10.01.12 Truth & Wisdom
BY Ramou Sarr
A great podcast has the ability to remove you from wherever you are. You’re no longer stuck on the train next to someone who doesn’t respect your elbow room or sitting at your desk tediously typing into a spreadsheet. You’ve been transported to somewhere less stressful, less dull. In the case of You Had To Be There, you’re sitting in Sara Schaefer’s Brooklyn apartment, just laughing with your pals. You’ve really been missing out on something spectacular if you haven’t been listening to Schaefer and co-host Nikki Glaser – with great guests ranging from storytelling genius Chris Gethard to Twilight musician Anya Marina – brilliantly navigate comedy, relationships, and awful experiences on the subway with so much ease that you feel like you’re right there with them. I was lucky enough to chat with Sara and Nikki recently about their upcoming MTV show, women in comedy, and toeing the line of “shock comedy.” They’ve also got some good advice for young, smart, ambitious ladies.
How did you two decide that you wanted to do a podcast? And what has been the most unexpected part of having one?
Nikki: We met at a party about 2 weeks before we taped our first episode. We had known of each other but never really hung out. The topic of podcasts came up during our first conversation, and one of us had the guts to say to the other “we should do one together.” The most unexpected part of having one is all the stuff that has come from it. I had no idea it would lead to a TV show. That’s wasn’t the reason we started it. I was also surprised by the caliber of guests we were able to have on almost right away.
Podcasts have recently evolved into this really great forum that connects performers with their audience. I feel like I know you. Does this creep you out? And how do you feel your podcast has contributed to your relationship with your fans?
Nikki: I love our podcast’s fans because of that very reason. When an audience member of the show tells me afterwards that they’re a listener, I tend to want to hug them, because I feel like to be able to listen to multiple episodes, you must feel some kinship towards me. I share too much on there for that to not be the case. So, no, it does not creep me out at all. I love it. I feel like I know THEM, as stupid as that sounds. It’s maybe the same relationship I have with my therapist.
Sara: Because I had mostly been performing in New York, I didn’t have that many fans, save a few die-hard “Best Week Ever” and Fallon fans. The podcast totally changed that, and every city I go to now, there’s always at least one person who finds me after the show and says, “I listen to your podcast!” And that is amazing. I don’t mind that they know everything about me. Saves a lot of small talk off the top.
I’m always surprised by how much I learn about gender and sexuality and “women’s issues” from your podcast. Did you set out to talk about sex and relationships and tampons and vibrators, or did it just happen?
Sara: The total lack of specific goals and planning that go into this podcast is hilarious to me. We do very little preparation – we just talk about what’s going on in our lives. And because we’re women, girl talk just naturally occurs. We rarely censor ourselves. But we also have our own personal boundaries. We both have stories and things from our lives that we choose to keep private. We can’t give it ALL away.
Which podcasts have you been listening to?
Nikki: I don’t have a lot of time for podcasts anymore, but when I do listen, I choose This American Life, Walking The Room and Fitzdog Radio.
Sara: I don’t listen to any podcasts on a regular basis. I guess as a podcaster that isn’t something I should admit – but I don’t really have time, and when I do have time to sit back and enjoy some form of entertainment, I almost never choose comedy. I tend to choose things outside of my field – drama, reality, music, documentaries, journalism — because I want to turn off the comedy part of my brain.
Huge congrats on the MTV show! What can we expect? Will it be an extension of You Had To Be There or something completely different?
Nikki: It’s a late night talk show centered around pop culture set in front of a live studio audience in Times Square, so yes, very different. We won’t talk about sex and our personal lives as much, but the tone of the show and our senses of humor will certainly carry over.
How do you define yourself – as a female comedian, or a comedian?
Nikki: I have never seen myself as different from a male comic, but I don’t get annoyed if I’m labeled a female comedian. Some of my favorite comics are female, so that’s not a distinction that would hurt my feelings.
Sara: I’m a comedian. I am used to people placing the “female” label on it. But in the back of my mind I always think, no one ever says, “Next up, we’ve got a very funny male comedian!” I don’t mind being both female and a comedian, but I am just aware of the double standard sometimes and it feels so silly.
Where do you see the evolution of women in comedy going? Or is the whole “women in comedy” and “OMG. ‘Bridesmaids’ proves that women are funny!” thing a tired discussion that’s been blown out of proportion by everyone on the Internet?
Nikki: The latter!
Sara: I love the discussion – among my friends – of what it’s like to be a woman in comedy. We share our experiences and what we go through in this business, because it has its own unique challenges. There should always be people you can talk to about that stuff. But I don’t enjoy the continued attention in the media – because often it just feels like traffic-bait. And it can have the unfortunate effect of pitting us girls against each other. I’ve noticed there is sometimes a “shame” in speaking up about the issue. I know some female comedians who don’t like talking about it, because they worry it will hurt their career or alienate them from the boys. It’s ridiculous, because so much of comedy is about pointing out what’s unfair, illogical, or wrong in our society. But yet, us girls are supposed to keep that shit to ourselves? Personally, I don’t feel like sexism has held me down that much. But I do notice it when it happens, and of course it doesn’t feel good. I’m not about to picket outside a comedy club. For me, I combat it by working that much harder. A few ignorant assholes aren’t going to stop me from achieving my goals. [Cue "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips.] Bottom line, people who say, “women aren’t funny” are just not very intelligent. You can say, “I don’t find this particular comedian – who happens to be a woman – funny.” That’s a valid statement, because comedy is subjective. There are lots of male comedians who aren’t funny – to me. But I don’t go around proclaiming, “Men aren’t funny!” What a stupid jump in logic!
I’ve been really impressed by how you have dealt with some sensitive topics – you spoke pretty spectacularly on the Daniel Tosh incident and in a more recent podcast you addressed a listener’s concerns about some racially insensitive comments that were made. How important is your audience’s perception of you as a performer and how aware do you think you are about whether or not someone is offended or uncomfortable?
Nikki: I hate when people walk away from anything I do feeling worse about themselves. That is never my intention. But I’ve found throughout the years that you can’t please anyone, and at the end of the day, our podcast is free and if they don’t like what we say, they can just stop listening. But yes, when someone writes that they are a fan and we’ve let them down because of something we’ve said, I treat it like I let down a friend, because in a way, I have. I try to right those wrongs, but again, too much damage control can be exhausting.
Sara: What Nikki said! And also – what I want our listeners to know is that we are humans and we make mistakes. I don’t just want to “appear” to be nice. I truly care about our fans. If you know anything about me, it’s that I am a slave to morality. I can’t shake it. If something feels wrong or that it would hurt someone, it’s very hard for me to do it. Sometimes it’s a huge burden and holds me back. Sometimes I just want to go, “Fuck all y’all! I’m gonna be an asshole from here on out!”
Do you think that a comedian has an obligation to create an environment that assures that their audience isn’t offended or uncomfortable? And where is the line between appropriate offensive in comedy and inappropriate offensive in comedy? Or is there one?
Nikki: There is no line until you cross it. And then it’s your choice whether or not to keep going or apologize. Apologizing in comedy is annoying and shouldn’t have to happen. Someone can be offended by anything. Jokes are jokes for a reason, because they are outlandish, ridiculous things to say. I guess if you didn’t want to upset anyone you could just end every joke with, “I’m sorry.” Comedy that doesn’t at least risk offending is boring
Sara: In terms of offensive or shock comedy – I love when someone’s comedy or writing makes me think, challenges my beliefs, keeps me on my toes. For me personally, I prefer comedy that comes from an authentic place. Shock humor with nothing behind it is boring to me. Get up there and say nasty, scary things – but tell me why you’re saying them – take me there inside the dark place in your mind. Make me understand what’s human about you – and how we are actually more alike than we are different. When someone can do that, it feels like magic. But again – that’s just my taste! There’s plenty of room for everybody’s style of comedy. I recently heard a comedian do a bit about the N word. (He was white, to give you context.) He made the point that it’s just a word. It has no power, when you think about it. It’s just sounds coming out of a mouth. I see his point, but I also thought – this is coming from someone who makes a living off the power of his words. He does nothing but think about how to carefully craft sentences to control the emotions of an audience. His words are his currency. They feed him and clothe him. They keep him alive. That’s power. So, I guess what I’m saying is, you can’t have it both ways. At the end of the day, if you choose to use hurtful words, that you KNOW are offensive, don’t be so surprised when people get upset. You can’t get into someone’s heart and turn off their nerve-endings. Comedy is messy like that. You take that risk when you go out there and say something racist or offensive. If people get mad, don’t come crying
to me about it!
You’re writing a primer for someone who has never been to a comedy show. What are some DOs and DON’Ts?
Nikki: DO laugh as much and as loudly as you want.
DON’T reply to a comedian or talk at any point unless specifically called on (YOU WONT BE CALLED ON UNLESS YOU TALK).
Sara: What Nikki said!
You’ve decided to also write a primer for young comedians. What are your DOs and DON’Ts?
Nikki: DO get on stage as much as you can, wherever you can.
DO write down any funny thought you have.
DO watch good comedy as often as possible.
DO move the mic stand behind you or off to the side before you start talking (if you take the mic out of the stand).
DON’T look down at the floor if you can help it.
DO talk into the mic.
DON’T ask more seasoned comedians to watch you act. They will take notice when you get funny. Don’t rush it.
Sara: I did write a primer!
It’s hard out there for a young, smart, ambitious lady. Any advice?
Nikki: Know that you are all three and act accordingly.
Sara: Don’t worry about being popular or cool. It’s a giant waste of your precious time. You have an empire to build, so get to it.
Image by Aliya Naumoff for The New York Times