“In New York you cry in the streets, in LA you cry in your car.” An Interview with Former Cult Leader and Comedian CASEY JANE ELLISON

CASEY JANE ELLISON is a comedian and artist whose most recent work is Touching the Art, an art talk show which sees Ellison hosting an all-female (“and as always, we aren’t mentioning that”) panel of industry experts. We sat down with the comedian ahead of the release of this season’s final episode, which comes out today.


032c: You moved to LA from New York recently. How is your cult coming along?

CASEY JANE ELLISON: Disbanded, but shirt sales are terrific. Buy Casey today!

Have you noticed any difference to the reception of your work since moving to LA?

I think it’s the same. The difference between New York and LA is an argument as old as time.  In New York you cry in the streets, in LA you cry in your car. I guess the cliches are true – people are more serious in New York and more laid back here – but the art world is kind of homogenized. Everything is more homogenized.

There’s been a bit of an exodus of artists from New York to LA recently. Do you think that’s changing the LA art scene, or the other way around?

NEW YORK IS O-V-E-R! JK! The economy has affected the output of art and the consciousness of the art world because it’s so severe, particularly in New York. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s allowing another option to the New York art world. The cynicism seems like it’s running out of road.

I do see these cynical overtones in your comedy though, as well as in the questions you’re posing in Touching the Art. Are you cynical about the art world?

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I totally am, and I’m also as hopeful. That’s what I’ve taken on as my job on the show, to see through it all but also really hope that there is a future. I truly am both an unbeliever and full of faith that things can improve. My effort is implicit in what I’m doing, which is to create and write and produce a show that asks and answers, and I play a devil’s advocate, like Stephen Colbert.

Was the show a way of getting these answers for yourself as well? 

Definitely. When we shoot them, it’s a total learning experience for me. It’s like a lecture, and I get to participate and direct it and watch it go in different directions. It’s completely exciting to hear what the guests say, and it’s even more exciting that they aren’t just giving canned answers. They’re invested in the truth as well and they want to discuss it. It’s not easy and it can be a little bit messy, but they always say something that I didn’t know I was dying to hear.

What are the actual shoots like? Are they in on the joke?

Yes, it’s not like a test or a haunted house. We discuss the direction of the show very candidly beforehand. They’re not only interested in the entertainment value but the education value of contributing to something like this. It’s fun.

In the fifth episode, you speak about institutions. I’m wondering about your own feelings about both the institutions of both comedy and art world, and if you think you’re working inside or outside of them, or something in between. 

I think it’s the tale of coming of age in this country now. Creative people can see their trajectory. I think there’s a self-awareness of our generation that’s like “I want to be like Janeane Garofalo mixed with Lena Dunham mixed with Erykah Badu mixed with Elon Musk.” You can’t even imagine your future without the institutions around it. Mieke Marple on the show said that you start out with idealism, and then you realize that to move forward and to gain momentum, you have to work with the institution. But institutions can be interested in some pretty interesting stuff too – or at least sometimes. But I’ve been pretty lucky in that respect. I don’t know if selling out actually exists any more, which is the issue I was trying to bring up in that episode. There’s so much inequity in the economy that choices are just one or the other. Live or die. The wealth is so disparate, so you have to figure it out.

It’s just a fact. 

Exactly.

I only know you from videos, as I suppose most people do. How much of your act is true to your personality and how much is performance?

It’s definitely a performance. I take on a stronger sense of entitlement as this character specifically. And asking questions is more interesting and stating false claims is funny so I need both. So I think that I am that curious in real life, but not that vacant. Or hopefully not, but I guess I wouldn’t know if I was.

I see a bit of Andy Kaufman in your act, an inaccessibility in contrast to the universal appeal of Bill Cosby style comedy. You almost have to be in on the joke beforehand.

I guess I have to go back to my childhood, feeling alienated from somebody who’s pandered to me or an ad that made me feel like “Hey, girl, this is you you’re looking at!” That alienation that you feel is so funny where someone thinks they’re talking directly to you but they’re completely disgusting you. I think that’s the inspiration.

Do you read the comments on your videos?

I do. I shouldn’t, but they’re pretty fascinating.

Whenever I read them, it seems as if there’s a kind of trolling both ends, like you’re anticipating and inviting it. And in one of your Status Update videos for VFILES, you even asked people to troll you at one point. Do you intend to illicit negative responses from some of your viewers? 

It’s not intentional. But that feeling of alienation is really important to my self-awareness and how I see the world and it was really a gift. I hope that people understand that that’s what’s going on. I don’t want to brand myself as the clown or the fool, but it’s supposed to be fun too.  And to be able to think critically is the utmost in these types of performances for me. So the only intent is in the inspiration from this alienation.

You also work with animation, mostly designing digital avatars of yourself. How do these animations interact with your comedy routine? 

I animate my stand up sets. Stand up is something you re-look at and re-examine constantly. Your delivery, who you are as a person, what these things mean, and what you’re trying to say – you’re constantly honing that idea of whatever it is that you’re presenting to people. So I was interested in that objectification that’s comes with stand up and recreating it for these avatars. They’re designed by me and use technology to mess with my output. It puts my image through a process that’s not entirely in my control. I like that act of letting go. One avatar might be more flattering, less flattering, not accurate, or closer to me than others. I’m interested in how technology changes one’s shape. And then through the writing I should be honest no matter what. The mix is interesting to me.

In traditional stand up you have an audience of course, and when you put out animations or videos, you don’t have this live element. How do you prepare differently for the two?

The videos and animations are material that’s been worked on that I want to archive. When you do stand up you grow as a comedian. You have your old jokes and you have your new jokes, but it’s very rare to get to archive what you’re working on. So the animations are a tool for archiving my stand up. They hopefully archive my growth, and maybe my regression, with both my technological skill and my writing. So live stand up and the stand up avatars are completely different. The prep for stand up is writing and going to mics and honing, and the animation is compiling all of the jokes that I want to focus on and then building an avatar and animating it for weeks and weeks.

Your delivery is very natural. It’s hard to tell that you’re actually writing the jokes, but all of them are written and rehearsed?

Sometimes. In the animations there’s not too much off-the-cuff stuff in there. There are maybe a few reactions that are brand new, but that comes out of having to pretend that it’s real and it’s happening right now on stage. And it is in a way, because you are communicating live and saying things that mean something to you and that’s a live moment.

How much room for improvisation do you leave yourself when you do stand up?

It depends. Sometimes I go up with less and sometimes more. But it’s really magical when the moment becomes the medium and it takes you places and that’s really a special thing.

What would you like to do next?

I would love to do Touching the Art on TV. That would be a dream come true. Web-based shows have this expectation of being 3 and a half minutes, and it has to be digestible and hilarious. That’s changing too, so maybe Touching the Art online would work that way as well, but a full-blown 30 minute program would be incredible.