Last year, actress-comedian-writer-musician Charlyne Yi won a screenwriting award at Sundance for the film Paper Heart, in which she plays a character named Charlyne Yi who sets out to make a documentary about the meaning of love and falls for a character named Michael Cera, played, of course, by the lovable actor Michael Cera. Rumors spread that Yi and Cera were a couple in real life, but they never were. The confusion was just more proof of Yi’s expert ability to blur the line between reality and fiction so well that no one knows when she’s telling the truth and when she’s joking.
After a couple years off from regularly performing on stage, Yi is back with a new solo show, A Little Time With Charlyne Yi, which she’s taking to the prestigious Edinburgh Festival next month. Tonight and next Wednesday, July 21, she’ll be her testing it out at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. (Advance reservations for both performances are booked, but there will be a stand-by line at the door.) In the run-up to the show, the Los Angeles resident took time out to tell us about her upcoming poetry book, her recent decision to shave her head onstage, and why she thinks she has no idea how to do comedy.
So you’re coming to New York to try out your new show, A Little Time with Charlyne Yi, before taking it to the Edinburgh Festival. When was the last time you performed here?
Maybe, uh–wow, holy crap!–maybe it was the first time I ever flew. I was 18 or 19 and it was the first time I ever left California besides going to Mexico because my abuelita lives in Mexico. New York was awesome.
Are New York crowds different from L.A. crowds?
Supposedly New York is better. L.A. is kind of stiff and New York is more warm. I don’t know if I believe that. I think every audience is different. Chicago hated me. They like hated me so much.
Oh no! Why?
I opened for this guy, who does just straight stand-up, and what I do is a lot different from him. I do magic and songs and silly stuff, where it’s almost like a child performing. [Laughs.] So, before the show, he was like, “Watch out for the drunk crowds. The drunk crowds are really mean and the sober crowds are great.” But then, the drunk crowds liked me, but the sober crowds hated me. They were, like, booing me! And it was so shocking. I’d dealt with stuff like that in the past, like, when I was first starting out because I sucked really bad. But it was so shocking. I have no idea how to react to stuff like that.
What do you do when the crowd doesn’t seem to be warming up to you? Is there anything you can do to save the show?
I have no idea. I’ve realized that some people who are heckling in the audience, they don’t know that they’re hurting the show because, if they’re drunk, they think that maybe they’re contributing. I remember one time I was so mad at this guy who was heckling the whole time, and after the show he was like, “Hey man, good job! That was fun!” And I was like, Wow! He didn’t know that he was making me angry. He actually really loved the show.
What can we expect from this new show?
It’s a bit of a variety show with music. I just did it in L.A. at UCB. Some of my friends were like, “Whoa, that was pretty emotional at times.” And they didn’t know if they were allowed to laugh. I like making people embarrassed to laugh because they’re unsure about what’s going on.
Will there be a chance for audience participation?
I usually do that, but I heard that in Edinburgh people will not come near a show because of that, supposedly. I used to do whole shows where it all relied on an audience member. But, in this show, there is a bit where I’ll talk to them and go off stage and interact with them. But it’s not anything heavy where the show would rely on them or where I would go on a date with them on stage.
Do you write a lot of material beforehand and do you revise a lot?
I do write some material, but I leave a lot of wiggle room to experiment and improvise because sometimes I don’t like the idea of it sounding so scripted. And I usually don’t really say the same thing twice. Especially if I’m going to do this in Edinburgh for a month. I think it would drive me insane to say the same exact words over and over.
You said in an interview: “Sometimes I don’t know I’m being funny. Like, I don’t understand comedy.” Explain this.
Before I did my test show last Friday, I was talking to my roommate [comedian Dave Horwitz] because I wrote some new material. And I was like, “Dave, I don’t know if this new material is going to go over well. I don’t know if this material is sad or funny, or funny because it’s sad.” And he was like, “That’s what I love about you, you don’t know what you’re doing.” And I’m like, “What does that mean?” And he was like, “No, it’s good you don’t understand it and that you’re happy either way. You’re just happy you made people feel something.” And I’m like, “It’s true, I do like making people feel things.” And, I don’t know, I really have no idea how to figure out if something is funny.
I read that you used to have terrible stage fright. How did you get over it?
I’m not over it! I’m always scared before a show. I’m like, to my friends, “Ugh, I’m going to be sick! What if no one shows up?” Because, you just want them to like you, especially if you’re doing an hour show. If they don’t like you in the first five minutes, you’re fucked if you can’t win them over. It’s just so terrifying. I’ve seen bad comedy, where it hurts my chest to listen, and I never want to do that to anyone. If someone hates my material I’m like, “Oh no! I’m so sorry. I don’t want to inflict pain on you.” So that makes me so much more nervous, too, because I’m, like, Oh god, I hope they like me, and I hope I’m not hurting them.
You dropped out of college to go into comedy. Was that a tough choice?
I was kind of broke. So, it was hard to pay for it. I was sneaking into college for a bit.
Yeah, I couldn’t afford it, so I was sneaking into my theater class, which I really liked a lot. My professor knew I was sneaking into his class. I felt like I only went to college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
How many years were you in college [at UC Riverside] for?
I paid for college for two quarters and I snuck in the other two quarters. It was the one point in my life where it was like this big depression. I worked at Walmart, which is a terrible job, snuck into class, and drove to L.A. a lot [to perform]. One day I went to an open mike in L.A. and there were only eight comics in the audience, and when they announced my name, all of them walked out because I was a girl. I was so mad because I drove like two and a half hours to perform and these comics wouldn’t even watch me. So, I went on stage and I performed to the silhouette of a sound guy who was really far away.
As I was driving home I was like, Oh my god, I’m so pathetic. I’m not in school–I mean, I am in school because I sneak into it–but I’m not in school and I work at Wal-Mart and I’m performing for one guy in a sound booth who’s probably not even watching. And I was crying. And then I went to class the next day, and my professor, who usually talked about what movie you saw during the weekend, for some reason, out of nowhere, he was like, “No one cares if you ever perform again.” And I remember looking up and thinking, “Is he talking to me?” And he was like, “The only person you hurt is yourself if you never perform. So, you have to care.” And I was like, Yeah, it’s so ridiculous to rely on people to encourage you because the only person you hurt is yourself. It’s not going to matter to anyone else if you never perform. And that completely changed my perspective. So whenever I do bad, it just makes me want to go back up so I can feel good and like, try to, um, I was going to say “create victory,” but I realize that’s a terrible sentence.
I saw that you recently shaved your head onstage while singing “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Oh man, it took so long. I thought it was going to be fast but my friend didn’t know how to use the clippers. It was on the wrong setting and it was hurting a lot because it was on slow, I guess, and I never shaved my head, so I didn’t know what it felt like. Finally my dad had to come up on stage and fix the clippers and shave it for me.
What made you decide to do this?
I’ve always wanted to shave my head just in general, and I thought that it would be really funny to do it on stage while singing Sinead O’Connor, which kind of didn’t really happen too smoothly because I was concerned that the clippers weren’t working. And then I thought it would be funny afterward to be like, “Oh guys, don’t worry, it’s only a wig. I shaved the wig and this is a bald cap.” And I did that and people were confused if it was a bald cap. I think I like confusing people about reality.
Do you think people are treating you differently with a shaved head?
I think I’m more intimidating. [Laughs.] My friends haven’t treated me differently, but strangers have. I think I used to get away with more things because people thought I was a young girl, and now sometimes people are confused about what sex I am. I’m not offended at all. [Laughs.] When I dress in a T-shirt and jeans, I look like a little boy. I’ve been trying to wear dresses a lot, but I don’t have that many. And it starts to smell if I wear the same one.
How do you like the dresses compared to your usual T-shirt and pants?
I always secretly liked dresses, but I hated them because they didn’t have pockets. But I found some with pockets, and it’s so exciting! I hate the idea of having to wear a purse. I don’t like carrying things. I’m just a minimalist. I’m also, to be honest, afraid of femininity sometimes. I hang out with guys all the time. But then, my guy friends have bags. I think they’re more womanly than me.
Do you find that it’s harder to be a woman in comedy?
I think unfortunately that there are more men doing it than women and they’ve taken over. I don’t know why there’s so few women. They’re out there. I don’t know if it makes it more difficult. I do feel like there is this weird opinion about women and the generic comedy–and there’s generic comedy with men too–that’s like disgusting. I hate those jokes where women talk about their periods. [Laughs.] There is this stereotypical tacky dreadful comedian of both sexes. Sometimes I ask people, “What did you think when I came up?” And they’re like, “Yeah, we thought, Oh god, we hope this woman’s good.” But I have no idea why it’s like that or if it’s harder. I know it made it really uncomfortable when I realized those male comedians walked out on me because I’m a girl. But I don’t really do girl comedy, I don’t think.
Given that your dad shaved your head at your show, I’m guessing your parents must be really supportive of your career.
Yeah, they didn’t get to do what they wanted to do because they had to get jobs to survive. So, when I quit college–my parents cuss a lot, so I’m going to cuss right now– they said, “If we see you fucking up, then we’ll tell you something. But just go after your dreams and don’t regret it.” It wasn’t like, you have to be in college. It was like, just try what you want to do and see if you like it, and hopefully you’ll get there.
I hear you’re writing a movie for Judd Apatow.
Me and my friend Paul Rust wrote it. We’ll see what becomes of it. But if nothing becomes of it, I don’t have all my eggs in one basket I suppose. [Laughs.] I’ve never said that expression before. That was really weird.
What else are you working on now?
I’m writing a poetry book that’s really pretentious, but I’m going to try to pretend like it’s not pretentious. I’m going to have a turtleneck on the cover, and it’s going to say The Twisted Mind of Charlyne Yi. [Laughs.] It’s really disgusting poetry, where maybe sometimes it’s sincere or sometimes it’s like, “Ugh! What is this? She is so full of herself!” So, that’s one side project. I’ve also been doing a lot of music lately, which is so exciting. I love being in a band [The Old Lumps], and I think we’re going to try to start a wedding band, so we can start performing at weddings. With my friend, I’m writing cartoons inspired by Merry Melodies. I think when I was a kid I thought you had to pick one occupation. And that’s just not true. And it’s so exciting that that’s not true.