You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
Patti Harrison is a New York-based comedian who has had a standout year. After President Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets declaring that trans people should be banned from serving in the military this summer, Harrison appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to share her take on the president's decision. "Donald, you’re so stupid. You’re lucky you’re hot."
"Now I don’t necessarily want to serve the military, but I want the right to serve," she quipped. "It’s like, I don’t want to go to your baby shower, but I want the invite."
After her appearance, Harrison's star power only grew as she made headlines and served as a Comedy Central correspondent at San Diego Comic Con. Broadly spoke with the comedian about turning down roles "where the whole point of the character is a vehicle to make jokes about chicks with dicks and trannies" and her hopes for what will happen during Trump's second year in office.
BROADLY: Looking back at 2017, what work are you proud of?
PATTI HARRISON: I’m proud that I got out of my bedroom. I’m also proud that I busted my ass to get a lot of work in different projects and I went up for stuff that I didn’t think I would be cast for because I’m trans. I think a lot of my time introspectively is "I could never go up for that, never audition or apply to that" because they’re not going to hire a trans person for that. This year has been a lot of me quelling this voice and saying, "Fuck it, I’ll do it" and seeing what happens. And if nothing happens, I can confirm with myself that the whole thing is evil.
There was a lot of stuff that I did this year that I was very nervous and not comfortable going into it and now I feel proud that I did it or even just booked it. Even if I didn’t get it, at least I went up for it and the experience was not as bad as I thought it was going to be.
Is there any project in particular that you look back at and think "Wow, I did that."
The Tonight Show was a life-changing experience. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that was hard because they have a whole team of people who are brilliant and very kind and made the whole process very easy. That was the least grueling part of my year. It was nice because it was during an especially horrible time to be trans and listening to the news. I’m also proud that I stuck to my guns.
Could you tell me a bit more about how you’ve stuck to your guns this year?
There were times when I was approached to do things because I am trans. The people approaching me were not really familiar with my work or my comedy. The roles were kind of degrading and stereotypical. It was very stressful to say no. I’m not some fiery, super-confident warrior all the time that can just say, "Fuck that, no, sorry!" It was stressful because they were big opportunities but I can’t morally live with myself if I said yes to this, like, prostitute character that is written by a cis-person. It’s like wow, this feels fully bad. In saying no to those things, there were moments after where I felt bad. Then, other things came along. It opened up space.
Recently, model and actress Hari Nef has started asking people not to label her trans identity in headlines in an attempt to add an agenda to her work. How do you feel when people label you as a "trans comedian?"
I saw that with Hari and I think that’s really great. On one hand, it’s important in terms of visibility that you are trans and a part of a marginalized community. That is widely valuable in terms of representation.
But the problem with this idea of diverse representation is that not all representation is great representation. Simply having a marginalized person on screen or in a campaign doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job. It’s when you make a trans character a sex worker, then she’s sassy, and you’re playing into tropes. She loves making jokes about having a dick. If that’s your story, that’s great. But that’s the only representation until very recently that we’ve seen. If you get pigeon-holed into this one label of your identity, then it’s very frustrating and it’s not rewarding artistically.
Putting stereotypes in a campaign isn’t positive representation. With The Tonight Show, that was very pertinent to what was happening in the news. I was brought on because the writers there wanted to bring on an actual trans person to speak about the trans military ban. They didn’t want to have another show where someone who is not dealing with the real anxiety of the issue speaking about it. In that case, it didn’t bother me that I was introduced as trans comic. It’s important to specify that in terms of the context of what was happening. But when it’s just me as a comedian, people don’t bring me on as "up next, trans comic Patti Harrison."
It makes sense to label in context of political work. I’ve been brought on to share how it feels to be a trans person who is acting and writing in the Trump administration. But that’s only a small portion of the rest my interests. It is a part of my life, and a big part of my life, it shades my entire experience of how people interact with me and how I feel walking out the door. But in terms of Hari Nef, that’s incredible. Of course, be treated like a person. It’s nice to not be reminded that you are othered by society every minute of every day.
We’re now preparing to enter the second year of the Trump administration, how do you feel compared to last year?
I haven’t really felt any frustration in the past year. I haven’t felt sad or bad, to be honest, I’ve never felt sad or bad. I’m sure eventually I will feel frustrated. This past year has been so much fun for everyone and everyone has been laughing. Love wins, love is love is love is love. I voted for Donald Trump over 45 times so everything is going exactly as I planned.
No, last year, it was shocking, but not surprising. It confirmed all these suspicions I had. We were hoping it wasn’t true, hoping there are not so many people like this in the world. In a way, Trump is just a manifestation, he is a deep cystic zit. He is the deep-seated racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, all of these things that is wrong with America. They all came to a head with Trump.
Now that awful cystic zit that is Trump has exploded, do you think we've learned from that?
My skin last year was so much thinner and it’s really sad because last year when I was hearing the news about stuff, I would just weep and cry at work. It was so insane, this is how it starts. Things are beginning to change in a horrible way.
This past year, even though it has been horrific in an unfathomable amount of ways, there has been hope in seeing how many people come out to push back. In small ways he is being held accountable for things but it’s also in the background of my mind that I’m in New York—am I just in a little bubble? Is what I’m seeing a very small representation of what is actually happening in the minds of the American people. You never know.
I feel more hopeful and not as horrified all the time. I’m sure we’re going to get vaporized by some bomb but I’m sure it will be some bomb that explodes by accident here and not from some other country.
It’s going to land in the Hudson.
It’s going to make a funny whistle sound, like from the cartoons. I would hope that some Wes Anderson stuff happens that it makes the whistle noise but it wouldn’t explode. It would be a dud, but then there would be a moment where everyone gathers to see what he has done.