"Hyperbole and a Half" creator Allie Brosh: "Good comedy has a lot in common with good horror"

The Internet star talks to Salon about her new book, her struggle with depression, and sexism in comedy

Published October 28, 2013 10:59PM (EDT)

She may not be a household name (yet), but in more than one corner of the Internet, writer and cartoonist Allie Brosh is a mega-celebrity for her popular Web comic “Hyperbole and a Half,” which has been hailed as one of the funniest sites on the Internet. In her blog, Brosh, 28, turns personal experiences and reflections into hilarious and relatable stories told partially through essay, partially through rage-comic-inspired MS Paint art.

But in 2011, shortly after getting a book deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone, Brosh disappeared from the Internet after revealing her struggle with depression. She resurfaced via Reddit in 2012, and then retreated again until May 2013, when she posted two incredible pieces detailing her struggle with the illness.

It’s all the more meaningful, then, that the end of October will bring Brosh’s first book, “Hyperbole and Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened,” a collection of classic posts from her blog and several new, self-reflective stories that delve deeper into Brosh’s mind. In anticipation of her book, Brosh spoke to Salon about comedy, depression and her elaborate creative process. After the interview, you can find an excerpt from her book here.

Your book seems to focus on three major types of stories -- self-discovery, childhood experiences and adventures with your dog. Is there a unifying theme throughout the stories in the book?

I think the more self-reflective ones are probably more indicative of whatever phase I’m going through in my life, where I’m realizing these things about myself, and they say you write what you know. The identity post ["Identity" is a two-part series in the book] -- that was a big thing, recently, just discovering this hidden part of myself. I always think, "Yeah I’m totally a good person!" and then I realize that there’s a deep inner shittiness to me that I never realized existed. I had a hard time dealing with that at first, so I had a hard time writing about it, but it was my way of working through it, I guess. And then I also like to write stories about my dog and childhood stories. If I had to say, in general, what my writing is about, I would say it’s about human absurdity, or the absurdity of things in general.

Having known several people who suffer from depression, I know it’s a hard thing to talk about -- let alone share with the world. Why did you write about depression?

I thought a lot about this, and I think that putting it out there was sort of my way of owning it. You know, taking this scary thing, the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and just looking at it, and examining how absurd it is, was really liberating.

I’ve been working on [the post] for a very long time. Probably over a year. Once the depression got bad – my way of sorting through things and finding out how to progress during a difficult time in my life is really to think about it. I’m sort of a self-fixer -- where if something’s wrong I just go into my head and just think about it and think about it until I find some way to either fix it or deal with it mentally, and in the process of that, I do a lot of writing, just to sort things out. So I’d written part one, and I thought it was over after I’d written that, like, "Oh yeah, that was my experience with depression and it's done now!" That was not the case. Very much not the case.

What kind of feedback did you get?

I got a lot of feedback – depression is such an isolating experience, and because of that it's sort of surprising to see how many people sort of feel the same way or identify with this totally isolating experience I went through. And yeah, I like seeing how helpful it was to people; there were some people who didn’t even realize they were depressed, and they got help because of it. People who wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking about it, were coming up and talking to me about it. So it was helpful, it was helpful to me to see – as it would be helpful for a reader to see this and think, I’m not alone, it was helpful for me to get that feedback from people.

You mentioned that it took you a year to write that post. Do you have a particular creative process that you follow?

Yeah, so I have a kind of “Ideas Farm” sort of thing where I keep a vast stockpile of ideas. Where I just come up with something that might even just be one word, and I write it down, with a short description, a couple of question marks, just kind of thinking, Well, is this a thing I could write about?

So I have this vast stockpile of ideas that I call the “Post Farm,” and I have a folder on my computer for all of them, and periodically I’ll go through them and spend some time thinking about each one, and think that in the time that has elapsed, since I first write this down, Is there anything I’ve experienced or come up with that might be able to lend a new perspective to this, or make it into a more of a full-fledged idea? And if I find something that I do maybe have a new perspective on, or find some way to turn it into a story, then I move it into the next posts folder in the hierarchy, or the other area in the hierarchy that I call the “Post Holding Area” and that is where I actually start fleshing things out and writing as much as I possibly can about whichever topic I’ve chosen. And I just write down ideas that are good and bad and just get a huge volume of material.

Once I have enough from there, I move it onto my desktop so I will see it and want to work on it more. So this part -- the part where I’m actually trying to hammer it out into a story structure, trying to get it to where it feels like it has a beginning, middle and end and has a good flow to it -- that’s the worst, most scary part of anything to me. Because I always feel like I’m leaving parts out, or it’s not sounding exactly like I want it to. I have to cut all this material that I have from this previous step ... so I have to put it where I see it no matter what.

So once I have it in a form that is written out as a story I start adding the illustrations. I put it in a folder called “Look at this, motherfucker,” to get myself to look at it even more.

That’s sort of like the mechanical way that I deal with it. I didn’t used to have this system. Which resulted in a lot of ... being very inefficient and wasting a lot of my time doing things that I was going to end up giving up on in the end. I spend a lot more time thinking about things as opposed to just going out and trying to draw everything and write everything. It helps me collect my thoughts more about what I’m trying to say or where I’m trying to go with any individual post.

It’s less organized than it sounds. If you look at any of the things in the post holding area, it will look like it’s written by a schizophrenic baboon. It’s something that I wrote and – when I look back at it I will understand what that means, but if I ever tried to read it to somebody, it’s just like, sentence fragments, and paragraphs that end abruptly on, you know, not a place where a paragraph should end.

Your material is so consistently funny, and even the collection of stories has a pacing to it that is similar to longer forms of performed comedy. Do you have any interest in stand-up or improv?

It’s interesting that you ask that. Stand-up was originally the thing that I wanted to do. I love stand-up, I watch a lot of it, I’m just very, very into stand-up. It’s always been a dream of mine to do that. I haven’t figured out how to do it in a way that I feel comfortable with. I almost think my writing and drawing is a result of my attempts to – subconscious attempts, of course – to bring the look or the feel of stand-up to this inanimate space. So there is more of facial expressions in drawings, so there is more of that sense of watching someone’s facial expressions and body language while you’re listening to them tell you jokes.

What do you think makes good comedy?

Oh man, I think there are all different flavors of good comedy. I mean, there’s good comedy that I don’t even find funny; I will say that there are lots of things that I respect in comedy that I don’t laugh at. So that’s a tough question, let me think about that a little bit.

I think it's probably most useful to narrow down what makes me laugh. I’m not asserting that this is what makes everything good comedy. But for me, one, I think, is that good storytelling is important, and knowing when to – and a sense of building up tension and letting it go, or building up to a punch line. I’ve said that, in a way, good comedy has a lot in common with good horror, where there is a building up, or suspense or a surprise, to something unexpected. And it also can take something familiar and flip it around and take a good look at it. I think comedy tends to highlight the absurd, or look at a familiar thing and highlight what is a little bit surprising or unexpected. And I like comedy that's silly. I grew up on “Monty Python,” and I very much appreciate silliness.

Who are some of your influences?

As a kid, my early comedic influences were probably stuff like Bill Watterson, who created “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Monty Python” and Dave Barry. And then as an adult I really respect comedians like Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Dana Gould -- I love him as a storyteller. I would stay stand-up comedy has influenced my writing a lot. I truly watch a massive amount of it.

So here's a random question I love asking interviewees: If you could make up a new word for some concept or feeling, that doesn't already exist, what would it be?

Interesting. All right, so this is something I’ve been doing some thinking about recently. I do feel my brain has its own language where it speaks in shapes and sounds that only I understand and the reason that I do that is that these things don’t actually exist, it's making shit up. So let's see … so the word for when you aren’t really feeling anything and you’re just sort of existing in your own little world and being totally entertained by the stupid things that are happening, the word would probably be "Pssssp," like a "p" followed by 40 "s’s" and another "p."

Your work got big through the Internet, specifically on Reddit. The world of Reddit and Internet comedy, and even literature, still face problems with sexism. Is this something you have experienced?

I think I definitely have. It’s not one of those things where it’s anybody’s fault, at this point. Sort of the result of -- especially with comedy – there are a lot of difficult parts of being a female comedian. Like, if anyone compares me to another comedian, whether they’re just talking to me or I just see a comment ... the other comedian is invariably female. Regardless of whether I have very much in common with this person.

I mean every now and then you get weirdos who will say, “I thought you were funny until I found out you were a girl,” but for the most part it’s a very subtle thing that nobody would do on purpose and it’s perpetrated by both men and women, and that’s an important thing to say, but a lot of times men get blamed for the sexism in comedy -- but it's both, very much both. As a whole, we’ve come to view – mental shortcuts we take to classify things, and some of those shortcuts – I don’t know, classify women with a certain voice, or a certain tone of voice when you’re reading comedy, and that’s the thing that affects me the most.

It’s hard to be viewed as just a comedian rather than a female comedian. Usually when you are – you sort of get – held up like, "Hey, she's funny, she's a female comedian with a capital 'F,'" you know. And it’s hard to distance yourself from that, and say, "Well, I just want to be a comedian," someone who’s funny, not necessarily a female comedian or a woman. I just want to be funny.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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