The Johanna Stein Interview

I first met today's interviewee when we were on a panel together at Chicago's StoryStudio and I took quite the shine to her. A semi-recent transplant to Chicago from L.A., she is a humor writer, producer, director and actor who has worked with the New York Times, Comedy Central, Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS, The Oxygen Network, Showcase, The Movie Network, UPN, VH-1, Noggin, CTV, The Family Channel and The CBC. If, after reading this interview you think, "I gotta see this lady in person!" lucky for you she'll be performing at Funny Ha-Ha this Tuesday.

What about you is most Canadian?
My passive aggression; the fact that one of my closest friends has been mispronouncing my name for 17 years and I have never corrected her; the phrase that I grew up saying on Halloween was not "Trick or Treat", but "Hallo-ween Ap-ples", sung in a dirge-like tone; and my passport (one of them, anyway).

When someone sends you a poop in a box, what do you do with it? Is this a toss or flush situation?

If you're like me, you retaliate with a hot placenta fresh from your lady-parts. But if you're like me, your attempt to exact revenge will fail miserably and nearly result in the loss of your life on a grassy hillside.

Can you summarize any of the worst scripts you looked over when you were at Dreamworks?
I can't remember a single one. What I do remember (aside from the unbelievable kitchen set-up at Dreamworks, which included a dedicated chef paid to cook whatever-the-hell your pasty Script Analyst stomach could dream up, any time of the night or day. "Jaws" was only Spielberg's 2nd most brilliant creation; that kitchen was his first) was the time I was assigned to cover a script written by one of the members of Monty Python, a fact which still causes me to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. What I should have said was, "I don't care what the hell this script is about or if it consists of a stream of vowel-less words and pages covered in ferret vomit, this man is a god and I'm offended that you'd even consider giving a piss-ant like me the opportunity to pass judgment on him." Instead I gave it a soft "Pass".

I quit being a reader not long after that and went to work in a candle store. It was the best job ever, until I set fire to my bedroom with one of the free candle perks. The nice part was that even though I'd nearly burned down the house, I could still detect notes of lavender through the stench of charred carpet and burnt drapes.

Your parenting writing is funny and edgier than a lot of stuff written on that topic: what are some of your favorite examples of parenting writing?
Erma Bombeck and Louis CK. I'd like to think that if the three of us were having a meal, I could break up the inevitable fistfight over who would pick up the check. (Erma would win, after giving Louis a concussion by smashing him on the head with her "Moons Over Myhammy" platter.)

People can be very judgy when it comes to parenting writing: do you ever feel self-conscious about what other parents will say or think of you with your pieces, or you just can't give a crap?

I don't give a crap... although depending on the listener I may or may not share the story about how, once when my daughter was about a month old and sleeping next to me on the couch I started watching "Reservoir Dogs". After an hour or so I glance down to see that her eyes are wide open, watching Michael Madsen cut some poor bastard's ear off. I fly into a panic because everybody knows that exposing a kid to violence this young can turn a person into a sociopath, and I start thinking "well that's it, I've broken the baby"... and THEN I get this brilliant idea; I wonder if I press on the soft-spot of her head, maybe that will erase the memory, like a human "delete" key...?

I'm not saying I did that. It's just indicative of the wild, uncharted places your mind goes in those early months of parenthood. But yeah, that's something I might not share with everybody.

What's the funniest thing your kid has done lately?
Earlier this week I asked her, "What do you want for breakfast?" She answered, "I dunno." So I asked, "What would you say to a banana?" She thought for a moment, then said, "Hello?"

And yes, she will be headlining at the Catskills in April, 2035.

You've written for children's shows: as a professional comedy writer, what are some of your examples of kids' TV writing done right?
"The Adventures of Pete & Pete". "Phineas & Ferb". "The Bugs Bunny & Roadrunner Hour". I love shows that contain ampersands. I used to -- and still -- love "The Muppet Show", and it wasn't until I had a kid that I realized how brilliant "Sesame Street" can be -- even when you're not high.

According to IMDB you appeared in Mulholland Drive. Is this true, and if so can you tell us about your role and the experience?
David Lynch's casting director Johanna Ray had seen me in a comedy show and called me to in to interview -- not audition, interview! -- for David Lynch's latest tv series. Having been a huge nerd-fan of "Twin Peaks" I promptly crapped my pants. When I found out I'd gotten the part of a mysterious neighbor-lady it was all I could do not to run naked through the neighborhood yelling, "I'M GOING TO BE THE NEXT LOG-LADY, WHEEEEE!" Of course I was crestfallen when ABC didn't pick up the series, which is why I consider David Lynch my own personal hero for buying back the rights himself so that he could turn it into a movie and thereby give my parents something cool to brag about.

I dig your "Ripe Tomatoes" sketches: what are some of your favorite (televised) sketch comedy shows?
SCTV, Kids in the Hall, Monty Python, Carol Burnett. The combo of Tim Conway and Harvey Korman was my comedy porn. It's probably a good thing DVRs didn't exist back then, otherwise I'd have done nothing all day but eat Duncan Hines frosting from the can while watching those two grown men try to make each other laugh.

Who is the other Johanna Stein whose photo comes up when one Googles your name? Have you been in touch?
She is a very young, very beautiful lingerie model living in Germany. Except for the German part, we are identical in every way.

What were some of the stranger tasks you were called upon to do as an assistant in Hollywood?
One boss screamed at me on set when I brought him a plate of cantaloupe: "I said I wanted my melon balled, not sliced! What are you, stupid in the head?"

I also remember walking my dog on the beach very early one Sunday morning, and receiving a 911 page on my beeper (yes, it was that long ago) from my boss. I run to find a payphone, but every one I find is broken. Meanwhile, the pager keeps going off. I run two, three miles on sand (and I am not an athletic person (I run like a girl (with no legs))). When I finally reach a working payphone, I get my boss on the phone and he says, "Hi, I need you to pick up some of that cereal that my son likes, we're all out". I wish that story was more funny, or a little less pathetic. Unfortunately it is merely true.

What were some of your fondest memories of the Aspen comedy festival, other than posing semi-nude?

Sucking oxygen pre-show before going on stage... geeking out on John Cleese (who was not the aforementioned Python)... and sitting in the front row when Jerry Lewis famously proclaimed that he didn't think female comedians were funny, and that he just thought of them as baby-making machines. It kinda felt like walking in on your favorite uncle and seeing him naked... in your kitchen... with your gerbil's tail sticking out of his butt. In other words: confusing, awkward, upsetting and a little bit titillating.

After that photo shoot somebody wrote a letter to the magazine it was featured in complaining that you set female comics back by appearing as sexpots. Yet in a writeup for another show a journalist called you and Joy Gohring not "model perfect," real, with "womanly proportions." Which was more fun and validating? (Please detect my sarcasm).
I'm a big fan of looking like a jack-ass in public, and given the choice, when on stage I will choose funny over attractive every time (much to the horror of the guy who is legally obligated to have sex with me). I look at "Sexy" and "Funny" as two intersections along a one-way street; if you start at the corner of "Funny" you can make it to "Sexy"... but you can't start at "Sexy" and end up at "Funny". It just doesn't work going in that direction, and if you try too hard to make it work you will eventually be put in jail. (Unless your name is Sofia Vergara. She blatantly defies my sexy/funny rule.)

What do you miss about L.A.?
The driving.

What, if anything, do you prefer about Chicago?
The winters.

What's the hardest thing to mime?
When working as a shopping mall mime I found it very hard to create the illusion of feeling good about myself. But I can mime fellatio like nobody's business (hint: it's all about the nads).

What's My Bodies, Myself about? My mobile device is embarrassingly archaic.
When I was a kid I believed that dead bodies were everywhere, just waiting to be found. And then one day I found one. (PS: It was one of the greatest days of my life and has led to my firm belief that I know everything and am never to be questioned, ever.)

How does it feel to be the 265th person interviewed for
Like being dipped in honey and then covered in fire ants. In other words, a total delight.