Jeffery Self and the Self-Starter Approach to Comedy
Jeffery Self is honest. Painfully, painfully honest. He livetweeted his breakup-inspired nervous breakdown in 2013. Then when his ex became the star of the Logo series Fire Island, he recapped the show for Vulture. “How often in your life do you get to watch a garbage reality TV show starring someone with whom you had the biggest breakup of your life?” says Self. “It’s fascinating.”
Comedy fans recognize Self as Liz Lemon’s gay cousin Randy on 30 Rock, or as John Early’s character Elliott’s boyfriend on Search Party. But acting and recapping are only two of Self’s many talents. Self hosted the MTV show Scream After Dark, co-wrote and created Jeffery & Cole Casserole with Cole Escola, and has written two young adult novels. His new YA book, A Very, Very Bad Thing, comes out this month.
I would consider you a multi-hyphenate.
I like a hyphenate!
Actor, writer, host. Is there one discipline you think of as your home base, or is everything on the same level?
It depends on what I’m doing at the time, or what I’m getting paid to do at the time. There have definitely been times in my life when I’ve felt like “Oh, I’m an actor who writes sometimes and hosts stuff sometimes.” But then there will be a year when I don’t work as an actor at all, and not because I’m taking a year off from acting, but because I’m not getting jobs. And in those cases I’m turning more to writing. In those times I think “I’m a writer who sometimes acts.” I feel like more than anything, I’m somebody who is willing to do whatever to get attention and money. I think it’s impossible not to be a multi-hyphenate now.
So there’s an external validation part of it?
I’m definitely a deeply needy person who relies on the validation of others. Sometimes that’s good and motivating, and sometimes that’s debilitating. Like when you decide to respond to people saying mean things about you on Twitter. Like, what am I doing with my day? All this is doing is making me pissed off and making these people think “Oh he’s fully insane.”
You’ve been very outspoken about your mental health. Why?
I feel like it’s a responsibility that if you have any kind of platform, no matter how small it is, it’s important to talk about your experience and hopefully you can help other people. The other side of that is that I sometimes use my online persona to work through my stuff. I can kind of crowdsource my emotions. I feel like no matter what I put out there is going to help somebody. And even if it’s not helping somebody else, it’s helping me.
Sometimes it’s just nice to get the shit out of your mind and into a tweet.
What made you interested in writing for YA audiences?
This sounds so corny, but I had been reading a lot of David Levithan, who ended up being my editor at Scholastic. He had written a couple of queer YA books that I had read as a teenager. And he’d written a new one called Two Boys Kissing. I read it and really loved it. I realized “Oh, I really want to write a YA book!” The exciting thing I discovered was that the world of YA was really eager for queer stories that weren’t necessarily coming out stories, but were about what happens once you’re out. That was so inspiring to hear. I’ve only done two now, but the experience of working with Scholastic and all of the YA community has been very inspiring. You look around and the world seems to be falling apart, but then hundreds of thousands of teenagers come to these events, wanting to talk about these books. It makes you feel like the world is potentially going to be okay.
Let’s talk about the new book.
Yes! It’s called A Very, Very Bad Thing. The seed of the idea came from the way we take these queer teenagers who go through something very tragic — whether it’s a suicide of a friend or a lover, or a terrible coming out experience, or some form of bullying — the way we take those stories and use them to push an agenda. A very important agenda that should be pushed, but definitely an agenda. Sometimes to the point where I feel like we make these kids into celebrities based on something that’s tragic. Is it helpful, when someone goes through something really traumatic, to put them into the worldwide spotlight and give them money and endorsements? And then be like, “Okay, go! What’s next? What are you going to do for us?” This is how you expect them to cope?
I started exploring the idea of someone using a tragedy to attempt to do something for the greater good. Basically, someone lying for the sake of the greater good, and that lie spinning out of control and getting bigger and bigger. What’s important: How we fight or that we fight? Is fighting fair the most important part, or is it the fight itself? This was something I thought about as I watched kids coming out on YouTube and then go on Ellen.
That is a very relevant question: Is it how we fight or that we fight?
That’s the thing — I wrote this book before the election, and then it happened. I felt like [the conversion therapy plot] was almost dated, the “pray the gay away” stuff, and then boom! It happens. The world can change and go backwards 50 years in the blink of an eye.
Does that change how you feel about kids getting paid for visibility? About visibility for visibilty’s sake?
I think it’s important to have those kids. And a lot of those kids are doing amazing stuff. There are so many kids on Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat being very visibly queer and empowered, competent poster people, for lack of a better word. Those people are exceptionally important. But I think there’s got to be a distinction between the people who are exceptionally important and the people who aren’t doing anything with their platform. And I think that goes across everybody, not just queer people. We’re in a place where it’s irresponsible for you to not be explicit about what you’re fighting for. You have to be stepping up to the responsibility, or else what’s the point?
You have to be intentional about what you’re doing, or else don’t do it.
Yeah, exactly. I get really annoyed with Instagram stars who are just famous for being sexy. That’s all well and good, but the minute there’s some sort of gay tragedy, the way that so many hot Instagram stars take off their shirt and say “I stand with Russia” or something. “I stand with Orlando,” all that kind of stuff. The intention is good, but there should also be an awareness of the content itself, and making sure it’s appropriate.
There’s a disconnect between the form and the ostensible message, which reveals the underlying message of “I would like attention, please.”
Exactly. And please! I am just as guilty of it as anyone.
Why do you think conversion therapy is still a going concern?
People are so afraid of the idea of queer kids. I think there’s something about that idea that freaks people out. And I don’t know if it has something to do with people’s own shame and ideas they pushed down and fought against, or if it’s the unknown, or if it forces them to think of a child sexually, or all of the above. Probably all of the above. But people are so afraid of progress of any sort with regards to sexuality in teens. They’re so afraid of that change and fighting as hard as possible against it. It’s all fear, though. It’s all people afraid of the unknown, or maybe not the unknown. The known they don’t want to know, you know?
So much of your career has been on these new emerging social media platforms, and self-started. That’s a new thing, comparatively.
I would say 99 percent of everything I’ve done has been self-started. It’s something that I’m proud of, but also something that I’m constantly resentful of. I don’t want to have to be doing my own Facebook Live talk show from my own house, but I also don’t want to not get to have my own show. So if that’s the option, you have to do it. Hopefully it will go well, and people will give you opportunities from it. I have been lucky enough to have work come from making my own stuff. But in a dream scenario, it’d be a little more 50/50.
Everybody has to be the self-starting multi-hyphenate now.
It’s crazy. It’s so admirable, and so many people do it. Billy Eichner, for example, I knew forever, and the whole time I knew him in New York he was always one of those people who was trying to make it happen. Just doing his own thing, and self-starting, and finally it hit. Those are the people whose careers I think are the most interesting. The Bryan Safis, the Drew Droeges, Cole Escola, Erin Gibson, Julie Klausner — people who tried the legit route and tried the self-starter route and were willing to do whatever it took to make it happen. That’s, I think, the way you have to do it now, unless you’re one of those kids from 13 Reasons Why.