You could say comedy writers have the perfect job. They sit around a table with a bunch of other funny people five days a week, throwing out jokes, making each other laugh, and, if we’re to believe 30 Rock, eating lots of pizza and Chinese takeout. This is what Eliza Skinner, Aparna Nancherla, and Janine Brito do. (OK, did — the three comedians were all writers for the FXX show Totally Biased with Kamau Bell, a politics and current events-based comedy show that was abruptly canceled last week. We’re sure all three will bounce back easily, though. They’re hilarious.)
Another thing about comedy writers? Their shows usually go on hiatus for a couple of months. Or they, um, get canceled. Either way the writers get some time off each year to do other things. And while that could be kind of stressful, what with the loss of income and everything, it can also be awesome — like, if you decide to take a road trip to Disney World. Skinner, Nancherla, and Brito decided to do just that, and on the way they’re doing a couple of shows together, including one at Theatre 99. They’re calling it The Happiest Tour on Earth, and it’ll consist of three extended stand-up sets, one by each comedian. In case you’re wondering, they did come up with the name for the tour before getting the news that their show got the axe, but it still works.
And lest you think the whole Disney World thing is nothing more than a convenient gimmick, it’s not. They really just wanted to go. “I had mentioned that I hadn’t been to Disney World since I was a little kid, and Janine has family down in Florida, and she said ‘You could just stay with my family and go to Disney World,’ ” Skinner says. “And we were like, ‘Oh, we should do that, we can just make it a tour and we’ll book two shows on the way and two on the way back.’ So that’s what it is.”
While the real story here might be what happens to three comedians when they throw themselves straight into the happy heart of American consumerism, since their Charleston stop is on the way down to Florida, we couldn’t ask them about that. Instead, we talked to the ladies about other stuff — like monsters, going on strike, and what it means to be a mean lesbian. (Editor’s note: we spoke with Skinner, Nancherla, and Brito just days before Totally Biased was canceled, so none of them had gotten the news yet.)
Eliza Skinner has performed in Charleston many times, as part of the musical improv duo I Eat Pandas and with her solo show Eliza Skinner is … Shameless! She’s a veteran of the improv, sketch, and stand-up worlds who’s been making it as a full-time comic for several years now. Improv, she says, is where she fully embraced her quirky sense of humor for the first time. “I got in my college improv troupe and it was really fun, and I finally felt like my sense of humor and being weird was a good thing. In other situations they’re like, ‘Oooh, you’re weird,’ but in improv they’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re weird!’ ”
She had her share of temp and day jobs on her way to comedy writing heaven, working in hotels as a reservationist and concierge and later as a personal assistant to the rich and helpless. “It was always funny to see how these very powerful people are as far as taking care of themselves and their day-to-day things,” she says. They may not have been all that enjoyable — in fact, they were “really awful,” Skinner says — but they certainly provided some good material for the nights when she took to the mic.
Skinner’s notched up lots of incredibly cool experiences during her career — performing with Louis CK, Patton Oswalt, and Margaret Cho, appearing on Conan O’Brien, and writing for Totally Biased, just to name a few — but one of the things she’s most proud of is her solo show. “I really liked Shameless a lot,” she says. “The show is about people that you hate but you have to love — people that you have to have relationships with. They’re terrible, and it’s trying to find the humanity in them.” Her characters are all women desperate for attention who are — wait for it — shameless about how they get it.
There’s Karen, an overly zealous white mom trying to connect with her daughter’s black roommate. Then there’s Amy, an obnoxious party girl man-chaser, and the completely youth-obsessed Debra. They’re all, of course, funny, but they’re also kind of sad. Skinner is skilled at bringing out her characters’ vulnerability even while making you cackle at their utter vapidity, which is probably why the show ran for more than a year at the UCB Theatres in Los Angeles and New York.
It hasn’t all been roses and unicorns, though. Since this past April, Skinner has been on strike with the other writers for Fashion Police, an E! TV show hosted by Joan Rivers. It’s gotten to be a somewhat nasty experience. “It’s taught me a lot about the entertainment industry,” Skinner says. “It’s been tough dealing with the network and dealing with all the fans of Joan who take this as a personal affront, that we’re doing something to hurt her. It doesn’t change the fact that her show was grossly underpaying the writers.”
Aparna Nancherla’s sweet voice and adorable monster-themed website belie her capability for bombast on stage. One on one, she’s unassuming, charming, a little self-effacing. Put her in front of an audience, though, and her secretly huge personality comes to the forefront. “I feel like my sense of comedy comes from my being a very internal person,” she says. “Like someone who’s quiet on the outside but has a lot brewing under the surface.” On Totally Biased, she’s spouted off some of Eminem’s choicest (read: dirtiest) lyrics like it’s nothing, become an angry gun-rights activist, and sobbed uncontrollably during the show’s Intervention segment. You’d never believe she’s a fairly shy person in real life.
Nancherla grew up in northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C. and got her comedic feet wet at a random open mic night. After she graduated, she was back in D.C. doing the typical post-college internship thing, and she decided to give comedy a try again. “I started going to open mics at night and being like, ‘OK, if this is something you really like try doing it a little more seriously, and see if you still like it.’ Then it was just like one foot in front of the other. It kind of built on itself,” she says.
Like Skinner, Nancherla’s got an improv background as well, although she doesn’t perform improv much these days. She’s fully committed to writing and doing stand-up, and her style is sly, observational, and a little bit happy-go-lucky. “My voice is kind of more whimsical and absurdist, focused on wordplay and more subtle stuff like that,” she says.
While she loved her job writing for Totally Biased, there’s no escaping the angst that writing about real news can give you. “I definitely pay more attention to the news than I did before,” she says. “I’m not a very confrontational person, so for me it just translates to more depression and sadness about the world, because a lot of the stories we read are really heartbreaking. It’s like, ‘How are we supposed to make this funny?'” Luckily for her, the show wasn’t simply focused on making the most biting commentary — it had a softer, goofier side too, which fit Nancherla just fine. “It’s nice to be a part of a show that has some heart, and is not just going to make the meanest joke about something,” Nancherla says. “It definitely supports the underdog.” We guess the underdog is going to have to fend for itself now.
Miss Fire Island
The SF Weekly once called Janine Brito “a mean lesbian,” and it’s one of her all-time favorite descriptions. “I’m pretty sure they meant it like in a ‘mean, green machine’ way, but it’s totally cool if they meant it like bitch,” she says.
But we’re inclined to think she’s right about what they meant, because even though Brito’s on-stage persona is loud and a little angry, you just couldn’t call her a bitch. This is a woman who, for an in-the-field segment on Totally Biased, went to the Miss Fire Island drag queen beauty pageant and let a few drag queens dress her up to their standards — fake eyelashes, blonde wig, glittery dress, and everything — before strutting down the runway like an (uncomfortable) champ. It was a pretty big change from her usual getup of jeans, blazers, and bowties. And her drag name? Lezzie Lohan.
Brito is currently focused on her stand-up and TV comedy writing, and has performed at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, Sketchfest, and the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, and won the San Francisco Women’s Comedy Festival in 2009. She knew Nancherla well and Skinner a little bit before they all started working together, but they got much closer hanging around the Totally Biased writing table. “I love having Eliza and Aparna there. That’s been the most fun for me — sitting around a table with five other people and we just kind of get to feed off each other and hang out and that’s our job,” Brito says. “The only other people who get to do that are video store clerks, and we get paid way better than they do.” And since video store clerks will soon exist only in books and movies from the early 2000s and before — thanks, Netflix — we may as well go ahead and say that comedy writers are the only people who get paid to sit around and hang out.
Brito’s work is absurdist, quirky, and bold. For example, she can do a pretty ridiculous impersonation of Tracy Morgan, and on a recent episode of Totally Biased, she went toe-to-toe with the real Tracy Morgan to see who could do Tracy better. Brito won. She also made a fake Erykah Badu music video called “Cat Lady,” where she plays the eponymous cat lady while a woman dressed in a long, flowy dress with a towel wrapped around her head like a turban sings lyrics like “Cat lady, you gon’ hurt your back/ Draggin’ that cat food like that” in spot-on, too-cool Badu style.
Brito describes her stand-up as “dirty vagina jokes with a cartoonish lilt,” intermingled with stories about family, relationships, and the like. But despite that edginess, she loves her some wholesome Disney, just like her two other traveling and tour companions. There’s no doubt that they’ll all have an extra spring in their steps on their way down to Orlando, despite being newly unemployed. After all, if you can’t get excited about going to Disney World, you might as well give up. Those spinning teacups are the shit.