Emily Heller

The Annual has been fortunate enough to consistently feature interviews with such tremendous contemporary talent, not to mention content from a truly exceptional staff. And our audience isn’t wide, which means you are reading, quite possibly, the most “indie” humor magazine in existence. Allow us to further illustrate this fact; In July of 2014, Vice  released an interview where they asked Ron Funches what happens after death. We featured an interview with Funches asking the same question, in September of 2013. Of course, this is not to imply that Vice has any awareness of The Annual. To the contrary, we are small and we do some pretty cool things. Hopefully you’ll find the following to be just as cool: an exchange of words with stand up comic and host of The Future with Emily Heller


[Sometimes it is difficult to come up with an adequate introduction for someone so pleasant.]

David Luna: What was your earliest memory?

Emily Heller: I think my oldest memory was just sitting in the dining room of my house I grew up in at a little kid table, looking over and seeing my mom on the phone.

DL: Would you consider yourself a feminist?

EH: I do consider myself a feminist.

DL: When did you first start to have an understanding that there really isn’t equality between the sexes?

EH: Pretty young. My mom subscribed me to a feminist magazine for young girls called New Moon when I was in third or fourth grade. There was a section in the magazine called “How Aggravating” where people could write in and tell stories of things that happened to them that frustrated them, and a lot of them were just stories of young misogyny, basically. For some reason that was always my favorite section, because it did make me really mad.

DL: Were you ever bullied as a kid, or were you ever a bully yourself?

EH: I probably was more of a bully than I thought I was. That “30 Rock” episode where Liz Lemon goes to her high school reunion, thinking these were the people that terrorized me in high school, and she gets there and realizes that she was the one who was terrorizing them—I’m always afraid that that would be me.

I was very mean to some of my close friends when I was younger. I was never really bullied. I was definitely excluded a lot, and that had a big impact on me, but no one ever did anything truly awful to me. I probably deserved to be excluded to a certain extent. It sort of forced me to figure out what I was doing wrong. A lot of times people are excluded for the wrong reasons, but I think I was kind of an unpleasant person to be around for a long time. It’s probably why I became a funny, to try to keep people around me.

Make some people feel good and make positive change.

DL: Were you always extroverted as a person?

EH: Yeah, I’ve always been extroverted. There’s a story that my family tells: when I was three I was in preschool, and we did a little concert where all the preschoolers were singing, and in the middle of one of the songs I shouted “Stop!” because I wanted to be the only one singing. I think it’s a pretty representative story of what I was like as a kid.

DL: Do you remember what you wanted to do with your life at age 12?

EH: I think I wanted to be a journalist; I didn’t quite know. In sixth grade we had an assignment to write our autobiography as if we were adults, and so we wrote what had already happened and then what had happened in the future. I really just cribbed a lot of it from other autobiographies I had read. I went to NYU for drama, and then I became an animator for Warner Brothers, and then I started my own magazine, and then I won a Pulitzer Prize. I was all over the place.

DL: Have you surprised yourself with any of your own accomplishments?

EH: Absolutely. Everything that’s happened in comedy has been a surprise to me. I’m constantly reminding myself to be so grateful for everything that’s happened in comedy because when I started in comedy, I had a lot of failures behind me in terms of trying to figure out what my path was and what I was supposed to be doing. And when I started doing comedy, it’s such an exceptionally difficult and unlikely thing to succeed in; you can be really fantastically talented and still not make it. I knew that going in and I never really allowed myself to think that I had a future in comedy when I first started. It took a long time before I felt comfortable even admitting to myself that it was something I was truly pursuing because I didn’t want to fail, and I knew that the chances were very high that I would fail. The fact that so far I haven’t failed, and that I haven’t really had the time to get impatient about where my career is going has been really remarkable to me, and I’m really grateful, and I kind of can’t believe it.

DL: Who are your greatest comedic inspirations?

EH: The first comedy show I ever saw was Mitch Hedberg, when I was seventeen. I don’t think that what I do on stage is anything similar to what he does, but he was the first comedian that I really, really loved. Also, “The Simpsons,” obviously. When I was in college, Mr. Show really defined my sense of humor. Also, my friends made a big impact on me. I always had really funny friends, and a lot of them are people who I went to camp with. Those are the funniest people I’ve ever known, and they helped me realize I was funny too, just by virtue of the fact that they wanted to hang out with me.

DL: Do you look up to any exemplary figures from history, unrelated to comedy?

EH: Huh. That’s an interesting question. I’ve always been a really big fan of Frida Kahlo, though my life doesn’t look anything like hers and neither does my career path.

DL: You haven’t slept with any communist revolutionaries?

EH: (Laughs) No, and I’m not devoted to any womanizing men. I’m not a very good student of history, which is weird because that was my minor in college. I was an art history major and a history minor.

You know, anyone who’s radical I really like a lot. All of the suffragettes, and also anyone involved in the feminist movement of the sixties, and the black power movement—I like all those people.

DL: People who rally against authority when it is necessary. When did you first seriously consider the pursuit of comedy?

EH: I was living in San Francisco, and I was working at a comedy website, and I was doing a lot of stand-up, and my friend Alex Koll, who’s a very funny comedian, told me, “You know you have to leave, right?” And I think that was kind of the moment when I realized that I was one of the people who had a shot, when he said that to me with so much certainty.

It took a long time before I felt comfortable even admitting to myself that it was something I was truly pursuing.

DL: Can you recall the first time you did stand up in front of strangers?

EH: Yeah, I took a class in college. They offered a stand up class at UC Santa Cruz. There were eighty people in the class.

DL: Did you already know you would have a knack for it?

EH: I don’t know. I hoped it would go well. I knew I was kind of funny. I don’t know if I thought stand up was a thing I would end up doing a lot of, but I knew I was a funny writer at least, and I had performed in plays and stuff before. At the end of that class I got an A+, so I felt like that was my teacher trying to encourage me to keep doing it.

DL: What was your first job in entertainment, and was it rewarding in any way?

EH: That’s a difficult question, because I feel like I’ve kind of gotten incrementally closer and closer to the industry. Like, I worked at a comedy site in San Francisco, but I don’t know if I would call that a job in entertainment because I was mostly doing editorial work. I’ve done a lot of gigs and stuff here and there, and I think the first regular job I had I was the warm-up comic for Totally Biased on FX for a while.

DL: With the help of the internet, a lot of artists and entertainers today can sell their own content directly. Would you ever produce your own series and have it online, or your own specials like how Louis C.K. did “Live at the Beacon Theatre?”

EH: I don’t know. I had my webseries that I did, but a lot of people helped me make it. I get very easily overwhelmed, so I think I will be a while before I take on any projects that I’m in charge of, but I would like to eventually feel comfortable doing that. Right now I really like working for other people, and having stand-up be the thing that I do on my own. I’d like to release an album. I definitely see that in my future, but I just don’t know how far away it is.

DL: Do you think humans will ever function as one non-violent collective?

EH: Sadly, I don’t think that we’ll ever be non-violent with each other. I think that it goes against our instincts, and I think that those instincts are conquerable if we devoted our resources to conquering those instincts, but there’s nothing to indicate to me that we’re on a path toward that. We’re devoting so many resources toward avoiding changing course, which is really frustrating. I definitely think that it is something that we could have overcome if we had started a long time ago. And I really applaud the people who are trying to work toward that now, but it just seems like you’re up against so much.

DL: Do you think we’re well represented at all by the appointed members of our government?

EH: No. I think that the influence of lobbyists in the country is really destroying it. I don’t doubt that there are a lot of politicians with very sincere goals to help people when they get into office, but I think that you are up against a certain amount of financial pressure from corporations once you get into those positions and that it’s really, really hard to actually get things done.

DL: Do you think that monster will exist as long as people are around, or do you think it will ultimately collapse? Is it possible for it to collapse, or do you think there’s always a reason for a system like that to exist?

EH: The government, you mean?

DL: Yeah, like the government, or a corporation or a governing body that works towards the detriment of people for its own benefit.

EH: I don’t think campaign finance reform is the most difficult thing to wrap your head around or get done, and I think that is the single thing that would have the greatest impact on the way our country is run. So I do think that it’s possible for our government to be more effective, and I do think that there are a lot of really good things that our government does, so I don’t root for the dissolution of government in any way. But I do think we badly need campaign finance reform.

Heller 19

DL: Do you like animals?

EH: Yes, I love animals.

DL: Do you think we differ from them, or are we the same?

EH: I think we have a lot more in common with them than we think that we do. There’s so many things that we do that are driven by the animal parts of our brain, by our animal instincts and things like that, that we find conscious justifications for. Like sex and love, you can’t calculate whom you’re attracted to. You can try to put rationalizations on the way you behave in those relationships, but we’re really driven by the same things that drive animals in those regards. And just the way that people are concentrated near resources in this world. We’re ants. We’re basically ants. (Laughs) What was the question again?

DL: If we’re different as a species.

EH: I think language is obviously a very huge difference between us. Some animals have language, but just in terms of our complete domination of the Earth as well, I think that’s the main thing that distinguishes us.

DL: Are we special in our ability to dominate a planet, or are there others out there?

EH: Like aliens?

DL: Like aliens.

EH: I don’t know. I think it would be hard to rule that out. I think right now we are the smartest things that we know of.

I think I was kind of an unpleasant person to be around for a long time. It’s probably why I became a funny, to try to keep people around me.

DL: Do you have any plans or hopes to continue your genetic lineage?

EH: I don’t want to have kids, no. My siblings, I think, will have kids, so that’s good for my parents. But no, I don’t want to have kids. I might change my mind later. A lot women especially say that they didn’t want kids until they were thirty-five, and they woke up one morning and they just needed them. I can’t pretend like I know that that’s not going to happen to me, but as of right now, I don’t think I want them.

DL: What are your reasons for that right now?

EH: Part of it is just that I don’t feel the want for them. There’s no reason for me not to want them, I just don’t have that feeling inside of me that so many people do. That’s like asking, “What are your reasons for not being hungry?” Like, I don’t really know. I just don’t feel it.

But I do have a hard time justifying the idea of bringing in another person into the world, mostly because I find the world really scary, and I think that environmentally it’s not great. But that’s an easy thing to say when I don’t have the biological urge to make them. I also think that good people raising kids is good for the world. So, if you are a good person who has a kid, you are doing your part in a big way.

DL: On a biological level, everything is about survival. Many people opt out of having children of their own, and some people go as far as to isolate themselves from society to lead a completely monastic lifestyle. What does it mean when humans are pursuing some kind of deeper fulfillment, unrelated to survival? Are we broken, or are humans becoming something else?

EH: Maybe that is something that distinguishes us from animals, because we have whole fragments of society whose basic needs are met, and we have all this surplus brain power that we have developed over millennia, we have the luxury of pursuing other, sort of basic spiritual needs? I don’t know what to call them.

Like why is it that we do things that are unrelated to our own survival? I think because we can. That’s a tough question to answer—like why do we pursue joy, happiness, fulfillment, all of those things? I think that there might be a biological, survival basis for the reason why those feelings give us joy. I think it makes us feel good to contribute to society, because on an evolutionary level we survived as a species because we derived fulfillment from contributing.

I think we were just equipped with these bodies that are capable of extraordinary feelings. It’s spectacular on its own, just as an individual, but the fact that we can affect large groups of people with our actions is really aweing. And it’s an incredible thing to be able to participate in. It’s hard for me to explain why it’s great, but I think if we weren’t good at keeping history, we wouldn’t really care as much about it. But the fact that we know that we have records of what people before us have done, and that we have this tradition to participate in makes it more meaningful.

But, I mean, for people who are like monastic and go off into the woods, I do think there is something deeply biological within us that allows for that kind of peace, I don’t know. I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t know why we have it.

Everything that’s happened in comedy has been a surprise to me.

DL: Do you think comedy is here to please us like another luxury, or does it serve a greater purpose?

EH: I think it’s here for a lot of different reasons. I don’t know why we laugh. I do think that it’s a way for us to bond with each other, which I think is important, but I also think it’s a way for people to ease the introduction of a new idea. Because when people laugh they’re a little disarmed, and when someone makes you laugh you like them, and it allows you to hear what they have to say with a more open heart. I think it works very well to serve that function, but I think that also choosing to laugh at things in your world sort of allows you to cope with the most difficult things that you have to cope with. If you are able to laugh at things that are really horrible, it makes life more bearable. It allows life to be funny. It helps to define your experience on Earth as something joyful.

DL: What do you hope to accomplish in your career as a comedian and writer?

   EH: My goals keep changing as new opportunities present themselves to me. I already have accomplished more than I ever thought I would, which is not to say, “Oh, look at me I’ve accomplished so much.” I just never thought I would make it this far in my career, so everything that’s been happening is sort of icing on the cake.

I would love to create something that made people who feel weird feel less weird or just feel better about themselves. I think that’s the best thing you can hope for: make some people feel good and make positive change.

I would also like to get to a point where I have enough money to give away.

DL: Are there any current entertainers who you would like to get involved with? Dream collaborations or anything like that?

EH: I really love Amy Poehler and Tina Fey; I think they’re the best. I love them. I love the movies that Paul Feig makes. I really love Broad City. I love those girls, and that show is really radical and amazing. I would love to do stuff with Nicole Byer. She and Sasheer Zamata are really funny together. I would love to do something with them someday.

And I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with a lot of the people that I’ve hoped to work with, and that’s been really exciting for me.

DL: Like whom?

EH: It was great to write jokes for Chris Maloney and Rachel Harris on “Surviving Jack.” And I’ve been able to perform stand-up on shows with so many people that I think are so great. Like Maria Bamford. I was so obsessed with her and she was a big part of why I became a stand-up and I got to perform with her in Los Angeles a fair amount.

I had John Mulaney on my web series, and I’ve always really been just the biggest fan of his. Tim Meadows did my web series too. I was so giddy afterward.

If you are able to laugh at things that are really horrible, it makes life more bearable. It allows life to be funny. It helps to define your experience on Earth as something joyful.

DL: Do you have any aspirations unrelated to entertainment, like traveling or learning how to perform open-heart surgery or anything?

EH: I would like to eventually start some kind of charity if I could, some kind of fund, to devote myself in a bigger way to other people. That’s always been something I haven’t been very good at and haven’t done enough of. I guess I would like to own a house. That seems like a nice thing. But other than that, I don’t know. I just want to be a good friend, and a good sister and a good daughter.

DL: If you could shape-shift into any animal, what would you be?

EH: Dolphin.

DL: What happens when you die?

EH: I think nothing. I think it’s like turning a camera off. When you turn a camera off it just stops taking pictures. It stops bringing in images of the world around it. I think your brain shuts down and I think that you’re done.

Although, I think that there could be some sort of scientific explanation for why people seem to be able to perceive spirits that have passed. I think there could be some kind of like, quantum mechanics reason why some of your brainwaves pass into the future and are able to communicate with people, but I don’t think we know what they are so for now I’m just going to say it’s over when you die.

DL: If you had one week to live, what would you do with your time?

EH: I think I would say goodbye to my family first and then I would just go eat- I don’t eat meat but if I had one week to live, I would eat a steak. I would eat a steak and a lot of fried chicken, and I would probably try to have a lot of sex, and I would probably take all the drugs I could try to take, and I would go look at beautiful views and try to see as many people as I could. But I think I would just try to indulge as much as possible in the things that have brought me joy. And then I would also clear my browser history.

See what Emily is up to on twitter @MrEmilyHeller and visit her website emilyheller.tumblr.comIt’s funny shit.

[Artwork by David Luna and Parker Benbow]

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