A Conversation with Sarah Aswell
by Miranda Morgan
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sharing a cup of tea and conversation with local writer, comedian, and University of Montana MFA graduate, Sarah Aswell. After seeing Sarah perform stand-up as Mother Theresa and fangirling over her impeccable timing and deadpan delivery, I knew I had to meet her. We talked about life after an MFA program, fostering fake confidence, fire trucks, the relationship between stand-up and writing, and what the stand-up comedy scene needs now.
Miranda Morgan: Did you write humorous pieces when you were at the University of Montana’s MFA program? From my experience, humor writing seems to be punished in MFA programs—what are your thoughts?
Sarah Aswell: It does! Since I was a kid, I’ve liked writing funny stuff. When I was 10, I would write these fake newspapers, like the Onion, except for 10-year-olds. In college, I had a humor column. It was kind of inspired by Dave Barry who was a humor writer in the 80s and 90s. When I went to graduate school though, I felt like I had to be serious. Not only was this a serious commitment I was making to my writing career (it was really expensive because I didn’t have a teaching assistantship) but the atmosphere was much more serious as well. So, I tried to be a serious fiction writer, and it didn’t go well. Have you ever done something you thought you wanted to do, but as soon as you started doing it, you realized it wasn’t for you? It’s like your whole spirit rebels against it. You don’t try as hard, you kind of hurt yourself. Some of my stories were funny, but they weren’t very good.
I kind of discovered I wasn’t a great fiction writer in the MFA program which was a tough lesson to learn. I’d get feedback on my stories that would say, “This story would be stronger if you eliminated the talking parrot,” and I’d be like, “No! The talking parrot was the only part I liked about it!” I took an experimental writing class with Kevin Canty where we could have a lot more fun and be surreal—that’s when I really enjoyed writing. I think all of the pieces I’ve done for the New Yorker have directly been inspired by that class. These flights of fancy, just thinking about things in the abstract—like, “Oh, I’m going to write from the point of view of a knife.” And it’s okay! Because in humor it’s okay to be silly or weird. It’s not judged that way.
MM: I wrote a piece about a really bad Tinder date I went on in LA, and it was totally destroyed in workshop because everyone was like, “Well, what’s the larger commentary? This should say something about dating culture, what’s the significance here?” I just wanted it to be a funny thing.
SA: I want to say two things about that. I feel like women are often told two separate things that are contradictions. First, women are told to just lighten up. “Why don’t you smile more? Why are you so serious?” We’re punished for being serious, and at the same time, if we’re goofy or silly, we’re told, “Well, that’s meaningless, that doesn’t have value.” We’re told we don’t have value whether or not we’re trying to be funny. It sucks. I also want to argue that humor writing can be super serious and super important. There are a couple of women doing that right now. Alexandria Petri has a humor column in the Washington Post and she’s extremely funny, but since the current administration came in in 2016, she’s written some really funny political commentary that also makes you cry. She had a piece two days ago about Brett Kavanaugh, “Some Interpersonal Verbs, Conjugated by Gender”. It shows that humor can do heavy lifting. A lot of my stuff is just silly, and that’s okay. We should have an escape. I give you permission to write that piece.
“Women are told to just lighten up. ‘Why don’t you smile more? Why are you so serious?’ We’re punished for being serious, and at the same time, if we’re goofy or silly, we’re told, ‘Well, that’s meaningless, that doesn’t have value.’ We’re told we don’t have value whether or not we’re trying to be funny.”
MM: Thank you. Do you think humor writing has limitations? Or perhaps it’s able to access subject matter in a more direct and unflinching way because of the guise of humor?
SA: I think humor helps us. Going back to politics, if you look at social media or just the Thanksgiving day table, it seems so impossible to change people’s minds today. People get really upset really quickly; they get really tense, and you can see their minds closing. I’m talking about both conservative and liberal people. I think humor, especially stand-up comedy, can pry some of those doors open in a way that other forms of expression can’t. I don’t know if you saw Nanette, the Netflix special, but one of the things that Hannah Gadsby talks about is how half of the function of humor is making people uncomfortable, then releasing that tension and making them comfortable again. That release produces laughter. I think stand-ups have the tools and the abilities to do it right—to create that tension, and sometimes it can be a political tension, or just an uncomfortableness, and then release that. And through that release, if you’re doing the best stand-up that you can, comes a moment where we see everybody as human and everything is okay. It can also just make you think.
I’m probably seen as someone in the community who gets offended at a lot of things. They’re like, “Oh, Sarah didn’t like that stand-up,” and I think that’s because they’re doing it wrong. They’re not creating tension in the right way and then releasing it in the right way. Lots of comics, especially non-funny ones, just rely on shock—shock laughter or uncomfortable laughter. You don’t want uncomfortable laughter. You want the laughter that comes from the release of discomfort. If you don’t have a lot of jokes, the laughter might be coming from a place of “Get me out of here.” A kind of laughter many women are familiar with—on a Tinder date perhaps.
MM: Oh yeah, so much uncomfortable giggling happened.
SA: Nobody said, “I went to a comedy show last night and had a great time laughing uncomfortably.” It’s not good comedy, and I’m going to continue to be critical about that.
MM: What was it like getting into the comedy community in Missoula?
SA: It was awesome. Missoula is a special place. When I’ve traveled for comedy, it’s been really different. Missoula has a really welcoming community and a ton of writers in the community as well. Two of the other women I do comedy with, Becky Margolis and Keema Waterfield, are both MFA graduates. I think there’s a strong connection between writing and stand-up. It’s ever-changing. Right now, my big push it to get more women in the community—and it’s been working! I just celebrated the first anniversary of my comedy writer’s workshop (6 PM, the last Wednesday of every month at the Badlander.) We did a birthday bash and had 14 female comedians get on stage, some of them for the first time, others who’d been doing it for five or six years. It’s just getting better and better.
MM: Have you done comedy outside of Montana?
SA: Yeah, I’ve done a little teeny tiny bit. It’s very different, less intimate. I did the Big Sky Comedy Festival last year—national comedians come together for a week to do comedy in Billings. It was really hard to be small fish in a big pond and see some of the issues that affect comedy on the national scene as far as sexism, racism, amd homophobia.
MM: I want to circle back to the relationship between writing and stand-up. Do you think they feed each other?
SA: Yes! It’s so great. A lot of comedians have techniques for creating that I can use for writing and vice versa. Writers use prompts and ways of creating that comedians don’t necessarily know about, so I love mixing and matching those sorts of activities. For example, comedians will often record into their phones and talk or rant their ideas. I think that’s something writers basically never do. Different things come out of your mouth when you’re talking than out of your pen or your typing fingers. Bouncing back and forth between writing and talking is good. It’s also a really different process writing for the stage versus writing a humor piece for a publication. The same jokes don’t work both places. They have to be pretty precise. For a long time in stand-up, I told jokes like I would write and it didn’t go as well.
MM: The jokes have to be more precise in stand-up or in writing?
SA: Precise in different ways. Like in stand-up, you want people to laugh every 15-20 seconds. To do that, you have to boil down your joke into as few words as possible so you can get to the punch line quickly. You have to assume the audience knows a lot of stuff, and then just leave all of those things out of your joke. With writing, you have more time. You also don’t have your body or voice when you’re writing so you have to explain a lot more.
MM: Was it like actually using your physicality in your art?
SA: One of the big differences between comedy writing and stand-up is that the only reason you get better at stand-up is by doing it. It’s an art that you practice in the moment that it’s being created. You don’t go to a theater and watch a painter create a painting. That would be super weird (actually, that sounds cool). With stand-up though, you’re making it in front of an audience every time. That’s where all of your lessons are learned. It’s really about getting on stage and bombing over and over again. Painful, painful lessons. Whereas with writing, I’m going to show a piece to my partner and see what he thinks. I’m going to show it to my writing group next, and then I’ll give it to an editor who will fix it, and then it will be published. There’s much more of a tiptoe process happening that you don’t get with stand up.
MM: After you graduated from the MFA program—what did you do? What does it look like?
SA: That’s a great question. So, after [graduation], I thought, “I’m not great at fiction writing, there’s a lot of people better than me at it, I’m going to go to NYC to be an editor in a high rise and edit novels.” It was just the worst idea. The way I tell people about it now, I say that I liked driving firetrucks so I thought I wanted to work in a firetruck factory. Not the same thing. Me and my partner moved to New York City right after graduation, and I got a job as an assistant editor at a [Penguin-owned] textbook publishing company. It was probably the most depressing two years of my life. It was really bad. Looking back, I’m like “Oh my god, I could have been going to open mics, I could have been writing packets for late night shows.” I just didn’t know I liked doing that stuff at that point. Instead, I was really miserable. I also don’t like living in the city. I need to be able to get out and away from people, noise, and lights on a regular basis. During that time, in my cubicle, while doing busy work, I started freelancing. As I got more and more freelance clients, I got worse at my job. Finally, I just said, “I have to go for this,” and I launched my freelance company in 2008. I started that February and by the summertime, Ben and I had enough work to live anywhere. We drove back to Missoula and we’ve been freelancing ever since.
MM: How did you start getting freelance clients?
SA: I read a book called, “The Well-Fed Writer” [by Peter Bowerman]. It’s probably pretty out-of-date now. I think it was published in the late nineties probably, but it was about how to start a freelance business basically and I just did every single thing that he said to do. A lot of it was cold calling, which was calling up companies and just being like, “Hi, do you need a writer?” 95% of the time they’re like, “Fuck off.” And then 5% of the time, they’re like, “We totally need a writer.” That’s how I did it. I fell into writing for personal injury attorneys which is funny. I still write for a couple—“If you or a loved one have been in a roller coaster accident, you need to talk to me today!” I paid off all my student loans that way, had time to write my own stuff and slowly transitioned into writing more of my own stuff.
MM: I worked in the film industry in LA and I did sort of the same thing where I was like, “Oh well, I want to write, so I’m going to get a job in a creative industry.” I was so miserable because I was just reading shitty scripts all day and writing coverage of them.
SA: What did that do to your creative process?
MM: I didn’t want to write anything.
SA: Me neither. I didn’t write for almost two years.
MM: It was so draining. Plus the culture is so toxic.
SA: Yes. I found the same thing in NYC. You know, a lot of people are like, “How are you a writer or comedian if you don’t live in LA or NYC?” I think it’s a nice little secret that you can do new and fresh stuff away from those cultures. I interviewed Jane Smiley for the Montana Book Festival last year, and she said the same thing. She lived in Iowa City for many years and had a little group of writer friends there. It was like an island away from all the swirl of cutthroat, bad people. And even the good people! It’s just stressful. People are all doing the same thing or trying to copy the one hot writer. We have none of that. We can develop freely which is what I like about the comedy scene, too. I think the writing scene is the same here, too.
MM: I realized that just being in a creative industry isn’t going to fulfill the fact that I want to write.
SA: You were in a firetruck factory. But you’re a firetruck driver. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
“The political act isn’t within the art, but in the creation and distribution of the art and in the encouragement of others.”
MM: What kind of material in either stand up or writing feels really urgent for you right now?
SA: That’s a really good and tough question. I don’t talk about politics or issues in my writing very much, and I think about that a lot. I even took a class online through Second City recently where I tried to learn how to do it because I think it’s important. And through the class, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m not a satire writer.” That’s not the type of humor that I write. I don’t write very good commentary on hot topics. But then I was talking to my friend Becky Margolis [UM MFA alumnus and comedian] and we were actually getting interviewed by the Missoulian about a show we were doing. The interviewer was asking us if our material was feminist. Becky said, “I consider anytime I step on stage an act of feminism,” and I was like, that’s right! That’s what I’m trying to say. I think by speaking, by creating, is how I’m responding to a lot of the issues I find important outside of my art. Just being visible and helping productions happen around town, helping writers get heard around town, doing things on a local level—running my women’s comedy workshop which is totally free, is a way for me to speak out. And not only speak out, but I want to change the culture. I do have these important issues but when I write, I’m writing about silly surreal things that don’t make sense, like mean ducks. I’m doing stand-up jokes about bagels and mimes—it's not like I’m making super important points. It’s like your Tinder story—it’s just funny. I hope it connects us with one another, though. I hope I point out human truths. I hope I’m saying true things, things that make people say, “Oh, that’s me. I get that.” And make people laugh! Oh my god, I just want to make people laugh. So for me, the political act isn’t within the art, but in the creation and distribution of the art and in the encouragement of others. Stepping on stage is an act of feminism. It’s the stepping on stage that can be metaphorical.
MM: I know that you’ve been vocal about the allegations against Louis C.K. and the treatment of his case. What do we now [in light of the #metoo movement]? Where do we go from here?
SA: I think it really is about changing the culture. The point about Louis C.K. has continued to be about how he’s not the problem—he’s a symptom. The way we’ve responded to Louis C.K. shows the problem in the stand-up community but also in the arts community. He got a standing ovation when he returned [to the Comedy Cellar in New York City]—why did that happen? We know the answer. It was mostly men in the audience. The women who were in the audience didn’t feel comfortable standing up for themselves in that environment. The owner of the club is a man. The promoter is a woman but was listening to her boss. She could have stood up and done something too, but it’s also a power thing. He went in there with no notice and said, “I want to go on [stage] tonight.” Are you going to say no to that powerful man? I really think the answer is getting more women, people of color, and queer people on stage. Stand-up is about telling your story. Right now, so many of the stories we hear are the straight white male story. We’ve only scratched the surface of what stand-up could be if more women, people of color, and queer people were up there. I think Nanette is a great example of what it could be. And a lot of men said that’s not stand-up comedy. Why did they say that? They said it because they don’t identify with it. Stand-up comedy is a lot about identity. A lot of women watched that and were like, “This is stand-up comedy that I like for the first time.” It’s just a different type of stand-up comedy.
MM: Maybe we don’t know what female stand-up comedy even looks like!
SA: We don’t! We’ve scratched the surface. There have been tons of great female stand-up comedians. But, you know, I went to a stand-up show in Missoula last weekend, a tour from out of town, three straight white males were the whole line-up, telling the same stories about their dicks. They were funny but my story wasn’t told that night. Literature has suffered from the same problems forever. They’re just kind of in a different place—slightly different. What’s that project? They evaluate all the different literary journals to see how many women are in each issue. (The 2017 Vida Count) It’s a really cool project. It’s shedding light on how off-balance things can be and what voices are actually heard.
MM: For us MFA students who are graduating this year, what words of wisdom or advice do you have?
SA: This is the biggest cliché of them all, but I would say to know what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at—that’s the thing you’re going to succeed in. I tried to do things I thought might help me pay off my student loans or help me have status or have a career. My career came out of doing the thing that I actually liked. I started having success when I decided to just screw it and started writing silly things.
“I’m going to submit to editors and act like they’re my friends— ‘Hey Bob! Got a piece for you.’ Again, it doesn’t work all the time, but it works sometimes. That’s all you need. You just need sometimes.”
MM: That’s great. I love that advice!
SA: My other advice is to—and this is specifically towards women—have confidence. I so wish I had the confidence ten years ago when I graduated that I have now. A lot of it is made-up confidence, but made-up confidence is just as good as real confidence. It works the same way. It’s like a synthetic version that’s 100% exactly the same. I read this article in The Atlantic about confidence and women and it was so eye-opening (A Lack of Confidence Isn't What's Holding Back Working Women). One of the statistics was about how men will apply for jobs even if they don’t have 70% of the qualifications, whereas women won’t apply for jobs if they’re lacking one single qualification. We just won’t do it. That really helped me when I was submitting my writing. I just thought, “I’m going to start submitting wherever I want.” I’m going to submit to editors and act like they’re my friends—“Hey Bob! Got a piece for you.” Again, it doesn’t work all the time, but it works sometimes. That’s all you need. You just need sometimes. Just take risks like that. Now, I look up editors all the time. I stalk them on Twitter. I guess their email addresses. Just throw yourself out there.
I didn’t start stand-up until a friend dared me to. I had to be dared. I didn’t do it myself, and it can be a point of shame for me, but it also taught me to dare myself to do things more. This is a piece of advice from my dad: he always told me growing up, “Make them say no.” What “make them say no” means is that there’s no harm in asking for things if the worst thing you’re going to get is a “no.” Go ahead, ask and see. You’re going to get “no” a lot. Maybe that’s something I learned from cold-calling, too. You hear “no” over and over again until it doesn’t even feel like anything anymore.
MM: Exposure therapy!
SA: I’m in a Facebook group where we share with each other whenever we get rejected from something and we treat it like an accomplishment. We say, “I got rejected from The New York Times today and everyone is like, ‘Great job!’” Just be confident, get out there. Men don’t need that lesson.
MM: No, they really don’t.
SA: They need the opposite of that lesson.
MM: Right. Come down a little bit.
SA: Email your favorite writer! Tell them they’re your favorite writer. You’d be so surprised at what you get back. Reach out to people. You might get rejected. It’s okay. Hooray!
MM: Do you think you have to leave Missoula to have a writing life here?
SA: No, I don’t. I do think you have to leave your house. You have to have experiences. One of the writers I had at Montana, Brady Udall, said if you write at your kitchen table all day, all you can do is write stories about your kitchen table. I think writers have a tendency to stay at their kitchen table so maybe resist that. I don’t think you can just be a writer. You have to be a writer and a something else. If you look at all of the best writers in history, they usually did something else, too. Have hobbies, have jobs, go do things. Have other passions. You can do that from Missoula, totally easily. Look at Walden—he sat next to a pond. That’s it. Literally it. Whatever you do, make sure you have the energy to create. Don’t lose that.
Sarah Aswell is a graduate of the University of Montana’s MFA program and writes for places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Scary Mommy, MAD Magazine, and Reductress. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her family.
Miranda Morgan is an MFA candidate in nonfiction, a writing instructor at the University of Montana, and current nonfiction editor at CutBank. She was born in Santa Fe, NM, and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She’s worked in film development in LA and Austin.