Near the end of our interview, comedian Patti Harrison lets a spoiler slip about the upcoming second season of Shrill. Harrison plays the office assistant Ruthie on the Hulu comedy based on Lindy West’s memoir about her time writing for The Stranger. And she says there’s a pivotal scene in the second season, between her character and Annie, the West-esque protagonist played by Aidy Bryant.
“There is a scene that I’m not allowed to talk about, where Ruthie blows Annie’s head off with an anti-tank rifle,” Harrison says. “So please, please, please do not include that, because it’s kind of the climax of the show. It’s based on something that actually happened to Lindy West.”
Harrison is joking, but you wouldn’t know it by the flat, businesslike tone of her voice. This is the kind of deadpan-absurdist comedy Harrison excels at, both in her stand-up and on Twitter, where a seemingly earnest rumination on air travel—with special shout-outs to Delta—evolved into an ode to fellatio.
“My comedy is saying the dumbest stuff that I can, in a thoughtful way,” Harrison says. “What is the stupidest point of view I could have, about this specific thing, where it’s making me look perverted, but not in a scary way?”
The Mercury got a chance to sit down with Harrison while she was in Portland shooting the second season of Shrill. Our conversation touched on Harrison’s aspirations as a transgender comedian, her experience on the Shrill set, and Portland lines.
I first became a fan of yours through your Twitter humor, which is this great combination of dark, cutting, and ridiculous. Was there a moment in your career when you found that voice, or is it always evolving?
Joking about darker stuff or gross stuff, that’s always been something I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. Proto-me was just saying a lot of stuff to shock people. But as I matured and met more people, I found that just saying things because they’re offensive isn’t humor necessarily. There is sinew there for humor—you can be shocking or talk about darker, gross stuff—but I’ve just been more conscious about where I’m punching, when I’m being shocking.
In a recent New York Times profile, you’re quoted as saying, “Cisgender people tend to want trans stories of triumph that are easy to metabolize.” Have you found yourself butting up against that expectation during pitch meetings or in writers’ rooms?
There was a period when a lot of the meetings I was taking were with developers who wanted to make TV shows about coming out stories, and wondering if I could tell my story in a narrative TV show or movie.
Those stories do help encourage empathy among non-trans people, [but] I’m not excited by that for me personally. It was frustrating, because it felt like people were trying to mine my trauma and strife to capitalize on it. There’s a lateral space we aren’t exploring, which is letting that character exist outside of this trauma narrative.
Not all representation is good representation, and a lot of times the people who are in charge are still white, straight, cis people. That narrative has been approved through their lens.
So what would your dream project be?
I would really love to just have autonomous creative control over a sketch show. That’s such an amorphous tonal thing to pitch, because the humor comes more from the character’s delivery, not just the dialogue. Being able to communicate that has been pretty unsuccessful so far.
What you’re describing sounds a lot like Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave, which you have an appearance in. I don’t think I would necessarily understand many of the jokes in that show if I was just reading the script.
I was so, so nervous to do that show, because I watched Tim’s My Mans Comedy Central pilot in college—it didn’t get picked up, but you can watch the pilot on Vimeo. [My Mans] is so radical in what it’s trying to do, the transitions, and how absurd it is. That really changed my brain chemistry as far as the structure of writing comedy.
[I Think You Should Leave] is the perfect vehicle for absurd short bursts and character study—just this really intense character. There are jokes for sure, but it’s not about punch line jokes, it’s just like, this character’s behavior is so crazy.
That whole show blew my mind. The “Baby of The Year” sketch is the best thing I’ve ever seen. When the lady rushed the stage with a gun, I screamed.
Have you enjoyed your time shooting this season of Shrill?
This year everything is on a soundstage [instead of shooting in a real building]—they re-created the entire office in a warehouse, and it’s terrifying how closely they were able to replicate it. I walked on set and immediately felt terrified—it felt like a simulation like, if they can fake this, they can fake the moon landing!
We’re shooting more episodes this year than last year. It feels bigger this time, and seems like they’re really going all-out with some of the settings and things like that. I’m really excited to have a bigger part in the show.
Have you discovered any favorite things to do in Portland?
I’ve just been eating a lot. I love Jam on Hawthorne. But I mean, the line there—that situation is unacceptable, and I will contact the city about it and have the whole place exploded by a drone strike.