Extracurriculars is a new recurring feature in which artists discuss their interests that are not art.
Casey Jane Ellison is a comedian, self-proclaimed cult leader, TV host, and above all, an artist. Best known for hosting her Ovation mini-series Touching the Art as well as VFILES’ WHAT THE F*SHION?, Ellison’s assumed persona transcends the elite matrices of art and fashion with an acute wit and a blunt, deadpan delivery, asking her guests important questions like “What is art? Who cares? Why?”
Recently, she teamed up with clothing company B.B. Dakota to produce, write, act, and edit a series of short sketches, The Right and Left Brains of Casey Jane’s, in which her character experiences “everything that shouldn’t happen in a branded content piece: she goes to the gynecologist, she gets beat up, she doesn’t like her sister,” as Ellison told BOMB magazine in September.
In addition to performing stand-up comedy at art galleries and comedy clubs throughout the country, Ellison had artwork featured in the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial—a video of her digital avatar performing a comedy routine with exaggerated vocal fry, titled IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO SEEM WONDERFUL—and also released special episodes of Touching the Art for the occasion.
On a recent evening, I called Ellison at her home in Los Angeles to talk about comedy. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows below.
ARTnews: So, were you always funny?
Casey Jane Ellison: I don’t remember. I always wanted to be funny—I know that that was important to me. I’m a little sister and I think that because younger siblings always want the approval of the older siblings, they are more extroverted in certain ways to get attention and also to please the older siblings. That’s the dynamic. It’s just about getting a reaction. That’s a theory I have about myself. When you’re a younger sister, you constantly have a witness to what you’re doing and what you’re saying, because older siblings are more observant.
In terms of honing the comedy—I think it was maybe during my mid-teens when I started to get a dial of what I thought was funny. That’s when I started to have existential thoughts and just became more aware of my adulthood and processing of the world around me.
Your comedic style is very deadpan—do you personally laugh a lot or do you tend to react to humor more stoically?
I laugh. That’s my number one goal every day. If I’m not laughing, I’m not there.
Have you ever laughed so hard you’ve cried—or thrown up, even?
I laugh so hard I cry a lot, actually. I have really funny friends. Have I thrown up? No. I’m not very lax with my bodily functions. [laughs]
So you don’t have a fear of vomiting? It seems like a lot of people have that now.
I used to be [emetophobic] when I was a kid. My fears have taken more abstract forms since then…my brain has gotten better at imagining scarier things. [laughs]
I don’t know. I mean, yeah, sure, every living thing has that fear. But no matter what I’m afraid of, the fear is somehow worse than just remembering [how bad it actually is].
Everything is meaningless and it’s meaningless and you’re meaningless, so try to have fun. I forget that.
I was reading when you first tried stand-up you were 19, and then you stopped for awhile. Why did you quit?
I forced myself into this open-mic in New York. It was broad daylight and I just went in and I did it and I just found it unfulfilling. I don’t remember a lot of it, but I think [I experienced] the same kind of emotion that happens after you do something and it kind of lingers even after you’ve grown up and done a lot of shows and learned a lot. What made me go in there in the first place, I don’t know.
So it was a totally spontaneous thing?
It was a spontaneous thing. What made me stop? I did my material and I just didn’t get a high or a reaction that was addictive. I only realized later that [stand-up] was necessary to my writing, and to processing, and to exposing myself in different ways. It became a necessity for me. The compulsiveness of going in there that day is still so real. I get stage fright, and almost every time I perform, I think, “This feeling’s gotta cave in. Something has to stop me from doing this. There has to be an emergency or someone has to pull the fire alarm or something so I don’t end up doing it.” Every time, I do it, and then, I’ve done it. But it never gets….
Easier’s not the word. I mean the anticipation is always so shocking. It’s like, “What? Why am I so scared right now?” But if I didn’t have that fear, and then the necessity of overcoming the fear, [my work] wouldn’t be what it is.
You don’t seem nervous at all. Of course, I’ve just watched your more recent work, but do you think you appeared nervous during performances when you were younger?
I don’t know. That’s always the worst nightmare, to have people see that you’re nervous. [laughs] Asking “Did you see me shake?” feels worse than bombing.
If my friends were in the audience, I would ask them if I seemed a certain way, aside from just the performance. Nervousness is weird. Sometimes I like it when I see someone’s nervous. I like nervous people. It means that they’re in touch. Everyone should be nervous. There’s a lot of weird shit happening. It’s human, you know?
Were you nervous when you had to give presentations in school?
I was always pretty OK with those. I learned an important lesson really early in my life, though—do not hold a loose-leaf sheet of paper in front of people.
That’s the number-one rule in show business. Even though you may not be shaking, your adrenaline will shake the paper, so the loose-leaf sheet will always be fluttering.
I was watching some episodes of Touching the Art, and I know you tell the guests a little bit about what’s going to happen before you go on, but are they usually still surprised at the interview style or do they tend to catch on quickly?
I think [the guests] do catch on. I also think, as with any on-camera thing, it’s about letting them do what they want to do and do what you want to do via listening and communicating.
I know a lot of people are shocked by [Touching the Art], but it’s really not that crazy.
No, it’s not really crazy at all. I read about it before I watched it and I was surprised at how…well, tame isn’t the right word…
I’m glad people find it exhilarating, but four women talking to each other and having a discussion seems very normal to me.
Right, it just sounds like the way you’d talk to your friends.
Right. Just because [guests disagree with me], it’s not, like, a problem. It’s fine.
It’s kind of interesting, though. For example, you talked to a New York Times art reporter in the first episode, and one would assume that she takes art pretty seriously, so I was impressed that she was laughing with you. Were you expecting that?
[Jori Finkel] is very lovely, so I wasn’t surprised by her reaction or her way of communicating. And about the seriousness…I think you find this seriousness in any business. Any industry is going to be like, “We don’t want to discuss this, this, and this for this reason,” because it’s not helpful to the business side. Art is the same way. If it appears serious, it’s because it involves people’s livelihoods.
I was reading this Hyperallergic article about performance art and comedy, and it mentioned an artist who was analyzing comedy as part of her performance—she was basically explaining, step-by-step, what she was doing to make the audience laugh. That idea feels connected to the intro to Touching the Art, when you say that “art is the art world’s least favorite subject.” Do you think that communicatively analyzing art or comedy ruins the magic?
No, I don’t think so. I think that talking about art is what makes it real and practical and actually applicable to life. As for that joke [on my show]…I don’t think people in the art world talk about art in an academic sense. They talk about it in a personal sense. They know these artists and they discuss them, and that’s the fun—it really is fun to just have opinions and participate. I think with comedy, too, talking about how it works and what’s happening, and examining and processing other people’s comedy, is part of the fun. It’s different. I wouldn’t say that that’s not comedy—it’s just part of joining the conversation.
I meant more like when you hear something hilarious, or when you see a work of art for the first time, and the effect just kind of hits you and feels like an epiphany even though you can’t immediately explain why.
I think that’s kind of just the existentialism of our lived experience on earth—it can only happen to you once the way it did when you didn’t know it was coming. Like, I get jealous of people who have never seen The Sopranos or 30 Rock or something. If I could discover them again, it would be amazing. Sometimes I feel like talking about [things] are the only way to keep them alive and keep them real. Because they’re never going to happen again. I’m never going to get that first shot with a particular thing again, so we should talk about it….It’s not exactly killing it for me—talking about it is maybe more of a desperate attempt to keep it alive.
Do you reuse jokes? If you spontaneously say something funny to a friend, do you use it on your show?
Yeah. In comedy, especially stand-up, you have to do that. It’s not my favorite part—it can definitely ruin [the experience]—but it’s interesting. Sometimes I find that I can only tell a joke twice. I try to go up with less and less material and just try to be present with the audience. I think all creatives do this, though. If you’re out in the world and something hits you, you have to use it for your work.
To change the subject, when did you start wearing dark lipstick consistently?
I first wore a color like that I was eight. I wore it to dance class; dance is where I learned how to wear makeup. We wore a ton of makeup. And you had to do your own makeup yourself, as a child. It was pretty crazy. Anyway, I tried it when I was eight or ten and then one day I woke up and I was living in New York and I was 21, I think, and I just had this image of myself as a kid looking in the mirror and wearing that lipstick. After that I started wearing it every day. I wear Wet ‘n’ Wild—the only brand that carries a matte that stays on and isn’t greasy.
Noted. What about your mole? On Twitter your bio states that your mole is real, so I assume a lot of people ask you if it’s fake?
Not as many as you would think, but a couple of people left comments on YouTube videos saying, “The drawn-on mole is just disgusting.” [laughs] I just started taking this preemptive defensive position, the way people defend their boobs [in tabloids], or something. Like, it’s real, stop looking, whatever. That’s the joke, to me.
Have you ever gotten catcalled where the person’s said, like, “Hey, that’s a sexy mole,” or something?
[laughs] Really? I guess they’ll latch on to anything. How do you respond when you get catcalled? I can never think of anything good to say.
It’s hard. It’s very scary because I’ll want to seem chill…It’s a lot like comedy, actually—you’ve got to be ready for anything. I’m trying to think of the coolest thing I’ve ever said….I don’t even know! I’m too scared for my life. I don’t think I’ve ever said something chill. I just say, like, “Please, sir, don’t do this.” [laughs] I usually say nothing. I wish I could say something cool.
It’s awkward if you’re with people you don’t know that well, too. Because if you react with appropriate anger then you seem really rage-y.
Right. [laughs] To say something funny is to placate it—which I wish that I could do. I wish I could make the guy laugh—it would disarm him in a way that was empowering to me, but it just never works.
Right after it happens, I’ll remember that, sure, I could tell them to fuck off or whatever, but they’re just going to laugh at anything I say. Sometimes I feel like the only thing they’d really respond to is violence.
I’ve had more violent reactions than I’ve had silly ones.
[Those incidents] are just more aggressive—the guy will follow you if you don’t say anything, or if you do say something, they threaten you. You never know your audience when you’re just walking along the road. It could be a guy that hates women or it could just be a chill drunk person.
I always wonder—who are these men? Do they have a job? Friends? Does anyone in their life know that they’re doing this?
I think that’s even scarier sometimes. I watched that viral video where a woman wore a camera all day and interviewed guys who would yell things at her. She would ask these guys, “Why would you say this to me? Do you have a wife? Do you understand that I’m maybe with someone? Do you understand that I don’t feel safe in the street?” It was just disappointing. You realized they don’t have this patriarchy rulebook they were playing from. There isn’t a grander scheme or anything—it’s just a pure lack of empathy. They think they’re flattering you. They don’t even know that they are making women feel like they’re being watched or stalked.
Recently, I was trying to figure out a way to flirt in the street, to rebrand catcalling for myself. This one time, I said hi to someone. I was really nice about it—I just wanted to try it. I felt really good about it. It made me feel like part of a community, like, “Oh, I can just walk around and say hello to somebody without being scared, and we don’t have to feel like strangers because we are both citizens of the earth,” or something. But afterward, I thought, “Maybe that person didn’t have to be intruded upon. Maybe their space wasn’t mine to enter.” There is something to staying quiet when you’re in public.
There is something sacred about public spaces.
[Breaking that silence] also breeds mistrust. But, I don’t know, I still wish there was a way to communicate without catcalling. I wish there was a way to talk to people in different contexts.
I was talking to someone about New York subway etiquette recently. We were talking about how everyone is in their own bubble, and unless you have to interact with someone else for some reason—like to offer them your seat, for example—you just don’t talk to people, and it’s fine. It’s cool to have these moments in public where you can exist around people while also feeling really comfortable. Do you generally feel comfortable around people in public?
I used to be more scared of it. I ultimately ended up leaving New York because I couldn’t really deal with the exposure, the fact that when you left your home you were just…out. The farther you walked from your house, the farther you were from being away from everything. But recently I’ve been trying to, you know, just talk to the barista and actually say something. If I’m feeling something next to a stranger I want to be able to communicate with them, to make them laugh. I’ve changed my view on this recently—maybe I’ve just felt more comfortable going up and talking to people, or maybe I’ve felt more entitled to be places. If I am somewhere now, it’s like, “Yeah, I’m here.” If I’m shopping, I don’t want to be like, “Oops, whoops, sorry, didn’t mean to bother you.”
Have people usually responded well to a stranger talking to them, or have they been, like, “Please get away from me?”
[laughs] No one’s said, “Get away from me,” but I feel like I’m having a vacation when I do that because I feel like I’m really putting myself out there. Maybe it doesn’t end up resulting in the coolest interaction, but that’s fine.
How do you view your social-media activity? Do you think your tweets and Instagram photos are a lot different from the ones you were posting at the beginning?
Yes. You get better at social media, definitely. It’s a skill. Your goals also change, because context is constantly changing on those platforms. When video was introduced to Instagram, it changed my whole approach. I think everyone is always playing with those standards and practices, because things become normal in a day and then the next they’re a throwback. You have to move with that and with your own intent.
Do you remember what your first tweet was?
My friend Jeanette Hayes got me onto Twitter, so I think my first tweet was just a tweet to her about how she made me do this, or something. She really changed my life, though. [laughs]
Do you mostly use social media as a branding tool now?
I don’t know. I think that this branding idea is just.…I’m me and that’s my privilege and my context, so everything I say is automatically on-brand for me. I didn’t choose an anonymous name for myself when I first started—I just chose to be myself, or whatever that meant at that time. But I do think it’s funny to, you know, put your brand on Twitter and play with that and rebuild everyone’s expectations.
Are you secretly aspirational about anything?
Something “basic,” maybe? Something that’s genuinely embarrassing, that people wouldn’t expect you to buy into?
The only time I feel embarrassed about genuinely liking something is if I look at it again and think, “Oh, that was completely ignorant of me,” because I wasn’t being a comprehensive viewer the first time around. I try to be critical about the content I see every day and try to be aware of my part in it, so if I like something and later realize it’s actually racist, for example, then I have to rethink what I’m doing. Not that I liked a bunch of racist stuff! [laughs] It’s very rare that something ignorant, or a platitude that’s false and negligent of certain experiences, gets past me.
Can you give an example of when this has happened to you though?
Maybe when Twitter campaigns happen, if it’s a witch-burning situation…but, no, I don’t actually like those. I’m averse to any kind of bandwagon, which is something I’m trying to work on in therapy. I’m a contrarian in some ways; it’s a self-defense thing. Let’s see, what do I like, what do I like that’s embarrassing…
Do you like wedding dresses?
Who doesn’t like a beautiful wedding dress?
But you see the same problem—there’s so much suffering built into [the idea and image of] wedding dresses. But they’re beautiful—there’s a reason they’re so mainstream, you know? And I don’t want to judge people.
General opinion seems to place our generation in an ironic no man’s land, but I actually think we’re becoming more earnest and accepting of other people’s likes and dislikes. We see things more clearly for what they are, I think—the good and the bad.
I don’t know, sometimes I think, “Millennials are really critical and they understand every side or both sides to the issue,” but then I remember that the mainstream is still not that thoughtful. Maybe you or I think about these things a lot, maybe we’re a little bit obsessed with the meta-data of how people react to certain things, but overall, there’s still a two-party system and things are still very limited. I get asked about sincerity versus irony a lot, and I don’t think sincerity is dead, but I think coolness might be dead….I think about this a lot.
I think coolness is still very much alive. I definitely care about appearing cool, which would be uncomfortable to admit if not for the fact that I’m pretty sure everyone else does too—can you confirm this for me? [laughs]
Yeah, but I don’t know what your definition of cool is, though. I don’t even know what my definition of cool is on any given day. I don’t mean to say that the idea of coolness is dead, but I feel like it’s decaying or decomposing and becoming a million different niche ideas that no one can really live up to. And the goal isn’t to live up to them, because coolness isn’t a real thing anymore—it’s only in your head.
I don’t know, I think the idea of Casey Jane Ellison is cool, for example…
[laughs] Objectively speaking. Maybe coolness is less of a tangible thing now, but if people were asked to name something that’s cool, they could say, “Casey Jane Ellison is cool,” and everyone would understand their choice.
I don’t know. That’s very exciting to me but I ultimately feel like, “OK, I must be over.” Like, thinking of myself as a transient idea means that it’s all going to end soon, or something. [laughs]
Let’s go back to what you said about having a naturally contrarian streak—did you feel like an outsider when you were growing up, and if so, do you think that impacted your sense of humor?
I know that I’m very positive, even though I’m a contrarian. [laughs] There’s a part of me that wants to believe in things and wants to always like things and support them and just connect with them. But yeah, I do feel like something happens in your teen years—if you’re an outsider looking in, it gives you a point of view. And if you have the confidence and the ego, you can continue that thought process and turn it into something. I think outsiderness happens to people, but it’s also a privileged place you put yourself in. It saves people’s lives and it’s really important and it’s why all the good stuff is created, but it is hierarchal. It’s important to me to remember that, while specialness is cool and coolness is cool, participating is sometimes more fun.
When did you start considering yourself an artist, or telling people you were an artist?
I think I started telling people I was an artist in college as a joke, and then I realized that that was destructive and not really that funny. Then I started identifying as an artist again a couple of years ago.
Did that label come to you naturally the second time?
Well, I put a lot of money into some projects and unless you do that, I don’t think you really have the confidence to call yourself an artist. Like, you can’t identify as an artist unless you know that you’re suffering because you’re an artist—or, [conversely,] winning because you’re an artist. At that point, it’s not your problem if someone doesn’t get it.
Speaking of labels, tell me about your web series project with B.B. Dakota. You wrote, directed, edited, and starred in it, right?
Yeah! They wanted me to do something and they asked, “What do you want to do?” I wanted to start writing narratives and showing people that I could do that, so that’s how this started. They were really into the story and I came up with the concept. I wanted to do something really cartoony and fun but also still story-based and dynamic in that way.
More brands should start doing this—I mean, clothes are meant to be worn and you’re meant to do all kinds of weird things in them as opposed to just lounging around. I also think it’s good that we’re starting to embrace this type of engaged branding now instead of continuing to view it through an apocalyptic lens.
Yeah, I agree. I think self-awareness is really important to brands now. I also appreciate that, instead of spending their marketing budget on pretty standard advertising, they chose to employ a female artist.
Is there any other brand or person that you’d like to work with on this sort of project in the future?
Anybody. I would just like this idea to get bigger. It’s already pretty big. Every movie and every music video has brands woven throughout—it’s supposed to feel subliminal but whether you notice it or not, you don’t feel pandered to. It would be really important for brands to start thinking more creatively and maybe start building a system where young artists can work.
A lot of people might consider the concepts of art and commercial branding at odds, but there’s nothing wrong with thinking, “I find this person or situation appealing and I want to buy into that for myself.” If you’re going to spend money somewhere, you might as well spend it on something that you like for more than just its economic value.
Yeah, I think our generation is starting to view consumerism as activism. I think [consumerism] is part of who we are. We were born during a time when these things were out of our hands, and I think the only way to stay involved is to use the only power they gave us—money, you know.