St. Mike’s alum Tina Friml ’16 talks about her debut on the Tonight Show

December 15, 2023
Cat Cutillo
Social Media and Community Content Specialist

Tina Friml ’16 just reached another pinnacle. Last month, the comedian performed on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, unleashing six minutes of standup that captured her life as a disabled person, her Vermont roots, and her childhood love of the rapper Drake’s role on the television show Degrassi.

“You never feel 100% ready,” Friml said in a recent phone interview about the milestone. “It was one of those moments where you climb over a mountain, and you look back and say ‘I just did that. Somehow, I made it.’”

Photo credit: Todd Owyoung/NBC

It was not the first high-stakes moment in her comedy career. That was something she kept reminding herself of before her broadcast television debut.

Back in 2018, when she was still a comedian in Vermont, Friml won Vermont’s Funniest Comedian competition at the Vermont Comedy Club, which gained her entry into an audition for “Just for Laughs” new faces showcase in New York. There, she was selected to go to Montreal with 11 other people to do a comedy routine to a theater full of producers, show bookers and agents.

“I always call it the Olympic Moment. You’ve prepared many, many hours for these five minutes,” Friml said. In the moments before she appeared on the Tonight Show last month, Friml said, “I kept on thinking ‘I’ve done this before.’…even though it feels like I haven’t.”

As Friml retraced her steps over the phone call with Saint Michael’s to explain how she landed on that stage, there is still disbelief in her voice.

“It’s a story that I’ll be telling for the rest of my life,” she said.

Friml’s parents were visiting her in Manhattan to cheer her up after a rough week. Friml treated them to a show at the Comedy Cellar where she was performing when Jimmy Fallon just happened to sit down next to her before she went on stage. It turned out, Fallon had been having dinner next door when he decided to drop into the Comedy Cellar for a laugh. Friml and Fallon had a lot in common she learned. Fallon is from upstate, New York, where he began comedy.

“It’s pretty wild having to say to Jimmy Fallon, ‘I’m so sorry. I have to go up on stage now’ and he said, ‘go kill it!’” Friml recalled.

After her set, Fallon gave her a big hug and pointed out his favorite jokes she delivered. Later that night, she watched as Fallon and Chris Rock got on stage too. The next day, Fallon name-dropped Friml on his show and two weeks later, on November 17, she was standing on his stage delivering her act.

Photo credit: Todd Owyoung/NBC

From the Tonight Show stage last month, she said, “I get that I’m unconventional. I’m disabled, but I’m not totally committed to the lifestyle. A lot of people when they see me, they think I suffer from cerebral palsy, which I don’t. I have cerebral palsy. I suffer from people,” she dead-panned.

The Tonight Show audience erupted with laughter and clapping. Backstage, Friml had her entourage, which included her mom and dad and her Saint Michael’s first-year college roommate, Madeleine Caron ’16, with whom Friml is still close.

When Friml began comedy, she said, “a lot of the jokes I had were retroactive. They were things that had been going around in my head for years and finally I had a reason to say them out loud. A lot of those became the fundamental jokes that my comedy career kind of built itself on.”

Photo credit: Todd Owyoung/NBC

Growing up in New Haven, Friml said she lived in theater rehearsals as a kid “sitting on a blanket in the corner eating pizza” while both her parents worked in the theater industry. Her mom was the box office manager for the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, and both her parents have been active in the Opera Company of Middlebury designing their sets.

But, Friml said, “Comedy was never on my radar. Until it was.”

At Saint Michael’s, she was a Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts (MJD) major, now called Digital Media and Communications.

“I value the education that I got at St. Mike’s in journalism and in media,” Friml said. “I talk about how in journalism the economy of words is such a big aspect of it, and that’s the same for jokes. How can you get a big point across in minimal words and make it clear?”

Friml said the seeds to her comedic success started during her senior year when she developed a love for British comedy.

“I remember watching it and thinking that making people laugh and getting paid for it is the best job in the world,” Friml said.

Friml came back to Saint Michael’s this past September to perform on-campus for students during Pride Week, which included disability pride. Taylor Galgay ’24 said watching Friml perform was an unforgettable moment. Galgay said she grew up with severe scoliosis, hearing impairment and Ehlers-Danlos.

Leaders of the Student Disability Advocacy Alliance and Common Ground posing with Tina Friml after her comedy show on campus September 2023 (Photo courtesy Taylor Galgay ’24)

“When Tina was performing, her bits deeply resonated with me. It felt like I was being seen, and like my experiences were being heard,” Galgay wrote in an email . “As a proud disabled woman, the unique lens I experience the world through brings my personal experience to everything I do. Representation matters.”

Friml said before trying comedy, she tried other avenues like writing to share her stories, but it didn’t sit right with her.

“It was received as tragedy and I always say, I’m not a tragedy. I’m just me,” Friml said. “Comedy really was the outlet to be able to speak some of my experience out loud and have people actually listen.”

Friml at Saint Michael’s in September (courtesy Taylor Galgay ’24)

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