Comedian Patti Harrison on Balance, Femininity, and the Abject
"I do identify with femininity because I feel soft energy. I want people to be able to interact with me in a pleasant way, know that I have empathy."
If you haven’t heard of the comedian, actress, and TV writer Patti Harrison, you will soon. Her big break disparaging Trump’s transgender military ban on The Tonight Show gave audiences a small taste of her trademark deadpan absurdist humor, as she chastised the President: “Donald, you are so stupid, you are sooo stupid. You’re lucky you’re so hot.”
Since, Harrison has maintained steady appearances in alt-comedy venues, starred in Hulu’s Shrill, and made appearances on shows like High Maintenance, Search Party, and Broad City. Most recently, she’s served as a writer for the forthcoming season of the Netflix series Big Mouth, which captures the agony of pre-teens going through puberty and exploring their sexualities.
PERFECT NUMBER Mag talked with Harrison about finding her comedic voice, fluid femininity, and her recent move to Los Angeles.
PERFECT NUMBER: You have so many projects going at once. How do you avoid burnout? What do you ask if someone asks you what you do?
PATTI HARRISON: I think burning out creatively is inevitable. So, I think it does happen. I don’t think there’s ever any sort of perpetual source of energy, but I think there are ways to stave off from it happening super frequently. I have, I think generally low stamina and I burn out a lot. Something that does help in resetting my brain a little bit when I am having a hard time is stepping away from the whole field that I’m working in or working on. If I’m racking my brain trying to write new jokes or something and then having a hard time, it really helps to go watch a dramatic movie or go see a concert or do something that’s earnest, etc.
PN: Something other than reading the news?
PH: Yeah, truly, my brain hurts every time I read the news. So it’s really not that. If I am having a hard time coming up with ideas for something for a comedy show, it doesn’t help to watch other comedy shows necessarily because I just start comparing my lack of whatever to the thing that they did right. Versus, if I’m finding inspiration from things analogous or adjacent to what I’m doing, the ideas come more organically.
PN: Definitely. When I was a newspaper reporter it was impossible to write anything else after a whole day of writing news. It was the same energy reserve or something.
PH: Totally. I’m back in the Big Mouth writers’ room now, but I’m part-time because when I was full-time last season, by the end of the day, I had no energy to write my own stuff. And I kind of stopped doing live shows, which I really like to do. It’s good to cool it and go do something that is just for the sake of treating your brain a little bit, anything but the thing you’re beating yourself up over.
PN: When did you think about comedy as a career?
PH: I don’t think I actually thought of it as an actual career path until college when I started doing improv, and I met other people in college who did want to do comedy professionally.
PN: I like that so much of your comedy seems to focus on the abject or the uncomfortable and yet you still kind of resist giving into irony-poisoning of the news cycle. How do you think about what kind of jokes to make versus it just occurring naturally?
PH: Well, I would say that there are layers to it and it’s not always consistent in terms when I feel inspired. Especially during Trump’s presidency. Because I’m a visible, outspoken trans person who is a comedian, it seems people expect me to incorporate politics into my comedy, which I think, intrinsically it will always be political in a way, but also, it is really exhausting to have to think about all the ways marginalized all the time. A reason I do comedy is that it is a relief from some of the daily stressors that I deal with. So I just try and lead with what makes me laugh first and then kind of workshopping it back from there because not everything I personally think is funny is accessible or universally funny. I think it’s kind of psychopathic to go on stage and make an audience miserable. But it does start with “Okay, what’s something that makes me laugh?” and it’s usually really dumb.
PN: Speaking to the political, you talked a lot about how The Tonight Show kind of gave you this break by asking you to do this bit about the Trump military ban, but it was also written by writers for network TV — totally neutralized. I’m curious how you find the chord to strike when you’re trying to be funny about one of these things that you just described as not funny, and you have a personal stake in the game, and it’s so depressing.
PH: Yeah. On The Tonight Show, they have a team of writers, and they had a really strong angle. So, that was not necessarily my full comedic voice. That was the voice of that show, which has to be very tight and accessible and clean. So the way that they write is very, very different from what I’m excited by personally with my live material. With TV, because it has to be so accessible, its starting point is trying to capture these overarching patterns in culture. Whereas, I think what really works for me is really zooming in on something personal — a really personal point of view. One really small mundane detail, and blowing it up from there and maybe discussing how that smaller detail is affected by our overall meltdown versus starting on a massive national scale. Then maybe just trying to come up with a joke that everyone can relate to.
PN: Are there times where you ever feel like you need to be earnest? Can we be earnest and funny at the same time, or do those kind of counteract one another?
PH: I think other people can — but I don’t think I’m that person. In terms of my specific career right now, being a comedian labeled as “diverse” and with that, I think there’s a lot of “clapter.” There’s a lot of clapter adjacent to me that’s political comedy, but isn’t necessarily funny, but a point was made so the audience claps, and I really dislike that. I don’t think that means that it doesn’t have value — if you’re using your platform to share progressive ideas, I think that’s ultimately good. But I do comedy because I like to laugh, and that doesn’t make me laugh. Clapter is cringy to me sometimes.
PN: How do you balance kind of a public persona that’s necessary for a comedian with some kind of conception of an authentic self (if that’s a thing)?
PH: As a comedian, your social media is kind of viewed as a professional reflection. It becomes a part of your career, or at least it has for me. Still, I’ve been trying to look at it as my personal account. I don’t have a Finsta, I don’t have side accounts. But when I post something personal, people will be like “STICK TO COMEDY!” And I’m like, “it’s my fucking personal account you scumbag piece of shit!!” I’m trying to post more positive stuff than negative, because I think my inclination is to just shit on everything and post about stuff I don’t like.
PN: It’s easier to hate on something, and probably more fun.
PH: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been trying to post more about stuff that I do like, but it’s really difficult to be, “I like this movie because the characters in it are nice.” Ew!
PN: You recently moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. What do you think of it?
PH: I really love LA. I think that there’s this Scientology level of trauma training in New York that people are really adamant about convincing you not to move to LA because you’ll be shallow and you’ll lose your soul and your creativity will die when you’re here.
PN: You’ll lose your ambition and be stupid!
PH: Yeah! “everything you fucking make is going to be mayonnaise because you’re so happy! “But I do feel a lot happier generally, the weather fucking rocks and I know that’s a huge political statement and very controversial for me to say, but the weather is really sunny and nice here.
PN: Seasonal depression is a real thing.
PH: It really is. I grew up in Ohio and then moved straight to New York and the weather’s pretty similar. I didn’t realize until I came here how much the overcast weather affects whether or not I go outside for the day. And here it’s nice because if I’m depressed for some reason and it’s sunny outside, I don’t feel bad watching TV for the full day inside, because I know there’s going to be a million more sunny days.
PN: It’s great if you thrive in opposition to your surroundings — you can be the depressed person in smiley land.
PH: If people who haven’t lived here before are tired of hearing about the weather, they just haven’t experienced it, because it is worth talking about all the time.
PN: One of the things we think about a lot as a brand is this idea of gender fluidity and how kind of an ideal new idea of femininity would be more freeing for everyone. How did you come to understand or define or express your own sense of femininity?
PH: I think the internet has been great in terms of giving people resources. People can do research on their own and see that there are a lot of different ways to express gender and still feel feminine. It’s so different from person to person, but then it’s very broad because we have these broad cultural understandings of what something like “feminine” even means — and we’re reliant on that understanding of gender in order to express what we personally want to in that context. I feel my opinions of it and what I’ve included in the way that I accept myself have changed and are always evolving as I gain new language and keep breathing and keep having conversations with people.
There’s a softness to femininity that I think is really powerful because softness doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of strength. It means more thoughtfulness and patience and caring. I feel there is a nebulous softness to femininity that does not exist in conventional masculinity. Yeah, I don’t know. I know that’s a very vague thing to say, but I do identify with femininity because I feel soft energy. I want people to be able to interact with me in a pleasant way, know that I have empathy.
PN: We did an article and a campaign called “radical softness,” which feels really related to this.
PH: I think that’s what kind of spurred our conversation! You don’t have to be soft to be feminine, but there is a softness to femininity. It depends on who you’re talking to. There are probably a billion perceptions of gender. How your dad would describe his masculinity is different, even by a shade than how your grandpa would describe masculinity. Or your dad’s understanding of the manhood versus your brother’s. I think that’s kind of cooler — finding labels to apply to a growing lack of labels I think is very interesting.
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