Comedian, Rachel Sennott on How to be Funny

Before Rachel Sennott and I formally start our interview at a bakery in Bushwick, she recognizes a couple of comics who walk in shortly after we sit down. She strikes up a conversation with them, making a quick joke about the trendy joint’s vegan banana bread, and then asks if they are coming from a show at a nearby venue. Her banter is quick and charismatic, and the exchange is charmingly friendly.

She mentions to me that when she first started doing stand-up she wasn’t as privy to the social aspect of the scene as she is now. She thinks back to her earlier days going up at open mics: “I didn’t understand that comics are all friends with each other. So people would come up to me and try to talk to me and be friendly and I would… not talk.” She laughs at the thought of this now, and while watching her chat with acquaintances over baked goods, I can see why.

Sennott is a New York-based, up-and-coming stand-up comedian, actor, and writer — a common trifecta in the world of comedy. “I get nervous that people will start to see me as one over the others, but my dream is not to be a touring stand-up or to act on a sitcom necessarily,” she explains. “Ideally, I want to be writing and acting in my own stuff, and then doing shows as well.”

The entertainer qualifies her career ambitions, perhaps because of the grind she puts in on the stand-up side of things. To an outsider of the comedy scene, it would seem that someone who goes up on open mics or books shows multiple times a night, every night of the week, might be in it to solely be a touring comic. But when it comes to comedy and all its facets — writing, acting, and performing — being on the scene as much as possible is essential because it gets people to know your face and what you do, Sennott explains. It is where you meet your collaborators to work in the other mediums.

I ask Sennott about collaboration — specifically her thoughts on the tendency for comics to pair off into writing partnerships. Expecting an initial answer about partners having similar comedic or creative impulses, I am surprised when she gives me an answer about its practicality, which is basically this: two comics together know more people than one comic.

But it’s not only about cultivating a broader network than you might by yourself — it’s about having someone to hold you accountable and help discipline your creative work schedule. Also, Sennott says, writing with another person — whether it’s a sketch, stand-up set, or feature film — can keep you from writing a joke that sucks.

When all is said and done, getting a laugh depends on the observation, the irony, or the insanity, as perceived by an audience — not the person who wrote the joke. In this way, having a partner to bounce ideas off of works as a potential safeguard from the unfunny.

Sennott belongs to a couple writing partnerships of her own. She and fellow comic and writer Moss Perricone co-host a monthly basement show in Brooklyn together called Puke Fest, which has been running over a year. The premise of the show is that at the top of each comic’s set, one of the hosts will tell you something you can expect the other comic to do or say during their set. The audience then will take a mixed drink shot every time the comic does or says that particular thing. I can tell you from personal experience the show is always a good time, and audiences can regularly expect an awesome lineup of some of New York’s funniest.

For Sennott, hosting shows like Puke Fest is a fun way to maintain old connections and create new ones. To her, it is important not only to do stand-up and work on her own material, but to also support fellow comics and make sure they have a good time doing their sets at her show.

For all the strides Sennott has made over the past several years since starting stand-up in college, the path was not without its obstacles.

We discuss the reality that comedy is, in general, a male dominated industry. Sennott explains to me how the gender imbalance manifests at its worst for female comics, especially those who are just starting out their careers.

She recalls a past experience where she got booked on a show with some comics who were more established than her — an exciting move for someone who is working hard at moving up in the scene. After the show, the host who booked her continuously asked her out, even after multiple refusals. After refusing his advances a final time, the host lashed out and said that his interest in her was the only reason she had been booked on the show in the first place. “It made me feel like I wasn’t actually good at comedy, and that I was being taken advantage of as a woman who was young and trying to get ahead.”

Since then, Sennott has continued to field sexual harassment from male comics, so much so that she has a running spreadsheet of every time she’s been harassed on social media. She jokes that she could out all of them right now, but “it wouldn’t do anything because none of them are funny enough to be successful, and no one would care” — a brutal truth to face in light of cases like Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. in recent years.

Lucky for us, Sennott’s frustrating experiences with harassment haven’t deterred her from working. Instead, she has mined them for smart stand-up material that “punches down” and gets laughs every time. In addition to her continued stand-up shows at notable venues around NYC like Union Hall and Caroline’s, you can catch her on HBO’s High Maintenance, and as the lead in the 2018 SXSW short film, Shiva Baby by director Emma Seligman — a project she is particularly excited about.

Seligman is Sennott’s other writing partner, and after their run at the SXSW Film Festival back in March of this year, they are working together on the feature version of Shiva Baby in which Sennott will again play the lead. Additionally, Sennott continues to write and produce her own video sketches like Babysitter’s Club,” “Internships,” or ATM — a laugh-out-loud funny depiction of her real life day job as an ATM mechanic.

From her prolific social media presence, to her online sketches and stand-up, Sennott’s advice for other aspiring female comedians is to follow suit. Go up every night that you can, produce your own content, value your connections, be friendly, and keep putting yourself out there. And in my opinion, it doesn’t hurt if you’re as funny as she is while doing it.

Rachel Cantor is a Brooklyn-based writer of articles, screenplays, short stories, bios, tweets, letters of recommendation, or anything else you may need her to write. Her interests range from film and fiction to politics and beauty, all through a sociocultural lens. Occasionally she’ll also try to make jokes, but don’t mind her.

Photo credit: Juan Hurtado.

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