Broadly's Monica Heisey Will Teach You How to be Funny
Aspiring comedians today have it rough. The goal is to get a laugh out of someone who isn’t your father. The reality, however, is far grimmer. How grim, you might be wondering? One can’t say for certain. All I know is there are an inordinate number of guys on dating apps whose main photos are of them doing stand-up. And while I’m not saying they’re all not funny, I did recently encounter one who described his ilk of humor as “Woody Allen minus the pedophilia.”
In an industry that’s oversaturated with barely eligible comedians, Monica Heisey is the light at the end of the Holland Tunnel. When I’m having a bad morning, feeling particularly fuzzy, or just due for a nice guffaw, the first thing I do is type in “Monica Heisey” on Google and then read for the duration of four excruciating subway stops. Ashamed as I am to admit it, I only discovered Monica’s work a couple months ago. It was a burrito-themed story that got me hooked, and her hard-line stance on cropped flared pants that held me rapt (“Designed at no one’s request with no one in mind, these look good on no one and contribute nothing to any ensemble. Pop a pair of these on and you will have cold shins and wide calves”). Since then, I’ve found solace in her sedentary lifestyle, and just a general quietude in her admirably self-assured Irish goodbyes.
Born and raised in Canada, Monica got her Master’s degree in Shakespearean literature while in England, before transitioning into comedy, performing live and getting paid to write humor pieces. The author of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better: A Woman’s Guide to Coping With Life, Monica is now working as the Editor-at-Large of Broadly and teaching a course in humor writing. She just finished writing on CBC’s Schitt’s Creek, the first narrative TV comedy she’s worked on, and recently came out with a short film entitled Rest Stop; she’s now working on adapting it into a feature. Peep the short film below, and then read on to find out Monica’s least favorite word, some of her teaching techniques, and some things that, in her opinion, will always be funny (I’ll give you a hint—they’re mayors).
So, you’re the Editor-at-Large of Broadly. How’s that going?
Yeah! It’s been really exciting to be able to work with a group of people on something from the beginning. Tracie [Egan Morrisey] and I had a little chat about it in the very early stages, and I was in Canada so [I wasn’t] as involved, but it was so fascinating to watch it become what it is now. Being able to see something so exciting take shape, and then contribute to it, was awesome.
And you work remotely, out of Canada. Have you ever considered moving to New York?
No, I was going to move to New York initially to work with Broadly, and then Visa stuff got kind of complicated. I had just moved back from almost five years in London and was pretty pleased to stay in Toronto. It’s good here, ask Drake.
Oh I would (if I could). So do you ever get scared doing stand-up?
The first time that I did stand-up, I cried, like, twice the day that I was supposed to do it. I was planning on canceling right up until I actually got on stage and did it, which I’ve heard from other people in the same situations is extremely common. It’s really scary to stand up in front of people and say, like, “Not only do I think this is funny, but I thought that you would agree.” [Laughs]. That’s a really vulnerable thing to do, but it’s also good practice in staring down what’s scary about creating.
I’ve been seeing a lot of guys on dating apps whose photos are of them doing stand-up. Have you noticed that?
Stand-up comedians on Tinder always use the pic of them with the microphone. I feel like it’s such a red flag! [Laughs] There’s nothing wrong with being a stand-up comedian, or being male, or being both, but for some reason the intersection of stand-up comedy in-action on Tinder is just probably going to be a bad time.
“It’s really funny to see someone that you know has been working so hard for, like, six or seven years be described as “up-and-coming.”
Yes, absolutely. How do you feel when people try to give you suggestions for jokes?
I mean, my family frequently suggests things I should joke about or things that I should write about and I feel like they get a bit of a free pass. And then, you know, it’s kind of a case-by-case thing. Some people offer interesting things to explore for a storyline and then that’s worth it, but I don’t want to send the message that you should just be approaching people who are comedians at a party and telling them what a good joke would be—that’s a super annoying habit.
I agree. My dad loves to do that. Is there a particular word or phrase that you can’t stand?
I think the word “up-and-coming” is misused a lot. Especially in the comedy community, it’s really funny to see someone that you know has been working so hard for, like, six or seven years be described as “up-and-coming,” when they’ve been really respected and well-known among their peers for years. I don’t really know what the barometer is for “up-and-coming” because it seems to be applied equally between people who just got Twitter and are making some funny jokes on there, and people who’ve been working for years. It’s just a pretty vague phrase. I dislike vagaries!
That’s very true. Also, very glad you mentioned that because the first word in my next question was literally going to be “up-and-coming.”
[Cries] Who are your favorite comedians right now?
Oh man! I have so many. America is obviously full of amazing comedians, but within Canada it’s really exciting. My friend Evany Rosen is an amazing stand-up and writer. Jackie Pirico is fully bonkers in the best way, and I hosted a night recently where Aisha Brown just murdered everyone with this poem about an anxiety hawk. Within the wider world, if anyone’s stressing out about male comics, send them to Josh Gondelman. He’s a great, funny dude who is also extremely supportive of other comedians—women in particular. A lot of comics I like aren’t necessarily stand-up comedians but writers, so like Anna Fitzpatrick or Kelly Conaboy or Jamie Keiles are really funny writers whose stuff I mostly experience by reading it, but who make me laugh all the time.
Cool. And I know that you’re teaching a course in humor writing. What are some of the big lessons you try to impart to your students?
It’s been really interesting putting the material together for that class because aside from answering more obvious questions like, “What does a good pitch email look like?” I had to really sit down and think about what makes a humor piece, like, humorous. Or how to make a piece that’s not as funny as you want it to be more funny. It was really helpful for me, in addition to making the course materials, to look at the things that have worked for me and try to figure out what’s a general tip that works for anyone and what’s a weird Me thing.
I had the first class a month ago and the next one is coming up in April, and it was great to talk to everyone about their preexisting writing strategies, and to introduce some new ones by explaining what I do. One of my favorite things we did is write a list together of things that always make us laugh, because knowing what makes you laugh, I think, is the first step to making other people laugh. [For instance,] I feel like bees are literally always funny, being the mayor of somewhere is always funny. It’s the funniest political office you can hold.
“But I’m sure there are, like, one or two well-adjusted comedians in the world and I’m very happy for them.”
You know what? I couldn’t agree more. And I read that you have a twin sister. Is she funny too?
She’s totally funny! She’s super supportive of my stuff, and she always brings her beautiful, well-groomed friends to my shows. Both of my sisters are nurses, so it makes it a bit hard to take my job seriously. A hard day for me is, like, I really couldn’t crack this green juice takedown. If I tell [my sister] Alice I had a hard day, she’s so sweet, she’ll try to empathize [with me, and say things] like, “I had a stressful day too, this guy went into cardiac arrest…” And then [I’m] like, “Oh, I don’t want to say my thing.”
[Laughs] And do you ever feel like crippling anxiety is sort of a prerequisite for being a comedian?
[Laughs] It certainly seems that way. I guess it’s a chicken-or-egg situation, right? A lot of the time humor is a coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety or discomfort, so people who are naturally anxious maybe gravitate toward something that lets them lessen their anxiety comfortably. But I’m sure there are, like, one or two well-adjusted comedians in the world and I’m very happy for them.
Do you ever find yourself lying about stuff in order to make a joke work?
I don’t outright lie, but I do find, onstage, that it’s a little easier to massage the truth or link events that happened separately but that are funnier if you put them together. I think that’s pretty common. Something about writing things down in print makes me not want to embellish or change details, even if it would rev up the story I’m telling. I don’t know what the difference is—something about the finality of print I guess.
Yeah it’s definitely a fine line. The reason why I ask is because I was wondering if that story in your book about getting your heart broken and then immediately falling in love again with a burrito really happened?
Oh that big-time happened; that’s very real. And that’s the other thing—you don’t really need to lie because the events of your real life, if you can figure out which ones are worth talking about, will be just as strange or funny or tragic as anything you could make up.
Couldn’t agree more. And the blurbs for your book are pretty illustrious—how did you land ones from Lena Dunham and Rob Delaney?
The Internet connected me with both of those people, actually, and they are just really kind, giving people.
I met Rob through Twitter and we only ever really communicated on Twitter, and I just sent him my book and I was like “Please…” and he was very kind. And I met Lena the same way. She liked something that I wrote for The Hairpin and sent me a really nice email about it. It was freakishly cool. The idea of either of them reading my book literally makes me want to puke from nervousness, so the fact that they had nice things to say about it is just really unbelievable to me.
Photos taken exclusively for Milk by Maya Fuhr, and courtesy of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better.
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