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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Queen of Comedy

Jul 31, 2016 12:00AM

By Melissa Chianta

There is a magic refrigerator at the office of Sebastopol mom (and our humor writer) Holly Hester. Write the name of any edible delight on the adjacent white board labeled “Grocery,” and, lickety-split, it appears in the fridge.

“The first thing I wrote on the board just to see if it would show up was this organic raw almond butter that’s at Whole Foods for $25 a jar and that I just won’t buy on principle. I checked and in an hour there it was. So then I started writing every single thing that I had been denying myself at Whole Foods for years—whatever, like chocolate-covered goji berries. And the magic refrigerator supplies them!” Hester exclaims.

Welcome to Hollywood, home of fridge genies and Hester’s new job writing for the ABC comedy Last Man Standing starring Tim Allen. Hester is no stranger to Tinsel Town. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she wrote for Ellen and was the executive producer of both The Drew Carey Show and (speaking of genies) Sabrina: The Teenage Witch.

Fueled by 60–80–hour workweeks, her career chugged along, and then in 2003, she had her first baby. One look at his cute face and she made the decision to abandon her hectic, super-plush lifestyle and become a full-time, regular ol’ middle-class mom.

“It was funny. [Before I had kids,] I really, really hated it when people would quit their careers to have babies. I thought that was so bad for women. How are we going to push ahead and rule the world if people keep quitting to have babies? I just didn’t understand. And then I had a baby, and I quit,” she says, laughing. “Now I understand.”

That was 13 years ago. In the interim, she and her husband, wine sales associate Bill Shortridge, moved to Sebastopol where she has been homeschooling her now three children—12-year-old Buck, ten-year-old Emerson, and six-year-old August—while tending an acre vineyard and raising 60 chickens.

Getting back into television writing was basically a financial move for Hester. “As you know, Sebastopol is very expensive,” she says. And though the salary is great, going back to Hollywood after a 13-year break has had its challenging moments.

“The first day I had to sit in the writers’ room, I was stone silent. I was absolutely terrified. I had this frozen, fake smile on my face. I didn’t even know what to say. I was just sweating,” she recounts. “People in writers’ rooms are so funny, and they are so sharp. And I thought, ‘I have been talking to children for 13 years. I can blow bubbles; I can jump off a trampoline. But I can’t jump into this conversation.’”

To make matters worse, her mostly male colleagues, not unlike her earlier self, were not impressed with how she had spent her Hollywood hiatus. When one welcomed her back from her 13-year “vacation,” she didn’t take it well.

“Oh my God! Cooking all day, no sleep, being spit up on, taking kids everywhere, just making sure they are safe,” that’s definitely been a vacation, she retorts.

After that inaugural session, she went home deflated, but she knew she had to rally. She gave the dismissive comments and her own self-critical thoughts the boot and called forth her former self.

“I used to be a really, really competitive person,” she explains. “I think there are 12 writers on the show, and there are only three women. [The men] have big voices; they’re really funny. A lot of them are comics. And way back when I felt very competitive, [I’d think,] ‘I’ll show you. I’m going to represent for all women. I’m going to get this joke first. All your preconceived notions about women—I’m going to dash them.’ But when I had children…I just put that whole side of myself away,” she explains.

She decided it was high time to bring back the sass and set out to show her colleagues not just what a woman could do, but what a mom could do—and a middle-class mom at that.

“One of my complaints when I lived [in Hollywood] the first time was that people were so wealthy, so out of touch with how people actually lived, it was difficult for them to write for television,” she says. Her colleagues would ask each other what people were doing in the “fly-over states,” those apparently insignificant parcels of land between Los Angeles and New York City.

Now, she says, she makes sure the perspective of everyday parent-folk is on the table. For instance, when her colleagues were plotting out a storyline in which the show’s college-age daughter quits school to volunteer, she asked the question nobody else had even thought of: How is she going to make money?

“Everybody looked at me: ‘What?’ And I [said,] ‘You know, how is she going to pay her phone bill? How is she going to pay her insurance? Money questions would be every parent’s question.’ And everyone [said,] ‘Oh. You’re right,’” Hester recounts.

While Hester has been keeping it real in the writers’ room, Los Angeles’s slick urban mystique has been turning her countrified kids’ world upside down.

“When I first took the kids [to Los Angeles], they were afraid to get on an escalator,” she says. “I was like, okay they’re Amish,” she says, chuckling.

“We pulled up in front of a restaurant, and my daughter said, ‘Mommy, there’s somebody standing by the car and [I said,] ‘Oh that’s a valet. They take your car and they park it. And [the kids said,] ‘But where? Why do they do that?’ [I said,] ‘Okay, everybody out of the car. I’ll explain in the restaurant,’” she recalls, amused.

After the buzz of escalators and valets wore off, they started going to “mind-blowing” exhibits at children’s museums with their dad. And with Hester’s miraculously light schedule, she sometimes has been able to go with them. But still, even with all of Hollywood’s curiosities, the slow hum of planting and growing, feeding and tending beckons. So on weekends, everyone heads back to the farm, where the quiet life embraces them.

“It sounds so silly, but pushing a wheelbarrow around, taking care of the animals, hanging out in nature—it just does so much for you. It’s so grounding and calming to your central nervous system. You’re so happy,” she says.

Ultimately, Hester would like to be able to work from home and just come to L. A. for meetings. But for now it’s hanging out in the land of writers’ rooms and magic refrigerators. Just write on the board: “brand new life.” And Bam! You’ve got it.   

Ms. Mirth’s Work

We’ve gotten such a kick out of publishing Holly Hester’s articles. Though Hester is very busy with her new job at ABC, she’s still going to provide us with some material now and then. Look for her essays in the “Humor Break” section of our magazine. In the meantime, check out these pieces she has already published with us.

To keep track of Hester, see her blog riotranch.com.