Roxane Gay seems to be everywhere these days, and I almost mean that literally. She is a prolific writer, having written short stories, novels, and essay collections. She recently edited Not That Bad, a devastating collection of essays on rape culture. She’s a regular op-ed contributor to The New York Times, and her new project on Medium, Gay Magazine, brims with challenging, insightful work from writers of color. On top of that, Gay works in two TV writers’ rooms, and always seems to be traveling around the country for speaking events.
She is one of the country’s most exciting public intellectuals, and yet her Twitter feed gives the impression she is your friend, somehow, or at least approachable. Gay tweets about what she’s watching, what she’s cooking, the hotel and airports where she travels. You know, normal bullshit. Since she’s also unafraid to speak her mind and challenge the white male patriarchy that dominates our politics and culture, she deals with A LOT of trolls, and her clap backs have become legendary.
In other words, she’s not a typical Bentzen Ball participant, but that’s partly what made us so interested in having her in the first place. On Saturday, October 26, she will participate in A Smart Funny and Real Afternoon, where she will be interviewed by Saturday Night Live alum Sasheer Zamata. Ahead of her appearance at The Lincoln Theater, I had a chance to talk with her about what’s going on in the world, and also her writing projects.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Brightest Young Things: So you’re coming to D.C. for the Bentzen Ball, which is a comedy festival. I realize you often speak at more serious events, like literary festivals or things of that nature. Are you going to approach this event any differently?
Roxane Gay: In general, I don’t have a plan to approach it differently. I try to just be myself no matter where I am. I tend to be naturally funny, so I’m just going to be myself and see how it goes.
BYT: I think you’re funny! Who are some of the people that make you laugh?
RG: Wanda Sykes, Sarah Silverman, Michelle Buteau, Ali Wong. Off the top of my head those are some of the people I find funny.
BYT: What about their comedy resonates with you?
RG: It’s different for each person, but in general I just like their comedic approach. With Sarah Silverman, I love her deadpan. With Wanda Sykes, I love the way in which she takes – really good comedians always do this, by the way – [she takes] something that’s normal and mundane and makes it hilarious. Or she takes something painful and makes it funny. She has one of the only good rape jokes in the game. It’s about having a detachable vagina, and it’s just hilarious. They’re all incredibly smart and they understand how to craft a good joke and I really admire that.
BYT: Along similar lines, I’m sure you’ve noticed in headlines a lot of male comedians and men in the comedy world are complaining about how “woke culture” is killing comedy. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that. Why do you think they would rather complain than change with the times?
RG: It’s nonsense. That’s what lazy comics say when they can’t use their same old tired, lazy material. “Woke culture” is killing bad comedy perhaps, but you can be edgy and you can risque and you can do so without punching down. You can frankly even punch down without doing it in a problematic matter. A lot of these guys just want to say whatever sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic nonsense comes to mind and get away with it. We’re not in that time anymore so they have to be human beings that are decent.
BYT: Can you talk a little bit more about how you think a comedian can punch down in a way that’s not problematic?
RG: A lot of people misunderstand why people get push back from bigotry. There’s a difference between… First of all, I don’t think anyone should punch down, but if you’re going to do it, you can do it without being a bigot. You can do it by [taking] a level of care with kind of humor, but [these men] just seem completely unwilling to even try. I’m trying to think of a good example, but none is coming to mind. I know it’s possible and it’s been done many times. People will just laugh if they’re not feeling like they’re being completely insulted just for existing.
BYT: That makes a lot of sense to me. Are you a fan of Sasheer Zamata? Are you looking forward to getting into it with her?
RG: Yes, I am. I saw her recently doing a show with Nicole Byer because they’re friends and they have this really good show they do together, an improv show. I think she’s incredibly talented and I’m looking forward to the conversation with her. I think we’re going to do some interesting things.
BYT: I think so too, I’m a big fan of Nicole Byer as well. I need to buy tickets to see her perform stand-up in early November. Are you enjoying Nailed It?
RG: I do, I just started watching Nailed It. I’m at the end of season one right now, at the beginning of season two and it’s hilarious. I started watching it with my girlfriend and we’re loving it.
BYT: Come to think of it, I think that might be a good example of almost a punching down thing in a non problematic way. There’s these bad attempts at cooking, and while they’re the source of fun, it’s not cruel.
RG: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the thing, there’s a difference between fun and cruelty. So many comics don’t know where that line is, which is weird because it’s a pretty visible. It’s not like a really difficult line to see. With Nailed It, these people are hilariously bad at cake decorating and I wouldn’t be any better. I would be equally disastrous on that show. That show always makes me feel like everyone is going to leave in a good spirit, which you can’t say about a lot of things.
BYT: I’ve noticed that you’ve been kind of name dropped a lot. In the movie The Oath, a character references your work as evidence that he’s a progressive. Jonathan Weisman mentioned that he had his child read Bad Feminist when you posted the email he sent you. I was just wondering how do you feel about being a pop culture shibboleth for this kind of thinking?
RG: It’s funny. It’s weird. It’s unexpected. I take it in stride, and I take it with good humor. I always find it interesting to see where my name pops up. It’s not something I ever would’ve imagined for my career. I’m just a woman who writes about things that most people don’t care about.
BYT: What’s something that you want to write about in the near future that’s isn’t talked about enough or enough people don’t care about?
RG: I don’t know, I think that a lot of the things that I write about that people used to not care about, but at now people are at least starting to pretend to care. I’m not sure but I’m going to be writing this piece about some recent black plays, two plays and one musical I recently saw by a black playwrights, and that I’m excited to write about. I don’t know, I think they’re pretty exciting.
BYT: Was one of them Slave Play?
RG: Slave Play, Fairview, and A Strange Loop.
BYT: They’re all in New York, right?
RG: Yes, Fairview has been in D.C., Boston, and a couple other cities. The other two were in New York.
BYT: What do you find exciting about what’s going on with theater now? Do you think any other mediums, maybe those in pop culture, can learn from it? Usually what’s happening there is so much more innovative.
RG: I think we’re seeing it recognized and it’s been a long time coming but [it’s always been there], which is hilarious. We’re starting to see more women writing, more women playwrights getting some significant off Broadway and Broadway show. Some black playwrights getting those spaces as well. We have a very long way to go, but at least that it’s starting to happen. A lot of the work is truly edgy, fascinating, hilarious, and uncomfortable. I think that’s what good art is. Hopefully that will trickle across other mediums into literature, which I think does that pretty well as well, but also film and television. We’ll see.
BYT: Going back a little bit, I noticed parallels between what happened with you and Jonathan Weisman and the whole Bret Stephens bedbug thing. There’s a lot of examples of powerful men use their platform to harass and bully others. I realize this has been going on for decades, if not centuries, but it’s more transparent on Twitter. I was just wondering what do you think about this trend and do you think the transparency of social media will make it that they’ll ever learn their lesson?
RG: I think white men, especially heterosexual white men, are used to the world as their oyster, being able to say and do whatever they want without consequence. In many ways that worldview will always be affirmed because of the patriarchy. We’re also seeing a time when people can push back and say, “You know what, you don’t get to walk all over me.” With that guy [who called Stephens a bedbug], it was ridiculous. This thing was so mild, like if the worst thing you’ve ever been called is a bedbug, you’re living a really great live. Jonathan Weisman is just an idiot. I would’ve left it alone but then he emailed my publisher, which is completely bizarre.
BYT: And inappropriate.
RG: Yeah, it’s wildly inappropriate. You’re a deputy editor at The New York Times, what are you doing?
BYT: How has working in a writer’s room changed your perception of TV and pop culture?
RG: I’ve been in two writer’s rooms now, and it’s interesting to see how the sausage gets made. It certainly has made me want to do more. Yeah, it’s just interesting to see that process demystified.
BYT: What is one of the things that you learned maybe that’s surprised you? Or something you wish more audiences knew about how the sausage gets made?
RG: I wish more people understood how collaborative it actually is, and how many different people’s ideas go into an episode, even though at the end of the day there’s generally just one or two writers with their names on the episode. Many hands go into the making of it.
BYT: Is it the person that gets the byline for the episode credit, are they sort of like the point person for the episode? How does that work?
RG: It depends from show to show. In some shows, [one writer] actually does write the entire episode, but often times what they do is they generate ideas with the writer’s room. Then they go off, everyone goes off and writes one or two episodes for the season, and then you come back and you sort of workshop it together. They are the points people, and they certainly deserve the credit, but there’s a lot of behind the scenes work that contributes to that work that is really interesting. It would be cool if more people saw that.
BYT: As someone who’s written tons of nonfiction and novels, short stories, etc, do you enjoy the collaborative process?
RG: I tend to prefer working alone, but I learn a lot from the collaboration and I definitely get a lot from it. I’m definitely enjoying it, and while it’s not something that I would always want to, I do think it’s the best of both worlds. I like to be able to do some of my writing alone, and to do some with other people.
BYT: Now that you’ve worked in two writer’s rooms, what shows have more impressed you with the quality of their writing?
RG: I’m really impressed with the quality of writing on Succession. It’s just really a crisp screenplay, and I always look forward to seeing what’s going to happen next.
BYT: By any chance did you see last night’s?
RG: Not yet.
BYT: Okay, I don’t want spoil it for you. Is there any character on Succession that you maybe identify with more than others, or one that you enjoy watching more?
RG: I think if I had to choose one character, I would probably choose Shiv.
BYT: She seems to have little bit more of a conscience than everybody else, although that’s not saying much.
RG: It’s not, but still!
BYT: When I was preparing for this interview, I couldn’t help but notice that your birthday is next week. Happy early birthday!
RG: Thank you.
BYT: You’re welcome. Are you doing anything to celebrate? Do you like birthdays?
RG: I do. I’m definitely celebrating. My girlfriend is coming and our birthdays are two weeks apart, so we’re going to Vegas. Well she’s coming here for my birthday and then we’re going to Vegas to celebrate our birthdays and our anniversary all …
BYT: That sounds fun.
RG: It will be fun.
BYT: Are you keeping up with movies at all, has working on screenplays changed your interest in them?
RG: No, I write movies, I watch movies, I love them. I see movies every week.
BYT: Yeah, what did you see recently?
RG: Let me think… out of sight, out of mind. I recently saw Booksmart which was cute. Problematic, but cute. I liked the leads, and I can’t remember the other one I watched, but it was on the plane where I watch most movies.
BYT: That makes sense. What about it did you find problematic?
RG: There were very few black characters and certainly no main black characters, and yet it had this soundtrack that was almost all hip-hop. It was very jarring, but I still enjoyed it. It’s a great movie.
BYT: I appreciate you taking the time out of your afternoon to speak with me, and I look forward to seeing you in D.C. when you’re here in a couple of weeks.
RG: Thank you. I look forward to it, too.
Catch Roxane Gay on Oct 26th at Lincoln Theatre as part of the Bentzen Ball.