The Sara Benincasa Interview
Today’s interviewee is award-winning comedian and author of Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom, a humorous memoir based on her critically acclaimed solo show about panic attacks and agoraphobia.
Sara’s television appearances include NBC's Today Show, the CBS Early Show, CNN's Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, MTV News, and CUNY-TV’s Brian Lehrer Live. During the 2008 election, she created a splash with her original Sarah Palin vlogs on Huffington Post's humor site, 23/6, a series for which she won an ECNY Award and was nominated for a Webby for best performance, alongside Isabella Rosellini.
From 2006-2008, she hosted Nerve.com’s hit Tub Talk with Sara B., a notorious web-based talk show in which she interviewed comedians and humor writers in her bathtub. She has since revamped the show into the web series Gettin' Wet with Sara Benincasa, and has interviewed guests such as Margaret Cho and Donald Glover. Each month she also performs the critically acclaimed live show Family Hour with Auntie Sara, to packed houses each month at the People’s Improv Theater.
Were there any other memoirs or books about mental illness that particularly inspired you before you wrote Agorafabulous?
I really enjoy books by SARK. She writes these wacky, loopy, colorful self-help/inspiration books, most of which are reproductions of her handwritten, hand-drawn work. She writes about depression, addiction, and other fun things. She also writes about taking joy in everyday life. She inspired me for years, and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living continues to inspire me.
What are some examples of pop culture that got agoraphobia or mental illness incredibly wrong?
Remember when Jessie Spanow took too many pills and danced around in Zack's bedroom screaming, "I'm so excited! That I just can't hide it! I'm so -- SCARED." No one has ever actually had a breakdown while singing one of the Pointer Sisters' many thrilling jams. It's physically impossible.
What’s comfort food for you these days?
Cereal. Good Lord, does that take me to a special place. Especially Special K or Kix. I can't do Cap'n Crunch anymore because it's too dangerous. I can't believe they feed that to little kids. It's the sharpest cereal and will easily cut your gums. Oh, but it's so delicious.
Were there any other competitors for Agorafabulous in terms of a book title?
Nah, Agorafabulous! was pretty much it from the start. I enjoy a good invented word.
I heard you say in an interview that you needed to change a few things in the book for legal purposes (which is common for memoir). I’m not asking for specifics, but what types of things did you need to change?
Oh, names, exact locations, etc. Had to generalize some stuff. Memoir can't be journalism, because it involves other people's stories and lives and they didn't necessarily give me permission to turn them into book characters.
If you wrote another memoir, one say, about comedy or another aspect of your life, is there anything you learned in the process of writing Agorafabulous that you’d apply the next time around?
I'd stay on Prozac the whole time instead of deciding that I was totally fine, going off the drugs, and then having a mini nervous breakdown while completing the edits and having to move home to my parents' house for two months. Best to avoid that sort of thing (note: I'm on so much Prozac now. It's delicious.)
You shared a lot of intimate information about yourself in the book. Have there been any instances where it’s been uncomfortable to meet a reader/fan who knows so much about you?
Sometimes people overidentify and think that they really know you in totality when they only know a certain part of you. Like any author, I'm a lot more than just one book. But I consider it a real gift when somebody says "I feel like you're my friend" or "I relate to you so much" because I know it comes from a really good place. It means they've connected with the book on a deep emotional level, and that's what I wanted when I wrote it. I wanted to give people comfort and companionship.
I’ve been in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy myself, for different issues, and I liked that it definitely felt I was doing work on myself, but it could definitely feel like work. What were some of the most challenging discussions or “assignments” you were given in therapy?
Talking back to a voice that insists you kill yourself -- that's tough stuff. It gets tiresome, especially when that voice is in your head constantly while you're awake. But it's a really important task, and certainly a worthwhile one.
How do you know now the gray area between feeling a little antisocial and homey versus something leading to a slippery slope?
Well, when I haven't left the house for 48 hours, I know I need to force myself. I'm a freelance writer so this is a not uncommon occurrence, but surely there's some garbage I need to take out after two whole days of inside-ness. Or maybe I just ought to take a walk around the block. Sometimes it's enormously hard to get myself to do these basic things. Again, Prozac is my friend.
You have over 13,000 followers on Twitter. For Twitterers salivating at the thought of an audience that big, is there anything you can do to increase your audience, or is trying too hard instant death?
I'd say liveTweeting major events like the Oscars or a presidential debate -- those are good ways to pick up more followers. Join in on some mass social event, get into the conversation, and be funny or profound or relatable or all three of these things or any two of these things in combination.
How do you balance social networking time and work time?
For me they are often one and the same, particularly if I'm promoting a blog post I've done for, say, Vice or XOJaneor NewNowNext, or if I'm promoting a live appearance. I definitely spend too much time on social networking stuff. For example, I'm supposed to be working on a TV treatment for Agorafabulous! but instead I decided to Facebook chat my friend Hari Kondaboluin London. He's actually over there making TV, so our chat reminded me to get back on task with the treatment. Having highly motivated friends with whom to waste time online can sometimes end up being a good thing.
You got your masters in education but you ended up not teaching. What did you gain from that degree that helped you do what you do now?
I'd say I gained an enormous respect for public school teachers, not that that particularly influences what I do now. I gained a lot of time in front of captive audiences, so that was good for comedy. Learned about some popular YA literature -- also a good thing. Got to immerse myself in teen culture, which was excellent research for what I'm working on now.
I hear you’re working on a YA book. What challenges have you found working in that genre that’s different from memoir or comedy?
Kids are great B.S. detectors, and they can tell if you're talking down to them or if you're forcing a theme or a message. It's easy to be authentic and sound real when you're writing your own true (or mostly true) stories -- it's harder when you're inventing a world.
If you did a new one-woman show, what do you think the topic would be?
I used to think it'd be about sex, but now I co-host a podcast called "Sex and Other Human Activities" and I really get my fill of talking about that subject. Maybe it'd be about feeling like a lady-impostor because I'm bad at cooking and cleaning and I don't have a husband or a baby. But I totally want a husband and a baby and cooking and cleaning skills. I just don't have any of these things at present. Well, I'm working on cooking.
Who were some of your favorite interviewees that you had for Tub Talk and what made them so great?
Well, Tub Talk was on Nerve and I later revamped it as Gettin' Wet with Sara Benincasa on YouTube. Jonathan Ames was on Tub Talk, and he was delightful. Reggie Watts and I had pizza delivered to the bathtub on one Tub Talk episode. On Gettin' Wet, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer were pretty fun, and James Urbaniak was a delight.
Do you do any impressions aside from Sarah Palin?
Michele Bachmann is my spirit animal.
Who would you recommend as a comedian more people should know?
The aforementioned Hari Kondabolu is a delight. So is my amazing friend Mike Drucker.
I have a theory that there are a lot of women out there who are feminists but are just afraid to admit it, because they worry doing so would render them unattractive. What they need just to get used to saying it, and it thus loses its scariness. Thoughts?
I guess I've never worried about it. I'm a feminist, and I'm hot as sh*t. Hot as a fresh, steaming pile of dogsh*t on a freezing winter morning. Mmm, that's real sexy. But yeah, a lot of girls think that if they call themselves a "feminist" everyone will think they are uptight and boring and unf*ckable. This is patently untrue. I guess we extremely hot feminists just need to keep stating who and what we are in order to hopefully bring some of these other chicks out of the closet.
How does it feel to be the 307th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It feels like my soul has been gently exfoliated. And I thank you for it.