Emily Heller on Swifties, Women's History Month, and Never Reading the Comments

Emily Heller (Jean Ho)

The first time I saw Emily Heller's sweetly acerbic, totally self-deprecating, 100 percent hilarious standup, it was in 2013, with her debut on Conan -- and at the risk of sounding over-the-top, it felt triumphant. This was pre-Broad City, mind you; regular girls who were dorky, smoked weed, and called the world like they saw it were not exactly the talk of the televised town.

Fast forward just three years, and Heller, an Alameda native and UC Santa Cruz alum who now lives in LA, is enjoying a well-deserved rise to fame. Her acting and writing credits include Inside Amy Schumer, Chelsea Lately, BoJack Horseman, Ground Floor and more, while her first album, Good For Her, was released by Kill Rockstars in November.

Heller returns home to do three nights at the Punch Line in San Francisco next week, March 17 - 19, as she has many times before, for the club's slate of all-female lineups for Women's History Month. So we called her up to chat.

KQED Pop: Happy Women’s History Month! How are you celebrating?

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Emily Heller: Thank you! Well, it’s one of those things where like, there’s not a Women’s History Month festival, right? Lilith Fair is in the summer, so I don’t know what the other traditions are.

I mean, look, it’s the broadest category in the world, it’s half the people on the planet. But the Punch Line show...it is nice, as a comedian, that Women’s History Month is there once a year to say “Hey, here’s a way to market this.” It's great that they do all-women features. I think a lot of people don’t like all-female lineups, but I can say that as a performer, nothing makes me feel like women onstage are diverse than having us be the only ones up there. Because you do get kind of freed from feeling like you’re representing your gender, which can happen when you’re the only female comic in a lineup.

You have a bit on the album about feminism and its marketing problem, and I know you've been doing it for a while. I’m curious if and how that joke has changed over the years?

When I wrote that joke, I wasn’t thinking about ‘Oh, I’m gonna talk about something that’s gonna be really divisive.’ I had just started standup, just moved to San Francisco after being at UC Santa Cruz, and the thought didn’t cross my mind that talking about [feminism] would be weird to anyone. It is interesting, because in the years since I first started telling that joke, it’s gotten harder and harder to perform it, and that’s great, because it’s a joke that contends with people having trouble with the idea of feminism. It’s getting destigmatized by our culture now.

You did an installment of The AV Club’s HateSong, where you talked about how Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” drives you crazy. Because it’s Taylor Swift, and because it’s the Internet, I’m assuming you got a ton of sh*t for that?

I got so much sh*t for that. I’m less careful with my words in a phone interview than I am in person, so I felt kinda bad about the way some things were worded. Having said that, I still think that song is, like, brutally anti-feminist. I do hate it for that reason. That said, I do sing along to it when it comes on, and I do love that she’s giving Kesha money right now. I love that feminism is now a commercially viable position for pop stars to take.

So what did you hear from the Swifties?

Oh, they came after me on Instagram. They came after me on Twitter. One of them pretended to be me on Twitter -- they started a fake Emily Heller Twitter account, and it was very confusing because they kept switching from speaking in the first person to the third person. I got them suspended so I can’t look it up, and I don’t remember the exact wording but it was, like, stuff about how I’ll s**k a d**k for 25 cents.

Wow.

[Laughs.] Yeah. It was tight. I was like, wow, they really nailed my brand. How is anyone gonna know this isn’t me?

Do you have a thick skin for that kind of thing, having been in the public eye for a bit now? It seems like an unfortunate reality for women whose work is on the Internet. 

No, I’m a sensitive little flower. I mean, I act kinda tough, and I know objectively that most people on the Internet are doing an impression of themselves at their worst, so I know better than to take it seriously. At the same time, that stuff will keep me up at night. Any clip on the Internet of a woman doing standup is gonna have comments on it saying “women aren’t funny,” and it’s just tiresome. What I take harder is people I respect -- if someone smart is disagreeing with me on something. I didn’t care about the Taylor Swift fans who got mad at me for that article; they were at least taking me the right way. But if someone is thinking I’m anti-feminist?

It’s really hard for me to deal with Internet comments. I stopped reading YouTube comments years ago; I installed a blocker because I don't even have the self-control not to read them. I do feel like being a little bit more public has kind of motivated me to check out of the national conversation at times, which could be good and could be bad. There are days when I feel like I can handle seeing how horrible the world is and days when I can’t -- I kind of think every time you sign into the Internet, you should be able to opt out of different things based on how capable you feel that day. Like “yes, I can handle that,” or “no, I can’t, just show me puppies.”

I would use that. That would do really well.

Silicon Valley! I know you’re reading this. Someone out there with money: Let’s make it happen.

I saw you open for Broad City when they were in San Francisco with their live show in 2014. How did that come about?

I love those girls a lot, and that is quite possibly my favorite show on television. They knew I was gonna be in town for Thanksgiving, so it worked out. It has been really cool to see how much people are responding to that show -- I remember it wasn’t that long ago that if you wanted to sell a show to Comedy Central with women in front, it was an uphill battle.

I’m sure you’re sick of hearing questions like “So! Regular girls on TV, who smoke pot…!” But it is interesting to me that it seems like this dam just burst in the past couple of years with cool young women in comedy getting high-profile time slots, their own shows, etc. Do you have any sense of what caused the shift?

I think if you’re a person in the real world, with your eyes open, you of course know those people exist. But most people who work in television aren’t in the real world! ...It’s my feeling that other women are making it happen [for those on their way up]. That show [Broad City] was produced by Amy Poehler, and Amy Poehler made it happen. I mean, obviously those girls are great and they made a great pilot, but you need people above you in the industry who are interested in being that person. And I think we’re just getting to a point now where there are enough successful women who are in a place to do that.

A question I ask all Bay Area natives: Where do you make sure to go when you’re home?

There’s a burrito place called Taqueria Ramiro and Sons in Alameda -- we just called it the burrito place growing up -- but yeah, that’s a must. I’m a sucker for all of the Golden Lotus vegetarian restaurants run by that one cult. I like seeing my parents. Oh, and sometimes I hang out with my debate coach from high school. Lexi, if you’re reading this, I expect you to be there.

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Emily Heller performs at the Punch Line Comedy Club in San Francisco from March 15 - 27. For tickets and more information, visit www.punchlinecomedyclub.com.

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