Each week in Give A Little Bit, we’re talking to funny people — comics, writers, cartoonists, senators — about the first time they got a laugh. This week, Sara Benincasa discusses tiny bullies, the well-timed career freak out and her weird superpower.
Your first bit…
I remember making the kids on the bus laugh when I was in fifth grade. For a long time, they laughed AT me – I was ugly, or they thought I was. They called me “Medusa” because they said my short curly hair looked like snakes. And I had very thick glasses, and I suppose the general idea was that I was so incredibly hideous that if you looked at me you might be turned to stone. Nice kids.
Anyway, one day I realized that while I was in fifth grade and the lead bully was in sixth grade, he was shorter than me. So when he yelled at me I looked down and smiled tenderly and patted his head.
“Awww, that’s so cute,” I said. “Maybe if you eat your vegetables you can grow tall enough to say that right into my face.”
His friends roared. They loved it. He kicked me as I walked away, which I knew was a sign of victory. I don’t remember his name. But I remember that moment. I didn’t go on to become an insult comic, but I certainly knew the power of laughter in that moment.
Your writing process is…
I think in terms of stories rather than individual jokes. What’s a funny tale where ridiculous things happen? I’ve got plenty of ’em, and I hear plenty of ’em. If I’m making something up out of nowhere (I believe it’s called “fiction”), I always outline. I think of little moments that lead to me understanding who a character is. And then I drop that character into a situation and see what happens.
Other times I just lose my shit and freak out and whine and cry and ask for deadline extensions. I forgot to add that part. Very important.
My influences are…
My dad and my grandfather argued about politics a lot over the dinner table at my grandparents’ house. When my grandfather was in the service shooting down the Luftwaffe up in the sky, he saw a German hit by fire and tumble to his death ablaze. He told me near the end of his own life, “That’s not the sort of thing you ever forget.”
He saw how regimented things were, the hierarchy, the cruelty and stupidity of some officers. He hated the way the common folks were treated. He admired great leaders but felt their wisdom did not often seem to trickle down to the reality of life on the ground (or, I suppose, in the sky). He flew with a group that was escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen on many missions, including the bombing of the oil fields at Ploiesti. He learned about segregation. He learned about a lot of things, I think.
So my grandfather came out of the war pissed off about segregation and pissed off at the military – even though he strongly believed in their mission in WWII and in what they did. The result is that he was the kind of guy who got together with his friends from the Army for the rest of his life; the kind of guy who supported anything that would help veterans; and the kind of guy who hated war like poison. That’s why I say anti-war, pro-soldier. The war made a liberal of him, I think, though he already leaned in that direction. By the 1970s, he was a high school principal at the school where my parents met. He wore a big peace button during the Vietnam War.
Then you have my dad, who rebelled by voting mostly Republican for many years and being a proud fiscal conservative. He entered the corporate world, whereas his dad was in education. So they’d argue over the dinner table and trade barbs, usually in a good-natured fashion, sometimes in a more pointed way. And I learned a lot from them. Sarcasm, a dark sense of humor. A reliance on battle of wits rather than fists.
As I grew up, I loved Margaret Cho, Chris Rock, Mike Myers and all his characters, the dearly departed Texas journalist Molly Ivins, Ben Stiller…there are so many more. I remember watching Judy Gold on TV and howling. I just worked with her on “The Jim Gaffigan Show” – the season premiere is June 22 on TV Land, and she plays Judge Judy Gold. She’s hilarious. Jim is on trial and she rules the courtroom…I can’t say much more about the plot, but Zachary Quinto is great as the prosecuting attorney, and Michael Ian Black is wonderful on the stand (The State was an early influence of mine, and I love getting to watch him work).
While I was on set, actually, I was watching my buddy Ashley Williams play the role of Jim’s wife Jeannie. And I noticed something about her that didn’t occur to me as a young comedy fan – her physicality. She communicated a lot through the way she moved. But when I look back on some of those early influences I mentioned, I see how they use their bodies too. Margaret has spoken so often of her evolving relationship to her own body. She’s a marvelous dancer and seeing her come into her body onstage and own it and move it in new ways was really fascinating as an admirer. Chris stalks the stage like a preacher. He just owns it as he delivers all that truth. Robin Williams had marvelous physicality that he deployed to great results, whether in his stand-up or in his acting roles.
And Mike, of course, inhabits his characters really fully and physically. So does Ben. They’re both very very different artists, but I think both of them don’t get sufficient credit for their dramatic acting skills. They really are quite compelling in any role. I find that to be true with many comedians. Jim Gaffigan is really great in more dramatic stuff, actually.
So now, in my thirties, I like to watch how performers move and use space around them. I pay way more attention to that than I used to. One of my top five favorite humans, writer and frequent FOX News liberal warrior king John DeVore, once taught me a little bit about clowning – the French art form. You see it sometimes in Cirque du Soleil and in other odd and wonderful corners of the universe. Through John, I learned that these clowns are often supposed to be terribly sad or angry. Which makes sense, quite frankly, when you hang around comedians for a minute.
How I keep it all together…
When I worked more as a stand-up, I used notebooks. As a screenwriter, I use the sweet sweet sensual software that is Final Draft. When I do a college lecture, I use notebooks again. I make bullet points and usually don’t look at them during the lecture, but it makes me feel more secure to have them near me.
As an author, I work in Word. I’m 35 and I’ve been working as a writer in some fashion for over a decade. I just finally started writing on planes for real. I’m writing this response on a plane en route from the San Antonio Book Festival back to my home in Los Angeles.
I’m adapting my third book, “DC Trip,” as a screenplay with producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa (“Little Miss Sunshine;” “Nebraska;” “Election”) as well as the folks at Adaptive Studios (Project Greenlight on HBO) and Van Toffler’s Gunpowder and Sky. And I’m developing my second book, “Great,” as a TV series with Muse Entertainment. My first book, “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom” has bounced around to different networks as a pilot for a few years. I’ve got an outline for my fifth book due in September. I’m pitching an audio project. I speak at colleges. Sometimes I act. I try to go to the shrink. I try to have a romantic life. I try to have friends. I try to see my family across the country in Jersey. I try to exercise. All of this stuff requires a lot of organization. I want to hire an assistant and I’ve been too busy to look at the resumes I’ve gotten in.
But that’s the life I chose, you know? I’m not complaining, just explaining. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and there’s no straight and narrow path. There’s no list of things to do to be successful. You have to figure out your own recipe.
I wish I wrote…
You know, I’m such a fan first and foremost that I don’t think I’ve ever seen something and wished that I wrote it. I just get really excited about it and tell everybody to watch it or listen to it. I think that’s my weird superpower, is loving stuff. And people, I guess. That’s the thing I’m the best at, really, is loving something or someone and advocating for that thing or person. I don’t know if you remember the Kevin Kline rom com “Dave,” but his character starts (and ends) the film as a job placement coordinator. I always thought that was just the coolest job, finding jobs for other people. Matching people with something that will make them happy or at least help cover their needs. My aunt Reenie is a job coach and placement coordinator for folks with developmental disabilities, and I think that’s so cool.
A new bit…
I’m really excited about my new book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Tell You In School.) My hope is that it’s really affirming and validating for people who truly love their art, whatever it may be, even if they don’t get paid a dime for it. I read the titular essay, “Real Artists Have Day Jobs,” at the San Antonio Book Festival, and some women came up to me afterwards. They told me it made them cry because it made them feel like they were doing things right. And it encouraged a couple dudes to start working on their stuff again. They all did different things – painting, writing, singing, playing guitar – but they had a similar reaction. And that meant a hell of a lot to me.
The book has a lot of humor and some sadness, but it’s mostly funny. And I curse some, but not a ton. It’s definitely 18+. Really good for anybody at a crossroads or transition, I’d say. Graduates, or people thinking of switching jobs, or thinking of getting hitched or divorced or whatever. I remember seeing Louis CK talk about how folks shouldn’t say “Awwwww” or act sad when he talks about getting divorced. He said a divorce is ALWAYS a great idea, even if it’s painful and shitty. I agree. So my book is for folks going through any kind of change, whether welcome or unwelcome. It’s also for people who enjoy books with chapter titles such as “A Vagina Is Not A Time Machine” and “Life Is Too Short For Shitty Friends.”