In July 2019, comedian Heather McMahan was at a Lululemon-sponsored retreat in Malibu when she received a phone call that changed her life — following a suggestion from Maria Shriver (whom McMahan followed, also hosting the Absolutely not podcast, on Instagram), the Today show asked her to join Jenna Bush Hager as guest co-host of the fourth hour.
In her new comedy special, McMahan shares the full, unedited version of that story: when the invitation from Today came in and asked her to jump on a red-eye to New York while she was practically incapacitated by edibles. “They haven’t seen the special yet, but I know Jenna will love that part of the story,” McMahan said with a laugh on the eve of Son I never had‘s release. “Hoda is the coolest, but I’m sure she’ll say, wow, what a professional to come after the show after being high for three days.”
In the ensuing years, McMahan has returned to the morning show nearly a half-dozen times, between two sold-out stand-up tours and building her podcast audience. Son I never had, now streaming on Netflix, is a project she sees as reintroducing herself to new audiences. She tells stories about her childhood growing up in Atlanta, where she lost her father just a week after he was diagnosed with cancer – and of course, doing edibles with professional athletes. McMahan speaks below The Hollywood Reporter about all this.
Can you tell us something about the process of finding this special house? Did going out and selling it feel stressful?
I’ll be honest: As soon as I left the stage on the second night of filming, I breathed the biggest sigh of relief. I went into the corner and shed tears for 30 seconds. It felt so liberating to know I could do this. I’ve been doing my own stuff for so long, so to say, wow, I’m a producer? But then I had to sell it. (Laughs) But it was just you sending an email and hoping someone would open it. I wanted to work with Netflix from the beginning because for me it’s a rite of passage for a comedian to have a Netflix special. It was just the coolest thing that they were excited about it.
Did you have a plan B that you would have been happy with if Netflix had succeeded?
I was fine with spreading it into the ecosphere in any way. I wanted people to enjoy this special, and I wanted to show that you can open your own door to opportunity – and open doors for others. But when someone decided to invest in it financially, I of course accepted it.
Since you were shopping around a finished special, did that essentially eliminate a studio’s ability to take notes?
I’m sure there are caveats about the type of material they would use, but I haven’t experienced that. Listen, I’m a little green in the industry, so I don’t know if they usually have notes or let people change things. I remember I was in Italy to see Harry Styles, and I was at my favorite restaurant, Trattoria Parione, and I was downstairs in the wine cellar. I finally came out after four bottles of wine to have my little holiday smoke, and I have about a hundred missed calls from my managers and agents. I thought: this is it, my career is over. Those nude photos of me on my husband’s iPad have been leaked. But they called me to tell me that Netflix loved the special. I was so overwhelmed that I went back to the three couples I had just met at the restaurant and said, “Do you all want to go to the club to celebrate?”
I imagine you spent a lot of time in the editing booth, which is probably a new experience for someone who mainly does live shows – what was that like?
I am my own worst critic. There is nothing anyone will ever be able to say to me that I haven’t already thought of. There were days when I sat in the editing booth with my friend Jen Zaborowski, who directed the special, thinking, Oh God, I can’t wait to get my neck done. My tagline has always been “thick neck, thin ankles,” and my friend who does my botox also happens to be a plastic surgeon, and he recently told me it should be “loose skin, fat ankles.” But I also laughed my head off because the show is still very funny to me even after all this time.
In the intro of the show you will see your mother, Robin, who will be very familiar to your fans. Did you have to convince her to film that with you?
She demanded it even more. My family is so much a part of the special, so I wanted the introduction to reflect that. I’m like, someone needs to meet the only parent I have left. She really came alive when the cameras rolled, she was able to find her light. She looks like Liza Minnelli. A fun fact is that she took part in the very first season of Chef. But I’ve created a monster because we’re going to shoot my second special in a few weeks and Robin is already saying, “Who’s doing my glam?” I’m just like mom, you’re not in this.
Will your husband be in the next special?
The next special is basically an account of the first year of marriage, what people don’t tell you about having an international wedding, and what it was like going on a 30-day honeymoon. I think (my husband) Jeff wants to go into witness protection after this.
How did you choose the location? for the special shoot?
I chose the Lexington Opera House because – and this is incredibly cheesy – but I am an energetic person. I did a show there probably nine months before I shot the special and they had the friendliest staff and it really had a lot of energy. I also wanted it to be a more intimate location. I play the Chicago Theater, I play Radio City, and it’s completely different when you can see everyone’s faces in the audience. I also wanted the location to be southern, because for many people this is an introduction to who I am. I’m from the South and I wanted to tell stories about my super Southern dad.
I know this is early in the life of this special, but do you have any idea if its success could directly help you in other areas of your career?
Well, no one asked me to join the Illuminati, if that’s what you’re asking. But it is clear that work breeds work. Three years ago I put “Netflix comedy special” on my vision board, so I make no apology when I say this is a very personal victory for me. I just hope it opens more doors of opportunity.
What else is on your vision board that still needs to be accomplished?
My dream is to be more involved in television and film. I want to get into some character shit. I want to put on a wig. I’m ready for my Melissa-McCarthy-in-Bridesmaids moment. Put me in a Costco cardigan and some sensible sandals and just let me go.
Before you go, given what a vocal Delta loyalist you’ve become, I think people need to hear where you stand emotionally with the upcoming changes to SkyMiles…
Here’s the deal. I’m on the road so often that I’m one of those people who will end up spending whatever amount of money they ask for. But only because I do this for a living. But I think the changes are hard. I mean, I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Sky Club, so to think I might be limited to 10 times a year? I spend a lot of money, let a bitch get a cookie and a white wine. Don’t take that away from me. But listen, I’m so Delta loyal to a fault because I live in Atlanta, a hub. I will stay with them through the changes. I’m still praising Delta’s good word here, so if they really want to give back, they can make me 360.
Is there anything else you need to stay healthy on the road?
A high thread count. That’s what I spend my money on. I’m a St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton kind of girl. Shoutout Marriott Bonvoy. I need a shower with good water pressure, a mix of firm pillows and 24 hour room service. I’m the queen of two club sandwiches after returning from a night of shows.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Heather McMahan: Son I never had is currently streaming on Netflix.