Confronting Tragedy with Comedy with Naomi Ekperigin

Savvy, smart, funny and politically active – it’s this great combination that’s making comedian Naomi Ekperigin an in-demand writer and performer. But getting to this level of success (appearing on such shows at Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, writing for Broad City and being named one of “8 Black Comediennes Who are Ready for SNL” by Essence Magazine) wasn’t something she necessarily planned. It took a bit of fate to push her out of the nest and give her the confidence to give this whole entertaining-people-for-a-living thing a shot. Besides writing for one of the biggest comedy shows on television and working on new projects, Ekperigin is also helping raise money for bigger causes than herself. I spoke to Naomi about the business, her personal life and the upcoming live comedy show “Stand Up for Charleston,” which will benefit the congregation of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, as well as the Project South, a leadership development group organizing for racial and economic justice throughout the South.

Naomi, tell me about yourself. Where’d you come from? How long have you been doing comedy?

I’m from New York, born and raised. I started doing standup in 2007, but it started out casually. It wasn’t like, “I’m going to be a star.” It was more, “I like this and I’ll try to do this.” Being from New York that helped in terms of just getting on those little bar shows and what not, so it was easy to just make it, “a thing I’m going to try.”

What were you doing before you were doing standup?

I was a writer at an art magazine. My first job out of college I was an actor with the National Theater of the Deaf, which is based in Connecticut, and we toured around. Performing was always there, but the idea that I could actually pursue that as a living I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t think it was possible. So yeah, I had my day job and I was trying to do that well and was like, “Well, if someone decides to pluck me from obscurity I’ll go that way.” And we all know that’s not how that works, but I had to get laid off in 2013 and that kind of forced me to pursue my dream.

It’s often something unexpected that happens and next thing you know it’s like, “Oh! It’s taking me into this whole new world I didn’t necessarily plan on being in.”

Yeah. Definitely, because I’m not somebody who does well with uncertainty, so I never would have said, “I’m going to quit my job and do this.” My job had to quit me. I was like, “If I really do have a choice right now I’m going to see if we can ride this out and see what happens.” Since then, it’s been two and a half years of living in the hustle and so far I’m still alive and affording my birth control. We’re covering the basics. We’re covering the basics.

Are you the kind of person that believes that happened for a reason?

I really don’t know. Because generally I’m a pessimist, so I don’t tend to, but… yeah, I think it was something that the universe did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. I was the one who had to be pushed off the ledge.

I think I have to be told no enough times where then I’ll go, “Well fuck you! Then I’ll do it myself.” That’s what propels me.

Ooh, that’s good! See me, you tell me no enough I’m like, “Alright. I’m gonna go sit down then.” I’m a scared person. I am. Trust me, I’m not proud of this, but one of the things I struggle with and why I think it took me so long to pursue something I was so passionate about is I don’t like failure and I don’t like rejection and that’s so much of this business. Especially in my teens and twenties where it was like so super emotional, Ani Difranco on loop. I was waaay too delicate. I knew I wanted to pursue this, but I didn’t know if I was cut out for it. It’s worse when you’re not really doing it. You might do an audition every couple months, so that one audition means everything. Now, that I’m in the mix enough, when it doesn’t happen at least I know I’m going to get another shot sooner rather than later and that makes it easier to deal with. It’s taken time to be like, “Okay, just because you say no to me a bunch of times doesn’t mean you’re right.” That’s the difference.

And it doesn’t mean you won’t say yes down the line.

Right, so I shouldn’t throw a temper tantrum and tell you to go fuck yourself?

Probably not.

Okay good.

You are very blunt and you talk about socially responsible “things” and race issues. Where did you, especially being someone who’s self admittedly scared, get the courage to develop that style?

You know, I grew up in New York, but I went to private school in the Upper East Side and I grew up in Harlem, and I started private school when I was ten. So from a very early age I was just conscious. That also means of course self-conscious. I was was in groups of people who were not like me. I was very aware that where I came from wasn’t the same of where these people came from, that there were people who were so rich they never had to worry about anything. I learned that from the age of ten. So I think that is kind of what sort of tuned my radar to that kind of stuff.

I’ve never been a topical comedian. “What’s the news of the day?” largely because, first of all there are tons of TV shows who do it better, but also if you’re going to do that, you need to tell that joke within an hour of when that news drops. This was even before Twitter. Now that we’ve got Twitter it’s a whole other animal. So the only way I can one, stand out and two, be confident in my material is if it’s completely personal. You can’t tell me I stole a joke if it’s my story. You can’t tell me I’m faking it if it’s my story. My style is conversational; a lot of my standup is the way I’d talk to a friend of mine about something. I learned, “Ooh, people like this.” They like me being honest about where I’m at and it usually opens them up. After a show people in the audience will come up to me. Not so much to tell me I’m funny, but they like to tell me their business. They’ll be talking about their man drama, and I love that. It means I connected with these people for real. Also, I hit a wall where I was like, “I’m so done with this. It’s so much work having to think about what other people think about you all the time.” So after a while I was like, “Fuck it. I’m just gonna do me.” It helped that I went to a hippy college where everyone is like, “What makes you different. Tell me how special you are.” So that cultivated it.

What do you have going on now? Are you still writing for Broad City?

We finished season 3 at the end of June, so now they’re starting pre-production. They’ll start shooting soon. Difficult People, which I worked on, that debuts August 5th, so we’re getting ready to have that on Hulu. That will be so very fun.

How did you go from, “Oh I don’t know, I guess I’ll try comedy now,” to being a staff writer and making that dream happen?

I studied film and English in colleges, so writing was always on my radar, but again, how do you break in? It was really through standup. Ilana Glazer and I became friends doing standup. We were working together, because at the time I was also trying to work on a web series. And this was before Broad City was BROAD CITY. She was just one of the people I knew who had done a whole bunch of episodes of a web series, so I was like, “Ilana, I have this thing. What should I do?” It was kind of in working on that together that we became close. Then as I mentioned, I got laid off. That was January 2013 and then May of 2013, Broad City season 1 started. The first season I was a writer’s assistant. I was not a writer. I was an admin, kind of office managing, that kind of stuff, taking notes in the room. That first season was my intro do that, which is great to be introduced to the world of writing on a female lead show with a small staff and mostly women, which I hear is not normal. Then it was through them seeing me do standup that they were generous enough to promote me to staff writer for season 2 and season 3.

Is it everything you wanted it to be? Is it just the best?

(Laughing) It is really cool. I definitely have moments where I’m sitting in the room, “I’m getting paid to make jokes and just talk?” It also can be a different challenge where you’re like, “My brain!” Your brain is just firing all day long, but it’s also like, “Wow! I can’t believe we get paid to do this.” And then you’ll say something and be like, “That’s going to be on television? That’s going to be on someone’s TV! That’s ridiculous.” It’s definitely really, really cool and I feel really, really lucky. It still feels surreal. Let’s say I’m at this ten years from now, I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, just sitting in the room.”

I hope not. I hope you still stay grounded and appreciate it.

Oh god! Always appreciate it.

What’s your family like? Do you ever feel like you have to be careful what you say, so they don’t hear things?

Oh, honey. I have to be very careful. Monique, I have to be so very careful. I’m an only child and I grew up with just my mom. This idea of being a comedian was foreign to me. I didn’t know anyone who did it. I didn’t see how it was possible. My mom is a lawyer in the Bronx family court and she works with children who are abused, neglected and she does a lot of custody work and things like that. So, I grew up seeing that kind of thing from an early age. But it was never fodder for comedy. My extended family, it’s only been the last couple of years when I did Totally Biased or these little things where it’s like, “Oh Naomi’s going to be on TV!” Then people kind of learned.

(Laughing) Yeah, it’s the only way people understand that you’re doing well is if you’re actually on TV.

Exactly. You know it doesn’t count until they have something to show people. So it didn’t come until later. It’s actually been interesting, because it has been like showing my family a newer side of myself. It wasn’t like we were closed off. I think it was just the nature of being the only child of a single parent. It wasn’t like performing around the dinner table the way you would have with a bigger family. Once I got into teen angst, it wasn’t like I was talking to my mom about any of my feelings. It wasn’t until the last few years where they’re like, “Oh, you’re doing this all the time.” Again, once I got laid off and my mother was like, “Okay, what are you going to do with your life?” and I had to explain what it was. She had to come see me do it. She had to see that people liked it. Then it was, “Oh, okay. I’ll let you do this. I’ll let you give this a try.”

I love when they “let” us.

Yeah, I was thinking, “Why is she letting me?” but you know what I mean?

I do. I totally get it.

She wasn’t going to make me feel shitty for perusing it.

Obviously you did grow up with a social justice background because of your mom. So let’s segue into this upcoming show you’re doing, “Stand Up for Charleston.”

Well, it wasn’t totally my brain child, but I adopted it. I met this woman, Miriam Fogelson. She works at this company called from Moore + Associates and they’re a communications firm. They work with a lot of comedians doing social justice work. They produce this web series with Aasif Mandvi called, Halal in the Family. It’s four webisode, Muslim sitcom. It’s playing on all the tropes of those 90s sitcoms, but about a Muslim family. You know, it’s about educating people about the family on the block. I like that kind of thing. They do stuff like that. They use humor to get people talking about serious issues. So, it was Miriam from Moore + Associates who said, “I want to do a fundraiser.” And I was like, “Let’s do a standup show. I will host it. Thank you very much and you’re welcome.” I kind of ran with it.

Because, you know, like everybody it was so upsetting to hear what happened at Mother Emanuel AME Church. You just feel so powerless and so helpless, not just for the people there, but all of us around the world. Even what happened in Louisiana just last night. Being from New York City, in a place where people aren’t allowed to carry guns, it’s so easy to forget that that’s an everyday occurrence in so many places. New York, we’re savvy and smart, but we can also live in a bubble when we want to. I’m not rich, I’m not a politician, but I’m a comedian and I’m going to do what I got to do something.

It turns out after the shooting, they need like $3 million to repair the church. It’s an old building, there are bullet holes, and they’ve got to make some major changes after what happened. So many of the congregation, they don’t want to go back in that space where the attack happened. They want to go in and repair and renovate. Another thing too that got us excited about putting this together is that there was a string of black churches being burned down south.

And nobody was talking about it!

Exactly! And that’s also what inspired us to donate [part of] the money to Project South. It’s 50/50, the church and Project South. Project South is based in Atlanta, but they work all over the south doing grassroots community organizing. They go into these cities and towns and places and get people to improve their own neighborhoods. That was part of it too. Whenever you’re doing something with fundraising it’s exciting, but it can feel like, “I have to choose who’s worthy of more money than the other?” You don’t want to do that. So Mother Emanuel dealt with something so devastating. Nine people were killed, including their pastor, so of course, but lets also try to bring in another group that can reach even more people in other parts of the south. We want to bring some attention to this issue, but also the extent that this issue is pervasive, not just this one issue at this one church, but all the racial and economic inequality that is just metastasizing. It’s out of control right now.

Did you pick the comedians for the lineup based on them being the funniest people you know or because they share a certain perspective on the cause?

Of course, yes you want to start with “Who…” Because Miriam, she’s in New York, she goes to a lot of shows, so she knew people and I knew people from doing comedy in the city. We put our heads together and the big thing was let’s get a line up of some of the best comics in New York who are also, whether it is the material themselves or their point of view, conscious, intelligent, socially aware people. Our lineup is Aparna Nancherla, Michelle Buteau, Seaton Smith, Myq Kaplan, Kevin Avery and Hasan Minhaj. Hasan, you know is a correspondent on The Daily Show, Kevin Avery was a head writer on Totally Biased and he’s now on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, so those two right off the bat are people who are plugged in and are creating content as writers every single day, about politics and what’s going on in our country. So that’s a no brainer. Aparna, Michelle, Seaton, Myq, they might not be known or considered “activists,” so to speak, but they are really smart. They’re thinking about the same kind of stuff. I know they care about it. Because not like the show is going to be comedians riffing on political issues, it’s going to be whatever their act is. I mean there’s nothing funny in any of this stuff has happened, but I think when you have a group of people and I mean the audience, gathered together laughing, it’s energy.

The tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door and in New York, same thing in LA, places where you can see so much comedy any night of the week for $5 or less, it was also really important we bring people a lineup of A+ comedians, so if you’re a comedy fan you’ll be like, “Oh those people are great. I’ll pay that money.” If you don’t really know comedy but you care about the issues, for 20 bucks, you’re gonna get a really great show that opens you up to some really great comedians.

Stand Up for Charleston is at The Bell House in Brooklyn, NY Wednesday July 29th at 7pm. Get more information, including how to purchase tickets here.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Confronting Tragedy with Comedy with Naomi Ekperigin