(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Q: I want to ask you about your memoir, which came out last March, right after everything was shutting down.
A: It actually came out week one of the pandemic, which I do feel is an important point to make since the title of the book is “Save Yourself.” It’s about growing up Catholic and figuring out that I was queer. There are no helpful tips for what to do when we run out of toilet paper. So it was an odd positioning in terms of selling a book called “Save Yourself” that’s actually just about being a queer person that grew up Catholic.
Q: I'd say it's very much a guide to living, both for people who may have been going through or may be going through what you went through, and the other side. Your parents are fascinating to me because I think about Ellen DeGeneres and how her mother responded to her when she came out — not well. Your dad, in particular, was not good with it.
A: So I was raised super Catholic, Italian Catholic family, and I never had sex ed. I didn’t know gay people were real. I was a theology major in college. My parents also were raised the same way and at a different time; I was raised in the ’80s and ’90s. I graduated from college in 2004. And when I graduated from Boston College, sexual orientation was not covered in the nondiscrimination policy. I was paying tuition to a school essentially teaching me I was going to hell and I was a terrible person. So that’s what my parents believed. They were hoping to save me from the fiery pit.
Q: Your memoir is like a mystery novel in some ways because you do a very good job of describing a relationship in a way that just gives us enough sense that something is wrong, deeply wrong. This guy, who is supposed to be your boyfriend, just runs up to you and tackles you. He looks over your shoulder when you're tapping the code to get into your room, and he starts going in there when you're not home. Ultimately, it ends in a sexual assault at a party, which everybody witnesses but no one seems to do anything.
A: I was known at this time in my group of friends as, like, a wild woman, because I would disappear for days and I was wearing ridiculous costumes and I was drinking a lot. And all of that was actually indicative of a tremendous amount of pain. And so when my friends saw this sort of public scene of what they thought was sex, they thought it made sense to them. So I sort of created this other person, like, “Okay, well, will you accept this person?” And then I choose standup comedy. That’s literally what that job is like. I was like, “I don’t trust anybody to value me, so I’ll charge them to listen to me.” And also I’ll practice what I’m going to say and I’ll go out onstage and I’ll present a routine that describes my emotions and describes my experience. And, for me, for a long time, I was using standup to talk about my life, what had happened to me. And then I wouldn’t tell people interpersonally those things because it was too painful and because it felt like too much of a risk.
Q: You've been doing comedy for years. When is it that you can go into the darkest material of your life and bring it onstage?
A: Actually, the reason I made [the standup special] “Rape Jokes” is because Donald Trump was elected. When I heard the “Access Hollywood” tape, and when I saw how he physically was onstage with Hillary Clinton debating, I just knew it from my own life. I felt like I knew the way that he was speaking and the way he was menacing people from an experience that I had had. And I think that’s why the #MeToo movement got such steam after it had been around for a while — people identified that.
For me, I felt like, well, what can I do? And the only thing I could think of was to personalize a story about sexual assault, rape jokes. There’s always a debate about whether they can be told. I mean, in my industry. People have been talking about this for a long time. Are they even appropriate? And the answer is yes. Talk about anything, talk about any topic. But if it’s a topic that’s affected people in the audience, be good at it. Don’t tell crappy jokes. Also, if it’s a weighty topic, treat it with weight. And so I just hadn’t seen somebody doing that. And I really wanted to be the top result if someone Googled rape jokes. Like not some heady debate, but an actual survivor telling their story. That was the reason.