An Interview with Sara Benincasa

In The Annual #10, we shared an interview with comedian Sara Benincasa. With the advent of her new podcast, “In the Casa with Sara Benincasa,” we thought we’d better introduce our online readers to this stand-up comedian/YA novelist/memoirist/storyteller/web editor-in-chief who advocates for mental health wellness in LGBTQ youth. She also has an adorable dog named Morley Safer. Yes, she does everything.

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Emily Perper: So how are you?

Sara Benincasa: I’m good! I usually get up at 5:30, which is crazy. I blog—I’m the editor-in-chief of a site, an entertainment-humor site called Happy Nice Time People. Happy Nice Time People runs on an East Coast schedule, so I have to be blogging starting at six a.m. So I get up and walk the dog. I actually got up a little late today because I had an interview that wasn’t until 7:45 with Sirius XM, so that was very exciting.

EP: This is good, because I felt a little bad—“I hope I’m not getting her up really early on a Saturday and ruining any sleeping in plans.” What was your Sirius interview?

SB: It was The Judith Regan Show on Stars. She was this very powerful publishing industry person for a while, and then she transitioned to radio. Now she has this radio show, and it was fun; it was really fun.

EP: Were you talking about [your new young adult novel] Great?

SB: I was talking about Great. And I was talking about my Kickstarter, too, so that was neat.

EP: Good. I’m so glad you’re getting the word out about the Kickstarter. I believe in it. I think we’re going to make the goal. Notice I’m using “we.” I’m obviously very invested in this.

SB: You’re on board! I appreciate that. I really hope so. (Edit: We did!)

EP: I was actually going to ask you about Happy Nice Time People, because you just started that gig, right?

SB: I did. I just started a few weeks ago. I just wanted something steady, because the nature of my career is that—and this is true for a lot of people who freelance—I get a job here, I get a certain amount of money; I get a job here, I get a certain amount of money. I spend a lot of time chasing down checks from different places, and I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a steady gig so that it’s not feast or famine all the time?” It’s like I have something that I can rely on. Hopefully one day that’ll be unnecessary because I’ll be so fucking rich, but it seemed like a good idea, and I like the site. It’s fun; I like the content.

EP: It is fun! I like it a lot. I was showing my boyfriend this morning. The background is so cheerful, and everything is relevant, but it’s also got a fun spin on it.

SB: Yeah, that’s the idea; we’re just trying to do a fun, humorous response to pop culture.

EP: One of my favorite things you wrote on the site recently was that response to the Yale graduate who was disappointed with her internship. I found that extremely amusing because I had never seen someone complaining about a paid internship before. I was like, “This girl has nothing to complain about!” But I really appreciated your response.

SB: Oh, thank you!

EP: It was tough love, but you were also compassionate—I was like, “This is good! This is a good response!” What do you think it takes these days for a young, creative person to succeed, especially considering the economic environment? What do you think are the necessary characteristics?

SB: You must be a zealot about your own abilities. I think you must be incredibly passionate about your own skills and truly believe that you have something worth offering the world. Because if you have low self-confidence and think, “Oh, I’m just not good enough” or “Oh, why should I even bother,” you’re not going to get there. That’s why you see a lot of people with insanely overinflated egos who succeed and then get even more overinflated. I think you need to be deluded into thinking the world needs you, when in reality, of course, the world doesn’t really need any of us individually. You need to get on board with this beautiful-ness that you truly, truly must finger-paint, or dance, or write, or whatever—that you’re putting something amazing out into the world that cannot be silenced or held back.

EP: Or replicated. You’re an original.

SB: Absolutely.

EP: Or at least a good copy. You do answer a lot of advice-type questions. You’ve done it for Jezebel, and you do it for Happy Nice Time People. When you were younger, did people come to you for advice a lot? Was that your role in your friend group or in your family?

SB: That’s interesting. When I was growing up, I listened a lot. I listened to a lot of people’s confessions within my family and within my friend group, so I was privy to a lot of information, a lot of secret information about feelings and emotions and desires and things like that. Because of that, I think I eventually started talking back. At first I just listened for years, and then I started talking back. I found that it is better to be a know-it-all in print than to be a know-it-all in person. I don’t really consider myself to be an expert on anything at all. I’m just willing to give people my opinion. In my interpersonal relationships, sometimes people don’t want an opinion, and sometimes my opinion isn’t helpful at all, whereas if someone is writing to me in an advice column capacity, I know that they want to hear my perspective. When that happens, I don’t feel bad about giving advice. You don’t have to worry about preaching or alienating a friend because I don’t know the person and they don’t know me, and they’re just looking for an unbiased observer’s reaction.

EP: Exactly. I’m always nervous to give advice to people because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and then it’ll totally backfire. I fall more in the listening category, I think. I’ve always found it easier to process things on paper. Is that the same for you? You do a lot of verbal communication—you’re a stand-up comedian and you’ve been giving a lot of interviews lately, obviously, and you interview a lot of people. But do you prefer writing? If you had to pick one, would you pick writing over speaking?

SB: If I had to pick one I’d pick writing, because when you write you have the ability to edit before letting anyone in the world see it. You can write yourself as an amazing human being. You can write yourself as any kind of character you want to. When you present yourself in person, you can’t hide. But you can certainly hide behind writing. Writing is a created reality, and so a story is a created reality. You get to play God a little bit with perception—you get to play creator of your own image in writing. And there’s power there.

EP: Do you think that’s dangerous, to a certain extent? Like on the internet? Or do you think it’s overall a good thing?

SB: I think it can be dangerous sometimes, certainly. I mean, with great power comes great responsibility, right? Oh, Uncle Ben. I think that it can be a wonderful thing. It can also be a dangerous thing, because you create this image of yourself online or in print and people may come to believe it. If it’s close to who you really are, that’s great, but if it’s not, people may be in for a real disappointment when they actually meet you or actually interact with you—especially if you’ve been masquerading as a nice person, and once one meets you, you’re actually just an asshole.

EP: A jerk!

SB: I’m sure, as you know, that’s often what happens when you do a celebrity interview. You have this image of the person in your head based on how charming they were on Letterman, but they were playing a role. When you meet them, they still have their guard up to some extent, but they know they’re not on TV; it’s not being recorded in a traditional way, so they do let their guard down a little bit more with print … and sometimes you get to see some pretty weird stuff.

EP: That makes me think of your interviews in the bathtub.

SB: Oh yeah, those are fun.

EP: It’s such an unnatural environment. I feel like people have to be jolted out of themselves a little bit and can’t necessarily keep up that carefully crafted façade as much, even though they’re on camera.

SB: Oh, absolutely. And that’s how it’s designed. It’s meant to confuse and weird people out. I mean, obviously they’ve all agreed to do it. Then they actually get there and it kind of freaks them out a little bit sometimes, and some of them get really into it, which is fun.

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EP: You’re writing a USA pilot right now, right? Is that a super-secret, or can we talk about that a little bit?

SB: Yeah! Diablo Cody is executive producing, and it is called “Agorafabulous,” and it is based on my memoir, which came out in 2012 and is also called Agorafabulous.

EP: I can’t believe a) Diablo Cody is the executive producer, and b) it’s about your life. That’s so cool.

SB: Yeah! You go through a lengthy process of writing and rewriting, and then at a certain point they’ll decide if they want to actually move forward, to actually shoot the project, to shoot the pilot, and see how that does, and if that does well, it would be a TV show. So it’s still quite a few steps from being on TV, but it’s a fun job. It’s really great collaborating with Diablo, and I get to collaborate with folks from Ben Stiller’s production company, which is called Red Hour—that’s been really great too. It’s co-executive produced by Diablo and Ben Stiller’s production company. So we have some heavy hitters.

EP: That is amazing. Did you pitch it to USA or did they come to you? How did that happen?

SB: We all have sort of made this marriage—me, and then Diablo, and Mason [Novick], her producing partner, and then Debbie [Liebling] at Ben Stiller’s company—we all had agreed to work together on this project, and so we brought it to places and pitched. We pitched at USA, and they wanted it, so they bought it, so that was pretty cool. That actually happened in part because I had met an executive at USA years ago when she worked at a different company, and we just stayed in touch over the years, and she checked in with me on Facebook and said “What are you up to these days?” and I said [in a pompous accent] “Well, let me tell you.” Through the magic of her skills and interpersonal relations and Facebook, we got in there and ended up pitching the project, which is cool.

EP: Would you play yourself?

SB: No, I’m too old to play me now. It’s about me, or it’s about a girl; her name happens to be Sara—

EP: —in college.

SB: Well, she’s 23, so she’s a college dropout, and she’s trying to get her life back together and get into some semblance of adulthood. So that’s the way it’s going right now. I mean, if it changed and they were like, “BE THE STAR!” I’d be like [British accent], “Well, of course.” Otherwise, if she remains a young woman of 23, it would be amazing if we got some really kickass young actress. It’s all imaginary happy dream-world right now, so a lot of writing.

EP: A much more down-to-earth place.

SB: Definitely. It’s very practical.

EP: How do you manage all your different projects?

SB: That’s a great question. I have no fucking idea. I panic sometimes. I love my Google calendar. I’m a big fan of Google calendar. My Google calendar and my iPhone are very helpful in this regard. I generally tend to what’s screaming at me first, so whatever is the closest deadline, I’ll do my best to attack that first and work from there. Right now, I am in the notes process, which is the editing process, on the pilot. I am doing a pretty deep revision on my next novel, Believers. I am the editor-in-chief, and I work 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday. I do storytelling shows and comedy stuff at night, and there’s other projects too, always floating around. It’s kind of bananas. I’ve definitely taken on a lot, but part of that is that I feel so fortunate to be able to do so. It’s so cool to have these opportunities after many, many years of working hard to try and get here. I don’t say yes to everything, but I definitely get pretty excited about getting to write something that could be on TV or something like that.

EP: I think you’re the busiest person ever. When I donated to the Kickstarter forever ago, I was reading over [your bio], and I thought, “Oh my gosh—she has two novels coming out, and she’s writing a TV show?! This is crazy!”

SB: It’s a lot of coffee. It’s lot of iced coffee.

EP: I am a fellow caffeine addict. Nothing in my life would get done without a latte every morning.

SB: So delicious.

EP: So your book that came out this spring, Great, is a queer retelling of The Great Gatsby, and your next book is going to be a modern retelling of The Lord of the Flies—is that correct?

SB: Yep! It’s called Believers, and it features teenage evangelical Christian girls from Texas who crashland on an island on a mission trip—like an alternative spring break trip—and everything goes crazy.

EP: As someone who went to college and grew up surrounded by evangelicals who went on mission trips on spring break, I can’t wait to read this.

SB: Yay!

EP: I always had my suspicions about what happened, you know? I never knew what went down. So I’m ready. Ready for that.

SB: Oh, it gets pretty wild. They get very un-Christian—or very Christian, depending on how you look at it. But they get very wild.

EP: What draws you to the classics? Why retell these classic stories?

SB: I like the idea of taking a classic story, something from the American public high school English literature canon and genderswapping it. I think it’s a subversive feminist thing to do, to be able to take a story that has inspired generations of folks, a story that is probably male-dominated, and use that as inspiration to create something new and different that stands alone on its own.

EP: Everyone gets sick of those books in high school, and then later you come to appreciate them—at least I did, personally.

SB: Oh, yeah, me too.

EP: I think it’s cool because this gives high schoolers and people who are reading these books now an opportunity to appreciate them in the present—because they’re a lot more relevant, or at least maybe more interesting, to who they are now. Are you working on another book as well, aside from Believers?

SB: Oh, yeah! I forgot about that. Fucking crazy. I’m working on a book called Let’s Grow Up Together, which comes out next year. It’s an adult nonfiction book, and it’s a funny self-help book about all the little things that make up adulthood—so anything from patching a tire to breaking up with a friend whose friendship no longer serves you very well. It’s all kinds of stuff, bits and tricks to hack your adulthood. I know very few of them, so I’m asking my smart friends to contribute.

EP: Like a little adulthood anthology. I love it. I wish that book was out right now.

SB: Give it a year!

EP: Do you think staying busy is its own kind of therapy? Maybe you wrote a little bit about this in Agorafabulous—how you focused on lots of different things to get outside yourself in a way, to get outside of your own head.

SB: Oh, sure. It’s therapeutic. It can also be destructive. There’s also a manic quality to it that has to be mapped and monitored, at least in someone like me, who has a history of anxiety and depression. It’s certainly something I’m keeping my eye on. I have a shrink and everything, and we talked about it—so I have good support. It’s a blessing and a curse that you bring upon yourself. You search for things to do when you are unemployed or underemployed, and then, once you’re employed, you have so many of the things—like all of the things— happening at once. It’s an interesting feast or famine model, I think. It’s part of the reason that I wanted this gig at Happy Nice Time People, so that it wasn’t just feast or famine.

EP: Something steady.

SB: It’s stupid—I get up at five fucking thirty—but I look forward every day to “Okay, what’s the weird stuff we’re going to talk about today on Happy Nice Time People?” It’s actually fun.

EP: It’s so great to be able to get up at that ungodly hour and actually be happy about it. That’s amazing. Who are some of your comedy heroes? Who are some comedians who really inspire you?

SB: George Carlin; Margaret Cho; Kathy Griffin; more and more, Amy Schumer; John Mulaney; Bill Cosby—all of those people are just absolutely brilliant, I think. Are or were absolutely brilliant.

EP: What about their comedy inspires you particularly?

SB: I admire people who transgress social boundaries. Bill Cosby is not a great example of that, because he’s not particularly transgressive now, but he was really at the forefront of a lot of cultural change in a major way. (Edit: On 12/10/15 Benincasa wrote, “In retrospect, this statement makes me shiver, and I think he is a jerk, to put it VERY mildly.”) I admire people who do not self-censor, who don’t worry about what other folks think of them, or at least can appear to not worry, and I feel Carlin—George Carlin—was just so smart. So that’s part of it, too. He was just so brilliant, and I admire that so much. He could just say something fantastically witty and make you look at the world in a whole new way. His daughter, Kelly, is a friend of mine, and she’s actually a really brilliant person—no surprise there. So their family is just full of genius.

We discuss Sara’s Kickstarter dream, which is now a reality:

SB: I’m so excited about the Kickstarter. It’s called “This Tour is So Gay,” and the idea is that I would go on a comedy, book and service tour. So, in each city I visit, I’ll tell funny stories, I’ll sign some books, and I’ll do some community service for a local group that helps LGBTQ kids—hence, this tour is so gay. It’s just a fun way for me to travel around the US and Canada and tell stories and also do some good. I won’t make a profit off it—it’s 15 cities, 15 grand.

When you factor in the fact that Kickstarter gets a percentage, Amazon gets a percentage, and you have to fulfill the rewards, which cost money, too, it’s not actually as crazy high an amount as I felt when I first set that goal.

EP: Can you think of specific instances when you were growing up when something like this would’ve been important or would’ve helped you in some way—some sort of storytelling slash advocacy group?

SB: Oh, yeah. When I was in high school, I used to gravitate towards the adults who just seemed cool and open. I’d like to be one of those adults for a young person today, for lots of young people. I get lots of letters and emails about things to do with mental health and LGBTQ issues. Some of the stuff that kids tell you is just heartbreaking, and I thought it would be pretty cool to try and help in some fashion—and combine it with being on stage.

EP: Do you have specific stories in mind that you’re ready to tell or are you going to come up with those on the road? Or is that something you’re not even thinking about [yet]?

SB: I have so many stories that I could tell—I’ve been practicing storytelling for a while now at different shows around L.A. and before that, in New York to an extent—so I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to feel it out in each city. We call it taking the temperature of the room. So I’ll take the temperature of the room and look around and see, “Does this seem like an audience that’s really engaged and wants a longer story? Does this seem like an audience in which a very sexual story would go over well, or would that be inappropriate with this audience?” I’ll figure it out as I go along.

EP: Is there a city that you’re super stoked about visiting? I know you have to love all the children equally, but secretly is there one?

SB: I have to love all of my babies equally! I’m really excited about Toronto because I have family in Toronto and I haven’t been there in a while. I’m really excited about Vancouver because I’ve never been to Vancouver. I’m stoked to see my friends in Denver; I’ve never been to Denver. There are cities on the tour that I’ve been to before—Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, D.C., etc.—but I’m excited about the ones I’ve never been to, like Seattle. I’m doing Bumbershoot—I’m doing a show called “Literary Death Match” at Bumbershoot where authors compete for prizes. So I’m trying to set up a “This Tour is So Gay” date at a bookshop or a little theater while I’m there. I’m psyched for that. I’m really excited for that.

EP: I read your story about how you came out to your dad accidentally on Father’s Day, which was hilarious. You said you parents have been really supportive?

SB: Oh, yeah, they’ve been great. They’ve been really supportive. I mean, they’ve been financially supportive—God, have they over the years. They’ve been emotionally supportive, they have been supportive with medical care that I’ve needed at different times for mental health problems. They’re my cheerleaders. They’re very, very much in support of my career, which is great. They had their doubts along the way, but they have been very supportive. They’ve had their moments where they’re like, “What is she doing?”

EP: As all parents must. I think it’s in the parent handbook … “You just gotta lose it a little bit every now and then, to keep you grounded.” They can’t think they’re doing everything right. I remember when I was reading Agorafabulous, I was in awe of your parents: how they came immediately to pick you up and let you stay at home and took care of you. They seemed really sensitive, but also made sure that you were getting better. They definitely seemed to have a plan. Especially the part where they said, “We’re going to the doctor today,” and you said, “Ehhh.” They said, “No, we’re gonna go,” and you said, “Okay.” I think when you’re at that place in your life you crave that guidance, even though you don’t know how to articulate it.

SB: Absolutely. I went to a very childlike place, and children need boundaries, and children need goals, and children need expectations, and I needed that, certainly, too, even in my desperately sad state of agoraphobia and depression and anxiety. That’s perhaps when, more than any other time, you need boundaries, goals, tasks, assignments to keep you focused.

EP: Was it hard to write Agorafabulous? I know it was your [stand-up] show for a while. Was it hard at first to dredge up that stuff, or was is still recent in your mind enough that it was okay?

SB: Well, I can say writing Agorafabulous was really hard. Not that it’s genius prose or anything—it’s not—but it dealt with the hardest time in my life so far, and so it was difficult to dredge that stuff back up.

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EP: I found the Kickstarter you made for “A Photo of Me Atop a Pile of Your Money.”

SB: Oh yeah, my Jokestarter? Yes. That actually raised $500.

EP: I know! I thought, “Man, I kinda wish this had gone through,” because it was such a performance art kind of thing.

SB: Oh, it was. And even just putting it on Kickstarter was an act—it was just totally a joke act, like making fun of Kickstarter.

EP: Does Kickstarter have to approve that stuff?

SB: They approved it! They were like, “Go, girl! Do whatever you need to do. It’s your dream.” And I was like, “Thanks!” Yeah, they’re great. I have a couple of friends working at Kickstarter now, and they have such a neat job. They do such good in the world. It’s really cool.

EP: That’s how actually our magazine got its start. We had a Kickstarter fundraiser so we could cover subscription costs and printing costs and everything. We are fans as well … it was our birthplace. Or our midwife.

SB: Yay!

A version of this interview appeared in The Annual #10.

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Click here to read more interviews.

Artwork by Buddy Purucker, Parker Benbow and Kevin Cole

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