If Charlyne Yi’s comedy is an acquired taste, it’s not by design. Whether the three minutes of Knocked Up which she dominated as Jodi the Awkward Stoner Girl makes you giggle with delight or cringe with embarrassment, after viewing the contents of her Youtube user account entirely over the past week (some 300 hours of bedroom music videos, stop motion animation experiments, and short films starring two plants in love both voiced by her) two things are clear:
1. Always, from her introduction in Knocked Up to the movie she wrote and starred in, Paper Heart, to her adorable stage shows, [She’s playing tonight and tomorrow at the Arlington Drafthouse!!!] Yi is simply playing slightly more or less goofy versions of herself.
2. She really is trying to be inclusive and a friend to all. There is nothing pretentious about her act. If anything, she is characterized by artlessness, which is exactly what might be annoying people about what she does.
Much like a lot of other “hipster” endeavours, her offhanded coolness and devotion to childlike spontaneity can come off as elitism if you are the kind of person who feels excluded by, say, a campfire singalong. Like a live-action Michel Gondry film or George Saunders story, Charlyne’s relentless positivity and guilelessness is forever aiming at nothing more or less than pure whimsy. And whimsy is really important. If you don’t enjoy that sort of thing, you should never watch tapes of Andy Kaufman or Pee Wee’s Playhouse or Emo Phillips (or for that matter, listen to Jonathan Richman, the Vaselines, or the Hi-Fives) (or watch cartoons or do anything else other than be grumpy about world hunger) (not that Yi isn’t into fighting world hunger actually–she donates a ton of time stumping for Oxfam and just founded a micro-donation charity called Caring is Cool) (end of paragraph).
“But wait,” you might say, “I just find her annoying!” In Paper Heart, she was paired with at-the-time real life boyfriend Michael Sera, both playing themselves making a movie about falling in love, and it became the perfect storm of shy nervous meta-muttering that drove some overly serious film-goers with a low threshold for twee into anger seizures. Fair enough I guess. But behind all the paper dolls and quirk, Paper Heart was actually bitingly honest about love unlike every romantic comedy I have ever seen. Because at its heart, much like the aforementioned Richman or Gondry, her art is about maintaining innocence and everyday joy in the face of the yawning maw of fucking awful that existence actually is built on. We’re going down the slide WHEEEEEEEEEEE there’s darkness at the bottom don’t look at it!
In this phone conversation (which I tried hard to sabotage by starting off as stiltedly as possible, but ended up being much more natural and fun that I’d expected) she mentioned that she had sworn to give up acting just before she got some new (SECRET!) job. I didn’t say this, but I’m really glad she hasn’t fully given up on playing herself in fictional places. We need more people like her in our national consciousness, annoying the squares and giving delight to us grown-ups who refuse (or are unable) to fully grow up.
BYT: I was actually just going to not prepare any questions and just kind of wing it and see how awkward we could get but I bailed on that idea and wrote some questions anyway.
Charlyne Yi: (laughs) Are we pretty awkward yet?
BYT: I’m trying my best!
CY: OK. I brought my friend with me, Armand. He’s sitting here. Ahh my stomach hurts.
BYT: Cool, Hi Armand!
CY: (to Armand) He said “Hi Armand”. (muffled) He says “Hello Sir!”
BYT: That was nice of him.
CY: We ate some bad airport food and now are stomachs are…
BYT: Oh gross, that’s sad.
CY: I know haha sorry.
BYT: So you have this really awesome knack of seeming in a performance like you’re riffing when you’re really playing character but much like I sort of made this awkward right to begin with, does this ever get problematic do people mix your character and you up. Like the character ‘Charlyne Yi’ and you?
CY: Yeah like sometimes I can’t tell who I am. Haha I’m just kidding. I don’t think so. I think we all goof around but I don’t see any harmful problems coming from playing myself all the time.
BYT: That’s good. So your live shows sound really amazing to me and make me want to move to LA. Like the kinds of risks you take onstage — you’re kind of renowned for messing with the audience. Can you talk about some of the more successful risks you’ve taken on stage like where you’re just like I don’t know if this is really going to work but then it does work!
CY: Yeah, oh wait, was there more to that question?
BYT: That was the end of the question.
CY: Great! Perfect timing. I just went to Bloomington Indiana last month and I came there with written material and then a big “I don’t know how this shows going to end” and I was sitting on stage at one point all like “Oh I’m tired I’m going to take a break” and all of a sudden a song comes on and it’s the Beach Boys and I’m like “Oh man I love this song, I sure would like to dance”. So the whole bit just relies on a brave audience member coming up onto the stage and asking me to dance. And usually when I pick someone from the audience I try to pick someone who’s not hammy and isn’t very confident so I guess that’s the problem with someone being confident enough to walk up on stage means that I’m going to have to deal with someone who is not going to take over the stage. So the first night I had this guy come up and we were dancing and then he thought that was the end of the bit and I did too but then I was like “Wait a minute don’t go, what about the rest of our date?” and I had him sit down and he was like “Oh yes-the rest of date” and I was like “Are you an actor? Are you acting right now?” and he was “No, I just got really nervous.” Then we had our first date on stage and we interviewed each other and we asked each other questions and it was really nice because he got really sincere and I think the audience was even like “aww” because he was just being really sincere. Like sharing past breakup stories… and in the end I was like “Well what do you want to do now?” and he was like “Did you write a song about me?” and I was like “I did. Did you write one about me?” and I was like, “You want to sing it together?” and so we just kind of improvised this song on the spot with the guitar and it was like a really nice ending and I had no idea what was going to happen and I didn’t know if I could calm him down because he was very much like “I’m acting right now” and too confident and then I actually hung out with that whole group of people afterwards so it’s nice to meet someone on stage and then after hang out with them.
BYT: Wait that’s not Armand, is it?
BYT: I said, that’s not Armand, the guy in the car with you?
CY: Oh no no, that’s not Armand. Haha. OOOOOOhh Armand.
BYT: So I was going to ask if you take those kind of risks when you go out on tour and it sounds like you do and it sounds like you kind of have the same mix of magic and music and improvisational stuff in the with the capital J jokes in every show that you do. Is that right?
CY: Yeah I try to. Unless, of course, I’m completely terrified of the audience and I think they’re going to beat me up or something. I played Chicago and I called on audience participants and it went terribly and they hated me so I stopped interacting with them. I learned my lesson.
BYT: So there have been some crowds that are like “we’re at a comedy club, what is this thing going on?”
CY: Yeah, but sometimes that makes me want to do it (more) because of the challenge. But I think with this particular crowd they were really rowdy and it wouldn’t work with someone who was completely wasted on stage.
BYT: That makes sense. So you’ve seemed to be in a real music making mode in the past year or so? You’re in what looks to me, a million bands. How many bands are you really associated with, would you say roughly?
CY: Well, it’s difficult to say because in my main band Old Lumps when they perform we’ll invite our friends on the stage and be like “Oh do you want to play something?” so then we have to make up a name. So it seems like I have a lot of bands when really I just have, like, four real bands that I can go to if the main band can’t play but there’s a lot of names that I’m throwing out there of bands. part of the fun of having a band is coming up with a silly name…
BYT: That’s one of the best parts.
CY: So-I have one million bands.
BYT: Yes, exactly one million. Has Old Lumps or you solo ever considered doing like a huge national tour type thing?
CY: Oh – with Old Lumps?
BYT: Yeah or just you just doing music?
CY: Yeah, that would be awesome but I don’t know who would pay me to do that. I did a small tour this summer with my band and we were barely able to make enough money to reimburse ourselves. I mean we just did it all ourselves like “Oh, lets go on tour for no reason” but I didn’t know it would be fun
BYT: They are fun but like you said: hard to do just for the love. So I wanted to talk about Paper Heart. I thought it was so so so good and everyone reading this should go watch it now.
CY: Wait do you mean like “so so”?
BYT: No, I said GOOD at the end! There were just that many goods, those were like multiplier good it was like so times so times so good.
CY: Oh OK.
BYT: Particularly I wanted to ask about the animations you did. You know – the stories and the documentary parts. Did you make those/were those all of your creations and if so….Did you get that idea from the stories like “Oh these would be perfect to make these paper animations for” or was that always the idea from the beginning?
CY: That was always the idea. I think with a lot of documentaries it’s usually just a talking head with stock footage and I didn’t want to do that and we also didn’t have original footage from the events. Originally we were going to do it with stop animation but I didn’t know how to do that. I also didn’t know how to make puppets…the original puppets I made were really detailed and creepy and realistic!
BYT: [laughs] Like from Mr. Rogers?
CY: I kind of locked myself in my room for months making these puppets and finally decided the simpler versions were less creepy. Nick (the director) would visit me every once in a while and be real concerned about me. “I have to finish these puppets!” But we didn’t have enough time to do stop motion so we just tried to hide our hands or embrace the fact that we had hands by incorporating it. We didn’t know what stories we were going to get along the road until after we watched all the documentary footage. And so we tried to pick stories that were visually interesting too. Something we could pull off. So all that is unscripted but all the B-line story between Michael, Me and Jake Johnson is fictional.
BYT: You made that movie almost single-handedly: writing, producing, starring, designing all the animations…what did you learn from that experience about movie making in general?
CY: It was really difficult. We didn’t know what we were doing. I think the one good thing is that we had over 500 hours of footage. So cutting it together was more like fitting puzzle pieces together, finding the story, since so much of it was improv. Also the factual documentary stuff we just tried to film all time and there were a lot of moments that we missed that we really wish we had. I’m glad we cut something together because with the first cut of the movie we did was so bad. We were just eating our food all sadly going “What have we done. I’m so embarrassed. I could never show this to anyone.”
BYT: I’m glad you didn’t keep that version!
CY: Yeah me too!
BYT: Would you do it again, make another movie as an autuer?
CY: Sure, I like making stuff. Actually I said I would never act again but then I just got an acting job so I’m kind of embarrassed I said that. But I really just wanted to make things and with this acting job I get to improvise and stuff. I do prefer to create things behind the scenes, like this non-profit I’m trying to start. I don’t think I like acting very much. I don’t have that much range. I mean I like it but…when I was a child and in plays you could play, like, a cowboy, and usually now people want to send me on auditions for The Wacky Neighbor or like, Someone Who Does Karate. Strange things I’m not interested in.
BYT: But you did take this latest job. Can you say anything about it or is it Secrets?
CY: Oh no, I just found out about it. I’m kinda nervous about it actually. We’ll see.
BYT: Well don’t worry I saw your Saturday Night Live Audition tape, and I think you’ve got a hell of a range.
CY: Haha thanks.
BYT: Well in some ways Paper Heart was about the dangers of overthinking love. Do you think that applies to comedy too? So much of your act seems so natural and in the moment. Is it dangerous to think too much about your jokes?
CY: I think so. Even if you do plan something out you never know how it’s going to go. Usually an audience can feel when someone’s putting on a show and not being genuine. So it is really about winning them over. I’ve had some shows I know where people were standoffish to my…Strange Performance [laughs] and in the middle I’m like, “Oh No I’ve scared them. I have to win them over…” and then I win them over and it’s such a great feeling. “See, we’re all friends, right?” It’s about having a real experience with the audience and you can both feel when it’s not going right.
BYT: You do a lot of Youtubing, both comedy and music. Is the spontaneity of going from conception to release in as little as one night really important to you?
CY: Sometimes when I can’t get out on stage and perform somewhere I really need that outlet. The process of writing and making things is such a long one, there’s just something really fun about not really caring…well caring in the moment and having passion about something silly. Not worrying about how it’s going to be perceived, just having to get it out there. So many of those projects are all about “Hey Sleepover! All my friends come over and make something!” Not really that they sleep over but just, let’s do something fun and we’ll see what happens.
BYT: That sounds like a winning mantra in my opinion. Thank you so much for talking to me, I hope it wasn’t either too awkward or not awkward enough!
CY: No, I think it’s fine.
BYT: Hopefully it was the perfect amount.
Get incredibly comfortable with Charlyne all weekend at the Arlington Drafthouse, where she will be putting on a show like no comedy show you have ever seen. We personally guarantee it will change your life, at least for an hour or so.