At Bradley Central High School and later at UTC, Karen Mills was a standout basketball player. In fact, she led the nation in assists in 1981 as a Lady Moc and was named to the All-America team.
Most people, herself included, figured that basketball would always be a part of her life. Coaching was not for her, however, so she looked elsewhere.
She eventually found herself onstage making people laugh. Today she makes her living entertaining people, primarily at conventions and corporate parties. She also works clubs and theaters and can be seen a couple of times a year at The Comedy Catch in Brainerd.
Q: How did you end up in comedy?
A: I was living in Atlanta at the time and kind of foundering. Everyone thought I would coach basketball. I love basketball, and I would have played until today — I loved it that much. But when I did my graduate assistantship, I didn’t love coaching as much as I thought I would.
I was doing the mortgage broker thing in Atlanta and knew I was missing something. I was taking acting classes, and whenever I would watch [Johnny] Carson on the “The Tonight Show,” I remember thinking “I can do that.” I finally got the courage to go to The Punchline and get up for an open mike. The manager really encouraged me and told me I could do this. I started working on my act and going back every week.
Q: What were you like growing up? I don’t see you as the class clown.
A: No. I wasn’t really a class clown. I just had fun. We did sketches and things like that. I loved drama class. We would do some little bit of the class clown stuff but we weren’t disruptive or anything like that.
I remember this one time a friend of mine hit me into the locker. We were just walking along in the hallway. I went to the school nurse and got her to wrap my head in bandages and then I went to next class. It was pretty funny.
When I was at UTC, every year before the season started they had a thing called Meet the Mocs with the Booster Club. They would have each team come and introduce the players and every year I would put something together. We’d do things like “Saturday Night Live” skits. Every year it was something different and entertaining.
One year an older gentleman in his 80s came up and asked me what I was gonna do with my life. He said, “You should be doing this.” I said that is all fun and games, but I have to make a living. I didn’t even see it as a reasonable possibility.
Q: Has your act changed much over the years?
A: The topics have changed. I talk a lot more about aging. I’m an observational comic. I talk about things that are real life. My style hasn’t changed much over the years.
Q: Tell me about the corporate shows you do. How long have you been doing them?
A: About 10 years. It’s a different animal. It’s a great thing to have. You have to be a clean comic, first of all. The biggest challenge is when people are there with their boss, they are not quite as open. They are more conservative, but they are a great and appreciative audience.
Q: Do you find you have to read more to be aware of what is going on in the industry you are performing for?
A: The first thing I do when I am booked is go to their website and look for material. I try to be topical. I did the Alabama Homebuilders Association last year and it was a Christmas party and I went in and I said, “I know you are expecting me to do an hour of comedy and I am going to. But, right now I can only do 15 minutes because I have another job across town, but I promise I will be back.”
I said, “I wanted to write some special jokes just for you guys, but my set up guys didn’t get the material to the punchline guys and the punchline guys can’t write a punchline without a set up. These subcontractors are killing me.”
Q: I heard you once tell (fellow comic) Janet Williams the difference between a comic and a comedian. What was that again?
A: A comic says funny things and a comedian says things funny. My lines are funny. Janet Williams can tell you about going to the grocery store and have you crying. For me, it’s a craft that I work at. She and Leanne Morgan are just funny. You couldn’t steal their material, for example, because it’s the way they tell it.
Q: Comedians are the least fun to interview. They are usually very serious and not remotely funny. It’s not a bad thing. Just the way it is.
A: Isn’t that something? People say to me “You’re a comedian?” because I’m not on all the time. We do have a serious side. When I am not on stage, I am worried about saving all of the animals.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...