NOTAt the start of Patti Harrison’s untitled live comedy show, she jokes that it’s been a long time since she last played, playing a phone call with her agent where they persuade her to come back on stage. Eventually, they put his kidnapped mother online. “And now I am here!” she declares with a wild smile. “Where is my mother?”
It’s true, she told me, it’s been a long time since she did a live performance. “I stress this so strongly on my show: ‘It’s a fucking work in progress, please, guys!’ Like, blood pouring out of my eyes, so worried that people want to see this very neat show.
A native of Ohio, Harrison – comedian, writer and star of hit series such as Shrill, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and the Big Mouth animation – performed for the first time at this year’s festival. Edinburgh. The heat wave has reached Scotland by the time we meet in August, so we retreat to the dark interior of a bar, Harrison’s Virgin Bloody Mary topped with a colorful cocktail umbrella. “I picked the scariest area,” she says as we settle into red velvet seats, a giant stuffed unicorn to one side, a mannequin with a mask of what could be the face of J-Lo on the other. It’s an appropriate setting for a conversation about Harrison’s work, in which the comedy often gives way to something slightly unsettling.
When asked about running in Edinburgh this year, “I haven’t done a show together”. Harrison took songs she was working on and added new jokes, keeping them loose so she could feel the audience each night and put her improvisational skills to good use (college improvisation was her first foray into the live comedy). Although some of the lyrics conjure up grimace-worthy images (the consistency of Steve Bannon’s ejaculate, for example), it’s clear that she’s a great singer, with a knack for mimicry. Her imitation of a Tory Kate Bush (“I’m tired of being silenced”) is perfect.
On stage, Harrison moves on the tightrope between sincerity and irony. She subverts the comedy special’s worn tropes of checking notes on a stool, later revealing she’s watching nothing more than a still from the film Stuart Little. The expectation of an emotional journey is blurred as she delivers a PowerPoint presentation of trigger warnings, but is sponsored by ‘Noise Barn’, so incongruous sounds play on slides with titles such as ‘child abuse’. elderly” and “pre-transition trauma” (Harrison is trans). “There are so many shows where you have to have that moment of gravity.” There’s something unsettling, she says, about the way stand-ups are meant to express emotional revelation night after night.
“I felt compelled to have a comedy special, even though I never felt like a stand-up,” she says. “A lot of comedy developers say, ‘We want you to be able to do your stand-up show exactly the same way, 50 times, before we put any money into it.’ It’s so soulless. I don’t have fun doing that, even if people laugh.
Harrison also opposes being pressured to talk about being transgender in her comedy. “I like to bait and trade people who think they’re going to congratulate themselves for seeing a trans comedian, trying to be repulsive,” she says.
At the same time, Harrison says, “I don’t want to erase my experience, because it’s a huge part of my daily life. But, coming from a background of improv and character comedy, “I never wanted to do anything political because comedy makes me feel like I’m getting away from that. Lived experience is so political whether we like it or not. There was a time when I felt like in order to build my career, I took advantage of people’s interest in it, and then I felt resentful.
This pressure has been exacerbated by social networks. “My brain was starting to scramble,” she says. “It made me feel like if I wanted to be successful, I had to lean into those things. It’s not good for the soul, it’s this high-end narcissism that social media normalizes.
Growing up in rural Ohio, platforms like Myspace and LiveJournal helped her connect. Even Twitter had its time: “You could write jokes, spout them, follow your favorite comedians. Once everything was commercialized, it completely destroyed the positive fabric of social media. »
Fans of the sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, created by Saturday Night Live alums Robinson and Zach Kanin, will recognize Harrison. But she might never have been there without social media. “Tim said he found me through my Instagram videos,” she says. “This show is one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on.”
In one skit, Harrison plays a woman in an instructional driving video who keeps crashing her car because she’s distracted by the dirty tables she’s carrying. In another, she’s a wine-obsessed millionaire in a Dragon’s Den-style show.
Harrison spent time in the writers room for the second series: “It’s great, great scripted – people assume there’s a lot of improvisation in it, but there isn’t.” Kanin was writing while they were making jokes. “It types exactly as you say it, so it’s all there in the script, all the uhhs,” she says. “They’re brilliant in knowing how important attention to detail is in comedy. It’s important to fight for these little things. There are parallels between the show and Harrison’s live work, a similar humor that takes us to unexpected extremes.
Harrison’s acting skills have also been in demand on animated shows, including Big Mouth and BoJack Horseman. During the pandemic, Harrison says, it felt like there was “a huge boom” in this type of work – such series being easier to produce amid Covid restrictions. “I recorded so much in my bed with a blanket over my head,” she says. “I voiced a character on this Netflix show called Q-Force. They sent this little tent which was on a stand, you put your head and your laptop in the tent and it’s 9000 degrees inside. Harrison’s latest Hollywood twist, playing a literary agent alongside Diane Keaton in the body-swap comedy Mack & Rita, also involved claustrophobic performances. “I’ve recorded a lot of stuff on an iPad, but I was on set, so I was holding the iPad and hitting the record and they’d have the slate in my face.”
While it’s exciting to work on high-profile productions, those aren’t necessarily Harrison’s favorite jobs. “These big, huge movies, it can get scary, because it feels like there’s so much pressure, so much money, so many people involved,” she says. “My best experiences that have been really fun are little independent things where I made almost no money.”
Last year, she starred as a woman who agrees to be a surrogate for an older man’s child in Together Together, which earned her a Best Female Lead nomination at the Independent. Spirit Awards. Just before flying to the UK, she completed Theater Camp, written and performed by Booksmart’s Molly Gordon. “A group of my friends are in it. I literally felt like I was at camp, because we were filming at a camp in upstate New York,” she says.
“I’ve been pretty selective over the past few years about what I work on. Or try to be, because there are times when you just need to support yourself. But hopefully I get to the place where I can make money on something that’s also a great experience.
Part of that selectivity comes from the desire to chart your own course. “The good thing about live performance is that it’s really close to autonomy. It was where I had the most control over my voice and how I wanted to be perceived.
This realization and her time in Edinburgh persuaded her – without the need for a kidnapping – that she wants to get back on stage. She decided to start her own comedy night again “back in my little safe space in Los Angeles.” It will be further than expected, however – after a short first stint in Edinburgh, she has extended her stay in the UK.
“I’m in a pretty emo moment in my life, but this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, I feel like every time I turn around the corner I see something that makes me cry,” she said. “I’m going to rest when I get back. I’m sure this will all hit me at some point and I’m just going to shit my spine on stage. But so far, I really like it. I feel tightened as a performer. I feel invigorated.
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