‘I try to be repulsive’: comedian Patti Harrison on why she likes to bait liberal audiences – The Guardian

The Ohio-raised star of movies and TV shows such as Shrill and I Think You Should Leave says comedy is a refuge from the impacts of being trans and that, right now, she’s happy to be in the UK
Near the start of Patti Harrison’s untitled live comedy show, she jokes that it has been a long time since she last performed, acting out a phone call with her agent where they’re persuading her to get back on stage. Eventually they put her kidnapped mother on the line. “And now I’m here!” she declares with a wild smile. “Where’s my mom?”
It’s true, she tells me, she has not performed live for a long time. “I’m stressing that so hard in my show: ‘This is a fucking work-in-progress, please, guys!’ Like, blood coming from my eyes, so worried that people are wanting to see this very polished show.”
Originally from Ohio, Harrison – comedian, writer and star of hit series including Shrill, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and the animation Big Mouth – performed at the Edinburgh festival fringe for the first time this year. The heatwave has reached Scotland by the time we meet in August, so we retreat to the dark interior of a bar, Harrison’s virgin bloody Mary topped with a colourful cocktail umbrella. “I picked the creepiest area,” she says as we settle into red velvet seats, a giant plush unicorn to one side, a mannequin with a mask of what might be J-Lo’s face to the other. It’s a fitting setting for a chat about Harrison’s work, in which comedy frequently gives way to something slightly unsettling.
When she was asked to do an Edinburgh run this year, “I didn’t have a show together”. Harrison took songs she’d been working on and added new jokes, keeping it loose so she could feel out the audience each night and put her improvisational skills (college improv was her first foray into live comedy) to good use. Although some of the lyrics conjure up wince-worthy images (the consistency of Steve Bannon’s ejaculate, for example) it’s clear that she is a great singer, with a talent for mimicry. Her impersonation of a Tory Kate Bush (“I’m tired of being silenced”) is spot on.
On stage, Harrison treads a tightrope between sincerity and irony. She subverts well-worn tropes of the comedy special: checking notes on a stool, later revealing that she is looking at nothing more than a still from the film Stuart Little. The expectation of an emotional journey is skewered as she delivers a PowerPoint presentation of trigger warnings, but it’s sponsored by “Noise Barn”, so incongruous sounds play over slides with headings such as “elder abuse” and “pre-transition trauma” (Harrison is trans). “There are so many shows where you have to have this moment of gravitas.” There’s something unnerving, she says, about the way standups are expected to act out an emotional revelation night after night.
“I have felt pressured to have a comedy special, even though I’ve never felt like a standup,” she says. “A lot of comedy developers are like: ‘We want you to be able to do your standup show exactly the same, 50 times, before we are going to put money into it.’ That feels so soulless. I’m not enjoying myself doing that, even if people are laughing.”
Harrison is also pushing against pressure to talk about being transgender in her comedy. “I like to bait and switch people who think they’re going to get to pat themselves on the back for seeing a trans comedian, by trying to be repulsive,” she says.
At the same time, Harrison says, “I don’t want to erase my experience, because it is a huge part of my day-to-day life.” But, coming from an improv and character-comedy background, “I never wanted to do anything political because comedy feels like my escape from that. The lived experience is so political whether you like it or not. There was a time where I felt like in order to build my career up, I was taking advantage of people’s interest in this, then feeling resentful.”
That pressure was exacerbated by social media. “My brain was getting scrambled,” she says. “It made me feel like if I wanted to make it, I had to lean into these things. It’s not good for the soul, it’s this high-spectrum narcissism that social media normalises.”
When she was growing up in rural Ohio, platforms such as Myspace and LiveJournal helped her to connect. Even Twitter had its moment: “You could write jokes, rattle them off, follow your favourite comedians. Once everything became commercialised, it completely destroyed the positive fabric of social media.”
Fans of the sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, created by Saturday Night Live alumni Robinson and Zach Kanin, will recognise Harrison. But she might never have been there if it wasn’t for social media. “Tim said that he found me through my Instagram videos,” she says. “That show is one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on.”
In one sketch, Harrison plays a woman in an instructional driving video who keeps crashing her car because she’s distracted by the dirty tables she’s transporting. In another, she’s a wine-obsessed millionaire in a Dragon’s Den-style show.
Harrison spent time in the writers’ room for the second series: “It’s super, super scripted – people assume there’s a lot of improv in it, but there’s not.” Kanin would be typing away while they threw jokes around. “He types exactly the way you’re saying it, so it’s all there in the script, all the uhhs,” she says. “They are brilliant in knowing how important attention to detail is in comedy. It does matter to fight for those little things.” There are parallels between the show and Harrison’s live work, a similar humour that takes us to unexpected extremes.
Harrison’s acting skills have also been in demand on animated shows, including Big Mouth and BoJack Horseman. During the pandemic, Harrison says, it felt as if there was “a huge boom” in this kind of work – such series being easier to produce amid Covid restrictions. “I did so much recording in my bed with a blanket over my head,” she says. “I voiced a character in this Netflix show called Q-Force. They sent this little tent that was on a stand, you stick your head and laptop in the tent and it’s 9,000 degrees inside. Harrison’s latest Hollywood turn, starring as a literary agent alongside Diane Keaton in body-swap comedy Mack & Rita, also involved some claustrophobic performances. “I recorded a lot of stuff on an iPad, but I was on set, so I would hold the iPad and hit record and they would have the slate in my face.”
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Although it is exciting working on high-profile productions, they’re not necessarily Harrison’s favourite jobs. “Those big, huge movies, it can get scary, because you feel like there’s so much pressure, so much money, so many people involved,” she says. “My best experiences that have been really fun are little indie things where I have made almost no money.”
Last year, she starred as a woman who agrees to be a surrogate for an older man’s child in Together Together, earning herself a nomination for best female lead at the Independent Spirit awards. Just before flying to the UK, she wrapped on Theater Camp, written by and starring Booksmart’s Molly Gordon. “A bunch of my friends are in it. It literally felt like I was at camp, because we were shooting at a camp in upstate New York,” she says.
“I’ve been pretty selective in the past couple of years about what I work on. Or trying to be, because there are times when you just need to support yourself. But hopefully I’m getting to the place where I can make money on something that’s also a nice experience.”
Part of that selectiveness comes from the desire to carve her own path. “The great thing about live performance is that it’s really close to autonomy. It’s the place where I’ve had the most control over my voice and how I wanted to be perceived.”
This realisation and her time in Edinburgh has persuaded her – without the need for a kidnapping – that she wants to be back on stage. She’s decided to restart her own comedy night “back in my little Los Angeles safe space”. That’ll be further away than expected, though – after an initial short run in Edinburgh, she has extended her stay in the UK.
“I’m in a pretty emo moment in my life, but this is the most beautiful place I have ever been, I feel like every time I turn a corner on the street I see something that makes me cry,” she says. “I’ll take a rest when I’m back. I’m sure it will all hit me at some point and I’m just going to shit my spine out on stage. But so far, I really love it. I feel myself tightening up as a performer. I feel invigorated.”
Patti Harrison is at Soho theatre, London, from 23 January to 18 February.

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