Talking to Chelsea Peretti about Standup, ‘Call Chelsea Peretti,’ Pau Gasol and Jonathan Winters
Chelsea Peretti is a self-proclaimed “silly billy.” She berates people for liking soup, routinely discusses the merits of Lakers forward Pau Gasol, and has recorded an entire song dedicated to Wolf Blitzer. And yet, she’s one of the most hardworking comedians in L.A. right now: Formerly a writer for Parks and Recreation, Peretti performs stand-up tirelessly and now hosts her own call-in podcast, Call Chelsea Peretti.
She’s also known for her irreverent, caps lock-heavy Twitter account, which ranges from helpful tips (“If ur depressed buy a can of whipped cream spray it into your hand + mash it on your face u will def feel like a silly billy in seconds flat”) to current events commentary (“CNN W THE RACIAL SYNONYMS ‘DARKSKINNED’ ‘BROWNSKINNED’ ‘OBSIDIANISH’ ‘NON-ALABASTERY’”). Most recently, she guest-wrote for Saturday Night Live and Kroll Show, and was one of nine comedians featured on Time’s Top 140 Twitter Feeds of 2013. She’s currently crossing her fingers that Fox picks up the Mike Schur/Dan Goor cop comedy pilot, on which she’ll play a civilian office manager named Gina.
I recently had a chance to talk to Peretti on the phone, thrilled but terrified that she would hang up on me — a move she pulls often on her podcast. I had the good fortune of receiving one of her famous “food tests” — in which you express like or disdain for a certain food, and she deems your answer either right or wrong — and fail miserably. (I incorrectly chose chocolate cake with vanilla frosting over yellow cake with chocolate frosting. “You’re always gonna get a yellow with choc,” she said.) We went on to discuss her in-progress hour special, memories of the late Jonathan Winters, and a potential future collaboration with her brother Jonah, creator of BuzzFeed.
What are you working on right now?
Well, I’m waiting to see if this pilot gets picked up, and working on an hour special, and a potential Funny or Die thing that we’ve been talking about, and just doing a bunch of stand-up. As well as, you know, the variety of social media communities that I’m a participant in.
Are you still looking into writing your own show in the future?
Well, we’ll see what happens. I definitely enjoy writing and performing, and I have ideas and stuff like that — but I’m really excited about this show, and if they go for it, I can’t do that.
Do you prefer being onscreen more or do you prefer writing?
I think it’s weird that everyone asks that question. Can I ask you, what does that question mean to you? Because my feeling is like, standup, you’re doing both. I feel like people don’t think about it as writing, but standup involves both writing and performing, and I’ve kind of always done both. I guess if I had to choose one for the rest of my life, in this moment, I feel like I would choose performing. But for me, the two have been so combined my whole career that I don’t really see it as a choice in any way.
That makes sense. I mean, I’m coming at it from a writer’s standpoint where I would probably never want to be on camera.
[Laughs] Right, well, I mean I definitely think that’s one of the shortcomings of standup for me — sometimes I feel really reclusive and I don’t want to interact with people, much less make people like me. I may or may not have fond feelings towards myself. So yeah, there’s times where the idea of being a reclusive writer is appealing.
So where are you with your hour?
You know, I am sort of a perfectionist to the point where I can be paralyzed by things. So yeah, an hour is something I’ve been wanting to do since I did my half hour. And you know, obviously when I go on the road I do about an hour. I just want to have an hour special so that people who like what I do can have a more comprehensive place to see those things. But also, you just kind of want a record of jokes. There are so many jokes that I’ve done that I’ve not put on TV anywhere, and so I would like to have a resting place for them.
What’s your favorite joke you’ve been doing recently?
Well, I’ve been sick, so I just tried this joke about being sick for the first time last night that I enjoyed. I have some jokes about being a housewife that I’m into, and certain violent fantasies involving bricks. [Laughs] But you know, most of the time it’s like you’re excited about new stuff just because it’s got that element of novelty.
Do you actually watch any comedy, or are you tired of it?
I’ve never been someone who wants to watch tons of standup. I like some standup, particularly standups who deviate from the script of their set depending on their mood or what’s going on in their life. But I would say what I’ve been more nerdy about is actually reading biographies or autobiographies of standups that seem interesting to me. But I’m not really big, for example, into watching hour specials. I have a ton of hour specials of my friends and peers in my Netflix queue, and I just am never in the mood to watch them. [Laughs] Like, I’d always rather watch Mad Men or Lost or things that take my brain to a different place, because I spend so much time on comedy that it’s not as relaxing for me to watch it.
OK, here’s the big question: How does it feel to be on Time’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds?
Um, pretty epic. You know, my mom was a subscriber to Time, and I always saw it in my house growing up, and I think those things make things matter more. So yeah, I was just happy to be included. I don’t know, though, that any of it really matters in any way. [Laughs] But it’s always nice to be included on lists. Makes you feel like you’re part of the crowd, and part of the world.
What’s your favorite Twitter account to follow?
I like The Kid Mero. He’s refreshingly unpredictable, and he’s got that perfect mix of smart and dumb at the same time, which I love. Who else? Joe Mande — I like that he’s politically knowledgeable, and his retweets are funny. And I’ve really been enjoying BuzzFeed News, in light of everything that’s been happening. They just have breaking news all the time, and I enjoy being aware of it.
Speaking of BuzzFeed: I know that Jonah has always been interested in what makes people tick and what makes something viral. Your project BlackPeopleLoveUs.com was a combination of comedy and virality — are you two planning on collaborating again anytime soon?
In the last year or so, we’ve been talking about it more. I think we did those things and then he kind of went off in technology and I went off in comedy, and it’s only recently that we’re like, “We should do something again.”
Any idea of what that’ll be?
Well, I don’t know. [Laughs] Once I know, that’ll probably be set into action. But I think that obviously it’s something involving comedy and technology, and I don’t know what that idea is.
Moving onto the podcast: You’ve attracted callers from a ton of different demographics, such as stoners, Mormons, high school class presidents, etc. What’s your it-factor that appeals to so many people?
I don’t know, I mean, the whole point is that I’m funny. I think that if people come to me in the spirit of like, they sincerely want to talk about something that’s happening in their life, or even if it’s something as silly as a food that they want to discuss the pros or cons of — I am honestly engaging with people, as much as I make jokes about callers if they’re boring or this or that. For the most part, I am interested in what people have to say, and I think probably there’s an element of unpredictability. What I like about it is, it’s not one level — it can be silly or it can be serious. Just depending on everyone’s moods that day, it can be a different show.
Taking Pete Holmes’ podcast as an example, where it’s almost like a form of therapy for him, are you getting something similar out of your own podcast now that you’ve been doing it for a few months?
No, I don’t think that I would call it a form of therapy. But I do think that I learn about different people who are calling in. There was a string of callers for awhile where it was like, people who were unemployed or had jobs they hated. And I think that that made me realize not to take for granted that I love what I do and I’m financially self-supported. So I guess in some ways, yeah, I learn from the people that call, and it improves my life.
How long do you see the podcast lasting? Are you in it for the long haul?
Oh, no. I mean, a weekly thing is a lot of work, especially when you’re doing a lot of other stuff. So I don’t know. Obviously I’m doing it completely unpaid, so I don’t make any money off of it. It’s a pretty significant time commitment. I think it’s obviously enjoyable, and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon, but it’s definitely a fair amount of work.
Tell me about working with Jonathan Winters. Were you two close?
I didn’t know him extremely well, but I was able to work with him on this series I had, All My Exes, where I had all these journalistic sit-downs with ex-boyfriends to objectively figure out what went wrong. Jonathan Winters was one of them. I should’ve had like one line written down and totally improvised, and I didn’t, and I scripted it more because I was nervous about working with someone legendary like that. And so the character I had set up for him was this kind of senile, doddering old guy — but then when I got there, it was so clear that he was so sharp, and also aggressive, and kind of midway through I was like, “Fuck, I should’ve approached this differently.” But anyway, he was hilarious. He crank called my dad, and he was just a very friendly, generous person. For what a legend he was, I was really moved by how nice he was.
Last question: If you could spend the day with Pau Gasol, how would it go?
I think Pau would be a good person to give a tour, like if he were giving me a tour of the Staples facilities or a tour of where he grew up. I think that would be fascinating — he’s such a positive and upbeat person. Maybe we’d go play with some puppies, just to get that silly side out, and then, you know, grab some grub. And that would be it.
Meera Jagannathan is a writer and grad student living in Syracuse, N.Y.