Comedian Sara Schaefer doesn’t like the headline that accompanied her 2017 piece, “Why Trump Jokes Aren’t Funny.” For one, she actually has Trump jokes, and they’re quite funny, because they use Trump to “get at the core of who we are,” she says, “or at least who I am.” It’s all about nuance and thoughtfulness. The importance of nuance and thoughtfulness would explain the success of her sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest in 2017. It also explains why she tries to stay out of the comedy-civil-war battle lines on Twitter.
In this episode of Vulture’s Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and those who tell them, Schaefer talks about a joke she wrote for that Edinburgh run about playing college gigs full of virgins (which later appeared on her 2019 album Live Laugh Love), writing an elaborate, multilayered joke about Hobby Lobby, and why she steers clear of Shithead Island. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode right below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On Her Love of Crafting
I’ve been crafting my whole life. I love doing things with my hands. I just love making things. I love measuring. I love threads and patterns, and love following patterns. It brings me great peace. As a little girl, you are encouraged to pursue things with threads and cloth and making and painting and dollhouses — anything like that. But as an adult, it really started just as a need for a hobby and to have something to do while I’m watching TV. Part of it was living in New York, for a long time. I would crochet on the subway to pass the time. And now I enjoy cross-stitch the most, or any kind of tiny embroidery type stuff, because I’m not very good at designing my own unless it’s very simple. I’m not an artist in that way. I’m more of a craft person who can follow other people’s grand design.
On Telling Political Jokes After the Election
It really started during the election year when I was on the road a lot. I was also on the road a lot in 2017, and I’d perform in a lot of different venues. Not just clubs — colleges, festivals, I was really doing it all. And I am not famous enough to have my own hard-core fan base that would fill those spaces. Even to this day, I’m still mostly performing for a random collection of people. Some people come in there without knowing anything about me because they’re idiots. You don’t go, Oh, I’m going to go see music tonight and not at least determine the genre, and get mad when you’re in there, like I didn’t want to see death metal. What is this? I want my money back. So I have people who come in [and] don’t know anything about me. During that time, I was contending with a lot of prickly reactions to just the most minor mentions of things.
I had a joke about that very topic, about how you can’t say anything on the internet without some blowhard coming by and getting mad about Hillary Clinton. I literally saw a picture of the Grand Canyon, like the most beautiful picture I’d ever seen of the Grand Canyon. A rainbow is going down into the Grand Canyon. It was posted by the Department of the Interior. So the nerdiest people in the government are posting a really pretty picture of one of our great treasures. And it said, like, “Storm approaching the Grand Canyon” or whatever. The very first comment underneath — I just happened to look — was like, “You want to see a storm come in, check out filthy Hillary Clinton.” Not even the Grand Canyon can post a picture without someone getting pissed off.
So when I was telling that story for a while, and just the mention of her name, people couldn’t even hear what I was saying. I remember one dude cupped his ears, closed his eyes, and started shaking his head like a little fucking kid who was being confronted with something naughty. He was so childish. I remember seeing that face; I’ll never forget it. And just being like, Oh, you can’t even say anything. I haven’t even made a comment about whether or not I like her, and this person is already reacting.
It’s been a big challenge, comedically speaking. You can just feel an energy in a room of Wow, some of these people hate me. There’s a searing hatred, or there’s body language, or just a tenseness in the room. Sometimes it’s just silence that’s telling you that; they’re just not responding in any way. So I got really afraid of that feeling. I hate that feeling. My job as a comedian is to make people laugh and feel loose and joy. I like building tension and breaking it. But this was not letting me do that. It was just an immediate knee-jerk reaction. And Nikki Glaser, in that piece, I asked her a question and she was like, “I don’t want to bring it up because I don’t want to know who in the audience likes Donald Trump, because then I can’t stand that person.”
On Her Inner Trump
One of my issues with Trump is that I feel sorry for him and I feel empathy for him — and I feel that I shouldn’t, and I can’t help it. I actually have to limit the amount of times I will listen to him talk or see him because I have to have enough hatred against him in my heart to fight for what the good cause is, which is to get him out of office.
I think he’s horrible and he’s evil, but I still feel empathy for him. For instance, that picture that just came out with his tan on his face: That’s the type of thing that makes me start feeling sorry for him, and I relate. Sometimes he does things that I see myself in him, because that’s how I view everyone. I’m just someone who goes, I’m like that. I almost have too much empathy sometimes, where it’s like I’m no longer standing up for myself and I’m letting someone beat me down that is actually a wrong, bad person. But I can’t let them. I’m like, No, but he’s good. He didn’t mean to do that. Because there’s so many things Trump does. I mean, I could do a whole separate hour on things he does that I see myself doing and other people do, but that person shouldn’t be president! That’s why I’m not president! So that’s the end thing that I always come back to.
I think whether people can admit it or not, we all have very childish, selfish parts of us. Some people are comfortable with those parts and some people aren’t. It’s hard to admit that, you know, he is a part of the psyche, the id. It’s very id-like. But that’s also part of why we should look at that and use it to defeat him, and understand what works against him. I mean, Nancy Pelosi tearing up that speech was on his level and it hurt. He hates that shit. You know, not that I need him to hurt. I just want him gone.
On Opting Out of Comedy Debates
Last summer I got into a dustup online with some comedy fans. I call them Shithead Island. Shithead Island is the fandoms of certain comedy podcasts. This is not an indictment necessarily on the hosts themselves. Some of them are probably really nice people, or normal. I don’t know. But the fans are so crazy that I don’t want to ever visit Shithead Island.
I have been harassed by this group of people — and I’m putting a big label on it — in many different ways over the years. Some of it has been really bad — like where I have been afraid. It has changed the way I operate when I’m on the road. Because when you see a whole Reddit thread of people joking about raping you and killing you or wanting you to kill yourself and trying to figure out how to get me to kill myself, you can’t help but wonder what if one of these psychos shows up and they’re talking about, “I’m gonna go see her perform” and then they know I’m reading it and they say they hope I see that? They want me to feel fear, and they want me to feel awful.
And it worked. I was afraid after that; I was like, What if one of these fucking psychos shows up and does something to me? That’s why I always say women comedians are brave because we are publicly publishing where we’re gonna be all the time. All it takes is one psycho to show up, and it’s in the back of your head. It’s kind of freaky. For the most part, you’re fine. But you can’t help but feel a little afraid.
But anyway, I got in this dustup with some of these Shithead Island people last summer, and it was a really bad time. It was bleeding over into my personal life and causing conflict in my personal life. I had two days of sleepless nights, my anxiety just spiraling. When I’m having a full-blown anxiety attack, I am unable to sleep, I’m crying; it’s a physical thing. It’s like a panic attack: I’m sweating, I’m crying, and I’m talking out loud. And I was so exhausted by it. I was like, Why am I doing this to myself? In the end, I’m not gaining anything from being in these comedy debates. What I realized is I wasn’t really doing anything. I wasn’t moving the needle. These are cyclical arguments. The same points are made over and over again. For a while it was the “Are women funny?” argument. The same sides will say the same things. No one’s mind is changed. This is stupid.
People, I think, started to assume that I’m a comedian that gets up onstage and does Nanette. And, no, I actually don’t even really get into this shit. And especially now, my jokes are about something completely different. I’m putting out a wrong impression of who I am. I’m not even involved in it. But I care about who gets to do comedy, and I care about women in comedy feeling safe. So I do get passionate about those things, but I don’t think Twitter is the place for it anymore.
This post originally contained an excerpt in which Schaefer referenced racist tweets made by Opie and Anthony co-host Gregg “Opie” Hughes, when in fact they were made by Anthony Cumia. It has been removed.
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