“Listen. The story I’m about to tell you is so violently f—ing boring that your eyes will literally roll out of your head.”
Nothing Patti Harrison tells you is even remotely boring, even the way she tells you she’s about to tell you a boring story (the story, about how she got locked out of her house the night before, ended in a sleepover with her best friends, which led to an analysis of adult BFF slumber parties and why we don’t have them more often, and was very far from boring).
Harrison makes everything interesting and fun and worth listening to along the ride, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood has taken note. The Ohio-born, 30-year-old recently made her feature film debut alongside Ed Helms in “Together Together,” voiced the character Tail Chief in “Raya and the Last Dragon” and is at work on the upcoming Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum film “The Lost City of D.” She also appeared on “Ziwe,” the Showtime talk show from rising comic Ziwe Fumudoh, which comes on the heels of several other recent television roles in series like “Shrill,” “High Maintenance” and “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.”
Harrison moved out to L.A. at the start of 2018 when she was hired as a writer on the show “Big Mouth.” She had been living in New York trying to get her foot in the door of the comedy world, ever since graduating from Ohio University. She’d taken one acting class while in college, which she says was more of an “acting warm-up course,” heavy on the yoga and light on the training. Improv is where she really found her footing and where she learned the discipline that a career in comedy requires.
“We were rehearsing so much and we were doing two, hour-long shows a week. It was pretty extensive and it was where all my focus was going. And I think it really activated me in terms of deciding to pursue a career in comedy and also feeling I’m equipped to do that,” she says.
As a kid growing up in Orient, she loved “SNL,” the “Scary Movie” franchise and anything that was parody.
“People thought I was funny through school. It was definitely a coping mechanism in middle school and high school but college was the first time where my friend was like, ‘There’s this improv troupe on campus and I think you’re really funny and I think you should audition,’” Harrison says.
She reached a big break in terms of exposure when she, who had recently come out as trans, was asked to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” in 2017 to tell jokes in light of President Trump’s then-recent transgender military ban. The doors it opened were definitely positive, and she is incredibly thankful, but it also pigeonholed her in a way that wasn’t exactly aligned with what kind of comedy she was writing herself (the jokes were mostly crafted by Fallon’s writers).
“It was a big moment for my career but it also kind of feels weird because that’s not really my comedic ways,” she says. “I felt like after that moment, I would take these meetings where people thought that was my voice, like I wanted to do more politically oriented comedy or things that were about me being transgender. And I don’t feel necessarily interested in tackling that part of my life in my creative work.”
Instead of shifting the conversation away, Harrison dives further into the topic. After “Fallon,” she says, people seemed to feel they had her nailed in terms of what kind of comedic voice she had.
“It’s strange that there are some people who only want to elevate a trans person if they’re talking explicitly about being trans in a way that they, as a cis person, understand trans life to be, versus giving a trans person an opportunity to just have creative agency or have creative autonomy and make something that they want to make,” Harrison says. “Everything in my life, everything that I make is filtered through the lens of it because it’s such a hyper-politicized status in our society, that it’s hard to get away from on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard not to think about being trans sometimes, which is really frustrating and which is why when I make stuff, I make it about like, ‘Hey, I want to make it about anything else.’ But now, I feel like in a weird way, my sense of humor has shifted because of these expectations that are put on me so much that I feel like I’ve kind of metabolized this weird agitation-based humor.”
Harrison says that she tries to maintain perspective on how grateful she is for the opportunities she has had come her way, but she wants more — and she’s comfortable with asking for that.
“There are entertainment industry capitalist liberals who want to commodify trans-ness. I understand why. I think it’s important to tell those stories, but I think it’s important to give the control to the people whose stories they’re trying to make money off of,” Harrison says. “I mean like, it is just interesting when you deviate from that, when you’re a person who has any color to you or is like fleshed out beyond what they project onto you, they’re afraid of us.”
“Together Together” tells the story of a younger woman who becomes the surrogate for a middle-aged single man, and features Harrison playing a cis woman.
“It was just about the performance, which was really cool,” she says. “It wasn’t about me being trans or putting a trans character in the show. The thing is, I think it is OK and important for there to be trans representation in shows. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m saying like, ‘Oh, my God. A trans character? I’m out of here.’ It’s just for me, personally, I would like the courtesy of not being pigeonholed or typecast into this one thing or like when the racist people write trans people into shows. It’s all about them being trans and once you’re done talking about them being trans, they’re off-screen. It’s so debasing. It just minimizes your entire human experience into what other people, what ‘normal people’ in society think of you.
“I think I took your question and I launched it.”
Harrison is making launching herself seem incredibly easy, with a rising slew of work in the mix. But she says it’s been quite the opposite.
“I meet so, so many people who have famous parents or parents who are these huge record execs or they’re producers or they’re hedge fund executives,” she says. “It feels like such a win for my s—-y little hometown. That no one’s there. My mom and my family really struggled for a long time. I think that’s why the validation is so hard — you’ve become my therapist at this moment — but to get to show them that even though I’ve literally been so stretched thin and poor…I knew nobody and was just really, really working. Keeping focused on the thing that I want to do…”
Harrison takes a beat. “It feels like the hard work paid off and I just feel extra proud of myself in that regard. I feel like I’m pretty self-deprecating and I’m trying to be less of that. Being OK, being confident about stuff — but the one thing I’m really proud of is that we grew up so f—ing poor and literally in the middle of nowhere and then I’m like, I feel like this is a milestone for me personally where I’m like, I’ve done it.”