Patti Harrison talks about spiders for 10 minutes before I can ask my first question. Sometimes celebrities do something like this in a self-aware sort of way. They want to charm you before the interview. Perhaps they want their profile to begin with a quirky anecdote like, “Patti Harrison talks about spiders for 10 minutes before I can ask my first question”—and they know the best way to secure that opening line would be to monologue about arachnids right off the bat.
That’s not the case with Harrison, who is genuinely stricken with fear by all the spiders-cum-roommates she has found in her Portland, Oregon vacation rental this summer. Reached by phone, the comedienne recalls in harrowing detail the experience of capturing a mouse-sized “giant house spider”—yes, that’s its actual name—and releasing it into the wild.
“It had audible footsteps,” she says. “It tromped off through the grass and it was like ‘pssh, pssh, pssh, pssh’ and made all this noise. I have never felt more in my own body or present than I did while watching this huge thing march away from me: This is what our earth is capable of.”
In less traumatic times, Harrison portrayed an office worker obsessed with a dumb Santa joke in Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave. You have also seen her as Annie’s cantankerous coworker Ruthie on the Hulu sitcom Shrill, which returns for a second season in 2020. Harrison has also made memorable late-night appearances reacting to Trump’s transgender troop ban on The Tonight Show and explaining the Stonewall riots on Full Frontal.
But while you’re waiting for her next project, you can always find Harrison on Twitter, where she engages in bizarre harassment of popular brands and does things with emoji that can only be described as masterful. Paste caught up with Harrison about I Think You Should Leave, her forthcoming projects—and yes, about spiders. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Paste: Some AirBnB hosts warn you, “My puppy Oscar lives on the property; you might see him sometimes.” Maybe they should do that with spiders in Portland.
Patti Harrison: Yeah. “My little Sister Jess is on the property and her friends come around. You might hear them stomping through the grass. You might see them in the corners of the walls.”
Paste: Can I ask how your I Think You Should Leave sketch came about?
Harrison: That was a surprise! I hadn’t met Tim [Robinson] in person before, but I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time and I really loved his pilot for Comedy Central called My Mans. I follow him on social media and I know that he saw videos that I made on Instagram that he thought were funny. So, they offered this part to me and I didn’t meet with them or talk to them until I got to set.
I read the script—and the script is really funny—but I was like, “There are 10 billion ways this could go.” And that’s what is so surgically funny about Tim: He can say something that, on a script, doesn’t necessarily read as a joke but the way that he says it—his intonation—makes it insanely funny. There were lines that I was curious about: “How do you want me to read all of that?”
And they said, “We trust you. Do it how you think it would be funny.”
I was devastated by having that level of control. If left up to me, I will make the wrong choice the first time and every time after that if you don’t tell me exactly what to do—but that’s just the little self-doubt that’s always buzzing around whenever I do something like that.
Paste: Did you only get the script for your sketch—or did you know in advance what the tone of the whole series would be?
Harrison: Not at all. They said it was a sketch show and then I got the script for my sketch and that’s it. The feedback has been a relief because I didn’t know what the rest of the show was going to look like. The whole series is so devastatingly funny—especially that intense level of self-righteous rage all the characters have. Like, regardless of the emotion they’re feeling at the time or the sentiment that they’re expressing, the undercurrent is a kind of primal rage.
Paste: Your performance is so finely-tuned, right down to the level of intonation. My wife and I can’t stop trying to say “the talk of the office” in precisely the way that you say “the talk of the office.”
Harrison: That came from a bunch of different takes. Akiva [Schaffer] from Lonely Island was directing and Tim was there, too, and they were all kind of softly giving input, like “maybe try it softer this time” or “maybe go harder this time” or “make it more dramatic” or “make it less dramatic.” [But] we very much stuck to the script. There wasn’t improvising, which I think is what makes some of the delivery funny: There’s humor in the kind of clunkiness of the way I deliver some of the lyrics—I mean, the words. I’m sorry, I see everything in life as a song, so every word spoken is lyrics. If you’re going to get to know me, that is something you have to be okay with. Moving on…
I feel like some of the delivery that people find funny is literally me trying to remember the exact line in real time. I was so insanely nervous and it was a quiet set. There is this awkward discomfort when you’re doing comedy on camera because people aren’t allowed to laugh so that they can get a clean take and you’re doing the same thing over and over again. Of course, afterwards they said, “Hey hey, that was really funny. Great job.” But I was like, “No, no, no, no, no. If it was funny and I did a great job, everyone would have clapped and ruined every single take and none of it would have been usable”—like truly the most psychotic shit.
Paste: Speaking of nervousness, when I saw you do your “Dua Lipa” routine live this June, you did this long preamble about how scared you are—and there was this moment of genuine terror the longer it went on: Is she okay? Is she actually nervous? And then, of course, the song kicks in. How much of that is tapping into actual nervousness and how much of that is a performance?
Harrison: I’ve performed on stage a lot and done that bit a lot. Of course, in front of a bigger audience, I still feel nervous and I’ll get anxiety diarrhea beforehand—but 100 percent, setting up that bit is a joke. I’m only able to write one joke—and I have no talent beyond that—which is that I always lie. I make the audience think I’m being vulnerable and nervous, and that makes the turn in the song more jarring.
Paste: It’s a gut punch.
Harrison: It’s a nice to bit to open with, too, because if I am nervous—actually nervous—I can channel that energy and make it seem like it’s by design. But it kind of makes me feel bad when someone in the audience shouts, “You go, girl!” It makes me feel bad for making that person look stupid when they were so nice and were feeling pity for me, which is also funny. I’m like, “Yeah, right, bitch! Like I would show any true feelings! Not in this business, not in this business, I tells ya!”
Paste: When your Tonight Show appearance went viral, did you have the thought of “Oh, no, I’m going to get pigeonholed as The Trans Comedian now?”
Harrison: It was a lot to have to think about right out of the gate. There aren’t a ton of trans people in general, so in any vocation there’s probably not going to be a ton of trans people. So I’ve been thinking about what me doing stand-up or me doing comedy means in terms of representation.
[The Tonight Show appearance] was something that I was brought on to do to—to specifically address transgender issues and to address transgender issues politically. (Maybe that’s redundant to say but it was in regards to my dear sweet Present Trump, perfect 10, Donald Trump, sexual king, Gigi Hadid of the White House. Of all the presidents we have had he is the hot president. If we have one president, it is Mr. My King himself, Gigi Hadid Donald Trump.)
That piece was co-written by their team of writers; I had input but it wasn’t necessarily my comedic voice because it’s on NBC and it has to be so clean and tight. It was very different from what I would do on my stage live, where I don’t necessarily talk about being trans that much and when I do, I don’t necessarily talk about it in a direct way. It’s usually layered…
Paste: …and arch and ironic.
Harrison: A lot of times when I’m talking about being trans on stage, I’m talking about people’s expectations of me as a trans person, especially in an industry that is trying to shift [toward diversity] to make money. After doing that Tonight Show piece, a lot of creative higher-ups viewed me as a political comedian and that’s not my voice. I use comedy and acting a lot of times to escape the lived reality of the stresses that come with being trans.
I’ve taken so many meetings with TV developers and production companies who are interested in me making something about being trans that’s about my “coming out” story or something—all this stuff that I find to be, like, non-trans people emotionally masturbating to the trauma of trans people. I do think it’s important for those stories to be told because there is tragedy and strife in the experiences of trans people. But if that’s the only representation you’re seeing as a trans person—that your story is exclusively a story of trauma and sadness and struggle—I think it’s psychologically very detrimental to how you perceive yourself. I would love to do comedy that addresses those things when I want to, but sparingly.
And there is other stuff I’m interested in doing, like a live-action spider porn. That’s what I want to bring into the world and no one will fucking buy it. And that’s really frustrating to me as, you know, a marginalized person to have this amazing idea of real spiders having sex with computer-animated human genitalia—and it’s no holds-barred, like super graphic. It’s four hours long. Each episode is a miniseries and I keep pitching it. I’ve pitched it to HBO over 300 times. And they keep saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, honey.” Then I said, “Don’t call me ‘honey.’ Okay? Don’t call me ‘honey’, queen. And they said, ‘Don’t “queen” us, honey.’” And it’s this infinite fight we’ve had. But I think if I pitch it to them 100 more times, they will take my live-action spider porn, computer-animated with human genitals. I’m really banking on it, cause it’s the only idea I have.
Paste: You’re going to be in Shrill’s second season. Have you been asked back for I Think You Should Leave, which was also renewed?
Harrison: We’ve talked. We have definitely talked. I can’t really say a lot.
Paste: What’s next for you more broadly? An hourlong? Your own sitcom?
Harrison: I would definitely love to get the ball rolling on an hour. It’s what I’ve been quietly planning in my free time [in Portland.] And I’ve had some meetings recently about if I wanted to make a show, what it would look like. I would love to make a comedy but I think it would probably be way darker and grosser than the people who are tapping me want to make because they saw me on The Tonight Show.
And after I come back from Portland, I’m going to be shooting a movie with Nikole Beckwith and Ed Holmes that I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about. It’s not a role that was written as a trans character necessarily and it’s the biggest part I’ve had in something. It’s not a huge production or anything but it feels really special—a departure from anything that I’ve done so far. And I’m such a fucking insane psycho rabid fan of Ed Helms that I’ll probably end up Selena-ing him on set, so that’s unfortunate. So, say goodbye to Ed Helms now! You didn’t have much time left! … Did that read as a joke?
Harrison: OK, I feel like in print that’s going to put me in jail.
Samantha Allen is the author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States and a GLAAD Award-winning LGBTQ journalist. She’s on Twitter @SLAwrites.