#100. JULIA SEGAL - “An Internet celebrity.”
Truthfully, I chose Julia Segal for this project because I want to be her friend.
About a year ago, Julia blew up seemingly out of nowhere on the 140-character micro-blogging website Twitter. Twitter can be used a number of ways by comedians; either as a networking tool full of @replies and links to promotions and shows or as a platform to try out one-liners.
Julia is the latter. Her Twitter (@juliasegal) is a clean series of jokes, showcasing her writing and her sense of humor. If you follow her, you know what you’re about to get - silly, sometimes dark, funny quips and, most importantly, no clutter.
When I first saw Julia’s Twitter, and her follower count of 11,000+, I thought, “What TV show does she write for?”
But Julia doesn’t write for ‘30 Rock’ or ‘Parks and Recreation.’ She’s not a talking head on some VH1 nonsense. She didn’t play Spiderman’s girlfriend or duet with Snoop Dogg.
She’s just funny.
"People always say, I assumed she’s a writer for ‘Community’," she says, of her large online following. "Yeah, I assume I would like that very much.”
Here’s what’s remarkable to me about Julia: she was just a person, with no special connections, working a day job. She was markedly funnier than average, sure, and had done some stand-up in a city teeming with comedians. She had a blog on a site overflowing with blogs. She had posted a few videos on Youtube, which is already glutted with clips of cats doing human things. In that situation, what is her outlet?
Enter Twitter. And suddenly, everyone is on a semi-level playing field.
On Twitter, if you’re an established celebrity, you definitely have the advantage in terms of gaining followers. But if you’re an average person, say a 20-something college graduate in New York City working at Tiffany & Co., like Julia was, and you’re able to be concise and funny? The Internet world is your Internet oyster.
"I think it was Woody Allen who said, ‘I don’t think being funny is anyone’s first choice’," Julia says, over green tea and coffee at Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg. "I definitely fought it for a while and even though I’m funny, I’m not like, the happiest person all the time. I’m not walking down the street whistling."
Julia admits her online persona is a shield against the nerves and shyness she feels in real life. It’s interesting to hear considering the stereotype of someone who thrives online is usually an overweight gamer steeped in pizza boxes.
"The Internet is so much easier,” she says. “You can just be like, ‘Do you like cats? Great! Me too.’”
True, but Julia is a conventionally good-looking girl. She’s got long blond hair that her eyebrows suggest isn’t real, but that doesn’t make it less pretty. Her eyelashes are long and her nails are done a dark color with big gold rings on her fingers. That’s where the girlishness ends though because she’s also got on a black sweatshirt and loose pants with UGG boots. She looks comfortable more than anything so I’m surprised to hear her qualify herself as “awkward.”
"I told my boyfriend that I could either gain weight and be ‘Roseanne-funny’ or lose a ton of weight and be ‘Chelsea Handler-funny’," she says. "I kind of want to be Roseanne! I think it was Don Rickles who said, 30 percent of the judgments happen before you even say a word. But, it’s like, fuck it. Sorry I take showers."
Julia graduated from college in St. Augustine, Fla. and after spending a year at her parents’ house in Virginia, “refusing to grow up,” she moved to New York. She crashed on her younger brother’s couch and helped his sketch troupe, Olde English, with production and writing. Three years ago, she started doing stand-up after a couple friends pressured her.
"When I started, it was all I did every night," she says. "It’s an unhealthy lifestyle to do it every night. I used to smoke cigarettes and I had to not do stand-up for a week to quit. I didn’t want to be out at a comedy club every night."
In lieu of open mics, Julia started blogging more as an outlet. Right now, she has five blogs, three she updates regularly and one, pictures of animals with casts, that is about to become a book called "Feel Better, Little Buddy." She’s also trying to put together comedy writing packets for television shows, something that’s harder to do without a manager.
"I’m shy and I’m not good at networking in the traditional sense," she says. "I never ask to be on shows or anything. I feel like if they need me, they’ll ask me which I know isn’t how it works."
We both lament the importance of networking. It seems that even if you’re funnier or better or smarter, even if you work harder, people always reward those who can market themselves the best.
When I worked at the Boston Globe in college, there was another young reporter on my shift. While I’d be out all day chasing stories that often went no where or watching as a piece I’d worked hard on was brutally snipped into a back page blurb, this girl would bake muffins.
Oh, you read me right. Everyone’s faced that person before, I’m sure. My college newspaper friends used to refer to these flawless beings as “Birds” short for “Dressed by Birds,” as in every morning when they woke up, birds flew into their window and adorned them in draperies like a goddamn Disney princess.
While you have ketchup stains on your cardigan and haven’t slept for days, the “Bird” waltzes into work in a freshly ironed, pleated skirt and with brownies made from scratch. Everyone likes them better even though they hardly seem to do any real work.
So, which one of us do you think was handed front page fluff piece after front page fluff piece? And which one drove out to a shooting during a blizzard just to end up on B14? I’ll give you one guess.
When I finish telling Julia this story, she says something I wish I could get tattooed across my chest: “You can’t make muffins for the rest of your life.”
Her saying this is why I felt a kinship with Julia before we ever met, as weird as that sounds. She joined Twitter only a year ago, as a way to try out one-line jokes, but more than that, she understands that there’s not just one outlet for people to succeed.
"I still don’t know where I fit into it exactly," she says. "There are comics I know who are hilarious in real life and then not funny at all on Twitter."
It’s something I’ve grappled with too. Take, for example, the fact that 100 Interviews has taken up most of my time. Before that, I was trying to go to an open mic every night, but truthfully I never felt that it was productive. There are comedians who are successful that way and I’m sure people reading this now are saying the reason I didn’t gravitate towards mics was because I’m not funny. Maybe I’m not. But I agree with Julia when she says an online presence is just as important — and it’s archaic to think otherwise.
"You might get more shows than me but I have 11,000 people that read my jokes," she says. "It’s not more or less important but it’s just as important. Then, [other comics] don’t respect me because of it. Some comics I know in person don’t follow me and I’m like, ‘Dude, I know you. That’s sad.’ I followed you and then un-followed because you didn’t follow me back. You didn’t give me equal respect."
Julia’s Tumblr is also incredibly popular with 20,000 followers as of now. Before Tumblr, Julia had a Blogspot blog, which she says had more writing.
"But that’s what the Internet’s teaching us. It has to be really quick," she says. "If you look at the first three pages of my Tumblr, you can get if you hate me or not."
I’ve lamented too on this blog, about how Tumblrs with pictures of ‘Glee’ or cats get more hits than 100 Interviews, due probably to the amount of reading this project requires. I wasn’t directly shitting on Julia’s work obviously but she acknowledges how Tumblr works.
"Certain things are universal," she says, "like everyone under 40 loves ‘Star Wars,’ people like videos of cats and dogs doing something funny." She mentions her old Blogspot here. "Tumblr, on the other hand, is not my writing but that’s how I got a book deal. It was the first time I thought, ‘Holy shit, a lot of people are looking at this.’"
"How did you get so popular?” I ask.
Julia thinks for a moment. “People always ask, how did you become so popular on the Internet? It sounds…you know, but be yourself 100 percent to where people aren’t going to like you. But I guess that’s being a comedian in general. I think on the Internet, you can see through people faster and see through the bullshit.”
Reading her Twitter, I’d never think she agonizes over her tweets, but Julia mentions near the end of our interview that her mother teaches special education and that she’s always been particularly sensitive to racism, so despite seeming edgy or fearless online, she tell me she does stay away from making easy racist or mental retardation jokes.
"Sometimes I’m scared to tweet something because people might get offended but it’s silly to worry about it. I have to think that if I lose five followers, I’ll gain ten," she says.
Through Twitter, Julia’s befriended other comedians she probably would have never met — including one of her male counterparts Rob Delaney, a Los Angeles comic who also got popular via Twitter. Delaney’s given Julia shows and they’ve discussed the site’s various uses.
"For him, his Twitter is like his resume," she says. "If he wants to write for something he goes, ‘Here’s my Twitter’ and sometimes he’ll @reply people but then he erases them after 24 hours so it’s clean and if you look at it, it’s just joke, joke, joke, joke."
"You do that too," I point out.
"Well, yeah," Julia says. "What am I going to do? If I look right now, I’ll have a bunch of replies. So what do I do? @reply that with ‘Hahaha’? I hate that. It’s got to look good or why am I going to follow you?"
"Are your tweets in real time or do you write a bunch and save them?" I ask.
"It’s in real-time, half the time. I’ll write it and then come back to it after I mull it over and think, ‘Oh that wasn’t right.’ I usually have five or six on deck. Sometimes I’ll erase them and see if I can make them better," she says. "When [comedian] Patton Oswalt started following me, I didn’t tweet for 24 hours. Then, when I did I was like, ‘I hope he’s asleep’," she laughs. "I thought, ‘I can’t do a hack job here. He’s heard it all. I have to make it better.’"
"But isn’t that good though? You have to step up your game!"
"Oh, it’s great!" she says. "Some comics I know don’t put jokes on Twitter for that reason, because they don’t want someone to steal their jokes but like, if someone like that steals your joke, uhhh, lucky you!"
I mention that I find it weird that she doesn’t have a manager. Julia says she’s been approached but she never felt comfortable with the people.
"They want me to do things like comment on fashion in the back of US Weekly, you know, like, ‘You look like a boa constrictor swallowed a piece of shit’," she says. "But then the comedian can’t even dress themselves. I mean, what right do I have to comment on what someone else is wearing?"
That question begins a discussion of women in comedy, which is a conversation I honestly don’t have enough.
We talk about the stigma of successful female comics having “fucked their way to the top.” Neither of us is shy about perhaps famous comedians we’ve dated in the past during some off-the-record girl talk. I tell Julia that when I started dating my boyfriend, an arguably more successful comic, people told him “not to give [me] anything” meaning shows or opportunities. Julia mentions well-known female comics Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman.
"You know people say that about them but who cares?" she scoffs. "Maybe they did but once they got there they had to be good. No one watches them now because of who they fucked. People who are fans of her show don’t care how she got there."
I tell Julia I’ve met about three female comics I hadn’t wanted to stab in the mouth for making us all look bad. She agrees.
"I can always tell when a girl is in her first year of comedy because it’s just vaginas and boobs. Like, if I hear another vagina dentata joke…It’s like Female Stand-up Comedy 101," she says. "People think funny has to be shocking but you have to have an opinion too."
A while ago, Julia tells me she did an interview with a magazine and briefly mentioned she’d worked at Hooter’s while in college. The job, she says, taught her how to win people over (“how to talk to a girl who already hates you”) and also destroyed her preconceived notions about the people that worked there. Sure, some were dumb, but most were like her, educated girls trying to make some money. The magazine, however, harped on Julia’s boobs.
This becomes relevant again when we start talking about the comedy festival portion of SXSW, which recently faced flack for a line-up almost solely consisting of male comedians. In response to outrage, the festival claimed only four female comics applied. When it was pointed out that a majority of the male comics were probably asked to perform, SXSW added three more female comics. Julia’s name circulated on a popular Tumblr post short-listing female comedians SXSW could have asked to perform.
"I feel like sometimes it’s because they can see it," Julia says. "The Internet isn’t like that. If I’m funny, people aren’t going to go, "boobs!" That’s what I love about it. I think men can disengage from that stuff if I’m funny online because they’re not seeing it."
As we’re walking out, Julia mentions a friend’s hip-hop podcast she thinks I’d be good for. I tell her I’d be down. More than once during the interview, I think about how nice it is to talk to someone in person I’m already so familiar with from the Internet. It just feels better for me. In the end, I ask Julia what she thinks makes someone an Internet celebrity.
"I mean, I can think of twenty old Internet videos that I still love," she says. "And it’s because the people are being honest and being themselves. People want to say, ‘I totally get this and I love it and I think it’s hilarious.’"
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