Julie Klausner on Hard Work, Making Stuff, and The Urgency to Be Heard

Photo by  Mindy Tucker.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Julie Klausner, a performer, comedian, writer, and podcaster based in New York City, tells stories with an infectious joie de vivre and a commitment to entertainment. She is the author of I Don’t Care About Your Band, a funny and often heartbreaking dating memoir, and Art Girls Are Easy, a young adult novel. She often writes for Vulture in addition to several television shows, including the inventive game show gone horribly wrong (or really, gone horribly right), Billy on the Street. Julie performed in her debut cabaret, “Too Gay for Brooklyn,” last summer and sometimes whispers to cats, too.

Her podcast, How Was Your Week?, is rare in a medium often overwhelmed with two dudes practicing riffing while competing to be the coolest. How Was Your Week? doesn’t play that game at all. It has a wider range. It’s candid and literate. It looks up, over, around, and right through our culture, wrapping vibrant cultural criticism inside a stirring, personal comedy show. It’s the kind of podcast you can develop a real relationship with, like the loving aunt your parents keep at an arm’s length because she’s too much fun and (sometimes) gets too real.

Best of all, How Was Your Week? is hilarious and leaves its audience with the curious feeling, once an episode is over, that they’ve done something useful, therapeutic even, with their time.

Julie was generous enough to answer a few questions about her creative practice via telephone.

You have your podcast, your live show, your cabaret, your writing for Vulture, and Billy on the Street. Is there anything else you’re working on right now? 
I just finished working on the first six episodes of Mulaney, which is a sitcom that is going to air on Fox, but I’m not sure when. I was a staff writer on that show too.

You’re like an octuple threat. 
Yes, I’m very threatening in a lot of different ways.

How did you develop your ear for stories? 
That’s a good question. I think probably spending time with people and talking to people. Also reading a lot. Therapy really helped. A lot of I Don’t Care About Your Band came from the sort of two-person scenes that are therapy sessions. There’s a lot of realizations that go on in that context — ideally, of course — but I think it’s a combination of speaking with people who are listening to you and reading things that are good that help you in that particular way.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an octuple threat?
I’ve never always known that I wanted to be anything. I know that I always wanted to perform, and writing is something that took a beat to figure out I was really good at, or that it came naturally to me, because writing had to do with expressing things that I felt strongly about or expressing my personality, which I’ve always just sort of done. When I figured out as a kid that that meant writing stuff down, writing became a part of it. But yeah, I’ve always wanted to do a lot of different things, so I guess in that way, that’s consistent.

How do you practice? Do you set goals for yourself? Organize your desk space in a particular way? Have special foods?
I wish I had something that read like an assignment. I don’t do well or produce as much when I think about things in terms of work or stuff that I have to do. I think when it comes to practice, the thing in my life that is most important as far as practice is concerned is any kind of performing thing. You have to just do that over and over and over again until you get better and until you memorize your lines or whatever it is. I think practice is essential when it comes to that.

As far as the podcast, my process has been pretty consistent. I take notes during the week. Very loose notes of things that I think would be interesting to talk about.

Your weekly monologue is mostly a process of improvisation built off of your list of notes?
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. And some of the notes come from my idea for a joke. I’ll write something down because I know I have a joke about it, so that’s something that I guess you can consider it something that I’ve written in advance as opposed to improvised. But everything that is around it is improvised.

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 11.14.23 PMDo you try to live a more story-worthy life in order to build different kinds of notes as you move along in the development of your podcast?
In general, I try — and maybe it’s because of the podcast, it probably is — I try to say no to less things because I do understand that the more interesting…the more variety my life has, the more likely I am to be inspired. So I do find myself saying yes to things, though my instinct is to stay at home, generally, and not really do a lot.

Even when I’m watching a really stupid TV show…I was laid up a little and I remember I couldn’t sleep and I watched The Today Show and The View and I just remember thinking “Oh my god, this is so f-cking stupid and annoying,” but then I also knew I could talk about it. So even if it’s actually something that’s horrible, it’s not a waste of time.

Before you record the monologue, what happens in that moment that takes you from whatever you were doing to start? Does it come naturally for you or do you considered it as part of work?
It’s definitely work. I always have an “Oh, I gotta do this” [speaks in a self-deprecating tone somewhere between whining and exasperated]. It’s always something on my to-do list. “Record monologue. Press podcast” is always on my to-do list for Thursday night. So getting started feels chore-like, but then once I’m actually doing it, it doesn’t feel like work. Every once in awhile I’ll have a week where I’m kinda having a hard time expressing myself, or having a good flow, or being funny. And then I’m kinda stopping and starting. In general, I’ve never experienced the kind of frustration and discomfort and sometimes anguish recording my podcast than I have writing things. That’s something that I’m fortunate to feel. That there’s a certain amount of flow to it that isn’t painful. It doesn’t feel like work when I’m doing it.

Why do you think that is?
Because talking and being engaging and humorous — trying to be funny, I guess — is something that comes naturally and it makes me feel good when I do it. It’s reminiscent of conversations I’ve had with friends. It’s reminiscent of socializing. And writing is more isolated, so it feels more like a tap. And then I also just found something that’s creative and feels good and isn’t — I don’t want to say it’s not work, because it is work — but it’s a pleasure in the way that writing, frankly, isn’t. That’s something I am really, really grateful to have in my creative life.

Photo by Ari Scott.
Photo by Ari Scott.

How do you deal with distraction or fear? Do you easily get distracted by movies or television or Twitter?
Yes. I’m very easily distracted by the Internet. How do I deal with it?

Do you make rules? “No Internet until….”
No. I don’t. I have realized something about myself recently, which is that I don’t do things that I don’t want to do. And that’s something that I need to work around. I know that there are things that, you know, no one wants to get out of bed and go to work, but I do that and I’m doing that because I want to go to work in a way. I want to go to that job. If I want to do something, I have to trick myself into wanting to do it or I have to want to do it. So I’m not very good with someone, especially myself, saying “you can’t check Twitter until you write this sentence or this word count” or “I’m going to this place without wireless.”

I’ve done this in the past because deadlines completely change the process. If you don’t have a deadline, you’re really dealing [with] only the voices of yes and no that you create internally, and that’s just a world of very mushy subjectivity. Let me put it this way: discipline, for me, is something that has never really been a part of my life as much as hard work. I think it’s because I want to say yes to working hard. I don’t want to say no to other things I want to do. I don’t do well with deprivation unless it’s something I want to deprive myself of. And the process of getting there is something that, in some ways, is completely beyond my control and in other ways, is something that gets easier with practice, if that makes any sense.
Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 11.10.16 PM
Yes, absolutely.
And as far as fear, everything is fear. The way of dealing with fear is waking up every morning and being alive. I think fear is the engine that causes people to do things. I don’t think you can overestimate fear as a role in the human condition. Luckily, in the case of people like us who are privileged to have clean water and food and shelter and not worry about being killed every day, we’re not afraid of those things, but I think a person without fear …and I’ve thought about fear a lot and I think about, especially when it comes to horror and scary things, the mind’s desire to see things that it’s not allowed to, less of an id thing as much as the flip side of that discipline question that you were asking: “Oh, you can’t see this!” and that’s all you want to do is see it.

As far as how I deal with fear, I think oftentimes I just see it in the form of resistance. In other words, there are things that are fear that don’t manifest themselves clearly in that way. Often, when I’m struggling with writing or putting a show together or having to be in a situation where I have to regulate my mood, I am so afraid of various things in those situations that I instead will kind of recognize frustration or anger or things that I call laziness or other kinds of resistance, when in actuality, I’m really just afraid of being uncomfortable, being in pain, failing, being mediocre. There’s so many ways of experiencing fear that I think artists need to be aware of. I’m not saying fear is the devil that pops up in various incarnations, but it’s an important motivation that, once recognized, can be tended to with more altruism than you think.

If someone was afraid of something, you’d hold their hand. But if someone was being like “oh, I don’t want to do that” and whiny and lazy, then you’d probably want to beat them up. And that’s kind of how I talk to myself, unless I’m being generous and recognizing things that I am just afraid of. And that is often harder to identify, I guess.

Photo by  Mindy Tucker.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.

When you create something and put it out into the world, what’s in it for you?
Well, this gets very personal. It goes back to growing up and being a little kid. The answer to that is what I was — and it’s embarrassing to say deprived because I never thought of myself as deprived and I think of myself as someone who has always been terribly privileged and even spoiled — but what’s in it for me is the opportunity to get something I was deprived of as a kid, which is the chance to be completely heard and, ideally, understood and even appreciated. And that can come along with it the chance of connecting to others on a level of complete acceptance. And having people say “I not only know who you are, but I love you because you are who you are.” That’s something that can’t be undervalued, personally.

I want to respond to that in a way that expresses warmth and sweetness, but I’m not sure what’s the right response. I think that’s a lovely answer.
Oh, thanks. I doesn’t feel very generous. I feel like the correct answer is “because I want to make the world a better place,” and “I want to make audiences feel better about who they are,” and, in the case of my book, that was very much something that fueled me because I did not feel completely comfortable then — and I do not feel completely comfortable now — putting all of that personal stuff out there into the world. What made is easier, and in some ways I think I made some morality trade-offs that I regret, but what made it possible, I should say, is knowing that what I had to say would resonate with others and make their lives better or Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 11.06.05 PMeasier. That’s something that, you know, I wished I answered with that, but to be honest, the bigger urgency is to be heard and seen.

What is your creative ambition?  
I don’t have one, I have a lot. There’s a lot of things I want to do. They really just come from being seen and heard, which is writing and performing stuff. I would love to have my own TV show. I would love to write and star in a TV show for myself, that would be incredible. But I also want to write a play and do films. It really just comes down to…I just want to keep making stuff that is meaningful and good.

Note: Since our interview, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Julie will be starring in a television show with the terrific Billy Eichner, called Difficult People.

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Eric Meltzer is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.