MARCH/APRIL 2010
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Charlyne Yi

[COMEDIAN]

“HEY GUYS, I’M WEARING A SWEATER. WHAT’S GOING ON?”
Things Charlyne Yi dreams about:
The devil
Elvis impersonators
Slow-moving horses
Audiences of eight people

My friends and I first experienced Charlyne Yi when we saw the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up a few years ago. She was on screen for only about two minutes, but she was mesmerizing and memorable. She played Jodi, the stoner girlfriend of one of the guys—yet there was nothing typically “girlfriendish” about her. In one of the improvised outtakes on YouTube, she gawks curiously at the prim and pregnant Alison, who has come to visit the house of men (to which Yi—apparently neither man nor woman—has easy, unquestioned entry). She blurts out, “I love fucking kids… I mean! I mean! I fucking love kids! That’s sick.” We couldn’t wait until she starred in her own film.

Last year, happily, she did. At the age of twenty-three, she premiered Paper Heart, a feature she wrote, co-scored, and starred in. The film is a mix of documentary and fiction. She plays a character named Charlyne Yi who is skeptical that she will ever fall in love, so sets off to make a documentary about people who have actually experienced love, to try and figure things out. The documentary parts are actual documentary; not scripted. What’s scripted is the burgeoning relationship between her and the character Michael Cera (played by the film actor Michael Cera). Around the time of the film’s release, rumors proliferated that they were truly a couple and that Cera, whose celebrity was growing, had dumped her. Pity and outrage abounded. Another rumor quickly followed that actually Yi was in her mid-thirties and used to baby-sit for Cera. It seems none this was true; the second rumor was likely a fabrication of Yi’s.

Charlyne Yi grew up in Fontana, California, in a close, loving family. She attended college for a short time, then dropped out and moved to Los Angeles in 2006, where she couch-surfed and lived out of her car while performing stand-up gigs. She quickly gathered a following of comedians and noncomedians, and was one of the original performers at Matt Besser’s Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood. In short time, she was running her own monthly nights: The Charlyne Yi Show. The shows, which are ongoing, incorporate audience participation, sketches, music, stand-up, and plays. On the first night of the series, the audience was invited to bring pillows, and mid-way through, a pillow fight among everyone in the room—performers and audience—broke out at the sound of a bell.

In addition to stand-up, Yi has a notable presence on YouTube. She has a talent for collaboration, often working with other comedian friends, including Nick Jasenovec, Paul Rust (with whom she has a band, the Glass Beef) and Jake Johnson. She draws comics, is writing a film for Apatow, a TV series for HBO, and is finishing an album of music and stories. For Paper Heart, she built puppets and cardboard sets with her dad.

I talked with her three times on the phone over a series of several weeks. She was warm and confident, consistently upbeat. She laughed a lot, rambled sheepishly, and referenced past conversations with friends on similar themes.

—Sheila Heti

I. WAKE-UP CALL

THE BELIEVER: Did you get up recently?

CHARLYNE YI: Yes. I was writing late last night and woke up to my phone just now.

BLVR: Do you remember what you dreamed?

CY: I was riding a horse… and it was going real slow. You know sometimes you realize it’s a dream and then things stop working?

BLVR: Somebody once told me that if you have a dream within a dream it’s like a really deep dream, like a dream from even deeper in your soul or psyche.

CY: I had one a couple days ago. It was about a show coming up, and in the dream there were eight people in the audience. Then I woke up in my dream and I thought, Oh good, that was just a dream! Let’s do the show now. Then we did the show and there were only four people.

BLVR: [Laughs] So you’re more optimistic more deep down and less optimistic less deep down.

II. BECOMING FUNNY

CY: I tried theater in college, but I was such a bad actor. I would sincerely try to act how I was feeling, and people would start to laugh because I was so bad and so nervous. There would be a serious scene with a husband and wife arguing, and I’d be shaking. My teacher was saying that there’s a very fine line between drama and comedy, and I thought, He’s totally right. And I slowly realized, Oh, this is funny! I think that’s when I discovered that people were laughing at the real me in the awkward situation I was in, trying to act.

The first time I performed was at a comedy audition. I pulled up the mic but it hit my mouth because it came too high, and it dropped and I couldn’t figure out the mic, and I couldn’t see anything on stage because of the lights. There were four judges there and I had to perform with them laughing, which made me even more uncomfortable, and I was just shaking and talking and they were laughing the whole time. Afterwards I was talking to one of the judges and he was like, “That was hilarious!” I was like, What are you talking about?

Then I realized he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not about being nervous. He thought maybe it was an act, but he wasn’t sure. I thought, That’s so interesting—maybe I’ll master that. So I’d constantly try to do stuff like that in theater class once I learned that you can make people laugh in a way that they’re unsure of what they’re laughing at, and are slightly embarrassed that they’re laughing.

BLVR: So you discovered that you’re funny by accident.

CY: I think so!

BLVR: Matt Besser, the founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, has said that your work is absolutely different from the work of any other comic; that so many comedians watch The Kids in the Hall and Monty Python and really educate themselves in sketch comedy, and their work ends up looking the same. He said, “When you see her perform, you don’t want to give her any advice. You want to let it alone, like an exotic bird.” Do you feel like it’s true your work comes from a different place from a lot of the other comics you see working?

CY: I’m not sure where other comedians get their ideas, so I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think most of them do have that education in comedy. I don’t really know The Kids in the Hall. I know they’re a sketch group, but I have a short attention span. I don’t watch that much TV. My education’s I Love Lucy.

BLVR: Do you have an overall sense of what makes something funny? Not just in your work but in general?

CY: No. [Laughs] Sometimes I’ll think something is funny and I’ll go on stage and it doesn’t work, and it’s like, Oh my god—I think I lost my funny! It’s frustrating ’cause I don’t understand it. Or I’ll do the same material with a different audience and it’ll work, and it’ll be like, How come it worked this time? It’s so unpredictable.

BLVR: Well, what do you think you understand if you don’t think you understand what makes people laugh? Is there something else you understand that covers for that?

CY: Maybe the idea of surprise is part of what makes something funny, or what gets a reaction. At least when I’m an audience member, after you hear a joke so many times it’s not as funny because it loses its surprise or its twist. So I think funny has to do with surprise.

III. PROJECTS

BLVR: You’re writing an HBO series—

CY: Um, I’m not allowed to talk about that contractually. Also, that movie I’m writing for Universal and Judd Apatow—just not allowed to talk about it. I thought I was allowed and I slipped up somewhere and talked about it and then I got in trouble.

BLVR: Are you working on anything you can talk about?

CY: I wrote a play with my friend called World of Pain which we did on Friday. It’s melodramatic—a cross between Death of a Salesman and a zombie movie. So I’m working on a lot of plays. I wake up in the mornings and I usually get myself to clean my disgusting room, then I have a list of things to do, like this rewrite on my comic book. It’s based off a dream I had. It’s about a character who’s trying to save the world, and it’s kind of postapocalyptic.

BLVR: What was the dream?

CY: It was weird. It was me playing the character in the dream, but in the comic book it’s not me at all. It was like she was on a mission because there was this heat wave going on, and everyone was getting sick and dying and going crazy and killing each other because of this crazy fever. And people kept doing bad stuff so hell was getting bigger, and each time hell got bigger the world would get hotter, because it would take up more room underneath the earth. [Pause] Somehow that made psychological sense in my dream.

BLVR: No, that definitely makes sense.

CY: So one girl decides she’s had enough—someone has to put an end to this—people are going crazy! So she drives to Las Vegas and she meets this guy who’s an Elvis impersonator, and he wants to kill the devil too, because the devil’s taken his wife away. He wants to bring his wife back to life and take her out of hell. So they sort of team up on this great adventure to stop the crazy war that’s going on, and go down and find the devil.

BLVR: Was that the dream you just described or the comic book?

CY: That’s the dream and the comic book. It sounds complicated but I made it more simple on paper. [Pause] I think it will make more sense in the sense that it doesn’t make sense.

BLVR: It totally makes sense.

CY: I’d love to help the entire world. Even to change the life of one child is amazing. So much about my life is only caring about the people in my life, like my family and my friends and myself, but what about all the people who do things for strangers? If I am envious of these people and I was thinking for a while, if I do really want to make a difference, why don’t I? I could easily just talk to theaters about doing fundraiser shows where I charge them a little bit more. So I just did my first fundraiser show on Sunday, and I’m so excited to be doing this show where money is going to a specific program that helps out kids.

BLVR: What’s the program?

CY: All these kids were getting beat up cause they were trying to do well in school, and they were so sad. Like, oh, they have no hope—because they’re trying to do well, but they’re getting beat up for doing well. So the whole school got reprogrammed and the teachers got retaught and they said, What if we spent less time on pep rallies? What if these pep rallies had to do with your education? And they cut to this sound—you saw all these kids screaming and stuff, and they’re cheering about how they’re going to prove society wrong, and how they are important and how they’re going to succeed in life. I was like, I want to be part of that.

BLVR: Can you see yourself continuing on with this life for a while?

CY: I think so. I kind of have ADD and I like trying different things and I get bored. Paper Heart consumed all my time for two years—filming it, editing it, going on a month-and-a-half tour—so I’m really excited to be free again and to perform. I don’t make any money from live performances, but it’s really nice and important to me. Right now I’m sick of acting, so it’s like, Maybe I’ll do writing for a bit. Then, when I’m tired of writing, I’ll go work on my music. When I’m sick of music, I’ll be like, I’m going to start performing comedy now. So it’s good. It’s not like I want to be famous or anything, just whatever pays the bills.

BLVR: Paying the bills is good.

CY: Yeah. Throughout my whole life money has always been a problem. But I didn’t realize until recently that we were poor when we were kids! [Laughs] I was saying to someone, “I remember one Christmas I was so excited ’cause I got to sleep next to the Christmas tree!” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” [Laughs] I was like, “Oh, ’cause I used to live at my grandma’s house and we lived in the living room.” My whole family lived in the living room and, like, each part of the family had a different room. There’d be five rooms downstairs, and a cousin with her uncle and her parents would live in one room, but me and my family lived in the living room. I remember not understanding, Oh, that means we’re poor. It was just like, Yes! I get to sleep next to the Christmas tree! This is great! It’s so beautiful! Even then, it didn’t matter. We had food, we had a home. And the carpet was really comfortable. It wasn’t concrete, you know?

IV. WOMEN

BLVR: You often express ambivalence about being a woman. Is there really such a distinction between men and women that it feels like you can’t actually relate to this idea of woman?

CY: [Laughs] I was thinking the other day about how when I was a kid, I thought I was going to grow up to look like a woman. I don’t think I look like a woman now. I think I look like a girl—the same girl as in fourth grade.

BLVR: I feel the same way. I read a lot of Archie comics when I was a kid, and I thought that because Betty and Veronica looked so much the same, that’s what I was going to look like when I got older. I thought everyone sort of went through that stage; that when you’re sixteen, everyone looks like that. Part of me is still waiting: when is that going to happen?

CY: My friend and I were saying that we thought we were going to grow up to look like Jessica Rabbit! I think I’m the most asexual girl. I’m like, [weird voice] “Hey guys, I’m wearing a sweater. What’s going on?”

BLVR: My friend thinks that because I don’t have big breasts—she’s like, “You’ve never had to be a woman.” Is that all it takes? Big breasts? But she thinks the world responds to you differently if you have big breasts—that you somehow get to stay innocent longer if you don’t.

CY: My friend had big… [laughs] … ones in junior high, and people would treat her differently. She was very sad about that, about how people would just notice that, or how older people thought she was older than she was. I thought, Ugh. I’m glad I’m not getting that sort of attention. That would really screw me up.

V. PIMPLES

BLVR: It’s nice you didn’t want to be like Jessica Rabbit.

CY: What makes all those women sexy? Were they just born sexy? I guess it’s the way they act. I don’t want to have to act sexy. I just want to be me, and if I don’t happen to be sexy, oh well. That’s OK. [Laughs] I don’t want to force something I’m not.

BLVR: What do you think gives you that kind of freedom? Because you seem more free than all these women who feel like there’s one kind of sexy and they have to be that way—not only in Hollywood but all over the place.

CY: I just realized that I’m just going to be who I am, so I embrace that, probably. I don’t need to adjust how I look for anyone or even for myself. Even if I have a pimple, I’m not going to cover it up with makeup.

I remember when we made Paper Heart, I had a pimple and I was like, “This is hilarious! Me being the lead and having a gross pimple!” And they’re like, “No no no, let’s put some makeup on it.” And I’m like, “Oh man! Now it just looks like a pimple with makeup!” Eventually the company got extra money and the pimple was so distracting that we had to change it in postproduction with computers to take off the pimple. It was so sad. I was really excited. Try to cover up my pimple? It didn’t work. It’s still shining through!

VI. LOVE

BLVR: Love is the subject of Paper Heart—which is kind of funny because you’ve said you’re not interested in the same sorts of things that most women are, and yet to make a movie about, you know, “Will I ever fall in love?” That seems more like a stereotypically female concern.

CY: I think it’s an everybody concern, really.

BLVR: Yeah, you’re right. [Pause] Have you heard of the word limerence?

CY: No, my vocabulary’s very small. What does that mean?

BLVR: It’s the state of feeling like you’re in love. It’s not actually love, but it’s the falling-in-love feeling, and there’s physiological effects, like your heart speeds up and you blush and you stutter and you have obsessive, intrusive thoughts about the love object, and most of it takes place in fantasy. That’s distinguished from real love, which is actually caring about another person and wanting to help them and do good by them and so on.

CY: I was talking to my friend about this. I think sometimes it’s hard to know what you feel, or to know what’s real and what’s not, because love or hate or any feeling is a belief. You can say you hate someone, but you don’t truly know them. You have examples of reasons to hate them, but if you analyze those reasons it’s like, Oh, I’m hating that person based on one thing they did, but I don’t actually know them well enough to hate them. Or sometimes you’re in a relationship and you’re like, This is love! Then, afterwards, if you feel bitter about them, you’re going to rewrite history. You’re going to think, Ah, it wasn’t love anyway. Cause you’re bitter right now. Then, after time passes, maybe you’ll realize, Oh no, that was love, I was just being bitter. It’s like, you call it what you want to call it.

BLVR: It’s interesting that you say love is a belief. I think it’s also an action. Like to love somebody—you can make acts of love or do things for another person, but if you’re somebody who doesn’t make any gestures of love, is that really love? Just to feel it but not act it?

CY: Yeah. I think actions really do define how you feel, as opposed to just saying, “I care about you” or “I want to be with you.” Where’s the truth? Where’s the meaning in your words if your actions contradict them? I think as human beings we contradict our feelings constantly, we make mistakes, but I think ultimately it comes down to actions to define how we feel about each other.

VII. RUDENESS

BLVR: I wonder what things depress you in general, like when you see them you just think, This makes the world a worse place to be.

CY: I think sometimes people forget how to be nice to people. I try not to let it get to me. I mean, I’ve been guilty of it myself—being so in my own zone I don’t even realize where I am or who I’m talking to—but even when I’m stressed out I’m not mean to people, you know? I’m not constantly rude to people. But sometimes people are so rude. I recently hung out with someone who was just very rude to a waiter, not understanding what kind of job that is. I’ve never been a waiter, but it’s not hard to understand that’s a hard job. You don’t have to be a dick to communicate something, and it’s not the waiter’s fault if something goes wrong all the time. It’s just little things like that—knowing how to treat people, acknowledging, making eye contact, being aware of where you are, and realizing that other people have feelings, too, instead of thinking you’re the greatest thing ever.

BLVR: Sometimes in your stand-up you bring people to the stage—you’ve done things where you bring people up to the stage and go on a fake date with them. Do you feel you have some sort of obligation to be kind to people on stage?

CY: I think I have an obligation to be kind to people in general, otherwise I’ll feel crappy about myself.

BLVR: But is there some contract between you and someone you bring onto the stage?

CY: I try to respect them. I try not to push them so far that they’re uncomfortable. I did a bit where I brought a guy on stage, and at one point I was like, “Oh my god! You wrote a song about me?”—implying that he should improvise a song while I played guitar. The guy looked like he was going to cry he was so nervous! I don’t usually give up on people in that situation, because often someone will be nervous and then I’ll push them and they’ll go along with it and have a really good time. But he was trembling! I didn’t want him to cry and embarrass himself, so I was like, [enthusiastic] “It’s OK! You just sit down, man. Great job! Thanks!”

BLVR: What kind of person do you tend to pick when you’re looking into the audience for somebody? What are you drawn to?

CY: I try to pick someone who’s a little bit shy or looks shy, but sometimes I’ve failed to do that, because sometimes I’m like—oh, that person seems shy, and then once they start talking they’re like really outgoing and they start hamming it up on stage and I’m like, Oh god! Oh no! This person’s too talkative! This person’s taking over! They really want to shine right now! No, no, this is not working! I’ve had cases of misjudgement, where they see it as an opportunity to act, to be their awesome self and be funny, and they’re not being their natural self, which is what I’m looking for—a natural reaction to whatever is going on onstage.

BLVR: Do you have any ethics or morality around this thing—around using people in your art, like the documentary subjects who appeared in your movie?

CY: I think you have to be careful about not hurting someone. Before Paper Heart was released someone leaked that it was a Michael Cera comedy—which wasn’t true—and people were worried that it was going to be a Borat-like thing—that we’d be making fun of the interview subjects. Someone wrote on a blog, “Oh god—I was interviewed for this movie and I signed the papers and stuff”—because we didn’t explain to the people we interviewed that it’s half-documentary and half-not. We didn’t say what the whole project was like ’cause we were afraid that people would think we were going to take advantage of them in a bad way—not that taking advantage of someone is ever in a good way. The last thing I’d want to do is make a fool of someone, unless they saw the humor in it.

BLVR: In comedy clubs the tone can be kind of insulting, or the comic will try to humiliate the people, and I wonder if your work is at all a reaction against that. Or at least, why do so many comedians take that route?

CY: I don’t think so many people take that route—or at least I don’t surround myself with those people. Maybe those comics don’t realize what they’re doing. Maybe if they realized they were making people uncomfortable, they would stop. But some people like that stuff. They laugh at it. I think you go to a club to be happy—to get away from negativity.

VIII. COLLABORATION

BLVR: I’m thinking about your Fred Armisen videos on YouTube. Did the project start off as a collaboration or was it something you put on the Internet, hoping he might respond?

CY: I had met him a couple of times when we were performing. It wasn’t like we were best friends, but we were kind of friends, so I wrote to him and said, “Hey man, I made this awful SNL video. I’m not trying to get on SNL—I have no desire to be a cast member—it’s just me trying to be obnoxious—so as a joke would you mind if I posted this all over your MySpace?” I said it would be cool if he replied really meanly to me, but that he didn’t have to if he didn’t have the time. He was like, “Oh, cool.” So I posted it all over his MySpace, when he had one, and I just kept making the videos more intense, like [stalker voice], “Fred? Are you watching this?” [Laughs] The videos were really annoying and aggressive. Eventually he did reply.

BLVR: Were you thinking of the audience as just him, or the Internet?

CY: Well, I was editing Paper Heart at the time and I had no time to perform. It would be three o’clock in the morning when I’d get home from work, and I’d be like, I can’t really perform, so I’ll just record myself doing stupid stuff—like an SNL video harassing Fred. It was kind of my highlight of the night. It was a way to vent and perform. I don’t think I was thinking of all the people watching. I was just like, Okay, I’m going to go annoy Fred now. It was a way to talk to each other and see how disgusting and annoying we could be.

BLVR: What kind of response did the videos get?

CY: People were like, “You better leave him alone!” So I’d write them, “I’ll leave him alone when I get on SNL!” That’s kind of why I made these videos—’cause I knew they were horrible, and I was searching for mean comments. I was acting like a crazy maniac, and it was really fun to egg him on. But if you watch the last of the videos you’ll see that I’m not crazy. I’m his friend.

BLVR: Do you get something out of collaborating that you don’t get working on your own?

CY: Yeah. It’s interesting to see what people who you find talented come up with, so you work with them. Sometimes ideas come along quicker cause they’ll come up with something and you’ll be like, “It would have taken me forever to get to that point!” Because you’re talking together, your brains are moving faster. It’s just about finding people who are better than you at certain things and combining your powers. Like, if I’m not the strongest at playing piano, I’ll work with someone who’s really good at it and we’ll combine both our brains to write a song.

IX. COMEDY

BLVR: Do you remember the first thing you made that you were happy with?

CY: At one point I decided do my own show—I wanted to do my own thing, you know? So I was looking for a theatre, and around that time the UCB theatre opened, and Matt Besser asked, “Hey do you want to do your own show?” And I was like, “Yeah, I was actually looking to do my own show. Thanks so much.” And I worked really hard on it. I was like, I really hope people show up! So I promoted it and made little fliers and said bring a pillow, ’cause I wanted in the middle of the show an alarm to go off and it’d just go into a pillow fight—the whole audience and me and the people on stage and the characters. I’d been promoting it for months and months—or weeks and weeks, I don’t know how long it was actually—and it was so amazing. I remember peeking through the curtain and I saw the line and there was a combination of comedians I’d met through performing in L.A., who I didn’t know that well at the time, maybe I just had spurts of interactions with them, and also non-comedians—and they all came with pillows! I remember being like, Wow, it’s working! There’s more than ten people! Oh my god, there’s like a hundred people! Oh my god! And they’re here for me! Oh my god, this show better be good.

BLVR: In Paper Heart you play a character named Charlyne Yi. This melding of art and life—does it ever get confusing?

CY: No. It’s only confusing for strangers. It’s not confusing for me. I think our friends know who we are and our family—except for this one time I scared the shit out of my mom. You’d think by this time she’d know who I was! I thought she’d know when I was acting and when I was being real, but I guess not.

BLVR: What happened?

CY: I was in a fight with Jake Johnson on stage—we were fake-fighting—and he punches me and I fall down and I don’t get up. He’s still going after me—as the character—not knowing I supposedly got hurt, and I kick him and start getting upset and cursing, “I ask you not to drink before the show and you drank!” “I only had one drink before the show!” “Fuck you! You had three before the show and one now!” and I started crying. In my head I want to laugh because it’s so over-the-top, but my mom got really scared that I was hurt and that my friend Jake, who she knows, had drunk too much and we were really fighting and embarrassing ourselves.

BLVR: What do you think you understand about comedy now that you didn’t when you started?

CY: I actually don’t think I understand more. I think I’m willing to take more chances—but I don’t even know what that means. It’s weird. I was talking to my comedian friend the other day and he was saying, “Do you get sad when people don’t like your material?” I thought, Kind of. You can’t help but feel the energy of the audience—and if you feel they hate you that feels weird and dirty. But I would never want to take it too seriously. It’s understandable that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I think that’s helped me survive.

BLVR: Do you ever feel like when you’re doing really good work, you have this feeling of being high?

CY: I feel like I get really energetic and hyper. If I do well in a show, I can’t sleep afterwards. If I don’t do well, I get kinda drained. I think because it’s like a battle on stage, where you’re like, Oh crap, I’m not doing well. The energy feels weird. I feel really bad for the audience. I don’t know how to make them happy. And you just feel drained cause you’re trying everything possible to turn things around. And sometimes it is possible to turn things around on stage, and I’ve done it before, but sometimes it’s impossible.

BLVR: Do you have this feeling that there’s an entity that’s the audience that’s separate from any one person in the audience? Like that an audience its own creature?

CY: I guess. It’s weird how I’ll do a show at the same venue and there’s a show at eight and there’s a show at ten, and someone will go up and they’ll be like, “This audience is rough.” And I’ll go up and I’ll be like, Oh god, it is rough. And then at the next show, the whole audience is like the best thing ever. Is it just the fact that 75 percent don’t like the material? Or they’re in a bad mood, but it affects every person who performs, and their vibrations are taking over the whole room, but maybe there is 25 percent who are enjoying it but for some reason it’s not strong enough to take over the room? [Laughs] I don’t know—I sound like a crazy person talking about percentages of energy.

X. THE INTERNET

BLVR: In Paper Heart, you play a character who doesn’t really know whether love exists for her or not, and then you kind of come to see that perhaps it could, and it feels like you could be talking about culture, like how nice would it be if there was some kind of transition where people get to the point of acknowledging their own and each other’s humanity—a growth in the culture similar to what your character underwent in the movie.

CY: It’s like, there are people on the Internet who write me hate mail, saying they want to fucking kill me and stuff. And it’s really scary. [Laughs] I’m like, “Hey! Why? I didn’t do anything to you. Why would you write me something and want me to feel like crap?” I don’t really let it get to me because it’s like, Oh, they’re crazy. I would never write somebody and inflict that sort of discomfort in their lives. So these people will write me this hate mail with curse words, and I’ll write them back, and they’ll reply, “I hope you die in a fire!” It’s like, OK, maybe I’ll block you. Anyway, I tried. I tried to reach you on a human level. Apparently… you are too far along on the dark side to be reached.

BLVR: I can’t understand where it comes from—that sheer rage, you know? Just at anything—at a music video—this complete rage and hostility at a music video. It doesn’t make any sense.

CY: The internet’s weird. It’s kind of harvesting this negativity. I think negativity has always been out there, but I think because people are hiding behind this thing, they feel able to express these hateful feelings they’ve maybe been keeping inside. I don’t know.

BLVR: You said earlier that you made the SNL video in order to get mean comments? What do you mean?

CY: Well, one, I knew that audition video was horrible. It was the worst thing ever. I showed it to my roommate and he started groaning and laughing and that’s kind of what I wanted. I don’t know. I was just interested in seeing what kind of mean stuff people would write, and people did write mean stuff, like “Don’t quit your day job!” I’ve gotten, like, thirty of those. And it’s just really funny, because the video’s not trying to actually be funny—or if it is, then funny in a really bad and painful way. I think it was just an experiment in going forward. It’s like, OK, I know how to make—not I know how to makebut sometimes a certain bit will make people embarrassed to laugh. With this one, maybe it will make them really unconscionable. Let’s give them a reason to write “this sucks”—because it does suck. It was more of an experiment to see if I could get that reaction.

BLVR: Do you ever worry about how you’re going to come across? Do you feel very free to experiment with your persona or your self?

CY: Sometimes. With that video, it was like, Well… some people will think I’m an idiot. Some people will think I suck. It’s doesn’t matter. They’re strangers. And there are other sides to me—on stage or in other performances—so I’m not too worried. It’s not like I’m going to do that bit all the time. It’s not like I live in that bit.

Sheila Heti is the author of the novel Ticknor and the story collection The Middle Stories. She recently appeared as Lenore Doolan in Leanne Shapton’s book Important Artifacts.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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