Talking with Megan Amram About Her New Book ‘Science…For Her!’
I don’t want to start this by talking about Twitter and how it’s now used for more than sharing up to the second news, opinions on that news, and jokes on that news, because we already know this. Also, because Megan Amram deserves more than this. But you can’t talk about Amram and her career without talking about Twitter. Before she was a comedy writer on Parks and Recreation and the Oscars, she was just known for her tweets. And by “just,” I mean her over four hundred thousand followers “just” knew this woman for her weird, often dark, hilarious tweets. It was this simple act of writing jokes on the internet that lead to a dream job, but “There’s part of me that wants to tell the world, ‘I can do things that are not just tweets,’” she laments.
If writing for one of the biggest comedy shows on television isn’t enough to prove that she can do more than “just tweet,” Amram’s first book Science…For Her! definitely is. The satirical science textbook, delightfully disguised as a Cosmo-style magazine (thank goodness or us women wouldn’t get it), offers such insight as “This Spring’s Most Glamorous Ways to Die,” “The Jude Laws of Physics,” and the “Bachelors of Science.” A proud feminist and a proud nerd, it’s not just a book that’s close to Amram’s heart — it’s practically inside her brain, her wonderful, social conscious, weirdo brain. She studied Abnormal Psychology while at Harvard, after all. That being said, Megan, while you certainly have fulfilled your desire to be known for more than just internet writing, please don’t let that stop you from tweeting.
You obviously don’t go from zero to four hundred and thirty-nine thousand Twitter followers overnight. How did you gain traction? Was there something specific to propel you?
Yeah, I mean it took a while, but I also do think I was so supremely lucky. I didn’t know that Twitter was going to be a useful tool for performance at all. I thought it was just going to be a place where I can practice writing while I moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. I wanted to make my friends laugh. I had no idea that there was a group, which is now the entire world, of people who use Twitter as a place to find new writers or friends or just interesting feeds. I was very serendipitously found by some people who were already working in LA, like writers or assistants, and they started retweeting me. Then it just very organically grew into this thing. Then Rob Delaney, who is of course the king of Twitter… and Serbia, found my Twitter and was very influential when I was a little baby writer, in really supporting me. So, he was really amazing.
Did it sort of happen the way they talk about, where you were on Twitter and next thing you know you got to write for Parks and Rec?
There’s a few steps in between, but honestly that’s part of it. In 2010 I moved to Los Angeles and I had been tweeting a lot and was getting a little following…I had what was a significant following even then and was hired purely based off my tweets to write for the Oscars, which was incredibly crazy and amazing. And I do think though, as much as I’m a little…not embarrassed, but there’s part of me that wants to tell the world, “I can do things that are not just tweets.” But I also think I will be forever indebted to it, because it really is a way to just know if this person can write jokes and how quickly they can write them, and how many. And I don’t think that’s ever going to go away. A few years ago I thought that people were going to get sick of Twitter and it was going to end the way that MySpace sort of ended, but I kind of don’t think it’s going to go away now. Because, it is such a useful tool in whatever capacity, for writing, it’s a portfolio for news. So, I was hired for the Oscars and at the same time started writing for a Disney Channel show, which was unrelated, but was a very funny experience.
Not nearly as dark.
No. I mean, it’s so crazy what you can’t say on the Disney Channel. Obviously you can’t have sex or violence, but you can’t have anything that’s controversial in any way. So, it was a good practice in learning to write for your audience, which in that case is little children, but in any television show you have to know who you’re writing for. Then after that I wrote for Kroll Show for a season. And then I got hired on Parks and Rec a few years ago. And my boss really did mostly know me from Twitter. I had written for some other stuff, but he sort of cared more about the fact that I made him laugh and was a stranger who was just writing a lot everyday. He said to me “If you’re a beginning writer, you can learn how to do the structures and you can learn about story and all that stuff, but you need to be funny to start out with.”
I remember hearing about you when people were first telling me about Twitter. They were like, “There’s this girl and she got hired because of her tweets.” I feel like we have you to thank not only for inspiring future writers, but we also have you to blame for all the people out there who think they’re comedians when they tweet.
I know. That’s the thing. I feel so lucky that I get to be that person, and I think there’s a handful of other people, and maybe even more, than that now. I do know other shows where people have gotten hired based on videos or Twitter. The wonderful thing about Twitter is that it’s self-filtering. If you want a joke you can write whatever you want, but that’s also sort of the bad thing.
Did you move to Los Angeles specifically to pursue writing for television?
I moved to Los Angeles to play for the Dodgers. It’s going terribly. No, I moved here to write for TV but had no real plan. I had talked to the few people I knew who were assistants or maybe writers. There’s always pieces of advice, which usually is “Move to LA and put yourself in the scene.” There’s no real way to tell someone how to be a writer. Though, I very energetically was like, “I’ll just move. I have no plan. I’ll be a nanny, I’ll be an extra on TV shows and I’ll write some tweets and I’ll try to write a show and see what happens.” I never would’ve guessed that that is what would’ve lead me into the world.
You graduated from Harvard. What was your major?
I majored in psychology, which I still, I mean I really loved that. I studied Abnormal Psychology and would diagnose everyone I knew with mental illnesses. I’ve also always been a big science and math nerd and I think in another life I would’ve been a doctor if I hadn’t been so squeamish. I’m very, very squeamish, but my family is all doctors.
So your book, the whole “Science For Her” is a perfect projection of you.
Oh yeah. I had so much fun actually writing it, it was so… I embarrassed myself. No one knew I was doing this, but I wanted to bully myself, because I would be reading science textbooks to help structure my science textbook and I’d get lost reading them. I was like “Megan, you fucking nerd.” Yeah, that’s definitely a big part of my personality.
Was that your plan all along? What were some of the rejected ideas you had?
That honestly was my first real idea. I wanted to write a book before I knew what it was going to be about. I’d been writing for my blog for a few years and really loved writing very manic prose comedy and it sounded like a good project to work on while at Parks and Rec, because it’s different enough from the TV show that it doesn’t feel like the same thing all day every day, but it’s still writing. When I was formulating what I wanted my book to be, I knew I wanted it to be high concept. I didn’t just want it to be a collection and I also wanted it to look weird. I wanted it to look very specific. That was sort of where I came up with the women’s magazine Cosmo-y idea, because I think it’s got such a specific aesthetic that would be so fun to write in, and I had already written some fake Cosmo-y pieces. Once I decided what I wanted it to look like, I thought, “Okay, so what is the satire I’m going to be writing? Okay, well it’s going to be satire of how people think women are idiots and this is all they care about is makeup and boys. What would the natural extension of that be?” And the answer is, I guess the craziest thing that I could write would be a science textbook with the insinuation that women are too dumb to understand real science. Once I thought of that idea I was like, “This is exactly what I want to write.”
I love that, because I have the book now and it one of those books that you want to keep. It’s a good coffee table book and sorry to say, but it’s good for in the bathroom.
Bob Odenkirk’s book just came out too and I wrote the preface to his book under a pen name, which is a piece about how you shouldn’t read his book on the toilet. It’s written by a fake etiquette teacher talking about how it’s unladylike. So yeah, that’s totally what you should be doing is reading it in little chunks or if you have Crohn’s disease you can read it all at once while you’re on the toilet.
No one is doing anything like this. It really stands out.
There are books that are a lot like this that are sincere. For my birthday, my friend got me the best gift, which is a cookbook that Glamour put out I think a couple years ago. It’s called “Engagement Chicken” or like, “A Thousand Recipes Every Girl Should Know.” It is exactly the tone of my book and I was so glad about that, because I felt like I really captured that editorial voice. The conceit of that book is that if you cook this one chicken recipe, your boyfriend will propose to you. And my jaw dropped.
And what year is this? My god!
I know. And it’s so hard to know how much of it is a joke. I want to give the women who work for those magazines credit. One, because they all have been very nice to talk with, but I have to think that they know it’s kind of ridiculous. I want to interview them and talk to a woman who is in charge of Glamour and just ask her truthfully, “How much of this is meant tongue-in-cheek?”
And how much are you doing it just because it’s a job and it’s not easy to find writing work, so it’s at least something? You know?
Yeah. Also, as someone who considers themselves to be a strong feminist and that colors a lot of how I see media, it’s hard to just relax. Sometimes I wish I could just be like, “Ah! Can’t I just watch a movie and not leave thinking that these were reinforcing dangerous stereotypes?” Because, the flip side of the coin is it’s saying things like, “Boys will be boys.” “Come on. We’re just having fun, it’s fine.” But, I don’t think you can ever be complacent about that stuff. Part of me wants to be like, “Can’t I just read about how to find a boyfriend and not like think about the connotations?” but the answer is no.
Yeah, that was actually one of my questions for you. You’re known for having a strong feminist point of view. Do you resent it? Do you want to be known for something else or is it like, “Fuck it! Bring it on, this is great.”
I think it’s like “Fuck it. Bring it on.” It makes me really proud and also it has evolved so much in my own thinking and writing over the past few years and I think that’s what it’s supposed to do. You’re supposed to grow up and travel and expand your brain to accompany the fact that there are so many perspectives out there and there’s so many different types of people. That’s part of the reason I wanted to write this book that I think a lot of ages of women will like, but hopefully teen girls and college age girls will read and think is funny. I think reading things that have social bends to them helps you be vigilant and think more like, “Oh, maybe there are things that are sexist in this world even though they don’t seem like it right off the bat.”
I wrote a piece about my mom this recent Father’s Day, because she raised me completely by herself and was also a really good role model for me growing up. She is a feminist and obviously a very strong woman who raised two kids by herself as a doctor. Also, she taught me that there is sexism in the world, which seems like a basic idea, but it sort of was a epiphany for me, because I kind of thought, “Aren’t we like, good now?”
Yeah, you sort of think, “I’ve never had anything sexist happen to me” but when you stop and think you realize, “That stuff kind of happens everyday.” But because we weren’t talking about it before, it was more accepted. Now, because of things, especially humor, bringing it out, it’s becoming so much easier to talk about and we’re starting to realize it more.
Absolutely. And I really do love having this, I guess, social issue, that I want to use comedy to help bring awareness to. First and foremost, I want people to think my book is funny, because I’m not writing a manifesto. I’m writing a comedy book. I also have writers who are older than me and have been doing it a long time who told me “When you write something, try to write about something that you care about, because you have been given a great opportunity to reach a lot of people. So, you should write about something important.” And I really took that to heart.
I love that. What’s something that everyone gets wrong about you or that they might not know about you?
Interesting. Umm… Well, a lot of people think I play for the Dodgers, but no. You know, I think it’s that if you only know me from the internet you might think I’m a total weirdo. And I am a total weirdo, but in a much different way. I’m very bubbly when you talk to me and I talk a lot and I’m an over-sharer. I think if you just knew me from the internet you’d be like, “Oh that’s that fucking weirdo who put lipstick all over her face and won’t change her profile picture.” But that’s part of the reason I’m doing it, because that’s not my natural personality. It’s very fun to be that person when I’m making stuff online.
Actually yeah, I was going to bring this up. We haven’t seen Amy Poehler smear lipstick all over her face in Parks and Rec yet, but…
Ha! Would you say there’s a scene, or an episode or a joke that’s very “you” that made it into the show?
There is, but it’s not on until… I can’t give away anything. There’s a joke that’s coming up in my episode that airs this coming season that my boss kept being like, “This is the most Amram joke I’ve ever seen.” And I will describe it. It is a pun. I am very embarrassed about this, but I make puns so much. My brain, like everyone at work, I get… [laughs] I get pretty bad headaches and everyone at work is convinced it’s because I make too many puns and my brain is just breaking up and I need to, my boss has said, go home and take my brain out and put it on a set of ice and just let it cool down and then put it back in my head. My whole family makes so many puns and I truly think it’s genetic. I try not to and they just pop out. So, there is a joke coming up in my episode that, we’ll wait and see if anyone realizes, is the most “Amram-y thing.”
You didn’t go to school to be a writer, but did you always want to be a writer?
That’s good question, because I definitely did not. I do know a lot of people who wrote stories when they were five and just knew right off the bat. I always knew I wanted to do something in entertainment, but I was not funny at all as a little kid. I made puns but did not make jokes. I was obsessed with comedy from afar. I was obsessed with The Simpsons and I’ve watched Airplane and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure probably eighty times each. My family was really into The Marx Brothers. Not until I was like seventeen did I make a joke and it was a very weird one. I do think it had something to do with my brain changing a little bit. I also took an English class in high school where my teacher gave us an assignment where we had to write a comedic thing. It had never occurred to me to do it before, but it was really fun and I thought it was good. He encouraged me to keep trying at it.
Do you remember the joke?
I don’t, but I do remember… I ran for class president for like, six years in a row and never won. That encapsulates the type of person I am. I was a nerdy kid, and my speeches were very serious and my mom always told me, “Put some jokes in your speeches. People like that.” I was like, “No. I’m not going to. I don’t know how to do that.” I have a twin brother who’s really funny and was popular. In eleventh grade I told him that he had to run with me for class president, because he was funny and popular and I was the person who was going to get the stuff done, but they would vote for him. So, we ran on a joint ticket and then we won and I had all the work, because Alec is the one who got us elected. It’s a very weird, long story. I’m still furious at him that he made me plan prom by myself.
Aww. He didn’t help at all?
No. He didn’t help at all. He was the class clown and now he’s a doctor and I was the nerdy one and now I’m the comedy writer, so dream big kids, because your dreams will not turn out at all. My other true love is musicals and that’s how I spent most of my time was performing in musicals. I wrote three musicals in college with some of my friends. That is another way my life could’ve gone is going to grad school for musical writing.
Wow. Well, you could always write a musical episode of any show you’re on.
I have written songs for a bunch of things…I wrote a musical episode of the Disney show I wrote for — I was very excited I was able to do that. I have pitched musical stuff for Parks and Rec. We never got close to writing one, because it doesn’t really fit in the world of the show that well, but we started talking about a musical episode. I was like, “Don’t get your hopes up Megan.” So, it hasn’t happened, but there are songs in Parks and Recs that are really good.
Who are your favorite TV writers? Also, I know this is something that we’re all sort of sick of talking about, but I guess at the same time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on just women in comedy these days.
Yeah, I mean that is something that is both over-talked about and then also, well, people should talk about women in any capacity. That’s always good. So, it seems like this weird second wave where people are realizing how much it’s been talked about in the past five years. I think now we’re just hopefully getting to the point of, “Yeah, women are really funny and are doing great stuff in comedy and we don’t need to talk about it anymore.” To answer the comedy writer question, I think Broad City is really great and is such a cool show. Ilana and Abbi are amazing, because of how it’s sort of gender-neutral female characters. We will have gotten past this “women in comedy” question when you can have women characters of all types in shows. Because there’s still these stereotype of there’s the “sexy lady” or there’s the “stuck up snotty lady” or there’s a few different archetypes that women keep appearing in.
The thing I love about Broad City is that it’s these kind of gross stoner girls who are also pretty and care about stereotypical girlie things, but then also are just weirdos. That makes me so happy, because that’s a very multifaceted thing that I feel like the Seth Rogen camp has… dude stoners are so funny. I love that character and so it’s great that it’s a female. Growing up with a twin brother especially, all the movies we saw were like Dude Where’s My Car-style, just like dufus men. I like the idea that there’s a version of that who are girls. And they’re not just like raunchy. I think it’s specific.
Because it’s also that’s what’s actually out there. You know, some of my friends. People I know.
That’s the thing too. I really don’t like the stereotype that women don’t get along with each other or their moms or their girl roommates. Because I get along really well with my girlfriends, because they’re my friends, so we get along. I always try to combat that stereotype that girls are catty. Because one, guys also talk behind the backs of their friends and two, there are catty girls, but there are also non-catty girls. There are just a lot of different types of people. I like things that show, like you were saying about your friends, when girls are portrayed as being multifaceted people.
Because that’s real life.
Yeah, that’s the thing. That is so not a strong statement. That’s very self-explanatory to me. A lot of people talk about the Bechdel Test, which really — when you think about — it is pretty incredible when you realize how many things don’t meet those criteria. It’s like, “Oh it isn’t that hard to do.”
Amram’s new book Science…For Her! is out now in stores and on Amazon.