• Emily Heller: Comedians should talk about money more (Interview)

    If you haven’t heard of Emily Heller before, it’s high time that you do. Whether she’s playfully grilling experts on her podcast Baby Geniuses (alongside cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt), sharing bits of her comedic brain on Late Night with Seth Meyers, or spilling words in the writer’s room for HBO’s Barry, Heller is 100% committed to keeping her comedy honest about just how bonkers it is to be a person. Fittingly, Heller’s new comedy album Pasta, which debuts November 19, dives headfirst into everything from the existential terror of Trumpism to the practicality of children on leashes, and why hot therapists are so good at their jobs.

    To celebrate her new album release, Heller spoke with Laughspin’s Bronwyn Isaac about how to express legitimate political fear in a funny way, how she found her way into the comedy world in the first place, and of course, which of her jokes are the most fuckable.

    If you had to fuck, marry, and kill three of your bits, which would they be and why?

    I guess if I had to fuck one of my jokes, it would be the one where I mention the existence of a penis. Most of them I don’t. If I had to marry one, I guess it would be the one about going to therapy, because I will need therapy of some kind after marrying a joke. If I had to kill one of my bits, I guess it would be anything about Trump being president, because I don’t understand how this magic you’re talking about works but I want to be optimistic about it!

    If you showed your 8-year-old self a picture of your life now, what do you think she would say?

    I think she’d be happy about everything. I’d have to ease her into the fact that I have, indeed, “done it” with a boy though. She would think that was gross. I don’t know what I wanted out of life at that age, but I think it was something a bit more serious than what I do now. Journalism, something like that. I don’t think she’d be disappointed, but I also think she’d want to know why I’m wearing glasses. That didn’t start until I was 17.

    What first catapulted you into stand-up comedy?

    I’ve always loved it, but I hadn’t thought about doing it myself until I took a class offered at UC Santa Cruz my senior year. That’s what made me think it could at the very least be a hobby. A friend of mine from that class invited me to start doing it at open mics with her, and it was just one step after another toward it until there were no other options left for me.

    I love how rather than scattering small Trump jokes into your whole album, you have one condensed Trump joke— like a Super Trump Bit. “Express Train” is very visual and writerly and builds into a longer and more absurd climax than many of your other jokes. Did the writing process feel different?

    Thank you! Well, this album is a combination of jokes I worked on from both before and after the [2016] election. I found it hard immediately to keep up with the news cycle around Trump, and while I think it’s super cathartic and valuable to make jokes about politics, I’ve only ever tried to make jokes about what’s personal to me. Sometimes that is politics, but when it is, I still try to look at my material like, “What’s the personal feeling underneath this, and what do I really want to say about this?” I wrote that bit when I was performing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia, just getting back into stand-up for the first time after the election. It was around March of 2017. I was on the “Americans” show and you could tell the audiences wanted us to address it, and I wrote that joke to try and explain why I didn’t know how to. Hannah Gadsby was working out Nanette in the time slot before our show, and being a big Please Like Me fan, I was excited to check it out. I loved it, and it made me think a lot about what it means to write a joke about something. What would it mean to write a joke that made people laugh about Trump being President? I’m fucking scared, and I don’t think we should calm down about it. It’s really a joke about how I can’t do it.

    What’s the weirdest response you’ve received from a live audience member who saw Pasta?

    The weirdest reaction I got was when I was telling the express train joke and a woman had a visceral negative reaction to the part of the joke where I take about a metaphorical killer whale being impaled. She was sitting in the front row, and she covered up her ears. She actually avoided listening to the rest of the joke. I confronted her about it, because she had been talking during another part of my set, and now she was doing this big performative show of covering up her ears, and it was super distracting. She claimed that she worked with whales and she was disturbed. Nevermind the fact that it’s a metaphor, I asked her if she wanted to move to one of the seats in the back. She took me up on it eventually, and the friend she came with stayed in front because she was tired of the woman talking during the show. It was a real Mariah Carey style, “I don’t know her,” moment.

    What inspired the album name Pasta?

    Pasta is a reference to a joke I tell toward the end of the album about dating. It’s a joke that I think sums up a lot of how I feel about romantic relationships in general, and it’s a vague reference to the guy I’m with now, too. Plus, I just thought the idea of having the cover be a portrait of me made out of pasta would be cool, and I was so right!

    In one of your jokes, you talk about the idea of “ice thickeners,” such as asking someone why they got married instead of when. Have you been successfully using ice thickeners in your daily life? If so, do you have an example?

    One thing I have been talking about more in public that I think makes people uncomfortable is money. Maria Bamford has been kind of a pioneer in financial transparency and I think it’s really healthy to talk about. A lot of the taboos we have around money are there to protect the wealthy. Wealthy people don’t want other people to know how much money they have because they don’t want to share it. But when I started making the big showbiz bucks, which happened really all of a sudden, it drove me crazy that some of my broke comedian friends would still insist on splitting the check. I don’t think money makes you better than anyone and I don’t think being broke is something to be ashamed of (easier said than done, I know). But I’ve been in situations where splitting the check would mean I had no money left. I think it’s good for comedians, especially, to compare quotes, cause we’re not unionized, and bookers rip people off all the time. My feeling is: if you know what I’m making, we can all figure out if what we’re making is fair. Knowing what certain jobs in show business pay also helps people evaluate the paths they want to take. When close friends are in trouble, they’ve asked me for help. That wouldn’t happen if I hadn’t been like, “Hey, I made X on this deal.”

    What’s the worst place you’ve performed while on tour?

    I played a dinky little club in a city I will not name. They not only paid me in cash, which was terrifying, but the guy who ran the club decided he was going to be my feature. He did half an hour of crowd work at every show, exhausting every question you could possibly ask the audience. He had a bunch of shitty pre-written crowd work jokes that were racist, sexist, and of course, killed. When I got onstage, I couldn’t do any crowd work, and the audience was not be prepped for my comedy at all. I’m tempted to name the club just because I have zero intention of ever performing there ever again. Maybe I should be answering these questions a little drunker than I am now.

    What’s one place you love performing you didn’t expect to like?

    One of the best venues is the Underground Collaborative in Milwaukee. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was great.

    Your comedy does a great job of tapping into the existential dread a lot of us feel in the Trump era in a way that somehow doesn’t feel heavy-handed. Are you hoping to give audiences respite from the news cycle?

    I don’t know if I’m aiming to give people a respite, but I think the best comedy makes people who need it feel less alone. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m giving you a break from what’s going on in the world. I’m just trying to communicate honestly how I’m approaching the world, and hopefully someone else who feels that way hears it and feels some kind of connection in the midst of dread. I will say, when I was opening for Nick Thune on tour last year, we performed in a lot of blue dot towns in red states, and those audiences were having such a cathartic experience when I started talking about politics, that I started moving that material to the beginning of my set. In those places, unlike folks in San Francisco or LA or any of the other cities I perform in a lot, the audiences seemed to feel really surrounded by Trumpism, and coming together there felt like a haven, a reminder that they weren’t alone.

    When someone finishes listening to your album, how do you hope they’ll view you?

    I try not to think about that when I’m working on jokes. Writing in order to be seen a certain way, that’s a recipe for stunted, inauthentic stuff. Especially because I move through the world pretty unaware of or unconcerned with how most people see me, which is, I think, why a lot of people find me funny. What I hope comes across is that even when I might be making fun of myself, that I like myself, and that I’m not apologizing for who I am, even if I think apologizing, in general, is good.

    Are there any new hot projects on the horizon/optimal ways for people to stalk you?

    I’ve been writing for Season 2 of Barry, which is shooting right now and will be out next year. I make a little cameo in the upcoming season of Grace and Frankie on Netflix. And I’ve got a couple other TV projects in the “pipeline” as they say. But you can always listen to my podcast Baby Geniuses, which I’ve been doing forever and will do forever.

    Emily Heller’s full Pasta album will debut from Kill Rock Stars on November 19.

    Bronwyn Isaac

    Bronwyn Isaac is a Brooklyn-based writer, stand up comedian and podcaster. You can find her writing at Broadly, Bustle, Alternet, Someecards, Reductress, HelloGiggles, PAPER, The Whiskey Journal, and other publications. She co-hosts the Bad Romance Podcast which lovingly dissects the plots of B rom-coms while envisioning a world full of bounteous quality rom-coms. If you feel inclined to follow her on Twitter at @Bronwynisaac she’ll forever love you back.

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