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 Nerve.com, 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
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
I have been to
Audiences are also more vocal and willing to laugh in
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
What was that called?
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