Okay, let’s see if we have this right: Alyssa Stonoha would like a grilled cheese on white with Cheddar and a side of french fries; Sandy Honig would like a grilled cheese on whole wheat with Cheddar and avocado, fries too; Mitra Jouhari would like a grilled cheese on white with American and — twist — hash browns. They swear this isn’t a bit, but it’s an almost too-easy metaphor for their comedy trio and new Adult Swim TV show, Three Busy Debras, in which each actor plays a “Debra” — a jarringly perfect, Stepfordish woman living in an affluent suburban town called Lemoncurd. When they first started performing as the Three Busy Debras in comedy shows in 2015, the Debras were more or less interchangeable. But as they wrote and developed the show, each became distinct, like three separate tributaries flowing from the same mouth.
“One’s a bitch, one’s a cunt, one’s a moron,” Honig says summarily, amid the pleasant (and now, nostalgic) clatter of Sunday brunch on an early March morning at the Waverly Diner, one of their old writing haunts. “They’re all based on our personalities, so you have to guess which one is which.”
Honig gives a conspiratorial look: “I’m the cunt.”
“No, you’re the bitch and I’m the cunt,” cuts in Stonoha.
“We all can agree that I’m the moron,” says Jouhari. “I’m sorry: bitch, cunt, moron,” she says pointing at Honig, Stonoha, then herself.
“Thank you, Mitra. Two to one, you lose Sandy,” says Stonoha.
“I’m sorry, I just thought I was the cunt,” says Honig, with feigned sadness.
Why Honig is the bitch, Jouhari explains, has to do with the difference between bitches and cunts more broadly. “It’s because you are veiling the fact that you are saying something mean,” she says to Honig. “You will couch it in a compliment and make it sound beautiful.”
“Got it, got it, got it,” Honig nods, her daisy earrings bouncing joyfully.
“Whereas Alyssa will just be like — sorry, the character — will just say the mean thing,” Jouhari continues.
“I guess I’m sort of passive-aggressive,” says Honig.
“And I’m aggressive-aggressive,” says Stonoha.
“And you’re passive-passive,” Honig tells Jouhari.
The way they speak naturally is how they initially wrote the Debras and the first season of the show — buzzing, riffing, parrying. They would do this late nights at 24-hour diners around the city so that they could scream and laugh freely. Jouhari, 27, is warm and immediate with big, watery eyes (they agree she’s the crier) and a pro-Bernie online presence. Honig, 27, has a watchful intensity about her, as though she’s casing the joint. Stonoha is the youngest at 24 and more reserved; she crosses her arms and pinches her elbow skin when she talks.
The three met as they were all starting out in the alt-comedy scene in New York. Jouhari had just moved to New York at the end of 2014. She met most of her friends within her first few days in the city, including Honig at a New Year’s Eve Party in Bushwick (“We were both like flirting with each other because we knew we wanted to hang out,” says Honig) and Stonoha later that day at an Improv Jam. (Honig and Stonoha had met a few months prior at another comedy show.) About a month later, the threesome performed together at an Improv Jam at UCB East, where they accidentally named each of their characters Debra, giving birth to the Debras.
The Debras became an idea they kept returning to and shaping: They wrote a ten-minute play that turned into an hour-long show that they performed for a few months at the Annoyance Theater. The lo-fi production capabilities of the Annoyance forced them to develop the absurdist and minimalist style of the Debras. It was “no plot, just jokes,” says Honig: The Debras do brunch, or the Debras put on makeup, or the Debras do antics.
“Because we were in a black-box theater,” explains Jouhari, “there was so much stuff we couldn’t physically execute, so it was a lot of us describing things that were happening …”
“There’s a point where Alyssa goes on a monologue about how she’s teaching the rat that lives in her walls how to skateboard, and it’s Chuck E. Cheese,” says Honig.
About a year after putting on shows at the Annoyance, they filmed a sketch called “Brunch” and uploaded it to YouTube, a delightful sendup of the particularities of wealthy women who brunch that devolves into body horror. The same class skewering happens on the TV show, only they decided to make the Debras more accessible and less absurdist, with a bigger world (in an earlier version, they played every single character — now they just play Debras), through lines, and character motivations. (One big shift is that the Debras look at each other rather than avoid each other’s eyelines.) The Adult Swim version is still undeniably theirs — it retains their madcap weirdness with an undercurrent of sweetness.
In the third episode, Jouhari’s Debra desperately wants the other two to sleepover at her place to the great aggravation of the other two. The thing that makes each Debra seem slightly more human and less robotic is a kernel of each of the actors: Honig doesn’t like sleeping over at other people’s houses, and during the episode, her Debra keeps trying to turn the Mitra-Debra house into her own.
“It’s all control in different ways,” Jouhari explains. “I want to control the way that other people love me and loving them so much that they have to love me back.”
“Whereas I want other people to be more like me,” says Stonoha.
Since the Debras began five years ago, the women have each branched off into their own projects: Honig shoots photos and wants to go into directing; Stonoha is writing a feature; Jouhari has been staffed in writers’ rooms like Big Mouth. But Debras was a shelter they could always return to — a collective identity they could inhabit together.
In the year 2020, Three Busy Debras also carries the banner of being the first women-led show at Adult Swim, which has branded its manic weirdness as a boys-only club until now. You might expect the trio to roll their eyes at this bit of history-making, but they are on excellent behavior today, evading the topic as the network publicist listens in. “It’s mostly just exciting to us because this is a place where we felt like we could do what we wanted to do, and it was where we wanted to make a show, so it actually happening was really, really cool to us,” says Jouhari.
But perhaps they’re understandably uneasy about using the language of corporate feminism. They often make fun of girlboss speak — take a 2015 parody Stonoha and Honig did of an Oshkosh B’gosh commercial. A similar skepticism underlies Three Busy Debras. “A lot of the way we write these characters is knowing the Debras are bad women,” says Honig. “The Debras are absolutely capitalist; they’re absolutely not feminists. They’re absolutely not intersectional. That also comes across in the treatment of Mitra’s Debra. We treat [her] as ‘other’ because she is a not-white Debra.”
One of the best episodes involves an ATM that comes out of the ground spitting free cash like a geyser. It’s their socialism episode: They imagine a world where suddenly everyone has what the Debras have. “The ATM erupting means that Lemoncurd is now flooded with cash. What does that mean for the Debras and their status in the town?” says Honig.
“It’s like, If I don’t have my money, which is my power, then who am I?” says Jouhari.
A few weeks after our brunch, the trio imagines how poorly the tony ladies of Lemoncurd would handle a global pandemic. “My Debra would be in her bunker that is an exact replication of her home but a mile below the surface of the earth,” Stonoha mulls. “She would be able to survive a year without leaving the bunker and would provide resources to no one else, not even her son, who would be forced to stay above ground. Because she finds him disgusting.”
Jouhari’s Debra would be “very desperately hosting a lot of poorly attended Zoom parties.”
“My Debra would be telling everyone it’s not a big deal and making Alyssa and Mitra still come over every day while I touch their faces,” replies Honig. “She would be the center of the outbreak.”
Three Busy Debras premieres Sunday, March 29, at midnight EST on Adult Swim.