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Q&A: At the table with comedian Patti Harrison, talking Saltine cereal and the intimacy of boiled eggs

Patti Harrison
Comedian Patti Harrison in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles.
(Photography: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times. Illustrations: Flavia Salvadori / For The Times. Martina Ibañez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times)
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Patti Harrison is either your favorite young comedian or she will be soon.

She’s had small but memorable moments in “High Maintenance,” “I Think You Should Leave,” “Shrill,” “Broad City” and as a voice actor in “BoJack Horseman.” Her star turn on “The Tonight Show” — a sweetly delivered harangue directed at the current president — went viral.

The podcast “A Woman’s Smile,” which she hosts with fellow comic Lorelei Rodriguez, is so convulsively funny that you shouldn’t listen to it while driving.

She just launched “Died & Gone to Heaven!,” her own monthly show at Largo, where she welcomes a roster of stellar comedians, including herself.

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Harrison grew up in a minuscule town in Ohio. She’s the daughter of an American soldier who died when she was 6 and a Vietnamese mother who has been the star of some Emmy-worthy videos on Harrison’s Patti’s Instagram Stories (in one memorable one, Mom is dressed in a full-body Tweety bird costume and, at Harrison’s behest, saying, “Hi, I’m Chucky! Wanna play?”).

Harrison started studying improv in college, eventually moved to New York to get into comedy and then, on New Year’s Eve 2018, moved to L.A. Besides acting and stand-up, she’s a writer on the Netflix animated series “Big Mouth” and will soon appear opposite Ed Helms in the comedic drama/dramatic comedy “Togetherish.”

Harrison and I recently met up at Kura Revolving Sushi Bar — her choice — in Little Tokyo.

I’ll start with a spicy tuna roll.

Can I try one? How is it?

It’s a spicy tuna roll. It’s serviceable. So I recently saw something on your Twitter about how you ate Saltines as a kid

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Oh! As cereal. Growing up we used to put Saltines in a bowl with milk and dump a bunch of sugar on it and eat it as cereal. I’m going to grab a hamachi.

So was Saltine cereal because of poverty or because you actually wanted to eat Saltines covered in milk?

I think it was because we were poor? We weren’t without food, but there were times when it was definitely a strain. I ate a ton of Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs and Totino’s Pizza Rolls. I still enjoy those flavors. One time I watched my sister eat a raw potato with peanut butter on it. And we ate a lot of white rice with boiled egg, or my mom would scramble an egg and put that on rice with soy sauce and sometimes bean sprouts.

That sounds cozy. Do you want some takoyaki?

What’s that?

Octopus balls.

I don’t like to eat octopus. They’re so smart.

They have a brain in each of their tentacles.

I think they’re more evolved than people in that way.

Do you think this place is a look into the future, when robots will be serving us everywhere, maybe with all cuisines?

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Yeah. A glop of lasagna sliding across the room. Clam chowder exploding 30 feet in the air and soaring at you.

Patti Harrison
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

What were your first experiences with fancy food?

I worked at a semi-bougie restaurant in New York. Toro. It’s a tapas place. I was a host and then I was in the basement taking reservations. It was really stressful. One of my managers had true rage issues and everyone was afraid of her. I had Stockholm syndrome. One time she gave me a compliment, then left the room, and I cried. I was so happy she said something nice. And then I was like, “Oh, that sucks.”

That’s an abusive spouse tactic.

If she was upset everyone had to be upset. The chefs at that restaurant were great, but I definitely don’t want to work in the food service industry.

It can be macho, regardless of gender. And everyone’s drunk all the time.

That’s true. Also, the clientele were Google and finance bros. People would call me and ask about the acidity of the soil where the wine was from and I’d think, “I don’t make enough money to eat at this restaurant.” So I just said everything was effervescent: “This is a really drinkable wine that’s effervescent.”

Do you cook at home?

Not often. I’m not very good. I’ve also been very depressed up until recently, and that hugely affected how I ate. I’d just order food in, and my house got filled with delivery containers. It was an ecological disaster.

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Postmates has fully been Prozac for me at times.

I use Caviar. It has some fancier restaurants on it. You can order Night + Market Song, which is my favorite place to eat. But it takes like four hours to get a table there.

You recently tweeted about offering … a very personal and intimate thank you to anyone who voted for Bernie Sanders. [Note: This question has been edited because we couldn’t use the exact language Harrison did.] First of all: good one. Secondly, you got a barrage of hate from MAGA-types. But you responded with evenhandedness — you suggested engaging in dialogue.

It was obviously a joke, but it was also saying, through a lens of humor, “I’m voting for Bernie Sanders.” It was to make people who follow me laugh. Then it got retweeted a lot by conservative figureheads who were like, “These are the depths that liberals will go to.” My initial reaction was, “You’re reaching so far to make what I’m saying fit whatever narrative you have for me that furthers your idea of what’s going on versus the reality of it.” Can I eat that crispy rice you didn’t have?

Please do. So you didn’t clap back at the trolls.

If I really want people to vote for Bernie, it won’t change their minds if I scream at them or call them stupid. They’ll just say more mean stuff back to me. A lot of people that were doing that were faceless trolls. But there were also people whose bios said they are veterans. I grew up around a lot of conservative country Republican white people who went into the military. My dad was in the Army, so my mom was pro-military and wanted us to join. Our school got scouted by the military. They would come in and have push-up contests and groom teen boys to join the Army.

Patti Harrison
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Your background lets you empathize.

The only times I’ve had my stance on something changed was because someone I respected had a different opinion from mine and they took the time to ask, “Why don’t you see it this way?” If you want to change, you have to compromise a little bit and not use conversation as an opportunity to shut someone down. That’s what’s really frustrating about snarky neo-liberal shit where people use insane words. OK, you went to NYU. You’re an academic. But the people you want to change can’t understand what you’re saying. It’s such a class thing.

Nobody wants to feel condescended to.

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It’s interesting when people cackle at the idea of a poor white person asking, “Where’s my privilege?” Because that person does have such a lack of resources. They’re at a disadvantage. I understand white people having a knee-jerk reaction when this comes up, but ultimately you have to understand the class and race divide. I think when you separate them you then start to have incomplete conversations because they’re so interwoven.

I get pigeonholed as a woke comedian because I’m transgender and progressive, a liberal and a feminist. But those labels have become synonymous with whiteness. Mainstream feminism and liberalism omit race in a way that is so jarring. We’re in a public conversation right now with #MeToo. We’re pointing out injustices based on gender bias — and those are amazing conversations to have. But then when race is brought into it, white women freeze up. In my feminism, race is a priority. I get weary around white feminist institutions — especially commercialized feminism.

What’s an example of that?

Like Nestea saying, “Yas queen!” Ads where it’s a little girl who’s studying to be a race car driver, and she’s drinking Nestea to stay focused. [laughs] That’s a horrible example. Not all representation is good representation.

How do you feel about the state of trans visibility today?

The lack of media coverage of violence against trans people — especially trans women of color — is harmful. It minimizes the problem and the rate that it’s happening at. In order to impact the attitudes that facilitate violence, you have to talk about it — to say, “Hey, this stuff is happening regularly.”

That’s part of the problem with white feminism: It’s constantly centering queerness over race as a point of oppression, while there’s still a societal attitude that stories about trans, black and brown women aren’t sensational enough for the news. But stories about violence against beautiful, cis-passing, white trans women can totally get sensationalized. News is for ratings, clicks and shares. The actual news doesn’t get the viewership that reporting on a 200-pound cat getting better through riding an underwater treadmill does.

I do care about that a little bit too.

I mean, we’re all rooting for that cat. But there are vulnerable communities that would very much benefit from coverage of their issues.

What’s going on for you comedy-wise right now?

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I have a monthly live show at Largo. I really like live performance, where there’s either immediate gratification or immediate panning. The stakes are higher. [coughs] I think I just drank a fly.

Oh no. Once at a cookout I took a slug of soda and a bee went straight down my throat. It went down so fast, it didn’t even sting.

I’ve known multiple people that got stung in the mouth from bees inside of pop cans. And yeah, I call it pop. That’s my feminist resistance.

Patti Harrison
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Do you get stage fright?

Doing improv in college taught me to be comfortable with what audiences respond to and what they don’t, but before I go on stage I still have a lot of anxiety. I get stress diarrhea really bad. The first Fallon bit that I did, right as we were about to go on, they were like, “You’ll probably just have to go in your pants, because you’re on in four seconds.”

The thing that’s consistently worked for me is not turning failure on the audience, even if the audience sucks. You can’t start blaming them for not getting jokes. If you look frustrated, people get nervous for you and then you lose the audience.

Do you eat before you perform?

I get too jittery if I’m hungry, so I have nibbles beforehand. But then I might nervous-eat too, and then I feel crazy bloated on stage. Just, like … burp-y.

I better ask a few more food questions. What’s your favorite fast food?

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When I’m home in Ohio, I love White Castle. The chicken-ring slider. It’s fried chicken rings with cheddar cheese on a little Hawaiian roll. And I was always a Burger King over McDonald’s person, but since I’ve moved to L.A. I’ve eaten at McDonald’s the most. Last time I went, I got a McRib. I’d never had one before. It was great, but it looked like a cadaver’s lung.

How do you like your eggs?

I love dippy eggs. And boiled and pickled eggs.

I can’t eat boiled eggs in public, and I skeeve anybody who does.

A boiled egg is intimate. You should do that at home. In the writer’s room I’m working in right now, they sometimes get these packaged boiled eggs. Those are nice to have on hand. You can cut them up and put them on toast with avocado mash.

It still stinks up the room, though.

Well, that’s how people know that you’re a boiled egg girl. You’re showing that you’re not afraid to take up space, and I think trans women are often told that they’re not allowed to take up space. So by eating reeking boiled eggs, I’m actually letting everyone know in a really kind way that I’m valid, I exist, I will be brave and I will persevere.


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Jesse Pearson