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Patti Harrison on Shrill and the Art of Being Mean

Patti Harrison on ‘Shrill’ and the Art of Being Mean

Shrill is the kind of show that you wish was twice as long as it actually is. Aidy Bryant’s sharp, sexy, and ultimately celebratory take on body positivity and millennial ennui is so good that the 6-episode first season feels almost criminally short.

The world Bryant has created is one we want to spend more time in, especially when it's filled with characters like Ruthie, the office nemesis of Bryant’s Annie, played by comedian Patti Harrison. Whether Ruthie is shamelessly forcing Annie to lend her money, bringing her 18-year-old neighbor to a work party as her date, or sexually harassing her colleagues, Harrison is delightfully mean, delivering each line in an almost lobotomized monotone that can escalate into full-blown hysteria at any moment.

Out tracked down Harrison — who also just launched a new web series Unsend with Shrill co-star and The Other Two producer Joel Kim Booster — to talk about the art of being mean and the importance of Shrill’s diverse cast.

How did you get involved with Shrill?

I had posted on Instagram that I was gonna be in L.A. for a couple days, and Aidy DMed me on Instagram and was like, "If you're gonna be in L.A., I would love for you to read for this part." [It was] truly the most horrifying and shocking DM to get because I'm a very huge fan of hers, and have been for a while. And I know everyone says that when they talk about their coworkers. But I really have been obsessed with her for a while, and have been slowly tracking her movements quietly for years.

I went to L.A., I did the audition. I felt really bad about the audition 'cause Lindy West [the author of the book Shrill is based on] was there, and she like, "Just do whatever feels good." And I asked, "But is there any specific direction, any notes that I should be doing?" She said, "No, just do what you like to do." Very vague. But after I auditioned, I found out that the part was written with me in mind, which was insane to hear, and very cool.

What did you think of the script when you first read it?

It's a very warm and beautiful show in terms of there's a lot of of conversations that have a lot of potent...I wouldn't say manifesto is the word. But....oh, there's someone in a MAGA hat.

Anyway...the show felt really, really scarily vulnerable, but also was very funny in a way that I was very excited to get to work on it.

But I do think I read the tone wrong. What I think a lot of people are going to be surprised about is just that with Aidy, I was just like, "Oh, a comedy." I assumed it was gonna be really hard, in-the-paint comedy. And I was like, "Okay, so, this seems a little more sincere than that, but I think she's gonna be hammin' it up." And she really is so grounded and very, very affable. And her performance was very touching. And I was like, "If I would've seen that now, I probably would've turned it down a little bit." But I had a blast working on it.

What was it like working with John Cameron Mitchell?

It was great. I've known him for a couple of years, and so it was really crazy that he plays my boss. When we found out, I was like, "That's great." 'Cause we've stayed at Airbnbs together before, and when we went to Portland, we stayed in an Airbnb together — it was this beautiful dollhouse that he picked. It was cool because we really got to talk about — all my scenes are with him, basically. So, we really got to talk about what we want their relationship to be. And yeah, he really is the best. Him and Aidy acting together was really insane to watch because there were moments when I ... I had a scene with them, where they're fighting. And I had a line, and I missed it two different times because I was just watching them act, and was overwhelmed. They're so good, and they just immediately command so much energy, when they can snap into it. It's like, "Oh, you're real actors."

I'm just a comedian who's like, "Sniff my own farts and made my way to the set, and refused to memorize lines because I physically can't, or I'll get a nosebleed. I don't know my mom's birthday, I don't know my family's birthday.”

Your character in the show is really mean and kind of an unrepentantly bad person. And your brand on Twitter is also very ... I will say provocative. But you're so nice in person. I know I didn't phrase that like a question, but it is one. Is there an art to being mean?

That's really nice of you to say, and that makes you nice for saying it. In terms of my sense of humor ... So, I'm a very, very sensitive person, and I'm very sensitive to humiliation and shame. I think that's just anyone who has a background of being bullied knows what that feels like. Sadly, I think it's informed me with a lot of empathy. I think a lot about how other people feel, and I want other people to feel good. Person to person in my daily life, outside of me having a sense of humor, I do try and behave kindly and be patient. But that's informed why I think being really shitty and mean is so funny. Not to other people, but embodying a character that is fully a bad person. Because I grew up around a lot of people who were mean, and were mean to me, and I subconsciously am embodying a lot of the qualities that they have.

Especially on Twitter, or social media, or the jokes that I make on stage, a lot of what I think is funny is a person who is so, so toxically stupid, but so sure of their point of view in a positive way. They fully have no doubts that what they're saying is right, and they don't doubt themselves, really, in any way. And because yeah, I grew up with so many people like that. And that just are the stupidest people on Earth, but fully have never questioned themselves once, have the highest self esteem. And that's really admirable in a way.

I definitely pay attention to what I'm being mean about, too. Some people think shock humor just means being cruel to be funny, just roasting people or being offensive. You can be specific about where you punch. Or if the character is mean in a certain way where they are punching down, then the character's behaviors and actions should by effect, be punching down at themselves. They aren't aware that by doing that, they're making themselves look stupid, and that they aren't winning in the end of it. That's what I think is funny, is when people have no self awareness and they're rocketing through life and ultimately die from it.

I don't know if the show has been renewed yet, but if it is, the season ended with Aidy's character quitting her job. So, how do you think your character might come back, and would you want to come back?

I absolutely wanna come back, it was the best experience I ever had working on something. I'm so proud of the show and everyone who's involved with it. I would love to see my character come back and convince Annie to get her job back. I would love for her to really make a plea, a soulful warm plea, for Annie to get her job back. And then when Annie goes back to her job, Ruthie violently assaults her with boxing gloves. She's got boxing gloves, but she's got a ton of coins in them, so they're really heavy. And they just really duke it out.

And Annie's not defenseless. She could break a conduit off a wall, or from under a sink, a steel pipe. And she's got it ready, and she's swinging it. Or maybe even she finds two pairs or scissors. She's kind of flipping them around, there's a lot of gymnastics involved, she's flipping the knives around, she's flipping around. They're kind of like little daggers. She's taking little slices. And then ultimately, my character kills her. And then throughout the season, kills everyone who works in the office. And then has sex with Meghan McCain. Played by Meghan McCain. And then my character kills themselves.

But it's all in an empowering way.

Yeah. Of course. Of course. Rose, of course.

What is it like to be on a show that's so body positive and queer positive as a trans woman?

It was really, really amazing. I have had pretty horrific hair and makeup experiences in the past working on other projects that really were stressful and made me feel sad in a way that I felt so bad about my hair and makeup experience that it affected my performance, 'cause I couldn't get out of my own head, I was just thinking about the way that I looked, and how much I hated the way that I looked in the moment. On Shrill, Aidy, and Lindy, and [writer] Ally Rushfield really went above and beyond to get a whole hair and makeup and wardrobe team that were so sensitive and so nice, and really intuitive and cool about how we wear makeup and hair, and how we dress.

We all had final say over what we got to wear, and we got to pick stuff. And Morgan Muta was the makeup person I worked with the most, and it was the best makeup experience I've ever had working on something. Because she was so kind and really listened to what I liked and what I told her made me feel good. And she took that and made it her own, and showed me a bunch of makeup tips, based off of what I told her, that I use to this day because I loved the way it looked. I felt really powerful. And it took me out of my own head. I think let us have way more fun in that way.

The emphasis on my character isn't that it's a trans character. I just get to be wild and awful and have fun, and it's not some tragedy porn about my family abandoning me when I came or something.

Now that you know all these tips and tricks, are you gonna pivot to being a beauty guru?

Yes. So, my biggest beauty tip is if ... Because I know some women are self conscious about having thinner lips. If you ever go to a restaurant that has a waiting list. If you're waiting for your food, they give you that little vibrating coaster thing. That little square that lights up and vibrates. You can actually grab that and really pound yourself in the mouth with it. And what that does is it fills your lips with blood and eventually dead tissue, and your lips swell so big. And it's a really amazing, quick fix. It's really easy and good. It looks bad, but your lips do get bigger. And quickly. So, yeah.

Well, we love a hack.

That's my hack. And I'll make a video about that every single day, just that one hack. But it'll be a year long web series and I'll make $300 billion on YouTube from it.

Unrelated to Shrill, I know that your new show with Joel, Unsend,  just started.

We filmed three episodes so far. We would obviously love to do more. It was created by Matt McConkey and Deanna Cheng and Paul Scheer. And they brought me and Joel on board as the hosts. I think there have been several iterations of the show, but this iteration was theirs and I don't think the other iterations were as queer-centric, either. I would describe it as Tosh.0-adjacent without the rape jokes, but with more barebacking jokes.

What's it like working with Joel?

It's really, really fucking bad. First off, the ugliest person I've met. Just deformed inside and out. And really menacing on set, really menacing on set. Tripped me every day, always got me. I always fell, smacked my face so hard on the monitor every time I walked in.

Joel is really, really funny. And is a really good friend of mine. And we've worked on a couple of things together so far, which feels crazy, but it's always very cool to see him there. And he's a close friend of mine. And he's working in the Big Mouth room with me, too. So, it's very easy to be around him 'cause we've known each other for a while, and know each other's sense of humor. So, we can play together a lot. And Unsend has a lot of improvised moments in it, which is the most fun part, 'cause you get to just dick around and fuck with each other, and that's always a blast to do. And he's the person I would want to do it with most.

A lot of people want to know ... Did you ever settle the argument with the airline pilot about who's hole is bigger?

Okay, a lot of people wanna know this. And the answer is yes. So, his hole is bigger.

I'm so sorry.

It was really a labyrinth of dark energy from me for a while, and I was spiraling a lot about it. But after that, I really came to terms with the fact that the airline pilot did have a bigger hole than me. But that doesn't mean I don't have a big hole, it just means his is bigger. And those two things can coexist.

Right. And do you think it makes him a better pilot, or a worse one?

I think that it is actually non-applicable. Non-applicable. I don't think it affects the quality of his acuity for flight, and operating a plane. I think he could have a really tiny, pathetic hole, and be amazing. I think he could have a gape that reached the base of his neck, a hole so big that it reached the base of his neck, and still be an absolutely stunning aviator.

The first season of Shrill is now available to stream on Hulu.

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Tags: Television

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