patti harrison is the trans comic we need desperately right now
The brilliant satirist blasted Trump on The Tonight Show, and now talks about her path to comedy and racism in Hollywood.
Photography Stanislaw Boniecki
In July, New York-based comedian Patti Harrison appeared on The Tonight Show to discuss Trump's ban on transgender people in the military. "Donald, you're so stupid," she started. "You're lucky you're so hot." Then she continued: "Now I don't necessarily want to serve in the military, but I want the right to serve," said Patti, who is trans herself. "It's like, I don't want to go to your baby shower, but I want the invite." She referenced transgender Navy SEAL Kristin Beck—who was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and 27 other medals—and then ended with this kicker: "Trump says transgender people in the military would be a tremendous disruption, and I get it. If you constantly draw attention to yourself, spend all day distracting everyone and cost taxpayers millions of dollars, the perfect job for you isn't the military—it's the president of the United States." Before this breakout bit, we were already infatuated with Patti and her reviews of exotic animals, YouTube convers(at)ions and Tweets: "Sean Spicer actually did an *INCREDIBLE* job as U.S. press secretary," she wrote on Twitter, "when you consider the fact that he *is* a golden retriever/lab mix." But her Tonight Show appearance made us even more obsessed, and we wanted to know more. In the following email interview, Patti talks about her biggest influences, Trump and DACA, low-key racism, her transition and how it affected her comedy. "It has become a lens of experience through which I now pull material from," Patti says. "Tonally, everything's pretty much the same."
When did you first realize you were funny?
I remember being very little and imitating the little white southern girl from the Shake 'n Bake commercials. The first time I did it, all of my older siblings and family laughed a lot. This excited my little attention-starved ass and it became my "recurring bit." I would just say, "It's Shake 'n Bake and I helped!" every 12 seconds until I realized I had taken a single joke that worked one time and violently bludgeoned everyone with it until people were exhausted by me—very similar to now!
Who have been your biggest influences in comedy?
My brother died when I was four and my dad when I was six, and my mom had a really hard time with that and kind of "checked out," so my older sisters stepped-up in helping to raise me. I was the youngest of five remaining siblings, and three of my older sisters were in their teens/20s when I was entering elementary school. They all handled the situation with a dark humor that I adored and really rubbed off on me. I feel very lucky to have been raised by a tribe of hilarious women who were also very kind! I think that's where I learned that you can make good, heavy, dark jokes without being mean or punching down. I definitely go darker than they do, but they are all hilarious in their own ways. I love them very much!
I've seen your Tonight Show appearance everywhere, but haven't read much about your personal journey. When did you transition and what was the experience like?
I came out at the end of college to my family and friends, quit school, and moved home to my childhood home. I was fortunate that my family was very supportive—I know that a lot of trans people don't have that. It was the ultimate relief to see how supportive people were, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some people stay who I thought would leave. It gave me hope that people have the capacity to change! But the two years after I initially came out were especially terrifying and emotionally grueling. It's just kind of this mental and spiritual vivisection that happened where I'd just lie in bed all day, get up to look in the mirror, cry, and go back to bed. I wasn't performing at the time. Transness has been a punchline in TV and movies and comedy clubs for so long. I thought I was going to be eviscerated. I started going to therapy, which I think saved my life, and got a job. Saved money by working customer service for Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic L!o!L! A year later, in 2015, I moved to the big stinky piss city, where I am today, shittin' in the streets and screamin' at birds! I <3 NY!
How are directors like Tim Burton "low-key racist"? Do you think Hollywood should be obligated to cast more people of color?
I think he participates in this passive racism where he only writes stories with white characters or white leads, not because people of color actively disgust him, but I think he just can't envision anything else. And he's NOT the only director/writer who does that. When all of mainstream film and television has only shown you Latinx/Hispanic actors as gang members or driving lowriders, or Asian characters as martial artists, that affects your creative imagination. It whitewashes your mind's eye. Diverse onscreen representation is important in mainstream film and television because so much of the population enjoys it. It shapes mass cultural perceptions, not only within our country, but globally, and considering how much of an influence American culture has on the rest of the planet, there's responsibility there. It's not enough for white Hollywood to make a movie about slavery and pat themselves on the back because "Well, the actors were black!" Those movies are important, but we need to open up opportunities for more roles for POC. I know so many brown and Asian actors who have grown up in the States speaking American English, who have had to constantly audition for parts (written by white people) where they needed to speak in an accent. Stereotypes are tired and damaging, especially in science fiction and fantasy genres where literally ANYTHING can happen. It's all made up. If it's not racist or about race, why not just make a movie about a wizard and cast a black actor?
What's the last thing you saw or heard that made you laugh?
I just watched a video on Instagram of comedian Sydnee Washington fall on rollerblades in slow motion and I laughed for a long time. She is just skating so gracefully and then all-of-a-sudden eats shit, but in a very beautiful way. She is so hilarious, and people falling is always funny to me. It was overall a historic comedy event!