Comedian, writer, actress, and awesome Internet videos/clips/sites-maker Chelsea Peretti is just SO good. I’m refraining myself from going off on an adjective tangent about how lovely, hilarious, smart, talented, etc she is. The fact that SXSW didn’t add her to the bill until the media attacked them for having only ONE female comedian is beyond ridiculous. (They have sense added a few more female comics.) But how was she not at the top of the list when putting together the initial group of stand ups in the first place, regardless of sex? Makes. No. Sense. Her recent Comedy Central Presents KILLED, super funny. She is a writer for “Parks & Recreation”, which now in its third season has become one of, if not the best comedies on television. She was making hilarious websites (see here and here) well before hilarious websites could be found anywhere and everywhere. Variety named her one of the “Top 10 Comics to Watch” and she was featured on this years “Comedy Central Hot List”. If you haven’t gotten down with Chelsea Peretti yet, get down with her now. She will make laugh hard, and somehow feel cozy at the same time.
Chelsea just HAD to point this out: “I would like to note that each of your questions is technically 20 questions.” Which means: 1. She’s wonderful for answering all of them (seriously). 2. She’s observant. 3. My “putting multiple questions within one question” technique has been blown up. I hope word doesn’t spread.
Serial Optimist: What up Chelsea! How are you? What are you doing right now as you respond to this interview? I like to imagine you are in the coziest of clothes, wrapped in the coziest of blankets, drinking some super cozy drink, and just being cozy. How far off am I?
Chelsea Peretti: I’m sitting in my kitchen nook in a patch of sun in PJ bottoms and a sweatshirt, eating Pannetone. I would call your imagining: “dead on.“
SO: I knew it! “Gettin’ Cozy with Chelsea” should be the title of something you do. Actually, that’s just what I’ll call this interview.
SO: You’re from Oakland, CA. Is your iPod filled with Too $hort?
CP: I am from Oakland, as are such greats as: Too $hort, 357, and Moshe Kasher. The Bay Area in general has really brought the heat creatively with others such as E-40 and Andy Samberg also deep in the mix. Yes, my iPod has lots of Too $hort, hope whoever found it is enjoying that.
SO: What led to you moving to NYC in 96’? At that point was it all about just going to college, or did you have an idea you wanted to be a writer/comedian at an early age?
CP: Yes, I moved from the Bay Area to NY to go to college. At the time I wanted to be an actor and was into theatre but still wanted a liberal arts education. But I didn’t love the theatre department at Barnard (in spite of the fact that the Casey Affleck was in my class and really shone at Japanese Noh Theatre). My friends signed me up for an Improv group audition and I wound up joining that group (called “Six Milks”).
After I graduated, I was temping and met a comedian who took me to my first open-mic in the back room of a bar. I also interned at the Village Voice in the music department and was writing odds and ends for Flyer (a nightlife magazine). I was into electronic music at the time and going out dancing a lot so that freelance work combined my music and writing interests. Hopefully you think I’m cool, re: the dancing.
SO: You got a ton of press pretty much right out of college it seems, with Black People Love Us and Rejection Line. I would think at that time that was way ahead of the curve as far as using the Internet to create small sites strictly for comedy. You started those with your brother, right? What was the purpose at the time, other than just because they were both hilarious ideas? Were you surprised how much they blew up?
CP: There’s a similar immediacy with the Internet like there is with stand-up. You can have an idea, put it out there, and get an instant response. There was no grand scheme with those projects for me other than thinking they were funny and knowing we could do it and then thinking “what if we did it?” and following through. Jonah had just gone through MIT’s Media Lab and had a more techy background and I was doing comedy and we’d always had fun together creating things around the house growing up, so we just kind of did it. He got me increasingly interested in the idea of the social experiment – seeing how people would respond – and about creating comedy specifically for the medium of the Internet to see how it would spread. Both projects were experiments and definitely social commentaries (on outsourcing rejection and condescending ignorance in interracial relationships) but were also just funny.
Once the first project circulated widely we knew there was an outside chance the 2nd one could. They both wound up being viral online and covered by the mainstream media – at one point leading us to be guests on Good Morning America. In interviews, people always asked if we made money off of those projects. We didn’t make any money. However, both led to other cool work and opportunities (as a team we later sold four TV show ideas to VH1, Comedy Central, and MTV).
It definitely was a different time for the Internet with much less going on. I remember sending that first email to some friends with the subject header “Check this out” and a link to the project. If someone sent me a similar email now I’d easily ignore it because people constantly send links now. Web users are also savvier and expect that web content can to be faked or photo-shopped because the present day internet is saturated with pranks, art projects, and viral marketing attempts. When we did our projects the timing was kind of special – it was a sweet spot for hijinks and trickery where people sort of felt like if they saw something online it must be real.
SO: When did you first start doing stand up?
CP: I started in 2000 or 2001, forget which.
SO: I recently talked with Nick Kroll and he mentioned how you all came up together as far as stand up in NYC.
CP: Me and Nick and our friend Roger Hailes all lived on E. 7th St in NY and went to open mics together and then continued to move along together in the NY comedy scene. (We all hung out at Nick’s apartment during the blackout and I had a really helpful blue LED flashlight on my keychain that you might want to go back and do an in-depth follow-up interview with Nick about how useful it was in his dark stairwell.)
SO: Were you doing anything else at that time, or by then did you know in your mind that writing comedy, and performing comedy was the ultimate goal?
I was doing various writing jobs, little listings and stuff for the Village Voice, writing for a videogame that was supposed to be like a sitcom, random projects for some cable networks, etc. I was also doing weird sketches with Bobby Tisdale at “Invite Them Up” and we did a live morning show called “Wake Up Screaming with Laughter.” Then Andrea Rosen, Heather Lawless, Shonali Bhowmik and I formed Variety Shac. Together, we started doing a live monthly show and making short films and eventually wrote and shot a couple pilots.
SO: You’re writing for Parks and Recreation now, one of, if not the best shows on television.
SO: How did that job come about? How do you like it? How is the writing room for a huge network show different than say, The Sarah Silverman Program? OMG basically like totally give me all the deets EEEK!
CP: I love it. I think I’ve been lucky to have writing jobs at two shows (SSP and Parks) where people are smart and funny but also very welcoming. That makes a huge difference I’m sure, when people are nice and invite you into the fold.
Due to my personality, it is generally easy for me to take good things for granted but I do not take for granted the feeling of cracking up at work on a daily basis. So many people hate their jobs and in this shitty economy people have to take even worse jobs that they hate even more than the usual bad jobs just for healthcare and basic needs. I was pretty financially instable in NY for 10 years so I am happy to be working and for it to be something I love. I was literally dancing in the street in NY when I got the call that Sarah was hiring me. This question was about the economy, right?
Anyhow, you want me to compare the two shows? Parks the hours are longer and there are more snacks and writers. SSP could go very far out in terms of where a story could go and Parks is more naturalistic in tone. That said, both have had pretty crazy moments in their stories. What else. SSP there was a dog in the room whereas the Parks room is dogless. SSP featured a pancake obsession; Parks features a waffle obsession. SSP was brunette-ier, Parks is blonder. A similarity is that both shows are built around comedians I respect and love.
SO: Thanks for the detail, I love waffles, hate pancakes, so makes sense in my world.
SO: How do you think the Internet has democratized comedy? You have taken advantage of it with shorts, the before mentioned websites, you have 25K followers on Twitter, etc. In what ways do you think it’s helped your career, and helped alternative comedy in general?
CP: The Internet has been a big part of my life and career. I love the Internet because I can be myself with zero checkpoints or creative hierarchy and I can directly reach an audience. I did Friendster and MySpace, I blogged, I made videos with Variety Shac, and I did 2 web series (“Making Friends” and “All My Exes”). Currently, I use Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. These different web communities have certainly helped me gain new fans in different parts of the country. That’s particularly effective in combination with TV appearances. TV and internet feed each other: TV gets people googling, and online fans can become motivated to watch TV appearances based on online content. My only motivation to do more TV appearances is to grow my Twitter following.
SO: Your recent half hour stand up special on Comedy Central was truly so funny; it was great. After touring with that material, and the special airing, do you kind of have to start fresh now? Can you still take those jokes on the road or is it back to scratch? I mean a lot of that material is timeless, so it will always work, I’m just curious as to the mindset of how a comedian feels after putting their act out to a national audience, if it puts pressure to come up with new material immediately, or if you can just take a break for a bit.
CP: Thanks! Yeah, I want to primarily use different stuff now from what aired in the special. I have new material I’m excited about. Also, I do a multimedia talk show at UCB that I want to grab some elements from and try them out at clubs to see if they’ll work in that context. Sometimes a chunk of new stuff flows nicely out of an older joke and is complimented by it or an older joke feels useful to explaining who I am, in which case I’ll use both. I want to give the best show possible. I also want to quit.
SO: Are we past the point of “She is super funny for a girl” or “A funny female comedian? Lesbian.” I mean we have to be, right? Some of the funniest comedians currently, in general, are female, straight, and attractive. Does sexism still exist in the comedy industry? Thoughts?
CP: NEVER!!!! LET’S DO MORE PANELS AND ARTICLES ON IT!!!!!!
SO: What comedians are you currently really into? Who do you think is just at the top of there game right now?
CP: Some of the following people I only like as people and some only as comedians, can you guess who’s who? Todd Glass, Amy Schumer, Jon Dore, Todd Barry, Tig Notaro, Sarah Silverman, Louie CK, Hannibal Burress, Brendon Walsh, Moshe Kasher, TJ Miller, Natasha Leggero, Chris D’elia, Jim Norton, Mike DeSteffano, Jeff Ross, Doug Benson, Eric Andre, Heather Lawless, Andrea Rosen, Nick Kroll, Joe Mande, Morgan Murphy, Marina Franklin, Marc Maron.
SO: My guess: Schumer, Notaro, Leggero, Rosen, Kroll, Walsh, Kasher, Silverman, Glass, Burress you like as people and comedians. The rest just as comedians. WE WILL NEVER KNOW for sure!
SO: What little, daily things in life make you smile?
CP: Old people, dogs, my nephews, sunshine, a guy wearing a turtleneck under a blazer.
SO: When was the last time you laughed, hard, out loud?
CP: The other night at Swingers these two waiters announced the food really funny. One was tall and had a shockingly booming voice saying “Small Greek salad” and the other one was very short and had a cartoonish tiny voice saying: “Soy milk.” As a tag team they were unstoppable. It was like a cartoon. I was crying. You def had to be there but still close your eyes and try to imagine it as hard as you can before you decide the anecdote sucked. Anecdotes are tough.
SO: I’m picturing it, and now I wonder if the image in my head is actually what they look like. Love it. Small Greek salad and soy milk though? Highly questionable. Thanks Chelsea!