“I Just Want To Make People Laugh”: An Interview with Comedian Tess Gattuso

Writer Sophie Wilson talks to comedian Tess Gatuso about using humor to empower people, making comedy more inclusive and laughing through the darkness.

Photos by Han Marie Santana-Sayles and Robert Scwartz

Story by Sophie Wilson

Comedy videos have become an essential tool in our lockdown survival kits. While turning on the news or opening your Twitter feed at the moment is enough to send anyone into an anxiety spiral, technology has also proved to be a shining light in the darkness. I always imagined I would react to a pandemic by running around screaming but instead I’ve spent most nights lying in the dark as my phone screen lights up my face in a search for funny videos, for that momentary relief of laughter.

Comedian Tess Gattuso (aka @tessplease) has been doing the same. “Sorry, I’m a little sleep deprived!” she apologized with a laugh when I spoke to her over Zoom. “There’s just so much content. I am always looking for ways to laugh, especially now.” Tess is a writer, producer, comedian and self-professed “memequeen” who counts FKA Twigs as one of her 21.5K Instagram followers. You might have seen her video about what it’s really like to have a gay best friend – it received 1 million views in less than a day.

Plenty of people have been making funny – and not so funny – videos in lockdown but Tess is a pro, having worked in comedy both online and irl for some time. Her videos take on topics as diverse as privilege, mental health and queer dating, but they are all rooted in personal experience, in one way or another. Though she cringes when she thinks back to her first improv acts, Tess has written for Disney and worked as PA to “Jessica Jones” writer Melissa Rosenberg. Her dream is to write her own TV show. She already has a couple of pilots written so watch this space…  

I caught up with Tess to talk about using humor to empower people, making comedy more inclusive and laughing through the darkness.

Sophie Wilson: How is lockdown going for you? Have you taken up any new hobbies or been baking lots of banana bread?

Tess Gattuso: I appreciate people who are baking but I don’t bake. I make nut milk. I find it really relaxing and it’s pretty simple. That’s my version of baking.

SW: How do you balance creating content for social media with having a healthy relationship with it?

TG: The app-specific Time Limit feature on my phone is a life saver. I set it to 15 minutes a day. This way, every time I hop on Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok it kicks me off every 15 minutes *chef’s kiss*. However, I find myself ignoring the time limit a little too much lately. I’m in California, coronavirus is still going strong, and I miss people so much. Plus, I want to keep up with the news. Everything’s being covered in real time on social media.

SW: Do you think it’s becoming easier or harder to get the right balance as you gain a larger online following?

TG: It’s certainly different. Overall it’s exciting and that excitement makes it more enjoyable to figure out the boundaries. I prefer it. This is what I want, but I think I need help because I do it all on my own and one of the reasons it’s really hard right now to create a healthy balance is because everything’s virtual now. 

In the past I would HAVE to have better boundaries because I have a job to report to or a meeting to attend or a show to do in a physical theatre. I would have no choice but to be present with the people around me. There are no people around me now. The people are on social media.

SW: As a writer, have you always gravitated towards comedy?

TG: Yes. 100%. Before I made comedy, I watched all the comedy and it’s all I wanted to talk about. I did my thesis in college on political parody. I didn’t know I was actually capable of making comedy until a professor told me I could do it in college. That was like permission. So I made a comedy troupe and it went well. Then I did stand up and it went well. But I also had some really embarrassing moments where audiences just looked at me with blank stares. I think back on it and it’s definitely because I was making jokes about academic theory as if that was relatable. My bad.

It took awhile for me to confidently do comedy. When I moved to Los Angeles, I got deep into improv. I’m currently confident in my improv skills, but it was rough for two years. I think about all the cringe-worthy moments of me onstage not knowing what I was doing in front of people. I’m thankful I put myself through that.

SW: Do you get nervous about sharing videos online? Straight after you’ve posted something, do you worry what the reception’s gonna be?

TG: I never know if anyone’s gonna like it. I’ll have an idea and I’ll get excited about it but then when I’m editing it, I’m like “is this funny?” There have been so many moments where I gave up on something and then saw someone else do it and it being well-received. It happened enough times, and I realized by hiding my work I was holding myself back. I try to do things that I can stand by, so even if it doesn’t do well I can still say “I believed in it for a reason.”

SW: I saw the tweet the other day where you said you’ve experienced being dismissed for misogynistic reasons as a woman in comedy. How do you think that comedy become more inclusive?

TG: There are so many different approaches to expanding the breadth of voices in comedy. Right now many people who go to a mainstream space might not feel welcome there. That has happened to me many times. You have to find spaces where you can thrive as yourself. The people in power need to know about these spaces and they need to recruit talent from these spaces. It’s tough. I’m really thankful for social media because it’s giving me a platform where I’m not necessarily as reliant on people in power giving me approval. There are still those power dynamics at play in social media though.

We also have to support each other. Writers need to support other writers. Comedians need to support other comedians. If you see somebody and you like what they do, YOU need to support them as a fan. Share their stuff, like their stuff, PAY for their stuff through Venmo, CashApp, Patreon, whatever option they provide. If audiences and artists prop each other up, it doesn’t have to be top-down.

SW: Do you think that comedy can be just as much as vehicle for education and social justice as more serious media?

TG: When I’m going through it, comedy brings me solace. Comedy makes me feel validated and understood and less alone. But comedy is entertainment. There are lawyers, activists, therapists, journalists, and people on the ground doing the social justice work outside the spotlight. Comedy can spurn conversations for sure, but hopefully anyone inspired to participate in progress then seeks out sources that will help them learn even more about what that comedy shines a light on. 

I made a TikTok of me reading a tweet about how expensive it can be to keep up with beauty standards. There are over 11,000 comments now, and the discourse is all over the place. But at the end of the day, it’s a tweet. It’s a joke. That’s all. My hope is that anyone who got something out of it would look for other content to build on whatever the video inspired within them. 

SW: A lot of people have that moment as a teenager where they’re like “oh my god, I actually am a feminist” even though before then it’s always been quite a loaded word and still is in some ways. Was there a moment for you when you realized you were a feminist and was there a particular event or text that motivated that?

TG: Yeah. I think it was when I started listening to Bikini Kill. I felt so lonely and horrible, as so many people do, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was like “is this just what life is? Misery 24/7?” Then I listened to some Bikini Kill songs and it was the first time someone said “it’s not your fault.” Riot Grrrl music helped me realize institutions were not built with my well-being in mind. There’s a Le Tigre song, “Hot Topic,” that just lists influential progressive artists and I researched them all. I started reading more, got really into doing my homework, and my high school teachers noticed and started pushing me towards feminist material and protests in Chicago. Bless these teachers, because feminism was a stigmatized term where I grew up. It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t positive. I remember I was in the car with my brother and I whispered, not even making eye contact, “I think I’m a feminist.” And he was like, “That’s okay.” I was like, “Oh, cool. Great.” 

And yeah, the word means so many different things to different people. I’ll always be adaptable as the word evolves, but feminist work definitely changed my life for the better.

SW: Your content strikes the right balance between humor and critiquing society but has anyone every accused you of being too serious or too woke?

TG: In the past, before I was sharing work on social media, some people definitely said that. Or, they didn’t necessarily say it was “too serious or woke,” but it was new to them and they didn’t know what to do with it. I wrote a series about queer folks and a group of men at a studio came to the collective conclusion that the series “might do well on PornHub because it has women having sex with each other.” At the time, I thanked them for their feedback. I didn’t know any better. Now, I wish I had screamed.

When I make comedy, I’m talking about issues that occupy my mind. I’m not setting out to be an activist with my work because, again, there are people doing actual social justice and advocacy work every day. Their work just isn’t as visible as the work of folks in the media. My work is entertainment. I want to make people laugh. Plus, if someone called me “too woke” they would be absolutely wrong. I have blindspots I am working to account for, and I still make humbling mistakes I learn from. I’m not an authority on political issues. I’m a comedian drawing from her lived and academic experiences.

SW: The first video of yours I watched was the one where you’re trying to get over a depressive episode as quickly as possible. How has finding humor in things like that helped your mental health?

TG: It’s a brief moment of joy. To be able to laugh about rough experiences is a way for me to reclaim my power. A lot of people do this. People who are not comedians do it too. Like if my non-comedy friends experience heartbreak or someone does something super fucked up at their workplace, we joke about it together. We joke about the dark things that have happened to us, once we’ve processed it.

SW: Yeah, joking about mental health has been a coping mechanism for a lot of people in our generation. We grew up sharing on Tumblr and Twitter. Whenever I share anything that makes me feel vulnerable, I write ‘lol’ on the end even if I’m not laughing. Do you ever think of jokes or funny videos to make about your mental health that you feel like you can’t share either because people might worry or others might take offense that you’re making light of something that can be so serious?

TG: It would not occur to me to joke about something I don’t understand. I haven’t posted stuff because I’m not ready to share that the experience I’m joking about happened to me, or I’m not sure that I joked about it in a way that would uplift anyone who relates to it. If I’m going to joke about something sensitive, I wanna do it right. If it is something that’s quite intense, I don’t wanna hurt anybody. I am doing all of this alone. If there was a team involved, a producer or a manager, then I would have a little more support. I could bounce ideas around, talk about it. For now, it’s just my own judgement.

SW: How do you feel about having a personal brand? Do you ever feel limited by your own personal brand?

TG: I never thought about it until now. It seems a little impossible to avoid. After I posted that video of me doing an impression of someone discovering privilege for the first time, I tweeted a picture of me pretending to be a cat and a couple of people responded, “I was not expecting this from you.” I was like, “well, I don’t know what to tell you. I just did it. Here you go. Sorry!” I’m just gonna stick to my instincts and hope people accept that I am capable of making different kinds of content.

SW: In an interview you mentioned that you made a couple of YouTube videos but ended up not sharing them because they were so personal. Do you ever feel limited by the necessity to be funny all the time as a comedian online? If you shared a more serious YouTube video would you be worried about how people would react?

TG: I am definitely in my head. I overthink things and I am still fighting residual self-doubt from people telling me for so long that my perspective was not entertaining. I’m working through it though. The audience I’ve found during quarantine has helped me realize the people who silenced me were wrong. That being said, I rather have an hour-long comedy special that I took the time with a team to craft, than a short YouTube video.

SW: If you had the backing to make a TV series would you want to star in it as well as write it?

TG: Absolutely. I just finished an animated adult comedy that I could totally voice. But I also have other pilots that I have other comedians in mind for. My priority is writing. When I’m writing I don’t think, “I want to be in this.” I think, “I want this to get made.”

SW: Lastly, what advice do you have for people who want to start making memes?

TG: Just go for it. Don’t worry how it performs. The first meme I ever posted, I expected nothing. It was a picture of Jennifer Connelly next to Hoggle from Labyrinth, and above Jennifer Connelly it said, “Me on 8 hours of sleep”, and then above Hoggle it said, “7 hours and 59 minutes of sleep.” Sleep has been an issue for me forever [laughs]! Anyway, it got 400 likes and I was so amped. That was a lot to me at the time. But even before I posted that meme, I was doing online stuff that wasn’t going anywhere. Keep going, have fun, and believe in what you make. And of course, be sensitive! Please don’t meme someone else’s suffering.