Chelsea Peretti: The Comedy of Awkwardness
Kevin ScanlonChelsea Peretti
Comedian Chelsea Peretti thrives on awkwardness, making her audience feel uncomfortable by obsessing on her shortcomings. Though her good looks are enough to inspire Internet stalkers (including, she's noted, foot fetishists), she plays up her small flaws. "I'm Jewish and Italian and I lucked out and got the nose of both cultures," she says in her stand-up act.
Sometimes you aren't sure whether to laugh at her jokes. Usually, you do.
The 35-year-old Bay Area native has written for groundbreaking comedy shows like Portlandia and Parks and Recreation and has a popular podcast, Call Chelsea Peretti, in which she treats callers as savagely as she treats herself (often by hanging up on them). It's hard to know where her act stops and her real personality begins: Like her friend Louis C.K., who once followed her around with a camera for a botched film project, she uses her comedy as a platform to sort through her issues.
Peretti's parents divorced when she was a year old, and her relationship with her family has shaped much of her act. She and her brother, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti, divided their time as children between El Cerrito and Oakland. They spent weekends with their father, a surreptitiously comedic attorney, and the rest of the time with their mother, a public school teacher. Her stepmother, meanwhile, jokingly referred to herself as W.S.M. — Wicked Stepmother.
"There's some weird combination that worked out well, where [my brother and I are] really creative and motivated and ambitious, but I'm also really critical of myself," Peretti says. "I have to work hard to not let the dysfunctional side be overwhelming."
Today, Peretti is loading up on coffee at a cafe near her Silver Lake home. She doesn't do drugs or drink, but her online output often seems quite caffeinated: In 2002, she and her brother created the popular fake website Black People Love Us, and she later hosted a pair of staggeringly funny web series, "All My Exes" and "Making Friends." She tweets constantly, often in all caps.
After attending Barnard College in New York, she had a brief stint as a freelance music journalist for the Village Voice. She attended her first open-mic and returned the next week to take jabs at the host. A back-and-forth ensued, and Peretti fell in love with the scene's (bizarre) camaraderie.
After launching her career in New York, she relocated to Los Angeles to write for The Sarah Silverman Program, and then Parks and Recreation. She was hired for the latter gig partly on the strength of her interview: Upon entering the room, she was asked if she needed anything. "Can I have a bowl of pasta?" she inquired.
Her podcast has become a hit since its launch last fall. She tackles topics like domestic abuse, manners and bear attacks, and receives calls from folks like a creepy-sounding German man wondering if she'd received his letter. (Nope.) "The German accent, pardon the ignorance, adds to the terror," she explains.
Peretti's stand-up also often focuses on attempted love connections gone awry. She says she once texted someone, after one date, "I love you. This is forever."
That, in a nutshell, is her charm. "Sometimes when I'm nervous," she notes, "that's when the most interesting things happen."
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