I may have only talked to Emily Duke for half-an-hour, half-asleep, on a rainy Thursday morning, but her warmth and wit made me wish she was the older sister I never had. To be honest, I do actually have an older sister, but she is not nearly as hilariously brash as Emily, who called me bitch within the first twenty minutes of talking! Twice! I loved it. The jack-of-all-trades comedian has dipped her toes more times than one in the pee-ridden kiddie pool that I’m assuming is the New York comedy scene, doing everything from stand-up, to writing satire, to having her own web series, to (yup, I’m not done), even hosting her own podcast. Emily Duke is every young woman on a college improv team’s overworked hero.
An anomaly in the New York comedy scene, Duke and I spoke about her commitment to giving a voice to those typically excluded from the industry with her monthly stand-up show, Canal Yards Project. And while Duke loves listening to burgeoning comedians’ tapes, and hearing from those courageous enough to put themselves out there, she rarely will book a straight, white man to perform (ugh, that’s my president). Canal Yards Project goes up the last Friday of every month at Industry City in Brooklyn - aka this Friday. Get on that.
Duke’s comedic style is unapologetically scathing -- whether she is roasting herself, her husband, or the diet industrial complex. As a feminist comic, Duke’s jokes are socially relevant, trying first and foremost to make people laugh, and then to make people think a little bit more critically about the world around them. In a cesspool of straight, white male comedians who genuinely think apolitical humor is the only form of “pure” comedy, Duke is incredibly refreshing - and gloriously funny. In the first season of her web-series, Garbage People, Duke and Matthew Scott tackle everything from tinder, to early onset alcoholism (but, like in a funny way) through entirely improvised scenes. The Webfest selection has its scripted season two premiering this Thursday, June 27th.
BUST was lucky enough to catch up with Emily Duke on her self-professed attention-seeking addiction, her upcoming hour-long special, and why liberals need to reclaim the devil. Check out the interview below!
How did you first get into comedy?
Getting into comedy is interesting [laughs]. I’ve always prided being a funny person, and comedy has always been very important in my life. I started off kind of seeing it as a fun outlet, and a means of getting attention when my friends were unavailable. I was like, oh great, I can just get attention from strangers, what a fun thing to do! I then started taking it much more seriously after talking to more people in the industry and realized that this is actually something people do for a living. I didn’t grow up around a lot of people in creative careers, so I didn’t think about it as an option. As soon as it occurred to me, like people actually do this incredibly fun thing for a living, then I was like, okay, let’s do this.
You do so many different varieties of comedy! Stand-up, writing, your web-series, Garbage People, and your podcast - is there a form that you like best, or that you feel is best suited to your comedic style?
I love them all in very different ways. I think they all really feed each other. If I were in a sketch, and something’s not really hitting, I’ll try and make it a joke in my stand-up. If I mention something in a stand-up set, and it’s not really hitting, I’ll try and write a parody article for Reductress, or whatever. If that’s not working, I’ll talk to my web-series partner about it. It’s really just a matter of what the idea is. I think my favorite would probably be my web series, just because I get to work with other people. I’m not somebody who likes sitting alone in a room and writing. People don’t realize that that’s a really big percentage of what stand-up comedy is. So, probably my web series, but honestly, it’s like choosing between my babies. I can’t.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist comic?
Emily: Absolutely. I one-hundred percent consider myself a feminist. I also consider myself a comic, so in that way, yes, I have to be. I don’t set out in my comedy to change people’s perception super actively. It’s something I would like to do, and something I strive to do, but to say that I’ve done that already, at this point in my career, is a little bit inaccurate. It’s more so that I speak from my perspective, and my perspective is hugely feminist. I think I very unapologetically speak to issues that only women are going to feel and understand - or at least will understand more so. A lot of my comedy has to do with reproductive health, and the diet industrial complex - things that are going to resonate more with a female audience. That’s not something that I shy away from. And if I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, that’s fine. At this point in my career, I would say I’m speaking to women. I would love to get to the point where I’m speaking to everyone about the importance of women, but as of right now it’s just a matter of getting the content out there that I think deserves a voice.
Your stand-up and your web series balance this self-deprecating, self-aware humor, with scathing social commentary on everything millennial and Gen Z, making everyone the butt of the joke. Does finding humor in everyone and everything, including yourself, open more doors for humor? Is that balance intentional?
Yeah, absolutely. I think everything is funny, and I don’t want to say that I don’t see value in things that aren’t funny, because sure I do. But I find comedy so important, because the most important things to me are connections with other people, and real, pure joy. I’m somebody who spent my whole life making jokes about largely myself, because I’m a big advocate of “don’t punch down,” as I think all feminist comics are. Making jokes about other people is a very dangerous game when you can’t speak really eloquently to their experience. But at the same time, I don’t think there can be any humor without acknowledging that we’re all living in a shared social experience. It would be impossible to make jokes about my eating disorder without not talking about the diet industrial complex, and how that has impacted me. If anything is a goal of mine, from a comedy perspective, it is to speak to a wider social experience. Somebody that is a huge inspiration to me, and definitely my favorite comedian, and who is probably the most supportive woman in comedy, is Jen Kirkman. Her ability to speak to her experience and broaden it to a more human experience is incredibly astounding, and is such a goal of mine. So, the short answer is, I don't think you can really talk about anything without relating it to society at large.
What is it like moving through the industry and seeking legitimacy and success as a female comedian?
It’s work. It’s hard, it’s grueling. There is certainly an element that women have been socialized to be less likely to advocate for themselves. Not that women don’t do it, I know a lot of incredible women who do, but there is a lot of socialization that turns women away from that. There is a huge difference in the experience women have, and the threats that women are facing on a daily basis, so being able to go out there, and be so in yourself, and so raw, to believe that you’re funny, and advocate for yourself is hard for women in many ways. Not just women, but POC, lgbtq+, there’s a lot of people that are facing that. Historically you’ve heard that there aren't many seats at the table so there’s this idea that if this woman gets this job, then I don’t get this job, but I think that’s really melting away, which is incredible. Comedy can be, at it’s worst, really insular. People give platforms to those that are already starting to get momentum, so that initial drive is really challenging and stressful as fuck. But you have to just keep pushing. You have to knock down every door because some incredible people really are open to considering you. Don't let the ones that won't get you down. Personally, I think just giving myself permission to believe that I’m good, that I’m funny, that I’m worthy, and going out there, and continuing to do it, and not extrapolating wildly if I don’t get something. Everything depends on the environment and the stage, and to be totally transparent, my comedy world is largely women. I’ve certainly been the only woman in shows before, like last weekend, and been like hey, I’m the token broad here to talk about my IUDs, let’s get on board. But in general that’s just not the case for me.
Garbage People premieres next week, and you mentioned that you have a special that you’re doing later this summer. What are you most excited about for those two things?
Attention, for both of them. Attention gives me value. I had a conversation with my therapist about the fact that, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? I feel that way but I'm alone in the woods, and I’m screaming, I don’t think I’m making a sound. Call it weird, maybe it’s a part of my mental illness, but I think connecting with people is the only thing that gives human beings value. Maybe that makes me nuts, a people pleaser, and super insufferable to be around, but that’s what I believe. Ultimately all I want is for people to laugh, for people to be happy, and I would love to make people think critically about some things and leave with sort of a wistful smile and a tip of the hat, and sort of be like wow, maybe society is not its problems. I’m somebody that over analyzes and over explicates things -- it’s really limited the kind of material that I can do, because a joke is, at its core, a setup punch. Especially when you’re doing ten minutes, you can’t give the full context of something that you might want to. So having a longer time to bring people on a mental journey on a specific topic, it’s going to be really amazing. It’s like, okay, we’ve all committed to sitting here for an hour, you live here now, I’m sorry, just look at me. I think I will give me a little bit more freedom.
Do you have any advice for young women, or just young people in general, who are interested in comedy, but may have not had the same doors opened for them compared to your average straight white man?
The best piece I ever got came from Jen [Kirkman]: “You are a comic.” She wrote it to me years ago at a book signing, long before I thought it or would even consider saying it. No one is going to give you a badge saying congrats you’re a comic now. You just decide you are one and go from there. Find some people that will advocate for you. And be open to everyone - even if they’re not super successful, or you don’t think your work would resonate with their comedy, still reach out to people and put yourself out there. And listen to them and their work! Get on stage - that’s the advice I just gave my nail artist who is even considering getting into stand-up - I just had a very long conversation with her about it [Laughter]. I think my advice would differ based on who’s asking. There are a lot of people who are really good at comedy and want to get into it, but are not funny in their everyday lives. Which was definitely not my experience, I was the most popular camper in 2002 - definitely do a call out for that - I was really popular my whole life. I know how to speak to those people. If you’re the funniest person in the room, go see what you can do. It’s 2019, bitch! Fucking take a video of yourself and put it on Instagram and if two people watch it that’s great, you know that’s two people that had a better day because of you. Have no shame. At all. Shame is the devil’s plaything. I’m taking back shame. Republicans now are claiming the troops and the American flag, I think liberals should take back--
Yeah. The devil. I think liberals should take back the devil. It started with “Not Today Satan”, which that’s really helped us. Shame is the devil’s plaything so - don’t do it.
Top photo via emilydukecomedy.com
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Gracie Western is an editorial intern for BUST. She is currently an undergraduate, seeking a B.A. in Sociology and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She may be the only person in the world whose unfixable computer virus is not from porn, but from illegally streaming the 2018 Winter Olympics.