Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Chelsea Peretti Interview

Photo by Gaelen Hadlett

I interviewed the awesome & funny comedian Chelsea Peretti for The Sound of Young America's blog, Maximum Fun. This is the longer version, exclusive to my site.

Chelsea Peretti is a NY-based comedian, writer, and member of the 4-woman sketch group, the Variety Shac. She is the co-creator of the New York City Rejection Line at (212) 479-7990 and of the web satire blackpeopleloveus.com. She is also the creator of two original series for online humour site SuperDeluxe. Variety Shac recently released their first DVD collecting their short videos and sketches and they are currently working on a pilot for Adult Swim. I spoke to Chelsea over IM about her influences, her writing career and her inspiration for her internet series, “All My Exes.

AM: How are you today, Chelsea?

Chelsea: Pretty good. Hiding out from rain.

AM: Yikes, I can relate. It's something like minus 25 up in Ottawa

CP: Did you have to look that up in your notes? What's Ottawa like?

AM: Something something igloo northern stereotypes.

CP: Got any links so I can imagine the landscape?

AM: http://www.galenfrysinger.com/americas/ottawa01.jpg

CP: Ohhh!!

AM: Here's Parliament. It's like a more boring version of the American one. But I still like it.

CP: Are you one of those people on the lawn or the guy to the right by the van?

Is it cold? Wait!

You already told me it is.

AM: I like to think of myself as the van guy.

CP: Yeah, he has a purposeful stride.

AM: Oh, wait! I have questions!

CP: Oooooh!!! Perfect!

AM: Awesome. What inspired you to get into comedy in the first place.

CP: Hmm. Well, I always liked it. And generally dealt with problems through humor, growing up. But I was into theatre from a young age, and then in college did improv because I hated the theatre department. Then after college temping (and thinking I would be an actor) I met a standup comic who took me to my first open mic. So I guess she was my initial inspiration.

AM: Who were your favourite comedians growing up?

CP: I liked all kinds of stuff, my dad loved Jonathan Winters so he introduced me to him.

I went and saw Martin Lawrence perform when I was in Jr. High. I loved Gilda Radner, I Love Lucy, Wonder Years, Cosby Show, Monty Python, and Steve Martin movies like The Jerk and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. I had a birthday party where we watched Top Secret.

AM: Oh, I love Top Secret.

C: Yeah. I liked Married with Children lots and Roseanne. I can't really remember as much with standup. I know I watched [Eddie Murphy’s] Raw with my grandmother. That was lame (watching it with her). And Def Comedy Jam when I was in Jr. High was big, and In Living Color.

AM: Haha, that's nice you could share that with her. With all these disparate influences, had you considered doing standup or any other comedic medium before the open mic?

CP: I don't think so in terms of standup.

AM: You did do improv in college as you mentioned

CP: I thought I would be an actor. I don't think I was exposed to standup much so it didn't occur to me. I identify much more with comedians than actors as personality types

I liked heavy theatre like Endgame and absurdist stuff like [Eugene] Ionesco or Tennessee Williams or Angels in America. I like dark comedy too, like House of Yes or Welcome to the Dollhouse, so it’s probably not that different in a way.

AM: So when you wanted to be an actor, did you want to be primarily a comedic actor? Drawing from the shows and movies you mentioned, say, more of a Steve Martin than a Val Kilmer?

CP: I don't remember. I mean like I said, I was drawn to dark stuff but also comedy - but really I was thinking I would be a theatre actor.

But pretty much as soon as I found the NY comedy scene I knew it I wanted to do that, I think. I mean I had nothing going on as an actor. I had graduated from school and started temping.

I don't remember being torn about giving up theatre in exchange for comedy largely because I there was nothing to give up...but also because the comedy scene here just sort of naturally sucked me in.

AM: After the open mic experience, what were you doing comedy wise? Were you going to open mics and standup nights while you were temping on a regular basis?

CP: Probably not. I used to go dancing a lot. Writing is also a big part of what I did so I was going to clubs and dancing a lot. And there used to be this nightlife mag called Flyer. It was small and the size of a little club flyer and they had tiny editorials.

So I walked in their office and asked if I could write for them. They gave me some freelance work and that led to a contact at the Voice [New York based magazine The Village Voice.] I applied for an internship and got one with [Voice music editor] Chuck Eddy, so I started interning and then would pitch little nightlife listings. They paid and a couple little articles were open for pitches so I did that. I also interned at SNL in college so comedy was there, definitely, prior to the first open mic.

AM: These nightlife blurbs, were they kind of like the Night Life section in the New Yorker? Little show blurbs?

CP: Yes. I was writing up theatre and music listings. Being a critic is not for me but it taught me a lot about how things work. Seeing the press releases come in for different shows and it acquainted me with what was going on.

AM: In terms of writing, were you writing anything outside of these listings for the Voice and Flyer?

C: I did some random stuff: a little thing for Details, 24-7, Jest, the comedy magazine, girlcomic.net and some other random stuff.

AM: Did you write anything not on assignment? Short comedic articles like Woody Allen or Steve Martin do for the New Yorker, for example? I guess I'm just trying to trace your writing process back to that period.

CP: I was writing jokes for my "act". At the time, just trying to figure out what to say on stage. I don't like humor writing that much

AM: At this point, you were going to open mics, right?

CP: Yes, I did do some skits in the beginning. One with my college friend and later with [NY comedian] Bobby Tisdale. We did a bunch for a while.

AM: So were you now doing standup/skits on a fairly regular basis?

C: Yeah. I was basically having extremely low rent and breaking even off of my writing jobs, then I wrote for a videogame.

The other thing that was consuming lots of time in the first years out of college was the [NY] rejection line and blackpeopleloveus.com. Two projects I did with my brother that were internet based, when I was still very new to standup.

AM: How did Variety Shac end up coming together, on a related topic?

CP: Well, Andrea [Rosen] and Heather [Lawless] and I did standup and knew each other from that.

AM: Were they also doing the same open mic nights at clubs?

C: At that point, I wasn't really doing open mic nights. Also, even in the first few years I wasn't primarily at clubs. It was more random venues like Rififi, Parkside Lounge, Gershwin Hotel, Nightengales and B3.

AM: Were these paid gigs?

CP: No! Often you had to pay at the place itself! Like pay $5 to do a 5 minute set. It sucked.

AM: Really?

CP: Yeah. And it would be all aspiring comedians to make the "audience"

AM: That's awfully depressing, actually

CP :Yes. And lots of the aspiring comedians were just crazy people. Could be very depressing slash hilarious.

AM: Did you meet Heather and Andrea at these pay-to-perform shows?

CP: That was for a few years I think, then once I got a little bit better, there were rooms to do that were harder to get spots on and had consistently good lineups. And I started to do them. And that's when I met Andrea and Heather. Shonali [Bhowmik] had recently moved from ATL and her band [Tigers & Monkeys] had opened for David Cross on some tour. So when she moved here she hung out at comedy places and I met her that way. She came up and talked to me about blackpeopleloveus at Rififi.

AM: Had you, Heather, and Andrea collaborated at all at this point, beyond performing at the same shows?

CP: No, just all guesting on other peoples shows. We all wanted to make short films and decided we would premiere a new short at every show (our show is monthly.) It was a really fun homey feeling and a great place to try new bits.

AM: Were each of you all directing and starring in your own shorts, or did you work together on the shorts?

CP: Together. It was my first experience with shooting and editing and basically telling a story or making jokes on film. I learned so much.

AM: So you were writing together, acting together? Did the other girls have some film making experience?

CP: I don't think much, no. And we mostly improvised.

AM: What is your writing process like for the mediums you mostly work with? Namely standup, skits, and prepared film shorts.

CP: For standup, the best jokes seem like they come up in conversation or in the shower or traveling. But also lately finding more stuff onstage. Sketch I don't do much anymore. But Bobby [Tisdale] and I used to sort of talk through ideas and improvise them, then get onstage and do them.

The Shac shorts are largely improvised but we try to discuss the overall concept and shape. And each of us will usually bring something a line or a bit or a character we want to involve.

All My Exes I scripted. I have a flow outlined and some good lines ready - but then had the exes improvise responses to my questions

AM: Is there a lot of editing after the fact for the Shac shorts and All My Exes? I would imagine more so for the latter.

CP: AME is more scripted by far and that generally made editing easier.

Shac editing has been very involved for the most part. Due to the improv nature of it, the story has often been edited together.

AM: How did you end up working with the guests in the VS shorts and All My Exes? I know some, like Fred Armisen, are involved in the NY comedy scene.

CP: Fred wanted to do it, I think. I think we all knew him, can't remember totally.

Andy [Milonakis] had been hanging out in NY a bunch and we'd been hanging and having lots of fun. I mean all the Shac guests are people we knew and one or all of us were friends with or social with. For All My Exes, Dan Pasternak [head of development for Super Deluxe] hooked me up with Jonathan Winters and Pras. I asked Fred, Amy [Poehler] and Ze [Frank].

AM: How did you get involved with the site? I know anyone can make and upload their own work but you were known on the comedy scene, like a lot of the talent recruited by SD initially.

CP: I had met Mark Krantz [Super Deluxe] in Aspen and he contacted me about it later.

AM: Did he ask you to make an original series from the start?

CP: He wanted me to get involved. I pitched some ideas, and then did Making Friends, a man on the street show, where I tried to see if I was compatible for friendship with a bunch of pedestrians.

AM: Are you still planning to do more installments of Making Friends or are you doing All My Exes full time?

CP: Both are done shooting. 3 episodes of MF and 6 of AME.

AM: Where did the idea for All My Exes come from?

CP: I can't remember, went in to talk to Mark and Daniel Weidenfeld [of Super Deluxe] about it. Various ideas and that one we all got into and tossed around ideas. It just was the one that got us all excited.

One thing I've always thought would be if you could put all the people you've dated into a room or photo. Just how funny the photo would be, just lots of different types of people, like a circus.

And I've also always thought the idea of journalists being objective was funny

so the idea of putting something so subjective (matters of the heart) and so clearly personal into this journalistic interview format was funny to me

AM: You have a lot of online projects, including your blog, the Super Deluxe series and your web projects with "The Rejection Line" & "Black People Love Us". Do you think the internet has opened a new venue for comedians who might not otherwise get much exposure outside of their local scenes?

CP: I think the internet is so saturated now that you're not really guaranteed "exposure" just because you upload a clip.

AM: Absolutely.

CP: Maybe your friends will see it but I still think you need to be talented and/or aggressive/strategic to have any kind of high impact project online. Or be a freakshow that people will laugh at or have a heckler attack you during your set, etc. The kind of things internet people will flock to.

AM: I think Super Deluxe does grants a level of "prestige" to some extent as well. If you look at the lineup of featured shows and contributing comedians compared to you know, a bunch of high schoolers spamming people's pages trying to get them to subscribe on Youtube, for example.

CP: Yeah, I think that was the idea - high quality and curated.

AM: It's interesting to see older comedians like Richard Belzer & Dave Foley who are from a generation that didn't experience the internet until much later in their lives, making videos as well.

CP: Yeah. Well, also seeing people who have exposure and have money and success. Sometimes it's almost like celebrities are trying to emulate the energy of these more DIY vid, from kids who want to be an internet hit for the exposure, for a shot at fame. But I think they are drawn to the immediacy and creative freedom

AM: Right. I think that's the biggest difference from pre-internet days-you can build up an audience without touring outside your immediate area.

I just wanted to get your thoughts on that, since you have so much stuff out there on the web right now.

CP: I have a love hate relationship with the internet but then I have a love hate relationship with pretty much everything.

AM: What else are you working on? "What's next for comedian Chelsea Peretti"?

CP: I am going to LA at the end of the month to do some shows with Fred Armisen (just opened for him in Tallahassee at FSU) and do some other stuff.

Doing lots of standup. Oh and Shac- we are working on our pilot for Adult Swim

AM: I heard about that! I was pretty excited about it. Are the four of you still in the process of writing it?

CP: Yeah, getting closer. It's really cool so far

AM: Is it all new material or is it like the Human Giant MTV series where some of the older stuff is revamped with newer stuff?

CP: Well, there's a very new feel to it in lots of secret ways!

AM: Do you want to keep it under wraps for now?

CP: Yeah!

AM: OK, that's cool. That was the fanboy in me getting all jittery. I'll try to keep him under control.

CP: Haha. Soon enough we'll see what happens.

AM: Are you doing anything more for Super Deluxe after Making Friends & All My Exes are done?

CP: I’m not sure. Possible! I have been super into standup lately but starting to mull over a few ideas for other projects.

AM: Have you ever thought about an album or DVD?

CP: I haven't thought yet about a standup DVD but someday would love to.

AM: Well, Chelsea, that's all I got. Thanks so much. I really enjoyed talking to ya.

C: Standard!

6 comments:

  1. Great interview. I had heard of Andrea Rosen and Heather Lawless 'cause they did stuff with the Stella people before, but I hadn't heard of Chelsea until now. Looks like she's got a lot to watch on her site too. I'm interested to see what they have going with Adult Swim.

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  2. All very funny ladies. Go watch Andrea's web series, "Standrea" on Super Deluxe too, it's hilarious.
    I have high hopes for the Variety Shac series, I think it has great potential to be awesome.
    Thanks for the comment, Joseph.

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  3. cool interview...

    she's been on my radar since sometime last year (when she sank my battleship).

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  4. Wow, appreciate that, Rafi.

    You played Battleship with Chelsea? I'm confused.

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  5. no, never. "on my radar" joke was an abysmal failure.

    this is why i'm not a professional comedian.

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  6. Ah, it all makes sense. No worries, man.

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