Comedian Sara Benincasa’s Advice for 20-Something Writers
“I won’t give anything away but there is a part where I pee in a bowl.” That’s how Sara Benincasa described her book to me when I first met her back in 2011. By that time, the 30-year-old Benincasa had already established herself as a comedian (and the funniest Sarah Palin impersonator on the planet), with appearances on NBC's Today Show and MTV and critical acclaim from Wired, Newsweek and The New York Times under her belt. But she was still giddy — and a little nervous — about her next venture: the publication of Agorafabulous!, her memoir about her experiences with agoraphobia and panic attacks, based on her celebrated one-woman show of the same name.
Benincasa had every reason to be excited and none to be nervous. When her memoir finally hit shelves in February 2012, Agorafabulous! drew praise from the likes of Rob Delaney, Julie Klam, Publisher's Weekly, and Bust. Her writing career shifted into high gear from there. Benincasa is now a regular contributor to XO Jane, VICE, and Jezebel (where she writes the highly-recommended "Friendzone" column), and is set to publish another book, a Gatsby-inspired YA novel called Great, early next year.
I spoke with Benincasa about how she got her start in both comedy and writing, what advice she has for 20-something creators of all types, what she likes and doesn't like about the internet, and the age-old question: New York or Los Angeles?
DL (Daniel Lefferts): How did you get your start in comedy?
SB (Sara Benincasa): I was in graduate school in my mid-twenties and I was rather unhappy with my chosen profession: teaching high school. The kids were great, but I knew it just wasn't the path for me. One of my classmates at grad school suggested I try stand-up comedy. She had quit her job at Comedy Central in order to enter teaching and make a difference in children's lives; I felt pretty sure I was done making a difference in children's lives and would like to do something far more superficial and ridiculous.
DL: What about being a comedian has helped you as a writer?
SB: The process of writing my memoir was made far easier by the fact that I could work out material onstage before I wrote it down. I got to crowd-test many of the stories prior to converting them into chapters. Also, as a comedian, you learn quickly that not everyone is going to enjoy your work. That helps prepare you for the reality that not everyone is going to fall in love with your book.
DL: Favorite books written by comedians?
SB: Everyone should read Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin. That's a standout, for sure.
DL: One thing that deters a lot of people, especially young people, from performing and/or writing is the fear of criticism. What have you learned about dealing with criticism? How do you parse tough wisdom from straight-up hatin'?
SB: Think about your inner dialogue as you walk down the street. You see some people who immediately appeal to you, some who you find distasteful, and some who provoke no reaction at all. You don't know these people, but you carry with you a set of prejudices and experiences that influences your reaction to them.
The point I'm trying to make is this: sometimes people like or dislike your book or song or sculpture for reasons that have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Any trip through Amazon reviews (which I do not recommend) will show you this.
Now, it's true that sometimes we write or paint or sing or dance and it's just awkward and weird and makes everyone feel strange in their undercarriage (but not in the good way). But there is no subjective "good" or "bad" when it comes to art. We're only talking about opinions. I try to remember this, even though sometimes criticism does hurt.
When people use racist or sexist epithets, you can immediately dismiss their criticism as crazy garbage. But sometimes someone makes a good point … And now having said all this, I think we'd all be happier artists if we never read reviews of our work.
DL: Who's worse, hecklers at shows or negative book reviews?
SB: Negative book reviews are worse. Hecklers are almost always drunk and stupid and can be dismissed for these reasons.
DL: You recently migrated from New York to Los Angeles. While LA has its fair share of writing history, New York is still considered the epicenter all things literary. Which has been better for you as a writer?
SB: Los Angeles has been better for me as a writer, though I miss New York. LA is more relaxed, and I'm better able to afford the rent for my home/office. That's a pretty big deal. And when you write books in Los Angeles, you're sort of a weird anomaly. People think it's neat and interesting but nonthreatening. And the sunshine really cuts down on the number of days you want to stay in bed and blot out the world.
DL: Agorafabulous! deals with your experience with anxiety and agoraphobia. Do you feel that the internet has changed the way we view mental health, or the opportunities people dealing with mental health issues have for seeking help and finding community?
SB: I think the internet certainly offers wonderful opportunities for folks with mental illness to connect, bond, and feel less alone. It also offers a wealth of information and resources for those who wish to learn more about mental health. I'm not sure to what extent it has de-stigmatized mental illness – I think television and film will do that first.
DL: "Laughter is the best medicine": evaluate.
SB: I'd argue that penicillin is the best medicine, followed closely by the polio vaccine and Prozac. However, laughter is excellent. Our demons live in the abyss. Laughing into the abyss shrinks them down to a manageable size and sometimes vanquishes them altogether.
DL: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming YA novel, Great.
SB: I'm excited to see how people react to a Gatsby-inspired teen novel in which the protagonist and her love interest are both teenage girls.
DL: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat: What's your favorite/least favorite?
SB: Oooh I loooooove Twitter. It's addictive, maddening, wondrous, hilarious, brilliant, strange, and every other adjective you can imagine. I love Instagram because it's a window into other folks' worlds. Facebook can be great and it can drive one bananas. I have purposely avoided learning about what Snapchat is. That's my elderly cantankerous self kicking in.
DL: How many selfies have you taken in the last week?
SB: Probably six. Mostly involving some sort of odd object I discovered in my parents' basement while visiting New Jersey.
DL: What's the best comedy advice you ever received?
SB: Don't get seen too soon by industry. Give yourself time to develop a voice, a style, some confidence. We all want to be instant superstars but sometimes careers take awhile to build. In fact, most of the time they take awhile to build. I definitely showcased too soon as a stand-up. Thankfully, I got further opportunities in other aspects of comedy. But, it takes time.
DL: What advice do you have for 20-somethings who would like to get into comedy? Into writing?
SB: For comedians: write jokes. Tell jokes onstage. Write more jokes. Tell more jokes onstage. Rinse. Lather. Repeat. Don't try to get seen by industry too soon, but also don't be afraid to promote yourself once you really feel like you've got something fantastic to say. I've never taken improv comedy classes, but I think they're quite good for stand-ups and comedic actors alike.
For writers: write write write write write. Read read read read read. A teacher in high school, Catherine Lent, once told me, "When you're stuck, read Neruda." I'd say that when you're stuck writing in a particular format or genre, read something in a different format or genre. It'll kickstart your brain.