We talk street harassment, whitewashing in comedy, and putting personal topics on blast with Ginny Leise and SJ Son.
Hanging out at comedian Ginny Leise's Astoria apartment, it's easy to forget you're there to interview her and her comedy partner Soojeong (SJ) Son. The two friends are so welcoming and funny that you want to be in on the clique, too, or at least you wish your own friends were that hilarious. The easy flow of ideas between SJ and Ginny and their total in-sync-ness are what make their comedy so effortlessly fresh and daring. They don't think twice before diving into even the most personal topics onstage (or on video), and sometimes do so to music or wearing wacky costumes by SJ. The pair got attention worldwide when their video "Drive-By Street Harassment," in which SJ served men's creepy catcalls back at them, went viral. They're forever dreaming up new ideas, but can be caught in the near future performing their latest two-woman show, "Great Gig: A Corporate Training for Business" at The People's Improv Theater in January 2016.
How did each of you get your start in comedy?
Ginny: I was a wannabe theater kid through school but theater always conflicted with sports, and I had to play sports. And then I sort of forgot about it through my college years because I was too busy smoking pot [laughs]--though I was in "The Vagina Monologues" once. I graduated from college with a degree in history and philosophy in the middle of the recession, so I just spent a year walking the streets of Denver, confused about what I should do with my life and working at a Pinkberry. I kept stumbling on stand-up shows, like the same group of dudes doing stand-up at bars, and it looked like they were having the most fun out of anyone. And I thought I was funnier than them, and that I should try stand-up. So, I started doing stand-up, and then I moved to New York.
SJ: I tried out twice for the improv team in high school and I didn't get in, but I loved it. I kind of concluded that I could just never do improv. So then I did sketch comedy in college, but I had a bad experience because my team was mostly bros, so none of my ideas and stories got used. I cried for days, all the time. I left kind of having a bad taste for sketch comedy, thinking this was something I couldn't do, either. Then I came to New York, and saw a show at the Magnet Theater [to see] my friend from high school--who was on that improv team. I was blown away. I signed up for classes at The PIT like the next day.
How did you two meet?
Ginny: We met in an improv class at The PIT. Every once in a while when I meet someone I'll have a feeling--
SJ: A feeling where?
Ginny: None of your business. But so this feeling usually manifests itself in anger. That's like my go-to secondary feeling. I met SJ and I thought, "This person is going to be significant to you," but instead of feeling that, I got angry about how pretty her skin is. People with perfect skin will always piss me off. I thought, "She's so cool, but her skin is so pretty, we can't be friends." From that class we formed an improv group and did it together for like two years.
SJ: And then we started doing "The Shame Game."
Ginny: Yeah, we both quit our day jobs around the same time. SJ was a really successful advertising person, and I was a receptionist--
SJ: A really successful receptionist.
Your last show, "The Shame Game," had a different theme each time tying into shame. What kind of themes did you explore and what was that process like?
Ginny: We decided from early on that we would only do things that were real. It's one of my pet peeves in comedy--I don't want to hear anything that's made up. So, every single month we were doing something that made us really uncomfortable. The first show we ever did was STDs, then we did one on [SJ] being Korean--
SJ: It was about me not understanding pop culture references, because I didn't grow up with that. We'd have so many themes and they were all so personal. Every time we'd have a brainstorm or a meeting about a new show, we would, like, cry so much. I've never cried harder than when we were talking about "Say My Name," which was one of our final shows. I was sitting here like "This is actually a really personal topic about how no one can pronounce my name correctly."
How did the idea for your "Drive-By Street Harassment" video come about? It's not the first time you've covered the issue.
SJ: It was the beginning of summer and I was getting particularly pissed off with dudes harassing me. It's that drive-by kind, which I realize all women know about but men have no idea that that happens. Men know about street harassment in general but not the secret street harassment, which is the drive-by, where they whisper to you and walk away like, "I didn't do anything wrong." I remember telling Ginny that I just wanted to do something that made me feel better. And our whole theme is conquering our fears and facing things that piss us off by making comedy about it. It's something I've been fucking so upset about since I was a teenager in high school--or even in middle school. It starts that early, it's awful.
Can you tell us about your upcoming show, "Great Gig?"
SJ: A lot of the themes we talk about have to do with being an actor and being in show business, and the ridiculous things that happen. And a lot of that has to do with working with casting directors and "building your brand," and the business behind acting. There's a very cult-like industry of acting coaches who try to guide you into the acting business, like, "You have to know your type or no one is going to book you," or, "You have to have the right headshots or you're going to die." It really rings true for people in show business, and even for people outside the business, it's still really funny.
Text Courtney Iseman
Photography Sam Evans-Butler