NAOMI EKPERIGIN IN NEW YORK, JANUARY 2017. MAKEUP: NARS SOFT MATTE COMPLETE CONCEALER IN AMANDE.
Gender prejudice and polarization have long plagued the comedy world. Already underrepresented on club lineups, it would seem that female comedians are always being tasked with additional stipulations on their intelligence, beauty, brashness, and candor. As a stand-up comic and writer for Broad City, a show founded on female friendship and noted for its feminist themes, Naomi Ekperigin continually challenges these notions that deny women the right to be funny. “When you’re a man who’s talking about something unseemly, it’s perceived as something that’s bold or vulnerable,” she explains. “If a woman does it, it’s too much or gross or shock value, as opposed to just speaking to her experience.” While it’s her observational style that’s gotten her laughs, it is Ekperigin’s awareness of comedy’s gendered and racial dynamics—and sharp understanding of how to move within them—that has secured her staying power. With Interview x NARS Cosmetics’ “The Art of Throwing Shade,” the New York native discusses the professional pivots that led her to stand-up, double standards among comics, and the reciprocal exchange of energy and ideas between funny women.
STARTING OUT: I was an editor at an art magazine until I was laid off in January of 2013. I thought that I was going to be a writer. I wanted to be a creative writer, and I was an English major. Then I also toyed with going to graduate school, which, why did I think that was a more stable job? [laughs] That’s where I was coming from. I worked for an art magazine and did not—and still do not—know about art. [laughs] I would do the job in the day and go do shows at night. They pushed me out in a way; when the magazine folded I was forced to give it a try in a way that I don’t know if I would have. I didn’t grow up thinking that not having money was cool. There was no way that I would have gone all in if I hadn’t gotten laid off.
My introduction to performing was in college in an improv group. Before that I didn’t do anything—I was not a comedy nerd or anyone who knew what any of that was. I just decided to audition for the improv group and I realized I really liked it. Towards the end of my time in college, I realized that what I liked the most was when I was on stage by myself. I did stand-up for the first time in 2007 at a bar in New York. It went really well, probably because a lot of my friends came, but it was a good introduction that made me feel like I should keep trying. The first time that I got paid to do stand-up was in 2009 when I was living in Australia. I went there for about a year and got a work visa. It was super fun and a big deal for me, because it really shifted my thinking as a stand-up. One, it was getting out of my comfort zone, going to a totally new place and figuring out that I can make people laugh. I also got paid $100 for a corporate gig. I did well and was like, “Oh my god, you can get a little money doing this?” So I resolved when I got home to keep doing this: “This can happen.”
ON SEXISM: I can’t really divorce issues around gender from issues around race. Just as there are far fewer women in comedy, there are fewer women of color in comedy. People always talk about being the one woman on the lineup, and that can happen just as often when you’re the only brown woman on the lineup. One of the things I felt is that as my career gets more legitimate, as it goes from me just performing in places to more writing and people coming to me looking to me to do things, sometimes I think that there’s that feeling of, “You should just be glad to be here. Don’t ruffle feathers, don’t have an attitude, don’t question.” Listen, if you’re a woman in comedy, by nature you’re opinionated. So as you pursue the career and start to build a business, it’s that personality that you’re bringing, the reason they hire you in the first place. But it may take them a second to realize that it’s not just a persona—I am someone who’s questioning, I am someone who’s analyzing. And that’s really off-putting in a way that it’s not when it’s coming from men. My fiancé and I met doing comedy and he’s more on the writing side. We were working on a project together last year, and it was so interesting to watch how he could say something and put it out—like if we were both having a problem or wanted to hash it out with someone, it would always be much better received when he initiated that conversation than when I did. If I said something, they would be like, “Well, there’s no need to get upset!” And I’d be like, “I wasn’t upset till you said that!” [laughs] It was really in doing that project that I started to see the double standard really starkly; I can feel it myself, but when I’m actually sitting there next to a person who has the exact same opinion as me, and [there are] differences in our gender and our race—I saw that there was a real difference there. As to how I respond to those situations, what keeps me sane and keeps me in control is to stay in the work. The idea is that you get so good that you can’t be denied. You get so much experience that you get to the point where you do get to call the shots. I can understand not wanting to give power to someone who hasn’t done the work, regardless of their gender. But for women to get as many of those experiences as quickly, you really, really have to hustle. I also feel that women don’t get the opportunity to make as many mistakes.
FEELING EMPOWERED: I’m sure many people have told you: listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade. [laughs] I’d say when I’m on stage and the audience is with me, when everything’s fire and when all the jokes are landing—when I’m so present. Sometimes you’ll be on stage and be in your head, thinking, “What’s the next thing? Are they liking this?” Kind of watching it as you’re doing it. It feels so good to just be in the moment and having fun; there’s nothing like that rush. And it’s not about the laughter, it’s not like, “Ooh, I made them laugh.” It’s that feeling of being understood, being accepted. A lot of my comedy is about personal situations, my feelings, and opinions about stuff. When someone laughs it’s because they get it, and when they get it it means I’m not alone, and I’m not so weird. Another thing that empowers me is hanging out with other funny women. When I’m around other smart, funny women, it really kicks me into high-gear and thinking about new things. If I sit down for dinner or coffee with other female comedians, I will come out of there with some new idea that I want to work on or write down.
BEAUTY AND CONFIDENCE: I am so bad at style and fashion. Growing up I was awkward, I was chubby; it was tons of awesome Mickey Mouse sweatshirts and wide-legged jeans. [laughs] In the early days of doing stand-up, I just wanted to be comfortable. That doesn’t mean sweatpants, it means jeans and, like, a nice top. There’s nothing more, no dramatic outfits. This past year I did a half hour special on Comedy Central and did a set on Late Night: Seth Meyers, and those two things—style, beauty—how are you presenting yourself on such a big scale? I realize again, the nature of being a stand-up is, “Look at me, engage with me, stay on board.” So I should look pleasing, somewhat, right? You don’t want to look too busted, or people are like, “Can you sit down? I can’t take it.” There are certain female comedians who love to wear dresses, and I imagine it’s because when you get on stage, it adds that sense of occasion, gives you that little bit of confidence. To me, it’s whatever you look good in or whatever you feel good in. I’m a jeans and shirt kind of girl—that’s what makes me feel the most comfortable. I also tend to pace a lot and can get physical, so if I’m in a skirt and suddenly decide I wanna do a deep lunge, that becomes a whole other bit. [laughs] I like to put on makeup. I just learned about eyebrows, and that’s really changed the game. It’s all about a thick brow. I would definitely say that when I put a little time into my outfit and get a little foundation going, it does make me feel better. It’s one less thing to be self-conscious about, and the fewer things I can get into my head about, it’s easier for me to be in my writing.