After President Trump’s abrupt ban on transgender people in the military last week, The Tonight Show responded with a segment from New York comedian Patti Harrison. Harrison, who is transgender herself, performs live throughout the city in addition to video segments like cosplaying as Diane Lane at Comic-Con or trying to get onstage at Governors Ball. Her unpredictable sense of humor comes through in conversation too, like when she concluded an elaborate description of a fantasy airshow by adding, “My brain is dying. I have exclusively had candy today for all my meals.”
I talked to Harrison about her appearance on Fallon, her grotesque sense of humor, and being transgender in the comedy scene.
Congratulations on the Tonight Show segment! How did it all come about?
It was very abrupt. They contacted me that day to say they wanted to address the military transgender ban and asked if I was interested in coming in and doing a piece on it. I said, “Uh, sure,” because my brain was melting. I know Jo Firestone, who is great and cool, and she put my name in the pot as someone who could talk on it. I was very lucky and that was very nice of her to do.
The news of the ban broke that morning. How much time did that leave you to write material?
I was doing a voiceover for something else that day, and I found out about the military ban on the way to the studio. Normally when stuff like this happens, I’m immediately over-encumbered and fully petrified by everything, but it’s been such an assault the past couple months, such a barrage of horrible things, that I’ve become numb to it. It’s made it easier to look at it through a comedic lens. I used to be unable to talk on things because the bad feelings hadn’t turned into funny bad feelings yet.
I went into the Tonight Show writers’ room and they asked me how I felt about it. They had looked up my material and pointed out jokes that they thought could work as a monologue. They had also written jokes of their own that I got to pick and choose from. I was so nervous because normally, going into a room with a bunch of cis guys, I’m waiting for a bunch of “chicks with dicks” jokes – old transphobic punchlines that have been ingrained in every TV show and movie since the dawn of human history. But the writers’ jokes were all really great and thoughtful. They didn’t write from my perspective, but they commented on the situation and I got to add my voice to it as a trans woman.
Were you able to do multiple takes when it actually came time to film?
After hair and makeup, we went over the first draft of the script a couple times. The rehearsal was one take in front of a studio audience, and we made some revisions from there. Then I went up for the actual show taping, and that was one take. Because I was so nervous, both times I asked “Is this live?” It tapes at 5:00pm, like mid-afternoon. They said “Of course, if you flub anything, you can re-do it,” but we got it in the first take.
So the timeline from start to finish was like a regular eight-hour work day?
Oh, less than that. It was a really quick turnaround, and I think that’s just how things work with The Tonight Show or any sort of comedy news format. It has to turn over so fast, and that’s why they have a team of writers. It’s not all put on one person.
Right, it’s not Jimmy Fallon and Questlove shooting the shit.
Yeah, although that would be a gorgeous experiment.
The tone of your segment was very traditional talk show monologue, setup then punchline, compared to the rest of your material. Did that come from working with the writers’ room?
Definitely. My solo stuff for live shows is very meandering. I write a lot of slower bits that give me room to improvise and play with a character. A lot of my comedy isn’t necessarily about specific jokes but rather a wacky point of view that a super wacky character has. This was scripted for TV, so it has to be formatted to be read off cue cards. Of course, my sense of humor skews very dark and blue and graphically sexual and violent. If it were ultimately up to me, that piece would have deteriorated immediately. It would have been 40 minutes long, and I would have been talking about fucking a service dog to death. [laughs] It wouldn’t have been coherent in any way. I wouldn’t have expressed any of my actual thoughts or made anyone feel better about anything.
I was watching and waiting for the exploding fake blood.
I would love to deliver a very heartfelt, sincere monologue, and then my eyes explode out of my head through practical effects. Pus and maggots come out, and then my mouth opens and a swarm of cicadas comes out of my throat. “Ave Maria” starts playing, and the cicadas are the Rapture locusts actually, and they sting all the people in the audience and everyone dies. Well, the people who don’t die are the people who are raptured and go to heaven. [laughs] That’s a marginalized person breaking into mainstream comedy.
After being on The Tonight Show, are you looking to incorporate more topical material in your solo performances?
Not necessarily. A lot of the work I’ve been doing on camera has been me speaking on trans issues and illuminating things in a comedic way. That isn’t the focus of my personal art, I guess, but it’s a privilege for any artist to get to make stuff that isn’t just about their oppression or strife or struggle. Transgender issues, and LGBT issues generally, have entered the public conversation on a national level, so there’s more need to find people to talk about them. Which I think is great! I like to do that, and I think it’s important and necessary, but hopefully there will be a day where I don’t have to keep talking about it. I hope there’s a day where I can talk about farting. Someone brings me onto a project to talk about farts – that will be the day we have reached true equality for all. I mean, anything I do will be intrinsically political because it comes through the lens of a marginalized minority community, but before these on-camera jobs, I was never saying anything overtly political. Everything was filtered through symbolism, but that’s my personal taste.
How do you feel about being billed in headlines as “Patti Harrison, transgender comedian”?
I view myself as a comedian, but in our current political sphere, I think it’s important for some people to see that. When you enter political comedy, all these overlapping factors become important to say. In the context of the Tonight Show conversation, I think it’s important to identify that I’m a comedian who is transgender because I’m talking on transgender issues specifically. When I go onstage, I don’t say “Hi, I’m transgender comedian Patti Harrison,” unless I’m doing it to be a total sarcastic venomous shithead bitch. [laughs]
Do you know other transgender comedians in your scene?
In New York there are lots of circles of comedians, lots of communities. There are a few within mine: Peter Smith, Lena Einbinder, Jes Tom, all three nonbinary trans comedians. A lot of the trans people I know are performers. They’re also dancers or cabaret singers or members of bands, so “comedian” isn’t the first label I would give them. Comedy is a scary field to become a part of, especially when historically it has only incorporated you as a punchline. Your heart and soul was a punchline to this community, up until very recently. Now, things are getting a lot better.
Have you noticed improvement in the comedy scene or the performing arts scene or even New York?
Absolutely! I am in an alt-comedy bubble, and I say “alt-comedy” with lots of vom and blood in my mouth. I feel a lot better going to shows that my friends are hosting or shows at venues where I know the GM won’t let any racist or homophobic or transphobic shit fly. I think there’s a growing culture of not punching down. There are still these old guard comedians saying “Why can’t I say ‘tranny’? It’s fucked up that I can’t say tranny. Freedom of speech!” But they’re losing grip on an audience that is evolving to be more inclusive. I hope it’s that way. It could totally just be within my little prism. Even two years ago, if I had gone on TV, the jokes given to me would have been awful. All “chicks with dicks” jokes. A chick with dicks jokes. One chick with like seventeen dicks. I would love to hear that joke! I want her voice to be elevated, celebrated, and I’ll say elevated again. Maybe they’re not even attached. Maybe she just has seventeen dicks, like, around.
What else are you working on?
I have a small part in an episode of the upcoming Broad City season. I have a recurring role in the upcoming season of Search Party, which we’re still filming. The acting is cool because I’m not playing a character that was expressly written to be trans. Usually anytime there’s a trans character on screen, it’s like “We have to address it, we have to get the audience onboard or they won’t be able to think about anything else.” These characters are trans but there’s no shoehorned-in explanation for why I’m there. Other than that, just doing live shows here and there, trying to figure out what I really want to do. I’m realizing that I want to make my own thing, my own show or pilot or something. I get excited when I do something and it’s something that was born in my brain and I carried it to full-term and then just karate chopped it out. But it’s also terrifying because I know that’s a lot of work and I hate that hard work thing. [laughs]
Do you have any advice for trans performers?
The prospect of it is more terrifying than the reality. There are places in the comedy community that are good and will celebrate you. You just have to find them. I know people will get a bad taste in their mouth from doing an open mic at some shitty club where everyone hates themselves and has sour trash juice in their hearts. Those rooms should not paint what the entire comedy community is like. I do feel that things are changing in a good way. Despite what our government has planned, at least the comedy community is making radical progress. You just have to find your place. It’s really there, it exists, and when you find it, you’ll feel good.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.
Jack Riedy is a Chicago-based writer, comedian, and person. He is also the self-appointed world’s biggest Space Jam fan. Read more of his work at jackriedy.com.