Interview: We Chat with YouTube Comedienne Sensation Sara Benincasa.
The first time I saw Sara Benincasa was in her YouTube video series the “Sarah Palin Vlog’s” during the 2008 election where Sara was a spot-on interpretation of Sarah Palin. These Vlog’s were smart and hilarious, and the series received acclaim from viewers becoming a YouTube sensation. Sara’s videos were also praised by CNN, Chicago Tribune, ABCNews, Newsweek, and she won an ECNY (Emerging Comics of New York) for Best Short Comedic Film! Sara Benincasa is a jack of all comedy trades, from hosting her web interview series “Gettin’ Wet with Sara Benincasa”, to hosting her alternative-comedy show “Family Hour with Auntie Sara” at COMIX comedy club, and her current one-woman show “AGORAFABULOUS!”, you will be seeing a lot of this talented comedian!
Cheroc: How did you get started in comedy?
Sara: “When I was pursuing a master’s degree in education at Columbia University’s Teachers College (surely the most creatively-named tertiary school in the world) I took a seminar course that required aspiring teachers to share stories about their days as student teachers. I cried on my first day in seminar, saying, ‘I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know if I want to be a teacher.’
Well, I didn’t want to be a teacher, but I WAS supposed to be there, because I made a friend in the class who had just left a job at Comedy Central. She thought I was funny and that I ought to do stand-up. My first gig was at an all-women comedy show cosponsored by the United Nations and the Rockefeller Foundation. I made $40. I thought this meant you got paid every time you did comedy.
HA! Anyway, I loved it and that got the ball rolling. I also took a course in sketch comedy writing with Kevin Allison of the legendary comedy troupe The State. The course was at the People’s Improv Theater (PIT), where I just completed a run of my one-woman show, AGORAFABULOUS! The PIT is fantastic and the founder, Ali Farahnakian, has built a great comedy community. Kevin is a brilliant teacher and his comedy influenced me hugely when I was in my early teens, so it was incredible to get to take a class with him.”
Sara Benincasa Stand-Up
Cheroc: Your “Sarah Palin Vlog’s” with Diana Saez were hilarious. How were they conceived?
Sara: “On the day McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running-mate, Diana and I spoke with her husband and my then-boyfriend about the absurdity of her public persona. There were just too many things to love: the moose-hunting, the five kids, the strong but quiet hunk of a hubby, the nutty evangelical fundamentalism, the folksy speaking style, the hair.
My God, the hair! The Ethiopian restaurant where we had dinner didn’t have dessert, so we got ice cream and went back to my apartment, where we decided to fuck around with my video camera for fun. At the time, I was the New York reporter for MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign, so I had this camera and editing software MTV had given me. We screwed around with voices, and Diana did my hair and makeup, and we researched a few basic facts about the governor, and then we took it from there and just improvised.
And it took off, partly because I edited it and got it up on YouTube by early Monday morning. There just wasn’t that much Sarah Palin-related content on the web, so lots of stressed-out bloggers and TV producers working on deadline Googled “Sarah Palin” and found our stuff. Jim Newell at Wonkette linked to us, which drove a bunch of traffic. And it just built from there. We put out about 20 videos on our own, averaging nearly one per day, and then we created another 20 or so exclusively for the Huffington Post. We were on CNN, ABCNews.com, and lots of other neat places. I did an interview with the Finnish Broadcasting Company, Finland’s National Public Radio. I got flown to Berlin to speak on a panel about the web, comedy, and politics.
It was a very fun time in our lives, and also a very busy one. I’d shoot MTV web video footage for Choose or Lose during the day, then co-host “Get in Bed” on Sirius XM’s Cosmo Radio at night, then come home and edit more Palin footage and get it up for the morning YouTube rush hour. My then-boyfriend and I lived in a studio apartment, so he’d sleep in the bed and I’d sit cross-legged on the couch with my headphones on.
Juggling the three jobs was tiring, but it was an amazing gift. I was honored by all those crazy opportunities. And improvising with Diana was so much fun. She started out off-camera but eventually started doing her character, Sarah Palin’s imaginary personal assistant Dina Heath-Barr, on-camera. Dina developed a fierce following. People still write to me to ask how “Dina” is doing (incidentally, Diana is now the proud owner of two twinfants.)”
Cheroc: What are your thoughts on becoming an alternative-comedy icon?
Sara: “The first thing that came to mind when I thought of “alternative-comedy icon” was Greek Orthodox iconography. I had a vision of Christ’s last supper as painted by some Greek artist who really liked gold-leaf, only with Patton Oswalt and Maria Bamford and Bill Hicks and Brian Posehn and Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho and Sandra Bernhard and Bob Odenkirk and The State and The Kids in the Hall and Zach Galifianakis and Janeane Garofalo and Laura Kightlinger instead of the disciples. I don’t know who would get to be Jesus.
I’m sorry. Maybe Bill Hicks? The kids, they like that Bill Hicks. Well, I suppose I’d like to become an alternative-comedy icon if it meets I get grouped in with that lot of folks, or with people like Jamie Kilstein and Eugene Mirman and Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal and Reggie Watts and John Mulaney.
So I will work harder and write better jokes and maybe they will let me write their tour riders one day. Reggie will probably require invisible instruments and mythological animals to be provided at each venue, along with the bottled water and the protein bars. Kurt will require a sailor suit, I think. I hope. I feel like he belongs in sailor suits at all times. Jamie will require vegetables, because he is a vegan. He takes the energy normal people reserve for digesting meat and transforms it into political rage. He’s going to take over the world one day.”
Cheroc: Who are some of your comedy influences?
Sara: “Margaret Cho, first and foremost. I used to listen to Margaret’s albums when I was a lonely schoolteacher with the AmeriCorps program out in Las Cruces, NM. I also watched Chris Rock’s “The Kids in the Hall” and “Strangers with Candy.” Amy Sedaris rocks my socks, and so do Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert. I was blown away by their utter and complete commitment to the insane characters they created.
I used to see Patton Oswalt perform at Rififi (RIP) here in New York sometimes. He was great, but I didn’t realize how great Patton was until I started listening to his comedy albums. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I remember being in fifth or sixth grade and watching this Comedy Central interstitial that Kathy Griffin did where she talked about having a deep and loving connection to Lyle Menendez.
I still remember that because her delivery was so her. And in my sweet and innocent youth, I couldn’t believe that someone was making such light and airy jokes about–gasp–a murderer! I thrilled to the weird inappropriateness of it all. Also, she talked about eating raw cookie dough, and at 11 I really related to that desire. And Molly Shannon and Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler just rocked my socks on SNL. So did Mike Myers. I am a huge, huge Mike Myers fan.” concert films during that time.
Cheroc: What lunch table did you sit at in school?
Sara: “Hmmm…I think I sat with the second-tier popular girls, the ones who got invited to the first-tier popular girls’ parties but never got invited to get high in the party-thrower’s bedroom. That sounds about right. In elementary school and middle school I sat with nerds, but by high school I ascended to a more acceptable plane. However, all my real friends were still nerds and geeks and weirdos and freaks. I was just too much of an asshole to sit with them, most of the time. I preferred to social-climb with the other wannabes. I think I got my head out of my ass senior year and turned into more of a human being.”
Cheroc: In your one-woman show “AGORAFABULOUS!” you talk about your experiences with panic attacks. What advice can you give to get past the panic, and to perform.
Sara: “Well, for me, performing has been a wonderful way to get past panic, or at least to work with it and make it my ally rather than my enemy (most of the time). When I perform, I feel strong, because I’m facing down a very common fear: public speaking. So even when the audience isn’t with me, I’ve won some small kind of victory over my demons, because not ONLY did I get out of bed that morning (a feat unto itself), but I ALSO got my ass on a stage and tried to make strangers laugh. To the world at large, it’s rightly insignificant. But for me, in the context of where I’ve been and where I’d like to go, it’s a big deal.
Now if you’re not a performer, or if you are and my feel-good artsy fartsy prescription for dealing with panic doesn’t seem to make sense, I highly recommend checking out Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living. He and Dr. Saki Santorelli developed a stress relief program at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester Medical Center, and it changed my life. Full Catastrophe Living does a great job of explaining the breathing and mental exercise techniques they teach.
It’s not all woo-woo and spooky, although I love woo-woo spooky stuff. They teach you how to interrupt your body’s fight-or-flight response, how to use cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with unwanted or invasive thoughts, and also how to chill the fuck out. They teach all kinds of people with all kinds of painful conditions–physical, mental, the whole kit and caboodle.
The only point is to help people manage their pain. And it’s pretty rad. Some people are born knowing how to chill the fuck out. I needed to learn. Sometimes I forget, and I need to learn it all over again. I also recommend talk therapy and a consultation or sixty with a good psychiatrist who will work with you to try and find the right medication (or not!) for you.
If somebody busts out a prescription pad after a ten-minute session, leave. Or, rather, stay and ask questions. ‘What will this do to me? Why are you recommending this particular drug rather than another? What are some potential side effects? How long has this drug been on the market?’ If you are lucky enough to have health insurance, avoid going to just your general practitioner for a medication consultation. That’s like going to a high school gym coach when you want to train for the Olympics. Sure, that coach might be great and talented and amazing and also sexy like that guy on “Friday Night Lights,” but you want someone who is highly educated in a specialty. You want your own personal Bela Karolyi, except you don’t want him to starve you and make you do endless backflips for Romania.”
Cheroc: How did you get involved with the sex-chat show “Get in Bed” on Cosmo radio?
Sara: “I answered an ad on Craiglist for Maxim Radio, which at the time was a channel on Sirius (this was before Sirius and XM merged). I became a guest, and they just kept having me in. Later I started doing their political channel because I was also a reporter for MTV’s Choose or Lose campaign, and I was doing political comedy with Diana for Huffington Post.
Eventually a spot opened up on Cosmofull-time on-air host for a year now, but I’ve been hanging out at Sirius for two years.” and I started doing demos for that, and after awhile they decided to hire me.
Cheroc: What does your family think about you pursuing a career in comedy?
Sara: “They’re very supportive. They come to the shows–not just my parents and brother, but my cousins, second-cousins, third-cousins, aunts, uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles too. I was talking to my cousin Michael, who is a visual and performance artist, and we were remarking about how supportive our family is, even when the shit we do is really off-the-wall. It’s really great. I appreciate it a LOT.”
Cheroc: How was your experience interviewing Margaret Cho in your bathtub for your web series “Gettin’ Wet with Sara Benincasa”?
Sara: “It was great! Margaret is very kind and cool and it was really nice of her to get in a tub with me. I wore my old baton-twirling costume from 7th grade and she wore her array of beautiful tattoos.”
Cheroc: What do you hope to achieve through your comedy?
Sara:“I’d like to make people feel like they’re not alone in feeling weird and lonely and fucked-up sometimes. It’s a tall order. But there has to be a reason I’m telling these stories, and I think that’s it.”
Cheroc: What’s on the horizon for Sara Benincasa in 2009?
Sara: “Well, I’m looking forward to spending Labor Day weekend performing with Margaret Cho in Provincetown. I’ve got AGORAFABULOUS! tour dates in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
I’m looking at another NC show and hopefully something in D.C. as well. Definitely some more NYC shows, as it’s my homebase. Diana Saez and I are planning a new webseries, and I’ve got a book proposal to finish. It’s called AGORAFABULOUS! and it’s a book version of the show, or maybe the show is a stage version of the book.
My literary agent and I hope to make money by bringing even more panic attack-related hilarity to the people. And I need to get up to Toronto at some point to see family and do shows. I think I need a new therapist and I should probably go back on birth control, also. I need to get a tooth crowned. I’m thinking of going to the gym a few times. These are goals.”
Sara Benincasa Interview Copyright © Bloginity Networks LLC
*THANKS* to Sara Benincasa for taking time out of her jam-packed schedule to grant me this fabulous in-depth interview! You can get up-to-date info. about Sara’s upcoming shows, videos, and more at SaraBenincasa.com.