Arts Culture

Multi-hyphenate artist Mary Houlihan on painting, comedy, writing and more

"[I’m also playing] a squirrel on a cartoon, so that's, I guess, how I've been describing my life for the past year: living in this cabin, going into the city and recording squirrel stuff."

Mary Houlihan is an artist. Well, she’s a painter, comedian, animator, writer and actor, but she uses the term artist because it’s the only label broad enough to encompass all she does.

It’s rare that a person is able to marry their skills and passions—especially when they’re as many as Houlihan’s— and turn it into a living, but that’s exactly what she’s done. Houlihan has acted alongside Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner on the Hulu series Difficult People; created, wrote, animated and starred in Learn to Paint with Mary Houlihan, a mini-series produced by Comedy Central; and painted multiple works for the popular series Joe Pera Talks With You on Adult Swim (and HBO Max).

Lately, she’s been focusing on her brainchild, Mary Houlihan’s Painting Party, a show she livestreams from her cabin in the woods, where Houlihan and her dog hang out with special guests and create art according to a weekly theme. With over 90 episodes across two seasons, Painting Party provides viewers with a first-hand look into Houlihan’s creative mind and personality, and a unique opportunity to see practically all of her talents showcased at once in a relaxed, entertaining setting.

Originally from Bergen County, Houlihan moved back to New Jersey during the pandemic after roughly a decade spent living, working and performing in NYC. I talked with Houlihan recently about her many talents and atypical career, her return to the Garden State and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sometimes when I chat with an artist I’ll discover that they’re also really talented in another art form other than their primary focus, but I don’t know if any of them really have your range or are as prolific across multiple art forms. Did you always envision doing all that you do—writing, painting, animating, acting—all at the same time? 

I do have a distinct memory of being a kid and being asked, like, “What do you wanna do when you grow up?” and being like, “I wanna be a comedian and a voice actor, and then, you know, like everything else.” As an adult, I think that’s actually kind of foolish and probably hinders my professional growth… but it would be too hard to pick one thing at this point.

Painter, writer, comedian: Which facet of your work have you been dedicating the most time to lately?

Well, you can’t really perform comedy as much. I mean, they’re doing shows in New York again, but it still seems kind of sketchy. So, lately I’m definitely more into painting and visual art.

We’ve read your pieces in The New Yorker, seen your series and acting reel as well as the illustrations for Joe Pera. Which of these pursuits is the most challenging with regards to actually getting the opportunity and then producing the content?

I think writing is maybe the most challenging part of my career. Like… how do you get those jobs? Well, you write up a piece and you send it to the editor at The New Yorker, and then they say, “Great, we’ll publish it” or, “Oh, it was a fun read, maybe next time,” you know? So, yeah, I would think that maybe the writing feels more like stops and starts and it’s kind of hard to stay on something.

Mary Houlihan’s Painting Party seems like a really cool way to feature a lot of your many talents, but it also seems like a fun hang with your friends that folks get to sit in on—although I’m sure it takes a considerable amount of planning and production. What inspired you to start Painting Party

Well, I guess I was inspired during COVID. My pal Chris Gethard [the comedian behind “New Jersey Is the World”] had his channel “Planet Scum” and they hosted a bunch of different shows each night of the week; different comedy shows. So, Bryson Wallace, who was a producer at Planet Scum, reached out to me and said, “Do you have any ideas?” Well, I had just been doing an Instagram live thing that was very tech involved and had lots of animation and pressing buttons, so I told Bryson, “I think I would wanna do a show that’s in that YouTube genre with lo-fi beats to chill and relax to.” More of a show that people could get stoned to, a long-form hangout type of show. In art school, I feel like a big thing socially was when you would hang out with friends and just sit and draw and listen to music. But now… I don’t know. You would never think to do that if you’re not hanging out with all artists, but it’s a really fun, meditative thing to do. It’s nice to be able to share that with people who maybe haven’t thought of drawing in a group before.

How many people do you have involved with the show?

Well, when it was on Planet Scum, they had the staff of maybe like four or five producers that I would work with.They’d help me with emailing people or promoting stuff. There’d always be like one person during the show to be able to click transitions or press play on funny bits. Now the show is on my Twitch and my old producer from Planet Scum, Forrest, produces the new show and this girl, Alice, who was a super fan of the Planet Scum universe, also helps me produce and books for the show.

How do you pick guests?

On the old version of the show, I did all of the booking and I would reach out to friends who were artists or comedians, or just fun to gab with. I would try to pick two people who I don’t think have met before, but I feel like they would get along. I think I was really tired of the booking, though. It was too much to do on top of everything else; so, I was relieved when Alice offered to be a booker. I’ll give her a big list of comedians and famous people that we could ask who I already know and that sort of thing. Then she will reach out to artists that I’ve never heard of who she’s like, “You would really get along with them,” or, “They’re doing something cool you might not have heard of.” I’m glad she’s added that to the show.

I know you’ve been working a zine lately; can you talk about that and any other projects you might be spending time on?

Yeah, I’ve been working on a “Walden, but good” book. It’ll be kind of like a memoir type thing or a, “My first year moving to this weird cabin in New Jersey after being in the city”: similarities and differences, things that annoy me about each place and things that I like about each place. So, I’ve been working on that and it’s been driving me insane, haha… [I’m also playing] a squirrel on a cartoon, so that’s, I guess, how I’ve been describing my life for the past year: living in this cabin, going into the city and recording squirrel stuff. And then fixing up the house, fixing broken stuff and painting and streaming.

I’m sure you’ve had a lot of great moments and worked with some cool people thus far in your career but can you pinpoint one highlight or memory that stands out?

There was one time that I acted with Chazz Palminteri. I would say that was very noteworthy and it wasn’t even like a, “Wow, this guy’s my hero, I can’t wait to work with him.” It’s just that he was totally insane. Me and my friend, Colin Burgess, who’s also a comedian, were on the shoot and having to act opposite him and he’d just get every line insanely wrong. The sun set during the shoot and we had to re-film everything so that it would make sense. It was really crazy. Between every shot, when he totally gets the line wrong and chastises himself, me and my friends would just look at each other and be like, “Oh my God.” 

You were in the city for the better part of a decade but have since moved back to Jersey. What brought about the move and what’s it like being back?

At the very end of 2020, I moved in with my parents in [Bergen County] New Jersey. So I was living there and not paying rent and having a blast. Then I met a guy who lived in [Passaic County] and he had this really cool house in the woods, and he said that it only cost like a $100,000. I was like, “Alright, I think we can swing that.” So then I was just sort of surfing Zillow for a while and found a cabin and said, “Oh my God, I’m gonna buy this!” I’ve been living in that cabin for a year now after being with my parents for like a year before that.

Living with my parents was kind of comfy. I just stayed in my childhood room and would go into the city to see my friends; so that’s why I was there for a while. I was like, “This isn’t bad. Why would I start paying more?” Then, moving to [the cabin], I think has been kind of harder or more of a culture shock, because I’ve never lived anywhere conservative or with Trump signs or any of that. I think sometimes when I’m walking around New York, I feel like I can blend into a crowd there, [but here] I just feel like everyone is staring at me and thinking, “What’s her deal?” 

Are you still getting back into the city a lot?

Yes, I’m actually in the city right now because I was going a little crazy. So, my boyfriend, we met in Brooklyn like 10 years ago, his childhood home is in West Milford (Passaic County). He moved back there when his dad died… to take care of things and take care of his mom. He still has his place in Brooklyn and [that’s where] I’m hiding now, so that I can go back to the woods renewed.

Would you say you’re living the life you dreamt of as a kid? Is there a dream job you’re still pursuing?

I feel like I’m living it, but I don’t feel like, income wise, I’m where I want to be. But I do like the idea of having a flexible schedule, being able to work at home and doing the painting commissions at home. Then, the voice-acting jobs are so cool because they don’t take as long as regular acting; you don’t have to wear makeup or get into a costume or anything, you just show up for an hour and read. I kind of feel like if I want to maybe have more of a homey life or have babies or something, it would be nice to allow myself to be an artist but still have a very flexible schedule and not be jet setting to Los Angeles or something.

So in one of the articles that you wrote for The New Yorker, you touched on navigating social media and how it has to play a role in your life as an artist. You seem to have figured out how to post in a tasteful and always funny way. Has your relationship with social media transformed at all? 

It’s complicated. I feel like I’m always trying to make peace with it or trying to figure out a way to make it work for me or not be on it more than I want to. A lot of comedians feel a need to be on it and I think it comes across as desperation in the stuff that they post, like, “Oh, I should put my face out there so people don’t forget about me!” I just think that’s so miserable and not the point of comedy and not why any of us wanted to do it in the first place. So, yeah, trying to figure out how to use it responsibly and not feel pressured into posting stuff that isn’t me. I really like Joe Pera’s approach of posting pictures of tomatoes.

That same New Yorker article was all about life advice for your younger self. Has life advice changed at all over time; is there anything different you would want to impart on your younger self, particularly since the pandemic?

I feel like I look back and I’m happy with the stuff I’ve made. I think sometimes I was cranky, but probably not to a bad degree. I think just general advice would be like, I don’t know if you’re doing the right thing because in any kind of art, there’s a million peers to compare yourself to. It’s easy to question yourself, “Should I be more like them? Should I, blah, blah, blah?” I don’t know, it’s just stupid to think that way because you’re going to be damned if you do, damned if you don’t. You’ll feel bad about yourself if you [second guess]… so just do exactly what you want. I don’t know if that’s very good advice, but I think it’s good for your mental health.

Follow Mary Houlihan on Instagram or check out her work here.