The Feministing Five: Emily Heller

And they said feminists have no sense of humor!

Whoever started the rumor clearly hasn’t seen Emily Heller perform. A New York transplant from San Francisco, Emily now brings her specific brand of funny to the East Coast. And as the warmup comic for W. Kamau Bell’s show on FX, she now joins the ranks of Totally Biased writers Hari Kondabolu and Janine Brito as part of the Feministing Five alumni. She performed on the third season of John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show on Comedy Central and was named one of Comedy Central’s Comics to Watch at the New York Comedy Festival. She won Rooftop Comedy‘s Silver Nail Award for up-and-coming stand-ups and named one of the “7 Funniest People in Town” by 7×7 Magazine. She also has a new series up on Above Average where she plays a tarot card reader for the likes of Kal Penn, Janeane Garofalo and Kenan Thompson, among others. Clearly, Emily Heller proves that feminism has a damn good sense of humor.

To be clear though, Emily’s comedy can be enjoyed by anyone. Joking about the freedom to yell obscenities when the Giants won the World Series, getting an ultrasound of her non-pregnant uterus while waiting for her adopted baby to arrive, and the idiocy of people thinking everyone in San Francisco is gay would make anyone LOL. What makes Emily great though is that she identifies as feminist in her stand-up and pokes fun at it. She acknowledges stereotypes, while satirizing their ridiculousness. She makes feminist theory light-hearted and jokes about using feminism as an excuse to be “lazy and disgusting” with her looks. Yeah, she had be with that last one.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Emily Heller.

Anna Sterling: Have you always been funny?

Emily Heller: I think so. I’ve always had a hard time watching my mouth, which lends itself to this profession pretty well I guess. Or just makes every other profession an impossibility. I was voted funniest in my class in 8th grade, but I campaigned for it so I don’t think that counts.

AS: Like you mentioned in your standup, we have a bit of a recruiting problem. How can we make feminism funnier and more appealing to a mass audience?

EH: It really is hard, isn’t it? I think the biggest PR problem feminists have is that people don’t really know what feminism is. They don’t realize that feminism just means “people who believe in equality.” They think it’s “radical castrating humorless bitches who don’t want anyone to have any fun.” And they think, “Well, I don’t agree with those people, so I must not be a feminist.” And I don’t think we’re blameless for that perception!

I think there are a lot of things we can do to de-stigmatize the F-word. As with most social issues, I don’t think any one strategy is supreme. The important thing is to have people working at it from a bunch of different angles. So while it’s important that we have people who are angry and yelling and dissecting our culture, I think we also need people out there who are fun, friendly, ethical, gentle, and patient with people who don’t see their own privilege. We need to show dumb dudes that we’re their friends, too. Otherwise they really have no incentive to work with us. Comedy works well for that, because if you’re laughing at my fart jokes you’re not thinking about what a bitch I am for a minute.

AS: Your standup pieces on feminism are hilarious. What kind of reactions do you usually get from audience members?

EH: Thank you so much! What’s really great is, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, I think those jokes are funny to feminists  and misogynists alike. The point isn’t “I’m a feminist and you should be too.” The point is “I’m a feminist and here’s what that’s like for me.” So anyone can enjoy it, and hopefully people leave feeling like they’ve seen a different way to be a feminist, too. A lot of women thank me, which is strange. I’ve definitely heard from audience members that the jokes have started discussions about feminism on the ride home from the show.

In terms of my colleagues, simply identifying as a feminist onstage has made me a bit of a resource for guys who are curious how feminists feel about stuff. I spend a lot of time with really great, funny, talented, kind dudes who also don’t think sexism is a problem in our country at the same time! We’re friends, we talk about it, and because they know where I stand on stuff, they ask me questions and I think it’s helpful for both of us. It’s a conversation we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

AS: What’s the difference between thinking you’re funny and actually being funny? Any tips for aspiring comedians reluctant to put pen to paper?

EH: You’ll only find out by trying it. There are a ton of unfunny people doing comedy and no one thinks they’re in that group. You just have to try it and work really hard. Know that it takes a long time to get good. A really, really long time. Also, just as a heads up: you will hear more offensive jokes at open mics than you will on any professional stage. Don’t let it deter you, but don’t make a big deal about it, either. Just do your own thing and you’ll find your place and your allies.

AS: Now for the favorite comedies question. Who are some of your favorite comedians? Which female comedians are making strides in the industry?

EH: There are a lot of comics I really love right now. I’m a fan first, for sure. I’ve never laughed as hard as I did at the first comedy show I ever saw, which was the late Mitch Hedberg. Maria Bamford is everyone’s favorite with really good reason. When I watch John Mulaney, Hannibal Buress, Chelsea Peretti, Kyle Kinane, Ron Funches, Beth Stelling, or Moshe Kasher perform it makes me want to quit because they make it look so effortless. Maria Bamford, Jen Kirkman, Kristen Schaal, Aparna Nancherla, and Janine Brito are all doing work that is brave and innovative and exciting to watch.

I think Parks & Recreation is the funniest, most feminist show on TV right now and its relative unpopularity is baffling to me. Roseanne holds up and puts a lot of current TV to shame in terms of the cool radical stuff they were able to get away with (check out the episode where Darlene gets her period if you want to see how to break down the gender binary on national television in a broadly appealing way). Same with Golden Girls. Bridesmaids is a big old “Duh! Hello, great movie!” but I will also say I really loved the movie Whip It when it came out. It made me wanna be a spunky teenager and kiss boys and move to Austin and be a roller derby girl.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

EH: My favorite fictional hero is Maybonne from Lynda Barry’s comic books. I want to hug her. She’s a teenager who lives in the 60s and has to go to middle school in spite of the world being messed up and boys being mean and feeling ugly and wanting to die sometimes. It’s so painfully accurate and funny and subtle and relatable. I can’t describe it.

She’s going to think I’m super lame for saying this but my best friend is my real life hero. She sticks up for people when it’s scary. One summer we lived together and she woke me up in the middle of the night because she heard a woman being attacked on the other side of the fence from our house in this weird abandoned park. We couldn’t see what was happening but she could hear a woman screaming for her life. All our neighbors were just shouting at the woman to shut up, but Allison was the only person who instead yelled at the man to stop or we’d call the police, which we did. She’s the one of the only people I know who a) I’ve ever seen do something like that and who b) does that kind of thing all the time and who c) doesn’t seek any credit for it. My instinct in that moment was to ignore it and go back to sleep and hope that someone else does something. I think about that night all the time. She makes me fight that instinct. She works for Planned Parenthood now and is a total badass. Oh, and she’s also one of the funniest people I know.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

EH: Oooh, that’s tough. I think if I had to eat one food for the rest of my life it’d be grilled cheese with tomato soup and to drink probably some lightly flavored sparkling water (is that so boring?). The feminist I’d take is probably Rob Delaney. We don’t know each other so it’d be pretty awkward at first, especially when he realizes that if it weren’t for me he’d still be in America instead of this horrible desert island. Once we got over that, though, I think it’d be fun. When my clothes wear thin I could weave new ones out of his chest hair. We could make ourselves a new twitter out of coconuts which, according to Gilligan’s Island, are a very versatile fruit.

AS: By the way, you’re amazing. Where can we see more of you!?

EH: I would really love for you to listen to my podcast Baby Geniuses that I cohost with the hilarious and talented illustrator Lisa Hanawalt. It’s on iTunes. I perform live in New York almost every night of the week, including Tuesdays at the Sidewalk Cafe and Thursdays at UCBeast. I have a web series coming out on Above Average this winter where I play a tarot card reader who says terrible things to people like Janeane Garofalo and Kal Penn. I’m also on Twitter more than I should be @MrEmilyHeller.

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