Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian best known for her impressions of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The political humor videos she made for the Huffington Post‘s humor site during the 2008 election earned her a Webby nomination – but she lost to Isabella Rosellini. Her web series “Gettin’ Wet with Sara B.,” in which she interviews other comedians in the bathtub, makes this interview series look totally weak. And, like the ladies of Feministing, she’s also a Mad Men fan, if her video “If Peggy Vlogged” is anything to go by.
Sara’s one-woman show about agoraphobia and panic attacks, Agorafabulous, was a smashing success in the States, and this week Sara is in Oslo, Norway, performing the show at the Norwegian Storytelling Festival (as she noted on Twitter, the irony of traveling around the world to perform a show about agoraphobia is not lost on her). She’s also turning Agorafabulous into a book, which will be out soon. And she regularly performs her other live show, Family Hour with Auntie Sara, downtown in NYC. There are free cookies.
In other words, Sara Benincasa is one cool and very funny lady, with excellent taste in television and a commitment to spreading the gospel of baked goods. And during our interview, she was so excited about the food she ordered that her initial answer to the question “who is your heroine in real life?” was “whoever made this hummus.”
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Sara Benincasa.
Chloe Angyal: How did you know that you wanted to be a comedian, and how did you get your start in comedy?
Sara Benincasa: I started doing standup in 2006. I had done Americorps in Mexico for a year, teaching high school. And I had intended to move back to North Carolina where I had gone to college, and move in with my boyfriend and get engaged and have babies and a garden and be happy forever. And then he broke up with me, which threw a wrench in those plans. I had applied to graduate school in North Carolina and had gotten in with a full scholarship, and I had also applied to Columbia Teacher’s College in New York and had gotten in with no scholarship. It had always been a dream of mine to go to Columbia and live in New York City, but because I grew up agoraphobia, I thought that would always remain a fantasy. I thought that city life would never really be for me. But when my boyfriend did me the favor of breaking up with me, I thought to myself, “Well, I can’t go back to our little town in North Carolina.” It’s beautiful, but I knew I would run into him, and I couldn’t do that. So I called Columbia and asked if they would still take me, and they said, “Yes, but you’re going to have to take out a lot of loans.” So I became best friends with Sallie Mae, who is my girlfriend, and who will probably be my life partner until death, or at least until menopause, and that’s how I ended up here in New York.
I realized very quickly that I did not want to be a teacher, in contrast to all the women around me who were so enthusiastic and passionate. I was sad, so I cracked a lot of jokes in class. And at one point, one of the other students said “you’re really funny, you should do comedy.” She had just quit her job in the talent department at Comedy Central. She said “you’re really funny, and I think you should get into this.” So she took me around to the different comedy clubs and explained to me how things worked, what the difference is between the mainstream clubs and the alternative clubs, or between a manager and an agent, and all that stuff. She showed me the ropes.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
SB: Claudia, from From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s a children’s book about a little girl who decides she’s tired of her life in the suburbs of Connecticut. She’s tired of being the only girl in the family, and she’s tired of being the one who always has to clean up while her brothers get to watch TV, and she says she’s going to run away to some place elegant and beautiful. She runs away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she brings her brother Jamie because he’s funny and smart. They bathe in the fountain, and they sleep in the five hundred year old French royal bed, and spent a lot of time sneaking around hiding from security. It’s this wonderful book, a love affair with New York, and eventually they go home and they’re safe – there’s no real danger in the book, and it’s such a wonderful escape for a child to read about another child who goes out on her own. In reality, of course, runaways aren’t usually so lucky, so it’s a very idyllic book about running away, but the story is really fun. She was a little mini-feminist who didn’t know it. And I’ve loved the Met ever since I read that book.
My heroine in real life is the late Molly Ivins, the journalist. She was someone who was so gifted that she made politics and the Texas state legislature relevant to the whole world. And as she got into covering national politics as well, she had such a unique voice that didn’t feel forced or false. My favorite story about her is that she was the Bureau Chief for the New York Times‘ Rocky Mountain bureau. And she was fired because she described an illegal cockfight as a “gang pluck.” And I read about that, and it made me so happy. She has this great quote, she said, “Keep fighting for justice and freedom, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it.” She was great; I wish I had gotten to meet her.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
SB: There’s so many. I was pretty pissed when I saw that Vanity Fair, which is a publication I usually admire, had devoted a bunch of space to the women Tiger Woods had fucked. That seemed to be such a waste of space in a magazine that I associate with great journalism, and with a certain level of class, for lack of a better word. Why is this a story? So many people read this brilliant magazine, and they’re wasting time covering these women who this rich man cheated on his wife with? Why is that important? I understand that not everything can be deep and important, and that sometimes you have to do fun, light, fluffy stuff, but to me that wasn’t fluffy stuff, it was just sort of embarrassing. And I say that as someone who talks about fluffy stuff all the time, and who really likes pop culture, so I don’t mean to be a hypocrite, but it made me really angry.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
SB: I think the greatest challenge facing feminism today is something we have faced throughout our history, which is that we are perceived as whiny and unimportant. We are perceived as protesting something that was fixed when we got the vote. I think that we need to take part of the blame for that, actually. Certainly sexism plays a huge part, and there are people who are happy to dismiss feminists as whiny and annoying, but I think it’s also important that we not take ourselves too seriously. I think there’s a way to advocate very strongly for women and to put forth one’s views, but to also retain a sense of humor. I think that the stereotype of the humorless feminist is not true, but it does occur sometimes. It exists for a reason. I think that sometimes, out of good intentions, we get so focused on putting forth our talking points that we forget that you need to sell this shit a little bit. You’ve got to be a sales person; you can call it disingenuous, you can call it bullshit, you can call it selling out, but the truth is, you’ve got to sell you shit, put a little glitz and glamour on it. You have to make it funny and interesting and digestible, and if you come off as someone who’s just pissed off all the time, that’s not going to work. Unless you are a conservative, because they love that shit. When it comes to liberals, it just doesn’t work.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to bring one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
SB: I would bring bread, because it is awesome. I would marry it and have sex with it, and have little hybrid bread-Benincasa babies. I would love them so much, and take care of them, and teach them right from wrong. I would bring mint lemonade from Le Pain Quotidien. I don’t know if Joseph Gordon Levitt is a feminist. I like to think that he is. I would need to interview him, and see how he behaved in certain situations including, but not limited to, going down on me. If, in fact, he proved himself to be a generous cunnilinguist and feminist, he would come with me.