Popaganda Episode: Funny Business

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This week's episode is all about funny business. Four professionally funny women—Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead, Hyperbole and a Half writer Allie Brosh, and comedians Aparna Nancherla and Jenny Yang—discuss the craft of writing jokes.

 


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The transcript of this show is below.  

FUNNY BUSINESS TRANSCRIPT

Clip from Aparna Nancherla’s standup routine.

SARAH MIRK: That’s comedian Aparna Nancherla. This Popaganda episode is all about Aparna’s specialty: funny business. We talk with four women who get paid to be hilarious about the craft of writing comedy, how they deal with hecklers online, and how gender affects their perceptions and success in the highly competitive comedy industry. In addition to Aparna, we talked with comedians Jenny Yang, Daily Show co-creator and long-time comedy writer Lizz Winstead, and Hyperbole and a Half writer and cartoonist Allie Brosh. Stay tuned.

Aparna is a New York-based stand-up comedian and writer on the FX comedy show Totally Biased (until to was recently canceled, which is sad). Her joke-writing process is pretty typical of people who work as professional comedy writers: she looks for humor in everything she does and then workshops her ideas with other comedians and writers.  Bitch contributor Emilly Prado talked with Aparna at a coffee shop between sets at the All Jane No Dick festival in Portland, Oregon, so there’s some funny background noise here.

APARNA NANCHERLA: You just carry around a little notebook, jot down different thoughts. Twitter is a good idea incubator. I live in New York City right now so you are basically being bombarded with human experiences all the time and it’s kind of easy to just be like, “Okay, I’ll remember that happened.” It’s a lot of writing down ideas and the discipline part is fleshing it out later in a coffee shop or on your own time when the inspiration hits.

EMILLY PRADO: How is it different coming up with material for your stand-up versus as a writer on Totally Biased?

APARNA NANCHERLA: As a writer you have a morning pitch meeting; you’re basically just going off news stories of the day or social justice issues. And then you have to find something that fits within framework of the show that our audience would respond to. So it’s a little bit more structure and limited to the host’s voice or one of the correspondents on the show.

SARAH MIRK: Like Aparna, Los Angeles stand-up comedian Jenny Yang started out writing comedy just a few years ago. She found that trying to be professionally funny was a lonely experience, especially because she wasn’t very good at it at first. Being onstage, all alone, telling jokes is nerve-wracking—when they bomb, you’re left feeling like an idiot. 

JENNY YANG: When you first start out as a standup, at least for me, it feels  very solitary. And so what I realized is that if I didn’t organize something with like-minded people, I wouldn’t find those people, because we’re just grinding it out on our own.

SARAH MIRK: Jenny didn’t have a talented staff of comedy writers to work with, like Aparna, but this past year, Jenny and some comedian friends started up their own touring comedy show, Dis/Orient/Ed. The show has the goal of building that support network and community that Jenny and her friends need in order to workshop material, figure out what’s funny, and keep each other from getting too dispirited, but it also create space on stage for people who often don’t get much stage-time. The show features mostly female comedians who are mostly Asian American.

JENNY YANG: I don’t know how much you know about weird standup comedy  etiquette, but there’s this unspoken rule that there can only be one woman in a general, mainstream comedy show. Or, if you have more than one woman, God forbid you put them back-to-back in the lineup. Standup comedy, as much as it is progressive in that it really values free speech and it really encourages people who might have voices on the edge to speak out – for being that kind of a space and art form, that’s so independent-minded, it actually is very backwards in its culture in terms of being so male-centric and almost antiquated. 

SARAH MIRK: The Dis/orient/ed comedy show has been a big hit.  In addition to all its feel-good community building goals, the show is really funny and has sold out every venue it’s been at on the west coast. Here’s Jenny again.

JENNY YANG: What’s funny is that I’ve only been doing standup for a few years, which is considered “baby comic” status, and because of all the sold-out shows that we’ve done for Dis/orient/ed Comedy and a lot of the attention that we’ve gotten, I’ve had a bunch of other comics reach out to me individually and just say, “Jenny, how do you do it? How are you able to get all these people to come out to these shows?”

SARAH MIRK: Unlike the comedians, cartoonist Allie Brosh works entirely alone, sitting in her bedroom writing short, illustrated essays about her life that she publishes on her website Hyperbole and a Half. She usually only shows her comics to one or two people before she publishes them. Her process relies on her own intuition as a storyteller about what’s funny and what’s not. As a result, her work feels strikingly unique. Her blog has become so popular that her style of bright, expressive illustrations that seem to be crudely drawn in MS Paint has been widely imitated. She actually spends long hours writing the essays to make them as funny as possible and works hard to get her seemingly off-the-cuff sketches just right.

ALLIE: I work totally by myself. I pretty much just show my work to my husband before I publish it. It's tough because I don't always know if I'm making the right decisions.

The early parts of writing a post are gathering as much material as possible, so I have as much stuff to work with as I'm trying to figure out the storyline and the structure. Working out the structure is the hardest part, because there are a thousand ways to tell a story. It's sort of like putting together an 8,000-piece puzzle and there are 6,000 extra pieces and you're not sure what the puzzle is supposed to look like until you're half way there.

SARAH MIRK: On the other end of the spectrum of working out jokes with an audience or on your own, Lizz Winstead, the Daily Show and Air America co-creator who has been working in the industry as a standup and comedy writer for 30 years, finds her 84,000 followers are an extremely useful ready-madse audience that helps her test out jokes.

LIZZ:  I’m writing all day on Twitter trying out jokes, and then if I get 25 retweets or more in the first minute then I put it into a file and I try those jokes out on stage and develop them. So for me it is a way to engage people who might not necessarily care about politics and then keep people who follow politics a lot from not jumping off a bridge. Those are my two goals.

SARAH MIRK: When they’re onstage, comedians have to deal with hostile audiences and hecklers. Publishing writing online as a funny, political woman can feel like being onstage all the time. A big part of working creatively online is dealing with hostility from people who don’t like your work—everything from fans who want to give constructive criticism to straight-up trolls who just want to feel powerful by threatening women who speak their minds. Lizz Winstead likes to deal with the haters head-on.

LIZZ: People are very mad when they see you making a point. If it’s horrible I’ll just Retweet the horrible thing that they say and write “you seem nice” or “you seem smart” and then they don’t know what to do. I would say 80 percent of the people who attack me on Twitter attack me personally—they don’t even try to have an argument with me about policy. They found a human homo erectusskull that was 1.8 million years old, and so you tweet that and somebody writes, “You believe that bullshit, God created the earth 6,000 years ago.” And I write, “How is that possible if the skull is 1.8 billion years old?” And they tweet back “whore.” And you’re like “Okay, I might be a whore but you’re still wrong.” You can think I’m a whore or a slut or whatever, but that doesn’t make you right. You haven’t made your point; you’ve just made your point that you’re a dick. And an incorrect one at that.

SARAH MIRK: Cartoonist Allie Brosh doesn’t talk about politics like Lizz, which is part of why she gets less of a backlash online. But people do make negative and personal comments about her in her site’s comics and on social media. But for the most part, Allie appreciates all the feedback she gets from readers, which is overwhelmingly positive, and feels like working online has allowed her to be funnier than in real life, where she says people often have first impressions about her that aren’t accurate. Her whole career actually got started with a Facebook post.

ALLIE:  I've always appreciated humor and I can laugh at sophisticated humor, but I wasn't always able to create it myself. I wrote some stuff on Facebook, I had some flu and I did a picture diary of that because I was super bored and sick, so I was taking pictures of myself being sick. People commented on that about how funny the captions on the pictures were—that was one of the first times that I was like, "Maybe I can actually do something with this."

My friends and my husband tell me I'm funny, but I can more easily project what I'm trying to project online. I can more easily sculpt exactly what I'm trying to communicate and not have any cross-talk with the assumptions people make about me in person. There's nothing, like, "Oh, she looks like this so she's obviously this type of person." It's much more easy to communicate when there are fewer assumptions.

Whenever you see a person, you have a first impression of them… my physical shape, whatever that is, makes people doubt that I have a sense of humor.

I'm allowed to be a bit sillier online. I get the impression that when people first meet me, they think I take myself seriously and that's not true at all. So online, I can be like, "I don't take myself seriously" and that's the starting assumption rather than having to prove people wrong.

When the blog started to take off, I got some angry emails being like, "This is all going to go to your head." But I don't feel any different and I have the same goals now that I've always had, which is to be as funny as possible. Most of the difference stems from me having done it for longer. I know when I'm doing something that's not funny more often now, the quality control is better and I know more what I'm doing. The comments help, too, and the criticism. They're not always pleasant to read, but they do help me see the holes in my writing.

SARAH MIRK: That first impression issue Allie points out certainly has some roots in sexism. There’s still social biases against seeing women as funny and the industries of comedy writing, stand-up comedy, and cartooning are populated mostly by dudes. When people describe women who are funny, there’s often the distinction that points out how they’re not the norm in the comedy industry. Aparna Nancherla, for example, is often referred to as a Indian-American comedian as well as a female comedian. She doesn’t think that distinction is necessarily bad.

APARNA: It’s not offensive in that, well, yes, I am objectively those two things. I think there are connotations that come with those things that people put on you and if you listen to my act you’ll realize that I’m not really specifically just delving into those areas. I have other things to talk about just as a human being. But I’m okay with carrying those things because they are a part of who I am so I’m not gonna be like, “No, don’t point that out all the time.” I think it’s more when people use it to push you into some kind of box where it’s limiting you so it’s frustrating.

SARAH MIRK: During her many years as a comedy writer, Lizz Winstead has seen the perceptions of women in the industry change for the better. Now, women are not pigeonholed as much into making just jokes about traditionally female things. Raised in Minnesota, Lizz started out her career as a stand-up comedian in Minneapolis in the early 1908s.

LIZZ:  When I was doing it there was so few women even on the road doing standup that I was like, “Is there something that women are supposed to be on stage?” Because the ones I initially saw were Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller and really older comics who were talking about their husbands and their body image, and I was like “That’s not my life at all.” I don’t have those experiences, so does that mean I can’t be on stage doing comedy? And I was introduced more to Sandra Bernhard and Roseanne and these people who had a wide swath of opinions and more cultural experiences like me I was like “Oh yes, I get it, you can do whatever you want.” And now I think the best thing that’s happened is that we are generationally at a place where women and men have started coming together and developed together so now men don’t look at women as women comedians they look at them as comedians.

SARAH MIRK: Even when the female comedians around her aren’t making jokes about politics or expressing any kind of feminist viewpoint, Lizz thinks it’s important to see more women onstage.

LIZZ WINSTEAD: I wouldn’t want to define feminist comedy as anything. If I could broad stroke it, I’d say it’s a woman standing up for her own truth, whatever that is. Even if she doesn’t necessarily identify as a feminist. I just think if a woman is taking the stage and talking about what’s important to her and her own personal power and asserting it by saying “I have an opinion, and it matters, and here it is.”

SARAH MIRK: Jenny Yang also thinks that it’s inherently powerful for women to get onstage and make jokes about the world and who she is, even if she doesn’t address race or gender or politics in her act.

JENNY YANG: Even though the primary thing for being at a standup comedy show is that you’re there to entertain and be funny, I think secondarily, even if  certain female comics don’t talk about explicitly being political, or being feminist, just being a standup comic who happens to be female, I think in and of itself is highly  subversive. Just because being a standup comic requires a level of control and voice and power that you have to exhibit when you’re doing standup, and so it’s very powerful to have a woman on an amplified microphone, telling you what she thinks, on top of a stage that’s higher than you. Just that act is very powerful to have.

SARAH MIRK; You hear that, aspiring comedians? Get out there and publish all the funny things you’ve been thinking or find the courage to get up under the bright lights onstage.  Let’s close out with a bit from Lizz Winstead, performing back in 2009. 

Clip from Lizz Winstead’s routine.

SARAH MIRK: Thanks to Jenny Yang, Aparna Nancherla, Lizz Winstead, and Allie Brosh for taking the time to talk with us. Lizz Winstead has a new book out called Lizz Free or Die—go check it out. Allie Brosh has a new book of her work out, too. Like her blog, it’s called Hyperbole and a Half and its hilarious.  People keep stealing my copy from my house, so I would recommend buying yourself at least two.

The interviews on this show were conducted by some great people: Ari Yarwood talked with Jenny Yang, Emilly Prado interviewed Aparna Nancherla, Hannah Strom interviewed Lizz Winstead, and I interviewed Allie Brosh. A big thanks to Ari, Emilly, and Hannah, as well as the All Jane, No Dick all-women comedy festival in Portland, Oregon, and NARAL Pro Choice Oregon for setting up the interviews.


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