Anyone familiar with Little House on the Prairie, the hit TV series (adapted from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books) that aired from 1974-1983, doubtless remembers the stuck-up, malicious Nellie Oleson. She wasn't the show's star but, boy, could she antagonize the hell out of good girl Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) and disrupt the overall serenity of Walnut Grove.
As the drawback of playing this bratty character, viewers hated Alison Arngrim offstage for most of her childhood. Her role led to constant skewering, name-calling and swearing from classmates and strangers alike.
"Thank God, with my family being in show business, I had a sense of separation between fantasy and reality," says Arngrim. "Otherwise, yikes, that would have been really confusing. I had people coming up to me in the streets saying they hated me."
Arngrim has long been able to laugh about the treatment she received. For approximately two decades, she has worked as a stand-up comedian, and she will be bringing her act to Charlotte for three performances at Petra's Piano Bar & Cabaret, Nov. 18-20.
In reality, Arngrim and Gilbert were close friends off the set. Their real-life rival, whom Arngrim refers to in her 2010 memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch as the real bitch of the show, was Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Laura's sister, Mary Ingalls.
Arngrim joined the cast of Little House on the Prairie at its start, when she was 12. She had previously worked as a model and TV commercial actress since the age of 6 but had hit a dry spot at 11. "Little House was my comeback," chuckles Arngrim, the daughter of Thor Arngrim, a Hollywood manager whose clients included Liberace and Debbie Reynolds, and Norma MacMillan, a television actress and voice performer.
During her Little House stint, Arngrim appeared as a guest star on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. She later became heavily involved in charity work on behalf of AIDS awareness and started doing stand-up comedy.
She was approached by a literary agent after a show and later penned Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, which received rave reviews from celebrities including Margaret Cho and Phyllis Diller, and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. In the book, Arngrim writes about life as a child star, offers behind-the-scenes stories from the Little House set, and details her emotional ordeal with childhood sexual abuse.
In tandem with her book signings, Arngrim has toured doing stand-up for the past three years. She hasn't spent all her time in the U.S., though. During half of this year alone, she's worked in France, where her fan base is rabid. The demand inspired her to adapt and translate the entirety of her show into French (Confessions d'une garce de la prairie).
Arngrim credits her popularity among the French to her villainous attitude; she says they also love Dallas and its antagonist, J.R. Ewing. But France isn't the only country hopping on the Little House bandwagon, as the show airs in 140 different countries.
"I've also gotten fan mail from China, and I've met people from Iraq, Iran, Israel, Borneo and Bangladesh who have seen every episode of the show," Arngrim says. Here in the States, interest remains high as well: There are annual festivals — Laura-Palooza in Minnesota and Prairie Days in Kansas.
The show's longtime fans surprise Arngrim. "I get people that are almost like Star Trek fans. They know obscure things about the plot that really no one should. They will come up to me and recite entire episodes. I feel like William Shatner talking to Trekkies. It's out of control."
In her stand-up show, Arngrim includes a Q&A session with the audience. As for the show's content, she says, "I'm not as bad as Kathy Griffin, who I love. She makes me look like Laura Ingalls or like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by comparison. It's definitely not G and not NC-17. It's between PG-13 and R.
"I think if Nellie lived today, she'd probably swear," Arngrim continues. "So, it sort of works in my case. You couldn't have Melissa Gilbert swear onstage, because people would have a heart attack. But if I say it, it's not so bad."