“Whatever you want to be doing, already do it”: An Interview with Gaby Dunn

I went in to my interview with Gaby Dunn nervous. I hadn’t seriously interviewed anyone—much less someone I fangirled over—in over a year. I went in to my interview planning to talk to Gaby Dunn about Feminism and Double Standards and Issues (all of which I am very passionate about, as is Dunn), but somehow we ended up talking about making dreams realities and following the writers of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” on Twitter. I’m not worried, though. Dunn ended our interview with “Talk to you soon!” and although I’m not planning to head out west in the near future, it’s nice to know your humanspirations are only an email away, and if you need to ask a burning question about women in comedy, well, you can. Maybe not now, but sometime.

All’s this to say is that I’ve followed Dunn’s work for a few years now. A journalism major in college, she founded and conducted “100 Interviews,” a series of—you guessed it— 100 interviews with “a porn actor,” “a horror make-up artist,” “someone who left someone else at the altar,” and more. She interned at the Daily Show, has written for basically everyone on the World Wide Web, and studied improv at People’s Improv Theater and sketch at Upright Citizen’s Brigade. Now, Dunn’s living in Los Angeles, pursuing comedy, filming a pilot, and writing for The Daily Dot. She also has a super cute dog.

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Gaby Dunn: What are you trying to write about?

Emily Perper: Well, for this in particular, I was really interested because I just saw your video that you posted a little while ago about the double standard in comedy with regards to women in comedy, which I thought was really interesting —

GD: Oh, thanks.

EP: Because I don’t think it’s addressed as much as it needs to be with what’s been going on, and with the diversity issues that have been brought up lately on “SNL,” it’s kind of like, I’d like to talk to someone about this. Things have gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go.

So I just had some basic questions for you, just about your interest in comedy—and I know you’re also a journalist, and that’s something I admire. I mean, I love your “100 Interviews” thing—

GD: Oh, thank you.

EP: —I was a big fan of that. When did you first realize you were interested in comedy?

GD: In middle school, I started. I had a TV in my room, and I started watching “Comedy Central Presents” on Friday nights. My family were sort-of-religious-Jewish, so I wasn’t really allowed to go out on Friday nights because it’s Shabbat.  But you’re not even supposed to watch TV, but I was allowed to do that. I went to a religious school, too, so me and this other girl who was also home alone on Fridays would be on the phone with each other watching “Comedy Central Presents.” We just loved all the comics, and we would quote them to each other, we would tell jokes and stuff.

EP: Who were some of your favorites—your favorite comics? Do you remember?

GD: In middle school, I was super into Mike Birbiglia, Maria Bamford, and Mitch Hedberg. Demetri Martin was a big one. Those might have been the big ones that I knew. Actually, four years ago, I was 21, I saw Mike Birbiglia in a bar, and I was really excited. I was like, “Oh, my gosh! I’ve loved you since I was a little girl!” and he was like, “Uhhh … I hope someone never says that to me again!” [Laughs.]

When I was a little girl, it never occurred to me how people became a comedian. I didn’t know how they did it. I didn’t know anything about clubs, I didn’t know anything about open mics, nothing. Like, “I guess you’re funny, and they put you on TV!” literally, until when I got to college, and then, “Oh! This is how you do it!”

I auditioned for a sketch troupe, and I got in, and that ended up being my extracurricular all four years. I ended up being vice-president of the troupe my senior year, running an open mic with the president of the troupe—we ran an open mic every semester—so it just started, all of a sudden, “Oh, this might be a thing that we could do.”

EP: What college did you go to?

GD: Emerson, in Boston. Everyone in entertainment went to Emerson. [Laughs] Literally, out here so far, either Emerson or Judaism have opened doors.

EP: Nice! The Judaism aspect—I plan to play that up as I continue to network. [Laughs]

GD: It’s insane how much it works. It’s like a terrible stereotype, but it’s caused so much.

EP: Who would you say your greatest comedic influences are? You love sketch obviously, but early influences were stand-up, and now you’re doing stand-up.

GD: Gosh. Such a broad question. I really loved Douglas Adams when I was younger, and I wrote my college entrance essay about him …

I remember watching “I Love Lucy” with my grandma, and being like, “Oh, man! She [can] just fall into pies and do pratfalls? That’s crazy!” My sister and I used to love “Three’s Company,” which is so weird. [Laughs]

EP: That is weird, but it’s also great.

GD: We were, like, real into that show. I have a lot of influences. I think I’ve learned a lot from a lot of people that I’ve met along the way, now. Like that Chuck Palahniuk quote, “I was the product of everyone …” I don’t know, I think it’s Chuck Palahniuk.  My grandma was super funny, my dad is funny, my mom has a sense of humor, which is so weird. Like, she has a sense of humor, but it’s so— fart jokes are the height of comedy for her. If it’s a TV show and someone sits on a whoopee cushion and sounds like they farted, she’s done. It’s the end. It’s not a lot of highbrow. She just loves that shit.  And there’s a place for that, which is funny that she’s so into it. My dad’s a little bit witty, my grandma’s very quick, my sister’s pretty quick. She doesn’t think she’s smart. She’s kind of a party girl, she would never do comedy or anything like that, but she’s a good sparring partner; she’s very quick.

EP: I think that the family influence is huge and that not enough people give that credit. I mean, that’s whom you were with from day one. I know you’re into stand-up; are you ever interested in doing this professionally-professionally? Not just stand-up—which is professional, but would you ever consider leaving journalism and pursuing comedy full-time? Or are you definitely a journalist at heart?

GD: That’s what I’m trying to do. I do want to write, though, so I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive. I think you can write for a TV show and also write articles. I’d love to make the switch, where my day job is comedy stuff and my journalism stuff is an extra thing, rather than how it’s been for the last five years.  I don’t know that I’m necessarily interested in putting out an album or being a stand-up,  or touring, but—and this is one of the reasons I quit stand-up a year and a half ago—I felt like I didn’t deserve it, in a way. Like, all these people that love stand-up really love stand-up, and they do it for stand-up. I was using it as a means to an end, not in its own right, and I thought that was wrong. Now, I know everyone has a different reason for doing, and it’s not wrong to do it. It’s a good way for people to know you and meet you and try something out. I used to have the wrong mentality about it, and now I have a totally different one. So I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t know that I would do an album or care about getting on Late Night.

EP: So what’s your mentality now? Is your mentality now more like “stand-up was good for writing and good for networking, and that’s okay?” Or does it go a little bit deeper than that?

GD: It’s hilarious, it’s good for networking, it’s good for people to see my point of view. Even if standup isn’t the exact medium, it’s close enough that people can get a sense of who I am and hopefully I can work on more stuff.

EP: Do you think stand-up is closely related to the sketch work you did in college, or do you think that they’re very different?

GabyDunncolorGD: For sketch, I was very, very behind the scenes. I would write all the shows; I never acted. I was a writer. I never acted in any of the sketches until I was a junior and we ran out of girls and needed me to play the mom or the girlfriend. I auditioned as a writer for the troupe, and then I was a writer all the time. So the point when junior year I started acting in sketches, people were like, “Oh, you’re in Chocolate Cake City?” And I was like, “I’ve been in it since freshman year.”

EP: [Laughs] “Yeah. The whole time, guys.”

GD: Yeah, people just didn’t know. I’d be like, “You know this sketch and this sketch?” They’d be like, “Yeah.” “I wrote those.” They’re like, “REAALLLY?!”

EP: “You guys don’t even know me! You don’t know me at all!”

GD: More like they didn’t know how sketch troupes worked, like the people that think that Jimmy Fallon just gets up and does his monologue that he wrote. You know what I mean? Of course he didn’t; he has writers. People don’t really know that. “You’re in this troupe? What do you do?” “Well, I write.” “Ehhh, I don’t know if I buy it.”

EP: See, I think that’s interesting, because I read some articles about the writers who work on popular TV shows, like “The Mindy Project,” and “Orange is the New Black” had a piece on their writers a few months ago, and I was like, “This is really interesting.” Because I think you’re right. It’s all about the people who are the face of the comedy, like Jimmy Fallon, and not necessarily about the people who are behind the scenes.

GD: I used to watch “SNL” religiously, and one of the things I realized was I would post quotes from it in my AIM profile, like “Weekend Update: Blah, blah blah. (This quote from Weekend Update, Jimmy Fallon or Tina Fey),” and then it occurred to me—they didn’t write that, they just said it. And then I would go and look who the writers were and that was my subconscious: Someone else is doing the writing. There’s other jobs.

I never wanted to perform. I did get copped into doing stand-up by the boys in my sketch troupe.

EP: Okay! I was wondering how that started.

GD: They wanted to take a stand-up class at school. It was kind of a blow-off class, and we knew the teacher, and he loved us and knew us. If you were in any of the comedy troupes, he gave you a lot of leeway in his classes, so I took all his comedy classes. He’s a comedy magician, which is awesome.

EP: That sounds wild. Honestly, I don’t even know what that is. He uses magic? Explain that to me.

GD: He’s just funny in between the magic.

EP: So it is exactly what it sounds like! I wasn’t sure if it was something more complex, and I was like, “I’ve never heard of that…”

GD: It’s like a prop comic. He’s a really cool guy. He’s—I think—still teaching there.  He had these classes you could take, so we took all of them, and the last one was a stand-up class, and at the end of it, you had to perform five minutes at a comedy studio in Boston.

EP: Dang.

GD: Yeah! I changed one of my jokes on the walk there. He made fun of my set and all this shit, and then on the walk there I changed the joke. I did it differently onstage than how we had been practicing it for the whole semester. I was like, “I don’t know! Let’s just do it!” They really liked it, and then I met the booker there, and she was like, “You should come back.”

EP: In LA right now, are you applying to be a writer at different places? What are you doing comedy-related there? Because I know you write for The Daily Dot—do you have a lot of other freelancing and regular projects? What’s your day-to-day like?

GD:  One reason to stay out here is because my job as a performer while also…I have a management and agent out here.  I’ve been doing packets and seeing shows.  And doing more stuff with acting out here.  I came out and, you know, I sent my package to Late Night and hang out with friends to work on shows.

I do stand-up open mics shows and improv shows sometimes.

Mostly I just feel really good meeting people.  I’m good with having coffee with everyone and running around and meeting people that they work on and collaborating with certain YouTube celebrities. It’s really nice.

I made a pilot that we’re editing right now. I wrote a couple scripts.  I’m writing a script for a drama now and maybe—it may end up being a book? We’re not sure? We’re doing a lot of writing and figuring stuff out.  My pilot is a superhero pilot, and I tend—leaning, at least right now—more toward horror/fantasy/sci-fi/superhero type stuff. Which you can inject comedy into. The ideal would be “Buffy”—which is a huge ideal.

EP: You love “Buffy.” What else do you love in that vein?

GD: Let’s see; what’s on now? I like Supernatural—

EP: I LOVE Supernatural!

GD: Yeah! I like Doctor Who. My roommate and I are into watching American Horror Story right now.

EP: Oh my gosh. I haven’t started the latest season because I’m too freaked out, but I really want to. I know I will eventually, and I’ll probably just marathon the whole thing.

GD: Isn’t that great? Newish stuff like—well, I guess it’s not that new—Elementary is great. Sleepy Hollow has really been fantastic.

EP: Oh, cool. I’ll have to check that out; I haven’t watched that yet.

GD: They’re all online—the episodes, on Fox. Sleepy Hollow has been very impressive so far. I just love that kind of stuff. I follow the creator of Sleepy Hollow on Twitter, and he follows me back, and then I just sent him a DM of just exclamation points. [laughs] He favorited or retweeted some tweets of mine, and then I sent more exclamation points. But I said no words to him.

EP: That’s okay. Punctuation says it all. Who needs words?

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GD: Yeah, he understood my excitement. Basically, here my whole goal—I’m very outgoing. There’s a Tina Fey quote where she says she has “confidence beyond her looks and abilities.” I’m like, “Oh! Whoa! This guy created a show, I really like it, I let him know that I liked it, he lives in LA, now I can go meet him. I like doing that kind of thing. I was at a bar with my roommate and a couple friends, and this celebrity’s birthday party happened to be at the bar, and we were like, oh weird. They were sitting across from us—these people and my roommate and her friend were bugging out, and I was like, “Well, we should go join them,” and they were like, “What?” One of the comedians that we love went to the bar, and I walked up, and I was like, “Hi! I’m a big fan!” blah, blah, blah, and then we just ended up fully talking to him for a while. My friends were like, “No, it’s creeper” and making fun of me a little bit, but I was like, “You guys know what I’m like. This is what I’m like.” So there’s no problem doing that.

EP: They are just people, and if they’re people who make cool stuff you like, then you might as well talk to them.

GD: Yeah, I think people like when you say to them, hey I really enjoy your , I don’t know, whatever. I’m not weird. I’m not going to hang out and try to go to their house and get wasted. I was there for an hour, I said hello to all the people I wanted to meet, I gave them names and information, and then I was like, “Hey, guys, I’m going to head out. Enjoy your party.” There’s a way to do it.

EP: There’s a way to be professional, but not formal, but also not an asshole.

GD: That’s been cool. There’s shows—I would love to meet the Sleepy Hollow writers. I’m just trying to figure out how to do that right now, and stuff like that. There’s a lot of those freaky shows that I like, but I don’t have as much experience writing for that kind of thing. I just started writing a drama, but I didn’t have one of those before. My whole thing is whatever you want to be doing—the whole point of 100 Interviews was this, too—whatever you want to be doing, already do it. “I want to write for a sci-fi show!” Well, you have to have examples; you have to show them that you can already do it. For 100 Interviews, I wanted to write professionally. I wanted a journalistic place to hire me. I want to be a showrunner, right? I make my own pilot with friends, cut it into a trailer, and then people are like, “Oh, she runs shows. She’s at least made a pilot.” I mean, it sucks. You have to kind of do it yourself, at first, but you’ve got to be doing already what you want to be doing. It’s a tongue-twister!

EP: That is so inspiring. I sound like such a fangirl right now. This is why sometimes I hate interviewing people I actually like and admire, because I’m getting so excited about this. Sorry.

GD: Oh! It seems simple, but it’s something I’ve really come to appreciate and take on as a little motto.

EP: That’s so true. The reason I got involved with The Annual is because it’s run by one of my close friends, Kevin Cole, whom I’ve known since I was 13. We went to church together, type of thing.

GP: Whoa!

EP: He’s the reason I’m doing this, and we live close enough to each other. It’s been great, because he’s pulling everyone out of their shells and encouraging all the writers to write more and interview more, and if you want to do this, do it! He has always been such a go-getter, and is really inspiring to me in that way. He’s like, “I want to have a comedy magazine one day, so I’m going to make one!”  He had a Kickstarter, and that’s how he raised the money. So that’s how were here. I think that what you said rings true a lot with his philosophy,  which is something I’m trying to embody. I’m really into longform journalism, so I started a longreads blog, and now I contribute to the Longreads every week, which is huge. So that’s me trying to kind of mirror that journalistic impulse to just keep writing, even if no one’s paying you to do it. It’s important to just do it, doing it for its own sake.

GD: Yeah, definitely! All of these things were little magazines that started up.

EP: It’s been so much fun. It’s great to meet other people who are into this. I always loved comedy, but I didn’t know that much about it or writing for it, and now I’m starting to stretch my little baby wings and do that. Last month, one of our writers somehow got in touch with Colin Mochrie, sent an email to him, and so we had an interview with him last month. I was like, “That’s so random, but you just went for it and you did it!”

GD: That’s the thing that happened with “100 Interviews.” There’s so many random people who will just be like, “Yeah, sure!” I had a friend of a friend—we have a mutual friend—and we hired a camera guy for fifty bucks for the day, and he drove out with my to Dave Coulier’s house. [Partway] in, I just filmed some shit in his house. He was like, “Yeah, come right in! Come over!” People will just do that.

EP: It’s amazing. It’s restored my faith in humanity a little bit.

GD: All you have to do is ask, and most likely, people will do it. The worst thing they can do is say, “Oh, I don’t have time to do that.” It’s not terrible. I wanted Rachel Dratch to do my birthday show with me, and we have one mutual friend, so I messaged her. She was like, “Ah, I would, but I just had a baby!” That’s completely valid. It doesn’t crush me. We’re good.

EP: At least you emailed her. Most people, I think, wouldn’t have the guts to do that.

GD: The reason these people are in entertain ment is because they want attention. Even if it’s just to perform in front of my little camera with my friends. I’m not surprised that Colin was like, “Yeah! I’ll do an interview. Why not?”

EP: That still amazes me, in a way. I’m still amazed by everything, I guess—the world, maybe.

GD: Awwww.

You can learn more about Gaby Dunn at Gabydunn.com or follow her on Twitter @GabyDunn

Support The Annual’s First Annual Annual Subscription Drive!

Artwork by Parker Benbow and Kevin Cole

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2 thoughts on ““Whatever you want to be doing, already do it”: An Interview with Gaby Dunn”

  1. I am really impressed together with your writing skills
    as well as with the format for your blog. Is this a paid topic or did you modify it yourself?
    Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it’s uncommon to look a nice weblog like this one nowadays..

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