Sunday, August 30, 2009

Agorafabulous! An Interview with Sara Benincasa

In the next on our continuing series of awesome fucking interviews with awesome fucking comedians, Wisecrack sat down with comedian, writer, and talk-show host Sara Benincasa in advance of her September 19th one-woman show at Chicago's Playground Theater.

Benincasa has been a fixture in New York comedy circles for the last few years, ever since the debut of her talk show "Tub Talk With Sara B." on, wherein she interviewed comedians and humorists in her bathtub. Seriously, who doesn't like half-naked comedians?

Since then, she's been working steadily, if not furiously, developing two one-woman shows, hosting Cosmo's "Get in Bed" sex advice show on Sirius Radio, and, most notoriously, skewering Sarah (with an "H!") Palin in a series of YouTube "vlogs" that eventually merited an interview with Jeanne Moos for Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room on CNN. She will be in Chicago on September 19th, performing her most recent show, "Agorafabulous," at The Playground Theater.

I figured I’d start with the heavy stuff. What fascinates me most about your career is your transition from anxiety and mental illness to performance. Could you tell me a little bit about how that came about?

Good question. I recognize that it seems sort of…there was a lot that went into it, there were many years of hard work that went into being able to leave my house (laughs). There was a bad bout of agoraphobia. I had trouble with panic attacks for a long time, starting when I was about ten years old. It didn’t pose a debilitating problem until I was in high school. Nothing that I couldn’t manage. It happened in a big way for the first time when I was 18; [Agorafabulous] talks about what happened when I was 21. When it became actually debilitating was when I was 21 in college, when I had a nervous breakdown. I wasn’t doing normal things like showering, leaving the room, things like that. That was the lowest point for me (I’m 28 now). So what happened then is my parents came and got me and I started doing intensive cognitive behavioral therapy. Basically, reprogramming yourself when you’ve been programmed with ideas that are going to hurt you. Cognitive behavioral therapy is for people that suffer from anxiety from all levels. Because you get actual homework, and you practice things you’re afraid of, you take baby steps, like in What About Bob, except Bill Murray isn’t there. Richard Dreyfuss helped me a lot. We’re married now.

So I started some intensive therapy. But then I started doing more real world things, got a job, applied to college. I’ve been doing therapy on and off since then. I think I’ve probably had four solidly healthy years since I was 24; the years from 21 to 24 were a building process.

I was not a performer at the time, and the way I became one was I went to grad school for a high school education degree, and I was unhappy, and a friend from Comedy Central told me I was funny and I should go into comedy. I started to do it to blow off steam in 2006, and I completed my masters and didn’t want to teach, so I began performing at nights, and doing pretty well, and then I got in the tub for Nerve, and then the radio show, and suddenly I’ve been making a real living at comedy for a year now.

Would you say your experiences with mental illness and your work in comedy are related? Do they draw on each other?

I actually found [performance] to be really liberating and exciting. I still have agoraphobic tendencies; it’s just managed. When I was 21 or 23 I was suicidal, and what I took from those experiences was a deep gratitude at being alive, and I wanted to just fucking do things before my time is done. And when my friend recommended comedy to me, it seemed like something to do while I have time. A lot of shit that I do is based around the fact that I want to be an interesting grandmother, so I can tell my grandkids how cool I was. A lot of stuff that I do is really interesting and exciting, I tell myself in New York that a long time ago “You peed in cereal bowls because you were too scared to leave the room and you slept for sixteen hours.” So since I’ve beat that, I can look at that and say, “performing isn’t as bad as that; you can do this.” In a way, it’s affirming to tell stories on a stage and be a human instead of being a doll.

So, does the humor function as a sort of therapy, or is it like a new phase in your life?

I think it’s both. I don’t use performance as therapy; I pay someone for that. I have seen performers who use it as therapy, and I think it does a disservice to the audience. You didn’t pay to see these people do therapy, and whine and shriek at the audience. I mostly do political stuff, and I try and make my show funny.

On the other hand, comedy was once a therapy. Things I’d do when I was in my house for 16 hours, I’d watch these shows with Margaret Cho and John Leguizamo and I’d listen to their CDs, and it made me feel like maybe, one day, things would be better. And I didn’t know I wanted to be a performer, but it showed me there was a way out of this shit, so now I want to be one of those voices to show that fucked up shit is something to escape, and so I created Agorafabulous to show what can be done.

You mentioned doing political stuff; would you say you’re a feminist comedian?

Feminism is woven into what I do. As a female performer you have to work hard to prove that you’re funny.

How do you do that? How do you work hard?

First of all, I deal with it by not talking about my period. Well, I think the way to deal with it is by being one hundred percent fucking funny. If your period is hilarious to you, then do some shit about it.

Understand that even though you have a vajayjay, and most people in comedy don’t have a vajayjay, you can talk about all kinds of things. I talk abut being crazy, you can talk about anything under the sun. As a female some people are going to have preconceived notions about who you are and what you’re going to do. Someone that doesn’t think bitches are funny isn’t going to change their mind, so I don’t worry about them. On the other hand, I love doing women’s shows, but I don’t want to get pegged doing women’s shows.

There’s a lot of casual misogyny in comedy because most male comedians were losers in high school and never got fucked in high school so as a female you have to deal with that, that you’re telling jokes to people that didn’t get fucked.

I should revise that: most comedians I know, male and female, are funny, smart, guarded, nerdy, and with good hearts. But you do meet those douchebags that resent that you’re a girl. When I was doing my Sarah Palin bits during the election, I got interviewed on CNN, and some guy told me, “Yeah, if I had tits like that I d get interviewed on CNN too.” What? I’m on CNN because I’m doing good comedy.

But I think most of the time, the takeaway pint is that sexism is there, but you can’t blame sexism if you don’t get cast in a certain part or you don’t get in a club. You just need to work with that and live with it. And sometimes it’s because you weren’t fucking funny, like you bombed. And sometimes it’s not because you were a girl.

Have there ever been instances where it’s something you have had to work through, where there’s been a rough show because of the attitude of the audience or other comedians?

I don’t think it’s something I have to work past. With certain crowds, that are full of bachelor parties, you’re gonna have to work for it a bit and these douchebags may turn into the best crowd you’ve ever had. But most mixed crowds, they just want to see you do your thing. If there’s a really hostile crowd, if there’s one drunk guy, that’s just going to happen.

No I don’t’ think female comedians have to prove anything extra unless the audience is soulless douchebags (brodogs, who read Maxim and join fraternities). Generally speaking, though, funny is funny is funny and they’ll put away whatever prejudice they have.

Have you ever found the opposite to be true, where the difficulties you faced become an asset?

I think it’s a real asset. Most comics you talk to, if you get past their exterior most of them have had some great difficulty whether they’ve dealt with racism or sexism or the death of their parents or a learning disability. There’s usually a reason people develop a sense of humor, and a lot times that reason is defensive. In comedy, you have a lot of former (or current) fat kids because they had to learn to deflect taunts with funny shit. I think it is an asset, some degree of fucked-upedness can be a source of great comedy.

On the other hand, I know a guy who’s super, super normal, who had a nice, easy upbringing, and is really happy, and a great comedian. But supernormal guy is really funny, because his life has been so normal he feels weird around his comedian friends.

So have you ever been to Chicago? What do you love about the city?

I have been to Chicago twice before, my best friend Alexandra Fox used to manage the Funky Buddha and perform at Second City. I loved it there and so I’m really excited to get to go and hang out in Chicago while it’s warm. I was just telling this gay British kid that Chicago is where you find the best comedy in the country. That’s where the best experimental genius shit is happening. I’m humbled to get to perform there with these geniuses.

Audiences are also more vocal and willing to laugh in Chicago. Oh, and Chicago also has really good hot dogs so I’m looking forward to that, too.

Oh, and before that, I used to be a competitive baton twirler. I was on the 1994 champion baton squad at the world championships in South Bend. We won.

What was that called?

Uhhhh. America’s Youth on Parade. (laughs).


Where to Catch "AGORAFABULOUS":

9/12- New York, 10pm, Switzerland Neutral Comedy ANNIVERSARY SHOW, Sage Theater

9/19- Chicago, 10pm, The Playground Theater GET TICKETS

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Comedian Sarah Millican on Edinburgh Comedy Awards lack of female nominees

The reason I wasn't selected is nothing to do with my gender. It's also not because my show isn't good. It's that it wasn't what the judges were looking for this year.

Last year, when I was nominated alongside Pippa Evans and Mike Wozniak for the best newcomer award, no one wondered why there was only one man. Is it that men just aren't very good at writing their first show? No, it's because the shows that Pippa, Mike and I wrote were popular among a group of people who happened to be judges.

Genuinely, if I had been on the list this year and had heard a whisper that I was there because of box-ticking tokenism, I would have wanted to be removed from the list. I am not female: I am a comedian. I want to be judged alongside other comedians on merit, not on gender.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

More Humor Research: Aggression and Joking

Photo by JoF

German scholars have published a study in the Journal of Pragmatics stating that humor plays a significant role in establishing social hierarchy.

This study basically reiterates what feminist humor scholars have been saying all along: The power dynamics of gender dictate and guide the use of humor. From Ben Leach's great piece in the Telegraph:

The theory explains why until recently it has been extremely rare for women to tell jokes in front of men, according to Helga Kotthoff of the Frieburg University of Education.

She said: "Those 'on top' are freer to make others laugh. They are also freer to be more aggressive and a lot of what is funny is making jokes at someone else's expense.

"Displaying humour means taking control of the situation from those higher up the hierarchy and this is risky for people of lower status, which before the 1960s meant women rarely made other people laugh - they couldn't afford to.

"Comedy and satire are based on aggressiveness and not being nice," she said. "Until the 1960s it was seen as unladylike to be funny. But even now women tend to prefer telling jokes at their own expense and men tend to prefer telling jokes at other people's expense."
Throw other factors such as age and race into the mix, and you've got yourself a recipe for who and how humor is used among different groups to define social identity politics. These relationships aren't static- they shift and evolve. Just as joking can assert dominance and oppress others, it can renegotiate dynamics and empower marginalized groups.

What I like about this study is that it brings attention to the importance of power in comedy. Too often "joking" is quickly dismissed as trivial and irrelevant to real world issues. Studies like these help people take comedy's impact more seriously.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Diane Keaton Stars in Feminist Porn-Themed HBO Show

by Anna Piontek

Diane Keaton--beacon of civility, Oscar winner, and delight--is slated to star in a new HBO series about her starting a porn mag for women. The so-far-so-untitled show will be produced by Keaton and a production team consisting of Marti Noxon and Dawn Parouse Olmstead.

Marti Noxon, for anyone who gives a hoot, is a former Buffy writer, and apparently grew up with a radical feminist mama. The Hollywood Reporter does some apologies for this fact by cherry-picking this quote from Noxon: "I wanted to be a gal, I was very interested in men, and I wanted to shave my legs." PHEW! We don't want this show to be *too* feminist, do we? If her writing for Buffy is any indication of her skills, though, Noxon is as top-notch a feminist as Hollywood can offer.

Reports say that Keaton will be portraying a Steinem-like feminist helming the magazine in an effort to rouse the sleepy Second (or Third?) Wave masses. That's really all we know of the premise. I'm interested to see how they pull it off, since I personally do not believe that sexually objectifying men = feminism, but hey, that's just one school of thought. My hunch is that they're taking the sexual liberation = feminism angle, which is fine.

Other than that, I think know what you're thinking: Diane? In television? Isn't she too classy?

Just comfort yourself that it's HBO, where many things, such as polygamy (Big Love), male prostitution (Hung), 'fang banging' (True Blood) and other fantastic and/or subversive sexualities are allowed and welcomed in the network's series. So the writers of Keaton's show just might go interesting places. The magazine at the center of the series may even shed light on something pop culture rarely allows us to see or understand: women's sexuality. I'm crossing my fingers!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"All women doing comedy are making feminist comedy, whether they choose to define it that way or not": A Chat With Margaret Cho

By Carrie Callahan

Holy shit! Margaret Cho let us interview her! If you are interested in feminist comedy and don't know the work of Cho, I hope your friends make the effort to visit you under your rock. Cho has toured the country to critical acclaim and sell out crowds with no less than 5 one woman shows: I'm the One That I Want, Notorious C.H.O., Revolution, State of Emergency, Assassin, and most recently Beautiful. She has been a tireless fighter for equal rights, touring with the True Colors Tour raising money for the Human Rights Campaign, singing at anti Prop 8 rallies, and marrying same sex couples in San Francisco (during the couple months you could do that).
She starred in the groundbreaking show All-American Girl, which was one of the first and so far one of the few American tv shows with a predominantly Asian-American cast. Cho has been open about both the upsides and downsides of that experience, including the intense pressure producers put on her to lose weight and how that landed her in the hospital. It's fitting then that Cho has returned to TV on a show that puts the issue of the policing of women's bodies front and center: Drop Dead Diva on Lifetime, in which thin and conventionally gorgeous model Deb is killed in a car crash and comes back to life in the body of plus size smartypants lawyer Jane.
Cho was cool enough to share her thoughts with us on how women can conquer the comedy world even when it tries so hard to keep us out.

When did you discover you loved doing standup and what do you love about it?

I think when I was 7 or 8 years old and I was watching a Richard Pryor comedy special. My dad was a big comedy fan, and he loved Richard Pryor and George Carlin. I’d watch it with them and I didn’t really understand what was going on, but as soon as I saw it was making my dad laugh a lot, I sort of figured out what I was. I recognized it as something I was going to do. When I was a kid I had really vivid dreams about doing standup comedy, and it’s weird, sometimes when I’m onstage and I’m performing I really feel the memory of those dreams, like it was kind of a premonition of what I would eventually come to do when I was 16 years old. Even before that; when I was 14 or 15 I was going around to comedy clubs but I actually started working at comedy professionally at 16.
There’s a lot of things that I love about it. It is the job that I have to do. You’re a comic right? So you have to do it. When you think of something funny it’s like “oh you have to do this!”


I can’t not do this, I have to do this somehow, so you devise a way and that is anyone from an open mic-er to somebody like Joan Rivers. As soon as they think of something funny they have to do it onstage, they can’t wait.

What advice would you give to 15 year old Margaret Cho about her career coming up and what was going to face her?

That everything was going to turn out fine and not to worry about it. Because the comedy world is so male dominated, you really have to fight to get stage time, you have to fight to get support. That it’s not going to be easy but it’s going to be rewarding and it’s all going to be ok. When I started it was hard to break into this boy’s club, and standup comedy remains a boy’s club regardless of how many women are successful in it. The way the industry is set up it’s so much more supportive of the men than the women, so I think the most important thing as a female in comedy is to have your own support network that is not reliant upon the men in comedy that you’re coming into contact with. Another bit of advice would be to not listen to guys, because guys are mean about standup comedy and women. They’re just not supportive. So don’t listen to their criticism, don’t take their shit, and try not to have sex with all of them. I did that, but it’s hard not to do.

How do you build that support network?

I think it’s reaching out to female comics, befriending female comics, creating alliances with female comics, and making sure you build that community, which is what I did when I was starting. I built that community with people like Janeane Garofalo, and Kathy Griffin, and then people who were more established helped us a lot. People like Roseanne and Rosie O’Donnell both gave me and Janeane a big leg up when we were starting. The women in comedy generally need to be more supportive of each other. There’s a history of it, but there needs to be more.

What are you most excited about with being a part of Drop Dead Diva?

I love the show and the concept, and I think the acting is so good. I especially admire Brooke Elliott so much (who plays Jane/Deb). She’s so incredible. The writing is great. It’s the kind of show that I really believe in because it talks about these issues of women and their bodies and it’s very female supportive and female centric and I think it’s important to have images of real women out there. Even though it’s a fantastical premise for a show, it’s got the realest people, so I love that.

It’s striking how much of your career had been about visibility for people who are not represented on tv, and I was wondering when you realized that visibility was a political thing, that it was about who was in power?

I think that’s something I understood early on. Growing up as sort of a latchkey kid I watched a lot of television, television was sort of my babysitter, and so never seeing Asian-American people on tv was jarring. I realized when I was 5 or 6 that I wasn’t white and that really is weird, when you go, “Oh, I’m not white and I don’t see anybody like me out there at all;” that’s fucking weird. Especially when you want to go into a career like show business and then never seeing any images of yourself out there, it’s pretty hard to feel like you can actually accomplish anything, or get anything out there, or get anything done. Which is why I am so proud when I’m out doing comedy and Asian American comics and actors come up to me and say, “You’re the reason why I do this, because I saw you, and I felt so inspired, and I felt like it was possible.” That’s really important and if I can say, “oh this is my greatest achievement,” that would be it, that I gave other people the permission to do what they do. They saw my example and they followed it, and that’s the greatest thing I could have ever done.

That must be really hardcore to have that relationship with people.

It’s really good. It’s really empowering, for them and for me, I’m so happy and glad we’re able to have that.

I gotta think “Drop Dead Diva” is pretty special, that you aren’t approached by lots and lots of projects that promote visibility for people who don’t usually get it.


Are there more projects like this? What stops there being more inclusive projects in the entertainment?

I don’t know. Who knows? Because when you do see it it definitely becomes very popular. “Drop Dead Diva” is already a huge hit. It’s clear that there’s a need for this kind of programming and a need for this kind of visibility. I’m not sure. I just hope that Hollywood can catch up with this idea of doing things that are really needed.

Obviously you have a million years of career left, but how would you like to feel looking back on the entirety of your work?

That it was fun. That people laughed. It’s such a beautiful thing to make people laugh; it’s such a simple and beautiful pleasure. To continue to be relevant, and to be strong, and good. Ultimately, I just want to be a good comic. I think all comics, that’s our goal; we just want to be good. For comics it’s a very special definition, we all have our own definition of what that is.

What does your definition of good look like? Does it look like Richard Pryor or George Carlin or someone else?

It looks George Carlin, it looks like Richard Pryor, it looks like Roseanne. She’s so cool, she’s someone who has come back and done a bunch of different kinds of stuff. She’s incredible. Joan Rivers is the ultimate, because she’s got such a great work ethic, and she can do everything, she’s an icon. She’s 74 and she rocks it, the filthiest material- you can’t believe how filthy her material is- and just rocks it. It’s so bad-ass. She’s so sweet and fun and I admire her so much because she was there doing it before all of us, when there were no women at all. She was rocking it in the sixties. She’s an incredible force and someone I really look up to. To me, you’re killing it if you’re still rocking so hard in your seventies. It’s beautiful.

Besides “Drop Dead Diva” what can we look forward to from you?

I’m working on a comedy album now. I’ll be recording that in the fall. It’s going to be a different kind of record, it’s a compilation of the music that I’ve been doing for the last five years. Comedy songs. I had a song in my last special, “Beautiful,”and then I had another song that broke out of my other show “The Sensuous Woman,” which was my big variety show. I’m working with other musicians, like John Brion, Grant Lee Phillips, Patti Griffin, and Peaches.

Do you consider your comedy a feminist act? What does feminist comedy look like to you?

All women doing comedy are making feminist comedy, whether they choose to define it that way or not. Being a comedian and a woman is a feminist act, because there are so few women in comedy, because the environment in general for women in comedy is fairly hostile. Not just from the audience point of view, but from the other comedians. For a woman to be a successful comic, you have to be twenty times better than any dude. That’s just a given. You have to be so much better than any guy to get anywhere. To get any stage time you have to be killing it. It’s a hard thing. Feminism and comedy, within comedy, it’s synonymous, you can’t have one without the other. Women who don’t identify as feminists, I think that’s weird, but if you’re a comic you’re a feminist.

Because I’m a comedian what you said about hostility from the audience really intrigues me. I’ve felt hostility from audiences; how do you get over that? How do you win them over?

You just deal with it. You’ll have hostility. Audiences have hostility towards female comics for a number of reasons, like if you’re too pretty they’re like, “Oh she’s not gonna be any good.” It’s just kinda like, you never get a break and it’s very weird, and you have to overcome it, but what’s great about it is it’s gonna make you a better comic tomorrow anyway. But it’s something you have to endure, and for one reason or another women have the hardest time. I find that especially attractive women have the hardest time of all. Society has a real idea of what comedy looks like. Attractive women are automatically discounted, so it’s a very tough thing to overcome. My favorite comics, interestingly, are the most attractive. My favorites are people like Sarah Silverman and Felicia Michaels. Have you heard of her? She’s incredible, she was a Playboy model and she’s hilarious, she’s so funny, you can get her stuff on Itunes. You guys should do a story on her. I think Sarah Silverman learned a lot from Felicia.

I want to thank you so much. As a comedian this was a really cool talk for me. Hearing you say things that match up with my experience makes me feel not crazy and that’s wonderful of you.

And you’re not crazy. It’s a really hard business for women but you should stick with it because it’s so rewarding, and it’s great. You just can’t get support from the guys, which is really heartbreaking at first, but then, who cares?

Drop Dead Diva airs 9 pm est on Lifetime, go here to watch all the episodes for free, and may I recommend their discussion guide.