1. How did you land the Funny Women gig at The Rumpus?
I’ll begin by saying this is the first time anyone has interviewed me, so I want to be smart, clever, and charming. (ed. Consider yourself successful.) If I am anything less than that, please omit what I’ve said. More to the point, I didn’t “land”Â the Funny Women gig at so much as created it in its entirety.
This is how it all happened: one day I was riding my bike to a job I hated (I remember this moment clearly) and thinking about everything I could do if I didn’t have to get paid to be a robot. I had two ideas: (1) sleep forever, or (2) Â start a revolution about women being hilarious. I began locally, writing about the very funny women of McSweeneys.net. During my lunch break that day, I collected my favorite pieces by women and noticed how few women published in proportion to men. I Googled “women aren’t funny,”Â and an article by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair came up first. That dude pisses me off. I made another list, this time focusing on the “Shouts & Murmurs” section of the New Yorker, where the female-to-male publication ratio is even worse, way worse.
I have unbounded power at The Rumpus, so I created a space for women that would be encouraging, inspiring, and ceaselessly enjoyable.
I hope one day Funny Women will be a book, with original humor writing by women and illustrated by women and purchased by millions of women. This is not to exclude men (they can design the book if they want). It’s important for women to have a funny space of their own.
2. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but the question is still interesting to me. Why is there a perception that women aren’t funny?
A lot of women aren’t funny. A lot of men aren’t funny, intentionally. The question should be: why is there a perception everyone’s funny? It’s hard to be funny; I’ve submitted hundreds of humor pieces, and I’ve never not been rejected.
Being funny requires putting yourself out there and allowing yourself to be mortified and/or shunned. It also often requires using your body, and women are taught to use their body to get people to think they’re sexy, not funny. Very few of us get to be both.
There is also this thing going on called sexism. Women are funny, but there are more women making important decisions on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing celebrity jokes for Â Late Show with David Letterman, The Jay Leno Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien combined. Out of all the comedy writers working on these programs, zero have (to misremember Freud) “a gaping chasm.”Â It’s not that women aren’t funny; it’s that they aren’t hired as much as men or don’t apply as often as men because they’re maybe afraid of being had sex with and/or having to say no all the time (can you imagine?!). Like my mother says when she’s talking to me about dating: men are probably intimidated. But I don’t think the solution is to not work with women. I know it’s hard not to have sex with us, especially in the workplace, but it can be done (trust me, I know).
On a more serious note, I don’t think women have enough space for expression. Some people like to believe women don’t poop. This is absurd. I poop an insane amount. I just pooped, in fact. Hear that men of the world? I poop. Get over it.
3. Does humor written by women differ in any significant ways from that which is written by men?
No. When it’s good, it’s good. I think men traditionally act as if they don’t have boundaries, and to me, blurring the line is what humor’s about. A dichotomy forms when women don’t feel as free or comfortable being comically racist, for example. Few women will joke about rape. I thought rape was the one thing no one could joke about because it’s never funny. But then I saw Hamlet 2. Steve Coogan goes there. He is daring and offensive and uncouth, and he is funny.
4. What are you looking for in Funny Women submissions?
Brevity, depth, and surprise. It’s hard to nail all three simultaneously, so I pass on a fair amount of good pieces. I like humor submissions that have succinct essays within them. Also, I like being offended. Cross that line, bitches.
5. What are the biggest flaws you’ve seen in submissions?
Rants about babies, few to no compliments in cover letters, graphic pornography, excessive use of vagina as metaphor. Mostly, I think the danger of the Funny Women submissions is that many women might think it’s supposed to be funny about being a woman (complaining about children, tampons, too much hair in any one place). It’s the opposite: I think the more women can write off the topic of being a woman, the funnier it will be (I just plagiarized an e-mail from Rumpus Art Editor Julie Greicius). And still, women making fun of how society makes fun of women is funny. You know, solid irony. In Parks and Recreation Amy Poehler’s character gives reasons why she shot a man in the head during a co-ed hunting trip: “I let my emotions get the best of me. I just I cared too much I guess. I was thinking with my lady parts. I was walking and I felt something icky. I thought there was going to be chocolate. I don’t ever remember. I’m wearing a new bra and it closes in the front so it popped open and it threw me off. All I want to do is have babies. Are you single? I’m just, like, going through a thing right now. I guess when my life is incomplete I want to shoot someone. This would not happen if I had a penis. What? Bitches be crazy. I’m good at tolerating pain. I’m bad at math and I’m stupid.”Â
6. Who are your favorite humor writers?
I don’t have favorite “humor writers”Â so much as I have favorite writers who are funny. Lorrie Moore is the funniest. She is witty and sad. I think Sylvia Plath is funny. David Foster Wallace tops my list; my copy of Infinite Jest has “hahahahahahaha”Â written all over it.
7. You’re in the process of putting together MFA applications. How are you “enjoying” the process? Why do you want to pursue an MFA?
I’m happy you’ve asked me why I want to pursue an MFA because I still need to write my statement of purpose; now’s a good time to start. I want to pursue an MFA because I want to be a famous writer. I want to be a super hot teacher with a pool of educated and socially awkward men at my feet. I want to get paid loads of money for my intellectual contribution.
8. Other than PANK, what best non-required reading are you enjoying these days? And speaking of, how on earth does one submit their magazine for consideration for BANR?
I like to read five or six books at once. I choose what to read based on what I’d like to write because I pick up good writing by osmosis. Within the mix, I always have one Lorrie Moore and David Foster Wallace book that I pick up whenever I need. I’m also reading Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s collection of essays, The Crack-Up. All of these make me horribly depressed, so I read Bird by Bird in between just to make it to another day. Am I making myself sound smart? Please take into account that it takes me about ten years to finish a book.
9. The Rumpus and Â PANK meet at a bar, have drinks, hit it off. Do they a. go to a sleazy motel and have a one night stand or b. make out in the bar but leave it at that or c. exchange phone numbers, start dating, and live happily ever after? Show your math.
The Rumpus + PANK = c. I’m not good at math.
10. Glee is perhaps the best show to ever grace the small screen. Several questions. Why do you enjoy Glee? Who is your favorite character? When will Will and Emma get together? How does someone who created the show Nip/Tuck have the creative breadth to also create a show like Glee?
Glee combines two of my favorite things: comedy and musicals. I can’t answer the other questions for personal reasons.
11. You volunteer at 826 Valencia. In what capacity?
I moved to San Francisco to intern at 826 when I graduated. I took out the trash and coordinated workshops and improved youth literacy. Yadda, yadda, yadda . . . I became the managing editor of The Best American Nonrequired Reading (edited by Dave Eggers), the proceeds of which go to 826 National (a nonprofit tutoring, writing, and publishing organization with locations in seven cities). I like to stay involved in any capacity.
12. It has been four years since you were interviewed about feminism for Student Life. Are you still a self-proclaimed feminist? How does a self-proclaimed feminist differ from other kinds of feminists? What do you have against bra burning?
I’ve only ever interviewed other people as opposed to being interviewed myself, and I never realized how creepy it is. Student Life is the student-run newspaper at my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. Sophomore year my friend interviewed me for an article she was writing on feminism, and she misquoted me in hilarious and embarrassing ways. My favorite misquote of mine is: “One night there was a guy in my room, which has a women’s lib poster and a poster of a vagina,” Bassist said. “The guy asks me, ‘Oh my god, are you a lesbian? Do you hate men? I feel like you hate me ’cause I’m a man,’” remembers Bassist. “I said, ‘I can’t believe my posters conveyed that to you.’”Â
First of all, I never use a dangling modifier or say “’cause.”Â Also, the first poster in question was of Rosie the Riveter, and it was awesome. The poster of the so-called vagina was an illustration a friend of mine made because I was The Moaner in The Vagina Monologues; the word “Vagina”Â appeared on said illustration, but there was no gratuitous depiction of an actual vagina. Further, there was no man in my room until I was a senior.
13. How do you pronounce your last name? Does Bassist rhyme with racist?
No. It rhymes with “assist,” which I found out during a first grade spelling test. Years later, when I ran for student council in eighth grade, my speech ended: “I’m Elissa Bassist, and I’m here to assist…YOU.” I didn’t win.
14. Other than Glee, is there other great television we should be watching?
Gertrude Stein once said, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”Â As an aspiring genius, I spend a lot of time watching TV on the Internet. I like TV. When I interviewed my literary heroine Elaine Showalter, she said about television, “Mad Men and In Treatment, which have a number of women scriptwriters, are very feminist, insightful, complex, works of art. Twenty-first-century television has surpassed movies in artfulness and originality.”Â Isn’t that a cool idea? I believe television can be as well written as anything. A lot of people hate on TV, and while I do that publicly, I often think privately, “I wish I could write like this.”Â I think that 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, Twin Peaks, Wainy Days, and True Blood, which I watch for the sex.
15. What question should we have asked?
I wish you could ask me when my book is coming out because I wish I had a book coming out.