Stand-up’s Once and Future Queen, Brittany Carney, Discusses Working Toward and Growing From Her First Special

Comedy Features Brittany Carney
Stand-up’s Once and Future Queen, Brittany Carney, Discusses Working Toward and Growing From Her First Special

Genius is a lot like Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart’s line on pornography: you know it when you see it. It is a unique frequency that doesn’t dismiss the viewer, but rather gives them something to chase and yearn for in their own work. To see Brittany Carney perform is to see someone attuned to their own perspective so fully that it expands what’s possible not just in her stand-up, but in everyone else’s. Hers are not just jokes about her own life, her own relationships, and her own childhood, but also about the weirdness of being alive, the relationship of Americans to language and their history, and the joys of syntax and nuance. On stage, Carney is able to fold in time the way Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Kanusgard do in their best prose, making jokes work that no one else could. There’s a delicate, intricate balance to her material, and when she yells or chews on a word, it’s not to just heighten the joke, but to twist what would be sand in less capable hands into a comedic diamond. 

In her first YouTube special, That Is My Horse (the audio is also available on all music platforms), the full breadth of Carney’s skillset is on display in a transcendent, hilarious 33 minutes. She and I spoke about the special, as well as her journey to finding her dynamic, stentorian voice. 

Paste Magazine: You moved to America from Japan in 9th grade, and on a podcast you mentioned the theater department being really helpful with that transition.

Brittany Carney: Basically, we moved to the US for good when I was halfway through 9th grade. I had a hard time because I’d come from this small English language school in Tokyo, where it’s really tiny, like Montessori, if it was high school as well. So there, you know, I felt close to everybody. I felt like there was a lot of attention on each student, and then settling into a big public high school outside of Philly was really hard; I was shy. When I started theater, it made me feel seen, if not even by the other people yet. I felt like myself. My senior year, I won this theater award, and the language that my teacher had used was, “I saw her really come out of her shell.” I realized that I felt out of place; and so the things that saved me were things that made me feel in place.

Paste: For what you’re doing now….when you’re working on shows, when you’re working on jokes, how does the theater experience implicate itself in your work? There are voices you’re using, and all sorts of voices. There’s a joke you have where one of the tags is “and I love a martyr,” but there’s this sort of coquettish, Southern voice you’re using.

Carney: I did theater through high school and college. When I was just starting stand-up, I was in DC, and I was working at this museum where you had to bring a lot of theatrical energy to the tours. At that point, I was interested in what theatrical presence means, and when I got interested in watching local comedy, what drew me to it was recognizing [it has] elements of theater in terms of performance. 

I saw people run the same lines over and over again, over different times. I think the only reason that I ever even tried an open mic in the first place was because I had some experience on stage, and I was interested in that: how you present yourself outside of you. 

Paste: The first night you went up, what did the experience give you that you didn’t have before?

Carney: It gave me a sense of…. sharing something that you’ve created, which creates an involuntary response that’s centered in silliness. I felt something totally new and unlike doing plays or getting into a character in theater. 

It was all personal observations mixed with history stuff, because I was coming out of grad school and that’s what I was excited about. I wasn’t scared away because it went relatively well. It gave me like, this kind of confusing empowered sense about generating material. I was told: if you want to get better at this, you have to do it at least three times a week, and it kind of built out from there. I was also 26, which is later than a lot of comics start, but I felt like I knew myself better maybe than if I had tried doing open mics at a younger age. 

Paste: You have material about everything from erotic fan fiction about Isaac Newton, to the sexiest wars. With all of your lenses you can view things through, what does the process of working on a joke look like for you?

Carney: I think it’s a combination of things. I used to always have a notebook with me, but that’s less so the case now, maybe because I’m tired, or I trust myself to lock it into a cell block in my head and write it down later.

At least earlier on, I felt like my best stuff came when I was kind of, like, not sitting down to write, but walking around thinking about how something happened to me, or focusing on a moment in a conversation. Later, I’d sit down to write it out, because I’m not somebody that can just write on stage or in my head only. Early on, an older woman in the DC comedy scene said “Don’t let anybody in your comedy head,” and I think about it all the time.

Paste: You fold time in a very particular way, where you’re always situating the audience exactly where you want them to be, and they’re kind of living the story with you. In the first set joke in the special, you introduce a premise about a line of underwear with certain emblems stitched on them, fold in three historical references that provide context, and then button it with a modern occurrence. 

Carney: The key is: that was filmed in the South, in Raleigh, which I feel culturally represents something kind of hippie South. They’ll go along with me, but they also understand historical references to the Confederate flag. Doing a joke like that in DC or New York is different, because the factors that have shaped the cultural fabric of the South aren’t there, whereas in Raleigh, it’s more present. 

Paste: How did you decide to tape there?

Carney: Well, Rhizome, the production company, reached out to me, and I was interested in working with them because I knew they’d really care about the work from a comic’s perspective. I co-headlined, and the comic I shared the bill with has a lot of audience there. So for [my management and myself] there was a bit of concern about whether or not [the audience] would be into me or whatever. I ended up feeling interested, because it’s expensive to self-produce. The idea that this company was interested in working with me, paying me, and then on top of that, taking care of the production and most of the costs? For me, at the time, it really made sense to just try, and that’s why I wanted to do a half hour, and put out this kind of material, miscellaneous jokes. 

Once that was all confirmed, I got to build the half hour out separately [from my solo show]. Most of the latter end of summer 2023, I was figuring out places to run this half hour. If I was doing a longer set, I tried to embed it in. While the taping was just one show, if a joke didn’t land, I still had the opportunity to be like, “Wait, can we do that again?”

Paste: Was it surprising that you got the audience you did? Because they were hot!

Carney: Well, I had a plan. I felt scared of launching into material, and not having their trust or comfort yet. I had this idea that I was just going to try to talk or riff for a minute or two, and then go into my stuff. I think it worked. You don’t see it in the special, but I talked about Raleigh to get them on board.

Paste: Yeah. Well, if you tape your 45 [the production company] cuts it down to that 33.

Carney: There’s like a minute of fluff up top and then also certain bits that I love a lot, but I think either have another place, or maybe I just didn’t need it for this. A joke that was new at the time that I love now just wasn’t ready. And so I’m like, well, I want to honor this little joke, and I want to give it its own air time. So not in this! I wanted the special to have some older, longer bits that felt right and appropriate for me.

Paste: In the special, the longer pauses you might take when working a regular set are gone, and when you do have them, they’re short, and just used to punctuate material. Another noticeable aspect is volume. You are louder in this special when speaking, and more commanding in a way than you are for the Don’t Tell set or something for Comedy Central.

Carney: So I think what that is, is I’m feeling more comfortable on stage. Also, it was my show. As for the volume, I think that must come from either when I’ve done longer and more sets on the road, and/or shows in New York, where it’s going really well and I feel really electric. I’m like, how fun is it to project? In theater you have to learn how to project. I think it came accidentally, where I’m feeling really revved up, or the joke is building momentum, like it has a crescendo, or if it’s a longer, more elaborate bit, if I add volume, it really gives a whole new dimension to it. And that’s something I think I learned by accident. And so then because I was feeling relatively in control and empowered by the experience in Raleigh with the audience, and I felt also, because it was one show, like, Okay, I have really everything to lose, so I have to make this really pack a punch here. I love getting loud because I know how to also be quiet on stage.  I like playing with that. 

Paste: Your superpower as a comic is being able to make otherwise impossible jokes work. You have a joke about people who pronounce aunts with a long “a” instead of “ants,” that kills with a punchline about ooncles instead of uncles. There is a precise move made to avoid cuteness in this joke and a few others. When you’re writing, are you aware you can make these things work?

Carney: I don’t know, I don’t know. I think maybe my ability to maneuver that came by accident. It came from feeling more comfortable and it came from like, when I’m most comfortable on stage… Okay, you know how you’ll see Gene Wilder in certain movies, and he’s being weird, and his eyes are crazy? I’m not even trying to be like that, although I love his stuff so much. It’s like when I feel more comfortable onstage, I’m like, Wow, it feels really fun to seem a little bit unhinged right now. It comes from a genuine place, and it feels strong, and not questionable. 

As in, I believe in this joke, so I’m gonna make it work. By the way, with that aunts joke, it took me forever to find an ending for it. It’s always something so simple. The simplest way to end a joke is always the strongest, and it takes me forever to figure it out. 

Paste: At around 26 minutes in, you tell another joke only you could get to work, which is the great Santa roleplay joke. It’s a longer story, and I’m curious about how you felt while telling it that night.

Carney: Originally, I had a simpler end to that joke that was kind of a cheaper laugh . I did it for months and months and months and months and months, but I felt like I owed the joke and myself more, perhaps with better writing. For a while, I couldn’t figure it out. I tried it one night at Union Hall with a new ending, and that’s what I chose for the special. The truth is that in the months since I taped, I think the joke got better, but it’s too late. I’m grateful that I feel like I found a better ending than the cheaper one. Also, I’m really bad at writing relationship material. I find that I’m better at it after I’ve had some distance from a particular relationship. The guy the joke is about, when I filmed it, we had broken up a year and a half back, and I was able to go like, “Hey, I put this into a joke and it’s going to be in a special.” Eventually, he watched the special, and he was like, “I love that. I’m so happy to see something like that on stage.” It was sweet.

Paste: There are these great moments like when you hit the word “cuck” with some venom, or say that you’re allowed to say the n word but no one loves it, and draw out the syllables in the clause. There’s an archness or a haughtiness you’re playing with, and I’m curious about what draws you to that. 

Carney: I love theatrical presences, and love when I get to play with that energy, it feels really good and strong. It’s either a symptom of feeling more comfortable on stage, or it’s due to headlining more, which gives you more time to reflect and play with the audience on stage. You have more space and more time. This comes with more experience, and you get to test things out. 

When you’re given a shorter set like in New York, if the audience isn’t with you, it’s frustrating. I’ve been doing this for a minute, so where it feels like I’m too weird, or if the audience just isn’t tuned in with me, it’s because I’m not strong up top. It’s frustrating, and if I’m feeling comfortable on stage and  particularly frustrated, I might use sharper language, which has been really fun. It comes out of being mad. It’s also fun because I’m a girl, a girl of color, and maybe I can test the waters in a fun way. Sometimes I’ll say something and the audience will push back, and I’ll learn my limits in a healthy way. It feels worth digging into. It helps me feel powerful on stage.

Paste: How does it feel to have this document of your work exist?

Carney: I feel proud of myself, and know that I can do bigger, stronger, and clearer work because of my first venture into this world of taping specials. I’m so grateful that I got to pluck these things that were just ideas, develop those, and put them into a produced thing. I’m grateful I got to work with someone who knows how to really edit and frame things. It feels I’m honoring everything I’ve worked on, but also makes me feel like I know I can do work beyond this. 

That Is My Horse is streaming for free on YouTube.

Eric Farwell has interviewed alleged cult leaders, writers, comedians, directors, and musicians. He can often be found cursing to himself while waiting for the N, Q, or A train. 

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