansas mugshot of me somewhere with a wet head, just out of a hot tub, with tears on my face.”
Emotionally recovered and now fulfilling her dream of dispensing comedy for a living, Glaser has focused attention back on her personal self. She places importance on therapy and self-help programs in hopes of bettering her psyche.
“I’m not one of these comedians who believes you have to be depressed and neurotic to be funny,” Glaser says. “I want to be my happiest self.”
So is she happy?
“I’m much happier just because I know who I am. I’m confident in what I believe and what my comedy stands for. That in and of itself makes me a happier person. The recognition does not make you happier. I’m in a good place because I’m not recognizable, but I have a TV show,” she says.
“If I stayed this recognizable and this successful, I would remain very happy. I feel like I’ve made it.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”