Patti Harrison means it (except when she doesn’t)
In one of the funniest skits on “I Think You Should Leave,” Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s nonsensical Netflix show, co-workers in an unremarkable office discover that the company they work for has bought a new printer. “I guess Christmas came earlier this year!” said a man in a navy blue tie, provoking laughter from his colleagues. Seeing this reaction, another employee, a slender woman with long brown hair, tries to pull off her own Christmas-themed joke. “Santa Claus should have wrapped it up,” she says, but the joke doesn’t drop. She continues: “And Santa Claus and all his elves had to work very difficult above, then . . . they gave it to us early?His co-workers just blink. She tries to make more and more strange voices, to growl and to move her hands as if they were bear claws. Her insistence turns to impatience, which turns into a real meltdown that no one finds her funny. Sitting behind her desk, she yells:I’m not popular at all???” It’s a scene-stealing moment. In my house, we’ve repeated the verse thousands of times, as a call for attention or an expression of exasperation. And we have Patti Harrison to thank for that.
Harrison, who plays the desperate officer — and other equally memorable eccentrics elsewhere in “I Think You Should Leave” — is an actress, writer and comedian. Now 31, she has become a rising star of the so-called alternative comedy scene in recent years, performing at variety showcases, doing deadpan character monologues on Instagram and touring a booth. -up involving parodies of deranged songs. Harrison has worked in numerous television writers’ rooms, including for the Netflix animated series “Big Mouth,” and played a sardonic sidekick character on three seasons of the Hulu series “Shrill.” Last year, she starred in her first drama, Nikole Beckwith’s “Together Together,” opposite Ed Helms. It was a role that quietly broke down barriers — Harrison, who is transgender, played a cisgender woman serving as a gestational surrogate — but she’s wary of seeing her performances seen through the lens of her identity. “I think I became visible in many ways through the liberal wave of social media that felt quite patronizing and downplayed the work I want to do,” she told me. In February 2021, after Oreo Cookie’s Twitter account posted the message “Trans people exist”, Harrison decided to impersonate Nabisco’s brand account Nilla Wafers, tweeting statements such as “We, Nilla brand wafers, are pansexual”. It was her small way of protesting the corporate co-optation of queer culture, and it got her kicked off Twitter for good, but she was still ready to quit the platform. In several recent phone and Zoom interviews, Harrison has discussed social media detox, trouble with Hollywood executives, and comedy that oscillates between sarcasm and sincerity. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
You grew up in a very small town. Tell me a little about the Orient, Ohio.
The vibrations of upbringing there were very specific. In my childhood home, there were cows with whom we shared the property line, so we could go and feed them little apples. We had a nice hill in our backyard that we would go sledding on. But in the East, most of the time, what happens the most is prison.
What did your parents do?
My dad died when I was about six, but he was a mechanic and worked on cars and motorcycles, and he worked for General Motors. My mother was a translator for a while – she’s from Vietnam – then I think she started working in a mailroom and moving around a lot. She has quite a diverse resume. We were in a rural area on the outskirts of Columbus. It’s not far into town, but the job opportunities are pretty hit and miss.
I read somewhere that you loved spiders when you were a kid, and maybe sharks for a while?
I really thought I was going to be a marine biologist, because I had a National Geographic VHS tape that followed Eugenie Clark and her research on the shark repellent and Moses sole, that fish that looks like a spitting flounder. shit that sharks hate. I was, like, I’m going to be exactly that. But I didn’t swim. I didn’t see the ocean for the first time until I was in college.
Did you have many friends growing up?
I didn’t become popular until my last two years of high school. I started throwing parties at my house, bonfires, so it was like, ‘Oh, you’re someone who can throw a bonfire, that means we immediately want to start networking with you. ” It was kind of my exposure to the awesome power of [in Valleyspeak] networking and connecting with my peers for professional reasons.
It really prepared you for Hollywood.
Yeah, you make a ton of beautifully meaningful friendships that way, depending on whether you have a household and whether people are allowed to drive their trucks into your backyard. I was kind of a terror, for my mom and my neighbor, because I was like, “Man, it’s okay, it’s gonna be okay. They can drive their trucks there. And then they were leaving big tire marks in our yard, and my mom was having a fit, and I was just like, ‘Hey, I didn’t know Corbin was going to do this. It’s just not like Corbin have done this.
Of course, that’s what Corbin would do. I want to know more about the time spent doing improv in college, at Ohio University. Did your improv group have a name?
Oh fuck yeah, it did. He had several names and you will love all of them. When I first joined them they already had a name and it was Amsterdarn Alliterates, which they said had eleven different puns. I don’t really know what they are. Then it split into two troops. The band I was in, our name was Six to Midnight, which is a good “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” joke.
This is the reference of most two thousand.
Later I worked in a writer’s room with Jason Segel, and in the end I was like, ‘I didn’t want to be a freak or anything, but my college improv band was named after a quote from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”. “It’s when the character of Russell Brand plays and the character of Jonah Hill is, like, ‘I just went from six to midnight.’ Jason was, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that was actually an ad- lib that Jonah did!” Then years later, I saw Jonah Hill at an event, and I was so trashed. I was like, [slurring drunkenly] “I need to tell you, my college improv troupe. . .” He was an angel. I don’t think there’s a world where I give them this boring information and they say, “Fuck you, bitch.” But maybe that’s what I wanted? That may be the answer I think I deserve.
What was your strength in improvisation at university?
I bulldozed a lot. I don’t think I was a good stage partner. I think I went in and just made a crazy character that instantly killed everyone or committed suicide in the scene, like, “ha ha!” then let my stage partners die. I think I improved at the end. So many people came to our improv shows. It was crazy. I remember our improv coach, who was a grad student from Chicago, had studied and done shows at Second City, and he was, like, ‘You’ll never get a crowd that big for a show again. improvisation in your life. You should take advantage of it.
What was your experience after college?
Well, I didn’t graduate. I left school. Ohio University’s Twitter page once DM’d and was, like, “Hey, we’d like to feature you on the front of the OU website and do an interview with you as some kind of cool alum!” I was, like, “Oh, my God, I’m really flattered. I would love to do that. Just so you know, I didn’t graduate, but I consider my experience at OU to be what helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life. And they never answered. I know it’s probably a 20-year-old journalism student running this page. But I feel rejected by it every day.
It’s a huge fucking show of disrespect. My lawyers have been dealing with it for years.
You’ll have your day in court. Why did you leave school?
I was so mind controlled. All my friends had graduated and I had failed a billion courses and was also violently depressed. I was not out trans. Then, the summer I left school, I came out to two of my close friends and thought, “I’m just going to move out and focus on this.” I remember my mother coming to pick me up, because I don’t drive. She was, like, “We’re never coming back here again, are we?” I was, like, “No.” I hadn’t even told her yet, but she could feel it coming, how distant I was. I was home for an entire year, just depressed in my room. Then I got a customer service job for Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic. It’s one company.