Stand up comedian Emily Heller is really showing 2013 who’s boss. She made her late night debut on Conan earlier this year, has a popular podcast and web series, and just scored her first TV writing job for Fox’s upcoming sitcom “Surviving Jack.” We spoke to her about Photoshop, tarot cards and why feminism is a dirty word in comedy.
Serial Optimist: Hi Emily! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You’re a stand up comedian who has lived in San Francisco, New York and now Los Angeles. Which city would you prefer to be stuck in during a zombie apocalypse?
Emily: Hm. Well, LA has less places to hide, and less population density, so I’d be more at risk, right? New York has a lot of places to hide but way too many people, which probably means way more zombies. I think San Francisco is probably the way to go, because it’s pretty small and surrounded by water on three sides so you could get on a boat and escape that way. But really, I think I’d just let myself become a zombie. LITERALLY ALL MY PROBLEMS WOULD GO AWAY!
Emily: Thank you! All we knew at first was that we wanted to do a podcast together, so we kicked around a few ideas. That one just seemed like it had the most potential. We wanted to make something we’d like to listen to, something where every episode you can walk away with at least one new interesting fact, so you aren’t like, “Why did I listen to that?” It was also a way to get to know interesting things about people we already liked! To be clear – only about 80% of the knowledge is fake.
SO: In one episode of Baby Geniuses you say that being a “stay-at-home-not-mom” is your career goal. What would a typical day in that career look like?
Emily: I’m pretty much living that dream right now, though it doesn’t pay as well as I thought it would. I sleep in and cook myself meals and watch TV from the 90s and don’t leave the house. Just kidding, I leave for stand up and work stuff but other than that, my life is perfect!!!
SO: Speaking of work stuff, this year you were named one of Variety’s “Top 10 Comics to Watch,” performed as the warm up comic for “ ” on FXX and made your late night debut on “Conan.” Does it feel good to be rocking 2013 so hard?
Emily: It feels pretty good! I’m pretty easily satisfied, so if even one of those things had happened I’d be thrilled, but the fact that I haven’t really had a chance to get impatient about my career is something I’m tremendously grateful for. That said, like most people I’m just desperately trying to think of the next thing I’m gonna do to keep people from realizing I’m a fraud. More attention means more scrutiny and higher expectations. So, it feels good, and also panicky, and a little itchy.
SO: What was the process of creating your Above Average web series The Future like? Is there a script for the show or is it mostly improvised?
Emily: It was a pretty simple idea – give stupid, mean tarot card readings to funny people. They were mostly improvised, but next round we are going to script them more. I am giving people real readings, though, and we didn’t know which cards would come up for the most part!
The Future feat. Reggie Watts
SO: Can you do a reading for me over the Internet without tarot cards and without us ever having met?
Emily: I don’t like doing it without a lot of intense, uncomfortable eye contact. So I’ll have to ask that you stare at a picture of my eyes while someone reads you the outcome.
SO: Fair enough. You’re now a writer on the upcoming Fox sitcom “Surviving Jack,” set to debut in March 2014. Congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about the show and how you came to write for it?
Emily: We’ve finished working on the season and it was an awesome experience. I’d never written for a TV show before and you couldn’t ask for a better first job I don’t think. It’s a family sitcom set in 1991 starring folks who I am a huge, huge fan of like Christopher Meloni and Rachael Harris. I was recommended for the job by a comedian friend in New York and four weeks later, I had moved to LA. It was pretty wild.
SO: Has it been a difficult transition going from writing stand up material for yourself to working in a writers’ room?
Emily: I really thought it would be, but it’s a lot of the same skills, it turns out. You just try to crack people up. It’s super fun. Also you do some real work, too, but that part’s boring. It was exciting to learn, but will be boring to talk about in an interview.
SO: Let’s talk about something definitely not-boring, then: you and your brother Nate Heller have a fantastic website called “Suck My Dick, New Yorker Caption Contest,” where you caption cartoons with witticisms involving a certain sex act. Dare I ask how that came about?
Emily: Well, it started when we were staying with family who happened to have a ton of New Yorker back issues. We started killing time by pitching captions for the caption contest and pretty quickly a theme emerged. The blog started as a way to keep playing the game even though we don’t live in the same city anymore. And because when you have a truly groundbreaking idea, you have to share it. An idea like saying, “suck my dick” over and over again.
SO: How is the experience of doing comedy with a sibling?
Emily: It’s really fun. My brother and I have collaborated on a lot of things throughout our lives. For a long time it was music, which we started writing together as teenagers and would do sporadically. The more I did comedy, the funnier the songs became, until we had a musical comedy act in San Francisco and made some music videos and stuff. He’s super game for whatever. Whatever we do is kind of a side project for both of us, so there’s never a lot of pressure. It helps that he is INSANELY talented at so many things. So whereas I come with maybe a couple ideas for some lyrics or something, he can make a beat for the song and write the melody and film and edit the music video. He does all the theme songs for Baby Geniuses, too. Sometimes it feels like we just add segments to see what he’ll come up with for the song.
SO: You have a well-documented love of photo shopping your face onto celebrities’ bodies. When did you discover that this was your passion?
Emily: I had an office job in San Francisco that required a little bit of photoshopping. I think one time they had me do a face swap and I realized “Hey, I’m a narcissist. I could do this with ME!” Once I started getting better at it, it was pretty addictive.
SO: You’re a feminist, which is something you discuss in an amazing clip from “John Oliver’s New York Stand up Show” in 2012. Why do you feel feminism is so often a dirty word in comedy (and in life)?
Emily: When I first started talking about feminism onstage, I didn’t realize how dirty of a word it had become. The more I talked with people about it, the more I realized there were misconceptions about it. I’m not sure when it became a dirty word, but I think in general people have a strong knee-jerk reaction when someone cares about a social justice thing that they’re apathetic about. It makes people really uncomfortable for some reason. And, like any cause, often times the most outspoken advocates are also the most obnoxious. That’s across the board. I think that’s changing though.
To clarify: feminism is the belief that things aren’t fair right now and we should try to fix it. That’s it. How you interpret and pursue that is up to you. I’m not really trying to educate people about it. I’m not making an argument. I’m just trying to do what all comedians are trying to do, which is speak from my point of view about who I am. Hopefully being onstage, being likeable, and self-identifying as a feminist will help destigmatize it a little bit. I think that’s the most I can hope for.
SO: What additional projects and appearances do you have on the horizon? Plug yourself!
Emily: We’ll be doing more episodes of The Future, as well as some touring and who knows what else. The Baby Geniuses hiatus will end in January if all goes as planned. I’ll be featuring for, so if you’re in the Bay Area, you should definitely come to that!
SO: Finally, your bio says that you prefer the nickname “Hell bone.” What were some of the other nickname contenders?
Emily: People gravitate toward Hell Cat, but that rubs me wrong for some reason. It sounds less like I’m a cool biker than Hell Bone. I am, for the record, not a cool biker.
SO: Thank you!
Emily: No, thank YOU!