On The Couch with Sara Schaefer

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sara schaefer

The patient is clearly optimistic and excited about the future, which is a nice change from my usual clientele. She speaks with a wealth of wisdom on her experiences in a creative field, revealing a highly analytical mind that is constantly thinking—thinking about her next show, about her new podcast, about advice she has heard from other comedians along her professional journey. I detect a hint of reservation in her answers; perhaps an indication that she is constantly aware of the tenuous nature of all of this success. This anxiety is not unusual, but it is especially egregious here. Sara Schaefer already has a successful podcast and MTV show behind her, with a new podcast, LIES on WYNC, and new album, Chrysalis, paving the way for future success. And it is not hard to imagine a bright future for this comedian, even if she sometimes seems doubtful of herself.

When and why did you start performing comedy?

Why? I didn’t get attention from my parents [laughs]. No, no, probably I was always drawn towards comedy because it was a way, in middle school and growing up in my teenage years, to deflect teasing. I would use jokes to kind of beat everybody to the punch. If I thought I was going to be made fun of at school, I would just do it myself, y’know? “I’m a nerd!” It was a way to say, “Ha! You can’t make fun of me, because I’m already doing it to myself.” And that’s how my comedy is now, it’s very self-deprecating, and so it definitely speaks to that feeling. By the time I graduated college, I was thinking, “Oh, maybe I can do this for a career.” It took over a decade, but I think I did it, I think I figured it out. At least on how to make money.

Has your comedic style changed since you first started standup?

There have been a few obvious changes to it. Before, I was doing songs and incorporating new media stuff, basically just anything except telling jokes. I was afraid; I didn’t know if I had anything to say, so I would just come up with bits that I would do. Eventually, I made the decision to stop using any media and just started talking, and figuring out how to make people laugh with just my voice. That was a very difficult transition, but I figured it out. Fundamentally, I’ve always been a storyteller, and in everything I do, I try to tell a story. I got away from that for a little while, trying to figure out how to tell short jokes to try to get on TV—doing a short, five-minute set is a skill in its own right. A five-minute set is your way of auditioning for things. But now that I’ve been doing longer shows, and I’ve done this album, I’m starting to get back to telling stories again and taking my time with it, because now I know how to incorporate short jokes into those stories. I think that goes with the theme of my album, which is discovery and change, and figuring things out growing up. I called it Chrysalis not only because I felt that there was a thematic connection in my material, but also because this material represents me developing as a comedian. This is my first album, and this is the first set of jokes I feel ready to put out into the world, and I feel like that’s a reflection of a really long development and figuring out my voice.

Do you have a favorite form of comedy? You do a lot.

Just simply from how long I’ve been doing it, I definitely think standup is what I’ll always go back to. There’s just nothing like that feeling of doing a great show in front of a group of people. What I’m starting to think is my true passion, however, is TV. I love TV, and I wedged my way into that world, and as soon as the doors creaked open a little, I became obsessed with getting to do that more. I really enjoy production—I enjoy the collaborative process that it takes. Even though I love the control of doing standup, I think, long term, what really makes me happy is working on TV projects.

I loved your show, Nikki and Sara Live, which was cancelled after two seasons. Has that experience impacted how you approach comedy?

Oh yeah. It was MTV, so it was a crazy environment. We didn’t have complete freedom, MTV is very specific; they know what their audience wants. I think we had to use those limitations to be more and more creative, which I actually think benefitted us. I think limitations are really great for creativity. After it was over, I made a post on my website of all of my favorite moments from the show, and I was gravitating towards the stuff that was more sketch-oriented. I don’t really care about interviewing somebody famous. I want there to be another layer to it, a comedic angle to it. What I found from doing that show is that I wanted to transition from doing talk shows to doing more sketch, more satire, in a scripted show. That’s what I really loved about the more sketch-y stuff.

It’s been hard, because coming out of that show, people are like, “You’re a host, so you can do red carpet stuff, and you can do host-y things. Can you host this game show?” And this was the first time in my life I was in a position to say ‘no’ to something, which is so amazing but also so terrifying. I have a crazy resume because I was always like, “Oh, I’ll do that!” and take on weird jobs that make no sense, that never existed before. But now I feel like I can take my time and find that thing that really is me at my best, and that utilizes my talents to the maximum. Finally, some things are starting to happen, which is really great.

How did your childhood impact your comedy?

I wasn’t a class clown—I mean, maybe a little. I guess some people get “voted” class clown, but we didn’t really have that. I think I would just try to avoid getting teased by beating people to the punch. I was drawn to the boys and girls in the class who were funny and get into bits with them, and I was obsessed with Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. My big thing was going to school and reenacting the comedy things I had seen over the weekend. I was also in a big family. I had three siblings and I was sort of the middle. You can’t be the middle when there’s four kids, but I was the middle girl, and the other middle was a boy, so he kind of got a little extra attention, in my mind at least, because he was the only boy. I definitely found that even in my own family, a way to get attention was to be entertaining, and be funny, and put myself in the spotlight. My family loves to laugh, and I find everyone in my family to be very funny, so we would just do anything we could growing up to make each other laugh. It was always a way of dealing with hard things.

I wouldn’t say comedians are normal people, just because we filter things in life in such a different way.

Do you find that comedians have bruised egos, or that they can be narcissistic? I feel like that’s a stereotype of standup comics.

I wouldn’t say comedians are normal people, just because we filter things in life in such a different way. Standup is almost like an art, in that you absorb things from the world around you, let it simmer inside your brain, and spit it back out. So I think that can be unusual, and I think something that differentiates comedians from other artists is that there’s really such a fine line between who you are in real life and who you are on stage, and people often don’t realize that you aren’t that exact person. I find most comedians to be extremely sensitive, and just very aware of other human interactions around them, because that’s the kind of medium we’re dealing with. On stage, you’re up there, and if it doesn’t go well, and you’re spilling your guts about something very personal, that hurts. It’s really harsh. For me, the line between my stage and real persona is almost non-existent; who I am on stage is very close to who I am in real life. I’ve actually had to work to separate myself a little, because I’m very vulnerable up there. A lot of people say that’s what they like about my material, but I need some distance, because it feels very much like you’re exploiting yourself. When a set doesn’t go well, you’re like, “I just gave it all away for nothing.” I think there’s definitely people who have giant egos in any field. As a comedian, you have to be very self-reflective, and that can be mistaken for narcissism, because you have to parse out your feelings in front of others. It’s like anything though, there’s some assholes and there are some normal people, but we do have a special bond because what we do is unique. There is this feeling when you’re around a bunch of comedians, like, “We’re amongst our own.” We understand the language that we use to talk about our lives and our careers.

Have you ever bombed on stage? How did that make you feel?

I don’t think you can be a comedian without bombing. I feel sorry for someone who doesn’t bomb, because you learn nothing and you can’t get better. There are so many different layers to bombing. If you bomb really bad, you think, “Something was wrong.” You definitely know that you did things that were wrong—”I shouldn’t have paid attention to that guy with the weird laugh,” or whatever. It’s the in-between sets where you don’t do great but there’s chuckling, that’s frustrating, because I don’t know what I did wrong. In your mind you think you bombed, but then you’ll get off stage and another comedian will say, “You were doing fine, they just aren’t a loud crowd.” The only way to deal with it productively is to examine what you had control over. A lot of things are out of your control, and part of it is letting go of that control. That’s my thing, just keep going and don’t say anything. I always make notes after I get off stage; “Don’t forget to say this line,” or, “That worked.” I’ll do weekends sometimes at clubs when it’s just not a good weekend, it’s a holiday or something, and I’m not that famous, I’m not getting a lot of my own fans coming in. I know the whole weekend will be hard, so I’ll remind myself, “Don’t mention that you’re bombing.” If you say it every once and a while, “Oh man, this isn’t going well, ha ha,” the audience laughs, but if you keep bringing it up, it’s like, God, this is getting sad. And at the end of the day, I could have a really terrible weekend at a club, but the fact that I’m getting paid for it brings me so much satisfaction that I don’t care. That’s what I always remember when it’s not going well.

Don’t go up on stage and fuck around. Why would you waste that valuable time? You never know who’s in the audience.

You’ve recently moved to L.A., and you’ve done comedy in New York as well. Which city has the best comedy scene?

That’s so subjective, it depends on who you are, where you are in your career, what you’re trying to accomplish. Every city has its own advantages and disadvantages. New York is supposedly the best, which I agree with, it’s an extremely good place to live to get good at comedy. But I started in New York and some people were like, “You shouldn’t have done that. When you start there, it’s really hard, and you can make a bad first impression.” There’s this whole concept of start in a small, local scene, get your feet wet, and then go to New York, or L.A., or Chicago. And then when you arrive, you’ve at least figured out the basics, and you’re not making a fool of yourself. I didn’t know anything when I came here. In some ways, maybe I should have had that “diving in” experience somewhere safer, but in the end, it worked out fine. And then L.A. has more work in terms of television opportunities. But you don’t want to come to LA too early so you have experience when you go there, so you’re not just invisible among a thousand people who are doing the same thing as you. I’m more surprised when I go to a random city in this country and there’s a great local scene. Like, Bloomington, North Carolina has a great local scene. I performed there last summer, and I’ll be back there in May. All the local comedians came to all the shows, and they let local comedians take turns opening, so I got to see everybody, and they were all really strong. And I thought, “Oh, this is great! You have this really awesome community supporting you.”

You have a new podcast, Lies, on WNYC, but before that, you hosted a podcast with Nikki Glaser. What draws you to the podcast medium?

With Nikki and I, there was just so much freedom. It was early on in the podcast “boom,” so it was a little different at the time. There were less women in podcasts, and so we were able to make a standout podcast right from the beginning. It was just total freedom, and I liked just talking. I was surprised, like, “Who even wants to listen to this?” I don’t really listen to podcasts, it’s not my thing, I’m not into it. I prefer music. But making them is fun. It’s also a very nimble, flexible medium to do. With Lies, I hope we get to do more. I’ve been waiting to see what WNYC wants to do with it. I’m used to doing this on my own, so when I have to wait around for someone to go, “Yeah, we’ll do some more,” I’m like, “I used to do these on my own in my apartment!” But with partnering with someone like them, it’s a whole new audience, and they’ve been so supportive. I’m coming to New York to host a fundraiser for them, and I’m like, “Can we do my podcast?” So we’ll see.

How has comedy affected your mental health?

It’s my medium. I consider myself a creative person and an artist, and it’s how I express myself and get my ideas out into the world. It’s how I deal with difficult things in my life. Being in the comedy business can be extremely detrimental to your mental health if you’re not keeping everything in check, and if you let the monsters take over in your brain. It’s just such a hard business. You really get treated like crap by a lot of really different elements in this business. Everybody thinks that they’re the experts on what’s funny. When people say that women aren’t funny, I want to say, “You don’t find that woman you saw funny. That doesn’t mean all women aren’t funny.” That’s just such an ignorant thing to say. I think because it’s subjective, it can be very difficult, especially if you start comparing yourself to your peers. If there’s somebody you don’t think is that funny getting all of this success, you’re just like, “Well, what does that mean?” It’s kind of a mind fuck sometimes. You have to be very vigilant so you don’t let those negative thoughts overtake you. I’ve definitely struggled with it a lot, and when I let it take over, I become paralyzed and unmotivated and bad. It’s such a mystery, “How did that person get that thing that I want?” Some of it is just luck, some of it is who you know. It’s all a bunch of tiny factors coming together in a perfect storm. People ask me, “How did you get a TV show?” and I’m just like, “How much time do you have?” There were so many tiny steps that took place, and chance meetings. You could trace it back to a show I did in New York and there was someone in the audience who ended up working at MTV later, which is just so tiny. I just try to remind myself of those things, because it’s always about working hard and not wasting time. Don’t go up on stage and fuck around. Why would you waste that valuable time? You never know who’s in the audience.