When the comedian Patti Harrison was asked to address President Trump’s transgender military ban on the Tonight Show, she was only scratching the surface of her comedy. “Donald, you’re so stupid,” she said, invoking Trump’s New York patois. “You are soooo stupid. You’re lucky you’re so hot.” A deeper dive into Harrison’s oeuvre of stand-up bits, tweets, and YouTube videos yields something delusional, crass, and utterly alien to the world of mainstream comedy embodied by Jimmy Fallon. It’s just one of the reasons Harrison has quickly garnered a cult following — bolstered, no doubt, by her role in Hulu’s Shrill, the Aidy Bryant-starring series adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir. Playing the office coordinator, Ruthie, she dishes out ludicrously bitchy one-liners — something that comes naturally to Harrison, who’s leveraged her innate talent for nasty jokes into a seat in the writer’s room of Big Mouth, Nick Kroll’s animated puberty comedy for Netflix. Whether on late-night television or raiding the festival stage at Governor’s Ball, Harrison turns any joke into her own personal plaything, tossing it around like a Hacky Sack, before kicking the stuffing out of it. Routinely poking fun at straight person inefficacy, feminine mores, her anxieties, and her allergies, Harrison thrives in the throes of discomfort.
If you were to trace the genetic material of Harrison’s humor, the comedian Tim Heidecker would appear in the test results. The pioneer of absurd, deadpan humor as one-half of the duo behind Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! on Adult Swim, Heidecker is something of a human ground-zero for the free-for-all, surrealist early internet humor that has gradually distilled into mainstream consciousness. After a decade of Tim and Eric, he’s gone on to direct commercials for light bulbs and pizza rolls, become a cult film critic, and release a slew of albums with a political, folk-y bent. His latest, Another Year in Hell: Collected Songs from 2018, was released shortly before his appearance as a boat-owning sleazebag in Jordan Peele’s Us. Over a spotty conference call across LA, Heidecker and Harrison spoke about all the things that would naturally arise in conversation: Trump, Twitter trolls, Zyrtec, men without chins, and 14-foot-long tiger sharks. —SARAH NECHAMKIN
TIM HEIDECKER: Let’s get into it. I love a good conference call. People talking over each other.
PATTI HARRISON: Yeah, conference calls are really good. I just took a Zyrtec so I’m kind of like crazed off of that right now. It’s probably best you don’t see all the effects it’s taking on my psyche.
HEIDECKER: What does that prescription do? I’ve never heard of it.
HARRISON: Zyrtec is an over-the-counter 24-hour allergy medicine that helps me. It’s my favorite food. You gotta get some Zyrtec while you’re in Glendale.
HEIDECKER: The pollen’s out of control. I’m allergic to butterflies so it’s been a terrible couple of days for me. Are you sick of the butterflies yet?
HARRISON: Yeah, I’ve been shooting at them. I have a concealed carry, so I actually have a few guns that I keep. I keep them in my big, giant high-waisted fashion pants at all times, and I have two small pink pistols because I’m a woman.
HEIDECKER: Are you familiar with my work?
HARRISON: Long time fan. Baby girl, I truly am. I was born in ‘99, so… Wait, I’m sorry, I was born in 2004. I’m 28.
HEIDECKER: But you’re not intimidated by this conversation because it’s me you’re talking to?
HARRISON: I am nervous.
HEIDECKER: You should be. You should be trembling with fear.
HARRISON: I don’t feel safe. I won’t say anything about it for like ten years, but then I’m gonna write the Medium post that will rock your world. And I’m gonna take Sarah down too.
SARAH NECHAMKIN: [Laughs nervously.]
HEIDECKER: Let me start with some biographical stuff. 1964, you married George Harrison, and then you ended up with Eric Clapton. How did that transition happen? I know a little bit about it, but maybe you could speak to it.
HARRISON: Sure thing. So, at the time I was with George Harrison and that was great. It did have its flaws, codependent a little bit. But then Eric Clapton wrote this really amazing song about me.
HARRISON: No, it was called “ET.” He wrote it for Katy Perry. It’s basically about a love that’s so crazy it’s out of this world. Things went downhill from there.
HEIDECKER: Are you naturally attracted to men without chins?
HARRISON: I think I feel safer. I’ve been in some situations where I’ve kissed men with chins, and their chins are so strong it just separates my jaw. I’ve been in the hospital so many times from these really really violent kisses with these men with chins. If you have a soft chin you can write an amazing song about me that involves an alien from my favorite movie, and then I’m yours.
HEIDECKER: Tell me about where you grew up and who you are because I was too lazy to read the Wikipedia page.
HARRISON: I’m from a town in Ohio called Orient.
HARRISON: What is that nasty noise? If Ohio was a food, it would be Benadryl. If Chicago was pizza, Ohio is Benadryl, or some sort of generic over-the-counter.
HARRISON: Zyrtec is really wonderful, and I suggest taking it because I’m highly functional on it, and it’s actually improved the quality of my life.
HEIDECKER: So Zyrtec is more like Ojai.
HARRISON: Benadryl is to Culver City as Zyrtec is to Ojai. I’ve never been to Culver City or Ojai.
HEIDECKER: Did you come from money?
HARRISON: No. My family is very poor. My mom is from Vietnam, and my dad is a good old American boy from Detroit. He was in the army — they met during the Vietnam War.
HEIDECKER: Are they still together?
HARRISON: My dad died.
HEIDECKER: I’m sorry to hear that.
HARRISON: He was killed by a 14-foot-long tiger shark. It was really bad. He died when I was very young. He also wasn’t killed by a tiger shark.
HEIDECKER: Listen, who knows. I’m not gonna step in there and go, “You’re kidding,” right?
HARRISON: If I tell you the real story of how he died, you gotta promise not to fall asleep. He had a heart attack because he didn’t eat very well.
HEIDECKER: See, that’s exactly what’s gonna happen to me. I just had a cheeseburger and French fries for lunch. I had hashbrowns and eggs for breakfast. I’m a ticking time bomb. I’m not long for the world. I am starting to consider my own mortality as a 43-year-old man with children.
HARRISON: Where are your kids right now?
HEIDECKER: They’re upstairs running around spraying each other with water. I’m hiding from them.
HARRISON: TMI. I shouldn’t have asked. Does the fear of your mortality have anything to do with you being a parent?
HEIDECKER: Of course. I’d feel so bad for them if I died because I’m such a good dad, and I’m so fun to be around. It would just be a real tragedy in their lives to not have me in them every day.
HARRISON: I think they would be sad if you died because I think that once you died they wouldn’t have anyone to dab with anymore. And they wouldn’t have anyone to be downstairs when they’re spraying themselves with water.
HEIDECKER: I want to get this back on track. This is Interview Magazine, okay? This is not BrooklynVegan here. You are a comedian. How did you start doing that?
HARRISON: In college, I did improv comedy. My entire improv team moved to Chicago together and then I was gonna do that, but I quit school and came out as trans and moved home for two years. I had a couple of close friends in New York that were like, “You should move to New York because you won’t have to drive.” I don’t have a driver’s license.
HEIDECKER: Welcome to LA. Now you’re here, and the Hollywood scene is full of pedophiles who are really good at what they do. We try to protect them as much as we can, give them a safe space.
HARRISON: Everyone loves the sun, even pedophiles.
HEIDECKER: It’s funny how pedophilia seems to have turned into this weapon used by right wing people like Mike Cernovic. It’s this scarlet letter. They try to pin everybody here as a pedophile, like we’re all part of some secret organization. When you’re trying to think of the most absurd, scary kind of thing, that’s top of the list. When we made Tim and Eric, people were like, “Your show is full of pedophile imagery.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but we’re making a show to shock you and gross you out. What did you think we were gonna do?”
HARRISON: There’s humor in the abject and feeling uncomfortable. It’s very interesting with Twitter. People go to Twitter for two things: They go for news, and they go for humor. Unfortunately, those two things overlap now. There’s a lack of nuance in any of the discussion that’s happening, and because I have a politicized identity, as a trans person, I am expected to speak on a lot of stuff. And I’m just like, I’m a comedian from Ohio who fucking loves Fazoli’s.
HEIDECKER: There are very few ideas that can be expressed succinctly and definitively in written form. That’s the trap of Twitter. You can’t really say what you mean without it being misinterpreted or misunderstood.
HARRISON: I don’t want to ever depoliticize or become apolitical, but I’ve definitely changed how engaged I am with making explicitly political posts that aren’t jokes. Most of my tweets now are like, “This is such a fucking important conversation to have right now. I’m just gonna go vivisect myself in the backyard. Can you come pull my brain stem out?” Sadly, if I tweet something political, I get buried in alt-right people. It can be exhausting if I look at it too much, so I try not to engage.
HEIDECKER: Has has your comedy always been political? Have you always used your knowledge or experience with world events as inspiration for your material?
HARRISON: I’ve never been super articulate about anything or felt that confident. I know what my morals are if I sat them down, but I don’t think I would be able to succinctly express them because I feel like I have mud in my brain all the time because I’m unmedicated and I have ADD.
HEIDECKER: It might also not be funny or entertaining, which is ultimately why we’re doing what we’re doing, right?
HARRISON: Exactly. I’m trans and I have to think about it all the time. As soon as I wake up, as soon as I step out the door. It’s a huge thing in my life that I rarely get to step away from, to think about other parts of me and how I navigate the world. It’s funny that being a marginalized identity, people project their own narratives onto stuff that I do. The first big break of my career as a comedian was a bit that I did on the Tonight Show. They brought me on because they wanted a trans person to address Trump’s military ban, which I think is great, but that was a piece that obviously didn’t speak to my actual sense of humor. It was a team of writers for network TV. It had to be really soft and diplomatic. I don’t think I’m very funny when it comes to speaking about politics. I get very depressed when I think about this administration. I get emotionally over-encumbered.
HEIDECKER: How does that fascination with your identity factor into your stand-up? How much do you think about it when you perform?
HARRISON: When I moved to New York to do comedy professionally, I had this little mission in my brain: I’m not going to address being trans on stage. I don’t care if people know that I’m trans, but I don’t want it to be in my act, because this is my little space where I go to not think about anything else. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed.
HEIDECKER: Patti Harrison, the Trans Comic.
HARRISON: It really is that. I used be resentful of it. It’s easy for me to become eye-rolly as someone on one of the coasts, but there are people in this country that will probably not see a trans person in their entire lives. More people are taking interest in the stories of trans people, and ultimately that’s an opportunity to humanize trans people to people who might not meet them in a positive circumstance, where their entire perceptions are informed by TV shows like Friends. But there are people seeking to capitalize off that inauthentically without doing the work. There are people that Google me, and the first thing that comes up is the Tonight Show bit. My actual material is a lot more gross and blue, and they’re angry at me for doing that. And I’m like, “I thought you understood what I was doing. But apparently, you did the minimum, you did no work, no research about what I actually like to do.” That is my little act of resistance.
HEIDECKER: Don’t give them exactly what they want.
HARRISON: There were a lot of compromises early on, where I was doing things for paychecks because I was broke that were capitalizing off me being trans, and it didn’t feel good.
HEIDECKER: I understand the predicament. You would not have a long career if that was your only angle, the only thing you offered. If I was to give you any kind of fatherly advice here …
HARRISON: I grew up without a dad, so this would be cool.
HEIDECKER: I now have 3 children.
HARRISON: You have a trans adult child. You can have the bumper sticker for your Tesla drone or whatever.
HEIDECKER: It would say: “I am a proud parent of an adult trans person.”
HARRISON: You make things that a lot of people love. It’s brought me endless joy throughout my formative years when I was working through this stuff. There are so many different kinds of people who love Tim and Eric — it’s not just one demographic. Do you feel any pushback from people that are your fans for doing political music, or saying anything political?
HEIDECKER: There are people who really want you to be one thing. Certainly, there are conservatives who love Tim and Eric, and when I start saying shit about Trump or positive things about some left-leaning person, they pull the old classic “Stick to comedy” or “You don’t know anything about the world.” Perhaps, I’ve lost them as fans. From the beginning of when Eric and I were making stuff, if you looked on message boards, the reactions were very negative. I’ve existed in my career with this contentious, negative attitude towards it that, for a long time, held a lot of weight. A hundred thumbs up are less important than one “You suck.” That’s just the way our brains work. But I’ve built a thick skin. Everything I put out, I’m a fan of.
HARRISON: The following that I have through comedy is so much smaller than yours, and most of the people who follow me agree with me politically. I have a marginalized niche. But even with that, I’m still terrified to speak up sometimes or do something that’s more earnest. I can’t imagine what that feels like for you. But also, I’m probably online more than you and I don’t have any kids.
HEIDECKER: Oh baby. I make time for my online.
HARRISON: Okay, that’s good.
HEIDECKER: I would hope that there is an audience out there for you that might not agree with everything you say and are not comfortable with your identity, but who still find it interesting to be challenged or to experience a new perspective and can appreciate that. I think there are people out there who are looking to be pushed a little bit.
HARRISON: That’s the dream. That’s the pressure of not wanting to be seen as an ambassador when people who are of opposing viewpoints are listening to me talk. I think it is fruitful for me to lead with what I think is funny, and hopefully that will open a little door of intrigue or empathy as to what informs my humor — which, of course, is my life experience. That’s the power of humor that is really beautiful. I know that is pretty controversial to say. I’m walking on eggshells right now saying that comedy brings people together and makes people laugh.
HEIDECKER: Where do you want to be in your career in 5 years?
HARRISON: I’m at a point where I can pivot into acting more, and that was originally appealing, but now I’ve realized what that entails, which is mostly the way I look constantly being under a microscope and a part of a business transaction — which is very horrific for someone who has body dysmorphia and a lot of anxiety. The first thing you do is sit in a hair and makeup chair, and they’re like, “Oh, your hair is thinning. You have dark circles.” That is devastating to me every time I sit down. LA is fucking vain, and everyone is beautiful. I know I’m the first person that’s ever said that, which is very exciting to me. But I would like to have made something, whether that is a TV show or a movie, that an 18-year-old me would be very proud of. What do you want to do when you’re 28?
HEIDECKER: When I retire, I want to be in a position where there’s never pressure to make something. I’m not far from that, but there’s still a feeling of keeping the machine going a bit.
HARRISON: Are you going to let your kids get into the business?
HEIDECKER: I just taught my daughter how to play “Ba Ba Black Sheep” on the piano and she picked up on it pretty quick. I’m thinking, “Oh wow. We’ve got a talent in the house.”
HARRISON: Can I be blunt and say that’s not a hard song to learn at all? If she’s proud of herself for learning “Ba Ba Black Sheep,” what do you think any sort of TV deal is going to do to her personality? What do you think her getting a head shot is going to do to her personality?
HEIDECKER: Next up is “Flight of the Bumblebee.”