Many of us have, at some point, asserted that we “don’t feel like leaving the house.” It may take a few days, several long naps, and many hours of Criminal Minds reruns, but eventually most of us manage to get out the front door and back to our regularly-scheduled lives. Sara Benincasa, not so much. You may know Benincasa from the spot-on Sarah Palin impression she perfected back in 2008, or perhaps from her take on a vlogging Peggy Olson. Perhaps you’re heard the sex-and-relationship show she formerly hosted for Cosmo Radio on Sirius XMchannel, or tuned in to the more mental-health-focused “Sex and Other Human Activities,” podcast she currently hosts with fellow funny person Marcus Parks. Or maybe you’ve seen her sharing a bathtub with luminaries like Margaret Cho and Donald Glover on her web chat show, Gettin’ Wet with Sara Benincasa.
But, as revealed in Benincasa’s new memoir, getting out in the world has been both more difficult and more mordantly funny than you might imagine. Based on her one-woman show of the same name, Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom is the story of how one girl’s anxious, clenched-sphincter childhood blossomed into adolescent panic attacks and then, as a college student, into full-blown agoraphobia. Along the way, there’s public embarrassment (Benincasa’s panic attacks curtail a school trip to the beach, to the chagrin of a tanning-obsessed gaggle of New Jersey mean girls), family confusion (at the hight of a panic attack, she subjects her mother to four and a half hours of the same Dave Matthews Band song) and cereal bowls full of urine (at a particularly challenging juncture during college, she developed a fear of toilets.)
There’s also a revelation: This is not a recovery narrative, and Benincasa isn’t cured by a new medication, a folksy Robin Williams-esque medical figure, or the love of her life. She’s here, she’s got irrational fear, she’s used to it.
That said, many of the book’s most enjoyable moments come once Benincasa begins managing her anxiety and can not only leave her room, but have the kind of adventures that comedy dreams are made of—interning for a monstrously narcissistic New Age guru at a Pennsylvania retreat center, for instance.
Read on for Benincasa’s thoughts on a whole bunch of stuff—sex, writing, pop culture, and, of course, the dreaded women-in-comedy conversation.
As someone who is now pretty widely recognized for your comedy, is it weird to realize that you’re going to be talking at length about a time in your life when you were literally afraid to leave your room?
Oh, I’m really freaked out by it. I’m really excited about it, but I’m also scared about it. I did the show partly because, I mean, writing is really lonely. I wanted to workshop the material in front of a live audience to find out what was funny and what was sad and what worked and what didn’t. And I also wanted the companionship of having an audience there because I knew that inevitably I would have to spend long stretches of time alone with myself, which is something that freaks me out sometimes.
I talked to a friend who is a very successful self-published author, Amanda Hocking. St. Martin’s is republishing her work, newly edited versions of the novels that she’s already put out online. We talked about the anxiety of meeting people who have read your work, about being excited about it but also [being] nervous and just kind of wanting to hide. I’m a lot more, I think, outgoing than Amanda is, but… my default setting is hiding in my room, whether it’s in an agoraphobic way or just in a hiding-from-the-world way. And they’re different, I think. Even when I’m doing really well and taking my meds regularly and going to therapy and doing all of those things, I still most of the time would rather just be hiding in my room. So the fight against that instinct will be very interesting.
I think there is this idea that if you’re doing something in public that must be the way you always are. People misunderstand the idea that one part of your life or one part of your personality is very public and outgoing but then the other part is that you really want to be alone and you don’t necessarily thrive on the attention that on the one hand you’re seeking, but on the other hand is just one thing about you.
I find that while I feed off of the attention, it also can become addictive in an unhealthy way. And particularly since I work as a writer primarily on the Internet, I’m really used to the immediate gratification of a response,. Whether it is positive or negative; it still functions as affirmation: Yes, you exist; yes, you are real; yes, you have a voice; yes, people are paying attention to you. And to write a book, you really have to put that aside and you have to believe in your project enough to commit to it long before anybody else sees it. And it’s weird.
You were among the female comedians called on recently by the Huffington Post to address the perennial but always annoying question of whether funny women are finally getting the recognition they deserve, thanks to things like Bridesmaids. Is the worst thing about being a female comedian that you’re constantly being asked to answer questions like, “Are women really funny?” or “Has funny women’s time finally come?”
At first I enjoyed [those questions]. I still enjoy them a little bit, but it’s getting increasingly annoying just because I have answered them so many times now. And I’m not even someone who is a household name, so I can only imagine how many times others have to answer that question. I was reading something interesting that [fellow comic] Jen Kirkman wrote on her blog about the recent controversy with the booker for Letterman, Eddie Brill—who I know and who I like, but whose comments recently in the New York Times about female comics being less “authentic” than male comics, I really violently disagreed with. And Jen blogged about how she gets asked those questions [about women and comedy] all the time. And I do too. In one way, it feels like a privilege and an honor to get to answer those questions, because it means that I’ve done enough to have some kind of authority, or I just know enough people who need quotes. [But] I think within a few years I’m going to get really sick of it.
I was reading something that Margaret Cho said in an interview—that all women doing comedy are making feminist comedy whether they choose to define it that way or not.
I completely agree with that. When you get on stage, you’re implicitly saying “My voice is worth listening to.” And that is a radical act in, not as much in our culture now, but certainly if you look at the entire world. There are cultures where a woman would be violently punished for doing such a thing.
I guess the place where I get tripped up with that is with someone like, for instance, Joan Rivers, who was a groundbreaking comedian, one of the first women to do it and own it and make a career out of it. But if you look at her comedy now, she’s just making fat jokes on E!. She herself can be seen as a feminist figure, but that doesn’t mean the humor is feminist.
Maybe part of feminism is earning the right to be a cunt in public, like Joan Rivers, rather than just being bitchy behind closed doors. I have so much respect for [Rivers] for what she did. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if she hadn’t done what she did and what she continues to do. I think she’s not necessarily anti-woman, I think her shtick now is being critical, puncturing hubris in a very basic kind of way. And sometimes, making terrible, terrible statements. But I think even her making those statements, especially as an older woman, that’s pretty badass. When do we allow older women a voice like that?
One of the things you became well-known for were your impressions of Sarah Palin and then, more recently, of Michelle Bachmann. How do you feel about the idea that women who consider themselves feminist have a responsibility to support any and all women who kind of enter the political arena in a big way?
I strongly disagree with that, particularly when the women who have entered the political arena are actively seeking to achieve goals that would legally limit other women’s rights over their bodies. When these women aren’t just speaking their minds, they’re actively trying to limit women’s rights, I think that’s pretty terrible. The reason that I parody women is because that’s who I can play. There are some women who are great at playing men. I’m not. I think it would be really awesome if I were able to…to play Newt Gingrich, that would be great. I think Amy Poehler could do it. I can’t do it, but if I could, I would.
On “Sex and Other Human Activities,” you and your co-host seem to really revel in plumbing the intersections of sexuality and neurosis.
Oh we definitely do. The primary forces driving both Marcus and I have been sex and struggle with mental illness. And so we talk about that a lot and they do intersect frequently, and not just when you’re taking medication that prevents you from getting a boner or prevents you from achieving orgasm. I think they intersect often. I mean, Marcus will talk about how when he’s manic he will have lots and lots of sex and for me, I think that I often seek out sex and love as a way to fill a void, a spiritual void even, as a way to deal with loneliness. Some people use drink, some people use drugs, some people use food. I’m not a sex addict, but I do see how I—and lots of people I know, actually—seek to fill the void with a relationship of some kind relating to another human being. So we talk a lot about that..
A lot of your work sort of hinges on pop culture—you’ve vlogged as Peggy from Mad Men; you also did a story for a Marvel Comics Anthology called Shame Itself. What are some of your pop culture fixations?
I am trying to get into Downton Abbey. I’m bored with it so far. I mean, I grew up with privileged white people, I am a privileged white person, so I’m just not interested in privileged white people having feelings.
I don’t watch it either, and I feel like I have to because everyone is talking about it. It’s kind of like The Wire, except it’s the polar opposite of The Wire.
I try to watch it and I’m just like, “I don’t really care what’s happening.” Maybe it’ll take me awhile. My friends are very adamant that [I] must watch it. I really like New Girl, though. I know it’s not cool to enjoy that show, but I really like it. I would love to write for that show. And I’m lately very fixated on the idea of Miley Cyrus’s future career. She did this version of Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” for an Amnesty International album, and she just knocked it out of the park. It’s very sparely produced, there’s no Auto-tuning…. I am obsessed with Miley Cyrus becoming a folk and alt-country star. This is really what I think needs to happen for her and I am available to consult on what she should do.
Get more Sara at her website, sarabenincasa.com. Agorafabulous! is available at fine independent bookstores near you.