Patti Harrison is seated onstage at an ACLU fundraiser in the dimly lit backroom of a Brooklyn bar. It’s a comedy show, but the room is somber – it’s been mere days since Donald Trump was elected president. Despite the upsetting turn of events, Harrison appears overwhelmingly put together. She has the alert, composed posture of an honor student on the first day of school. When she speaks, her tone is measured and polite, as if she is selecting each word carefully from a basket of perfectly ripened apples.
She tells the audience how deeply upsetting the election has been for her, a trans woman of color. She has also just landed her dream job as a comedy writer, and she is rattled by feeling so high and so low so swiftly. She proceeds to quietly read the pitches she had to bring into work the day following the election and the room fills with ripples of laughter that escalate into shrieks and roars. One is a show called “Son Boss” – a father promotes his son too many times until he realizes his son is now the boss. Harrison punctuates the premise with a deadpan, “Uh oh, Son Boss.” The audience wails.
Eight months later, Harrison found herself in front of an audience of millions. President Trump had tweeted that he would ban transgender people from the military and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon invited the 26-year-old Ohio native to share her thoughts on the proposed ban. Harrison was polished and charming as ever as she chided the president, saying, “Donald, you are so stupid, you are sooo stupid. You’re lucky you’re so hot.” The appearance was a hit – earning nearly 400,000 views on YouTube, thousands of retweets on Twitter and a headline in The New York Times. It was a surreal moment for Harrison who, in the face of the current political climate, speaks with as much reverence for the power of fart jokes as she does the importance of trans rights.
“I love to create very dumb and stupid shit,” says Harrison, “And that’s the funny thing – when people seek me out as this like political comedian, I literally just want to joke about IBS and farting.”
Harrison still performs in the basements and backrooms that make up New York City’s alt-comedy scene, but she is poised to become the most visible working trans comedian in America. You may recognize her from her comedic videos about queer and trans identities. Or perhaps you’ve seen “Patti Reviews Animals,” where she serenaded a squirrel monkey, delivered heartbreaking news about Steve Irwin to an alligator and confused a Patagonian cavy, a South American rodent, with Sofia Vergara. If you haven’t seen Harrison yet, chances are you will soon. With a recurring role on season two of TBS’s Search Party, a guest role in the current season of Broad City and a small part in Paul Feig’s upcoming film, A Simple Favor, Harrison is suddenly everywhere. But perhaps the biggest role Harrison has been asked to play is that of mouthpiece for the trans community. Harrison’s identity as a trans woman of color, paired with her general charm and poise, make her a perfect go-to for witty commentary on trans rights – even if her humor is rarely overtly political.
Jo Firestone, who writes for The Tonight Show and has produced many live shows featuring Harrison, adores her absurdist, gross-out wit. She recalls a card Harrison made for her. “[It] had a goofy cartoon character on the front … a cute little poodle – and then on the inside, the doodle-poodle had developed breasts and a penis and balls and was bleeding from the mouth and screaming out, ‘My body is a cage!'”
Harrison is like this on stage, too. Her tone is polite, composed and inviting. When paired with her pointedly stupid jokes or characters – which alternate between sweetly wholesome and ultra vulgar – the effect is disarming. It’s like watching a cashmere sweater unravel and reveal hundreds of blood-thirsty baby spiders – horrific and captivating.
“She has a warmth about her that is very exciting,” says Firestone. “She just has ideas that nobody else has and her overall demeanor is so interesting. She’s so calm on stage and so in control but also so strange.”
Although Harrison’s live act isn’t improv, it retains the off-the-cuff energy of her improvisational roots. She often dips into characters who are both endearing and repulsive. She loves, for example, to play old people who are horny. And she adores the opportunity to sing a silly song doing an impeccable Stevie Nicks impression. In a recent “bats and rats”-themed comedy show in New York City, Harrison asserted that she definitely knew what bats and rats were before she crooned, “I’ve seen the love on a child’s face know, yeah I know that love always wins. But I never learned this one thing.” She pauses dramatically before bursting into the chorus: “I don’t know what a bat is / I don’t know what a rat is, too / I don’t know what those things are / Is it like a shoe?”
Harrison says much of her humor is inspired by growing up in Orient, Ohio, a rural town where she was often the only person of color in an almost exclusively white community. The daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and a father with roots in Detroit and Tennessee, Harrison quickly learned that, in order to survive, she had to sympathize with those who openly mocked her. “I think a lot of me trying to blend in was me co-opting the racism that was used against me in a way – being OK with it. Like, ‘Yeah they’re calling me chink but they mean it in a nice way. They’re not racist, they hang out with me every day! Sure, they make jokes about me eating rice all the time, but they invite me to the movies sometimes!'”
Harrison, the youngest of four sisters, credits her siblings for helping her to see that she didn’t have to accept other people’s biased behavior. “My sisters were really smart,” she says. “And they sort of planted that seed in me that I actually don’t have to put up with this if I don’t want to.”
Growing up, Harrison also loved MadTV, especially its female performers and their unabashed wildness. “People like to shit on MadTV,” she says. “But it was this hub of female excellence and female character comedians like Debra Wilson, Nicole Sullivan, Mo Collins, Stephanie Weir – all of these people that are just like powerhouse performers.”
But it wasn’t until college, when a friend invited her to an improv show, that it occurred to her to perform on stage. She was immediately smitten with the form and auditioned for the improv team at Ohio University. She was elated when she got in. “That was the defining moment in my college career. I felt like, ‘Wow, I’ve accomplished something.”
When Harrison finished her fourth year of college, she came out as trans. Her family was supportive but coming out wasn’t without its uncomfortable conversations. Having switched majors, she still had credits to complete for her degree, but she ultimately decided not to return to school. Instead, she moved to New York to earn her living as a famous improvisor. “I thought that was a thing you could do,” she laughs.
Performing after she came out as trans was markedly different from her college stage experience. “My command changed,” she says. “Before I transitioned, I felt like I could walk on stage and just, like, say anything and people would just laugh. And that’s kind of a privilege that I just lost through the layers of social context and me being visibly a political object in a lot of people’s brains.”
Like all comedians, Harrison must face the challenges of connecting with an audience, but being trans often adds an additional layer of division between herself and the people from whom she’s hoping to elicit laughs. “It’s like, ‘Oh that’s a trans person.’ And that’s the conversation they’re having in their head throughout my set,” she explains.
Harrison still vividly remembers the cutting feeling of her first brush with transphobia as a performer. “One of the first shows I did in New York, I got on stage and this person in the front at normal speaking level was just like, ‘Oh that’s a guy. That’s a dude,'” she says. “And I had to keep going. And I bombed. Because I felt so disarmed in a bad way. It immediately got me in my own head.”
Harrison says she now feels mostly at home in the spaces where she performs, especially in Brooklyn where she knows she has allies. “I perform in spaces that are very inclusive and protective,” she says. “I feel more comfortable knowing that there are people around [who are] progressively minded who will have my back.” But there are still moments that give her pause, particularly when friends introduce her to people who turn out to be transphobic. “People are like, ‘Oh this is bla bla bla, he’s so nice, he’s great!'” she says. “And then it’s like, oh I have to stand with this guy who won’t look at me.” Harrison also has had the feeling she’s been booked for shows by men who are eager to identify as allies, but who are clearly uncomfortable interacting with her. “It’s like, ‘I’ll put you on the show, but oh do I have to touch you? Do I have to hand you the drink ticket?'”
Following her appearance on Fallon, Harrison was briefly flooded with requests for interviews. While it was an opportunity both for visibility as a performer, and visibility for the trans community, Harrison noticed an upsetting pattern in the questions she was sometimes asked by her interviewers. “I think it’s important for people to know [that I’m trans],” she says. “For the most part, there’s not a ton of out and working trans comedians, or people who are visible. [But] sometimes those questions [about being trans] have been a gateway to more invasive questions.”
Those questions are invariably about the intimate details of Harrison’s transition. She’s been asked various times whether she’s had surgery. “It’s always about sexualizing you,” she says. “It’s always about ‘Can I fuck you?’ and ‘How can I fuck you?'”
Dylan Marron, a writer and performer who got to know Harrison while working with her at comedy site Seriously.tv says he was instantly impressed with Harrison’s writing and her sensibilities as a performer. “I think what makes Patti so brilliant – in terms of needing more representation in media – is that Patti is just so fully herself,” he says.
Marron recalls a video Harrison made in 2016 after Brooklyn Magazine released their 50 Funniest People in Brooklyn list. The video was captioned, “To congratulate everyone whose name made it on.” In the video, Harrison gazes forlornly offscreen, scanning for her own name. She realizes she hasn’t been included, turns to the camera and asks theatrically, her voice strained, “Where’s my name?” She sobs, rises and exits dramatically, on rollerblades.
“Queer art is all about subverting further levels than you ever thought possible,” he says. “I think that’s what Patti does so beautifully.”
While she recognizes the value of representation, Harrison also says there’s something affirming about getting cast in parts on Broad City and Search Party, neither of which were written with a focus on the characters being trans. “It’s a good sign when we can have a marginalized person on screen – any person of color or LGBTQIA person – and there’s no shoehorn explanation as to why they are there,” she says. “They can just be on screen and their character motivations are what they are and they’re not like ‘Oh this is my maid. She’s trans, but she’s also a flute player.'”
“I think in some places it’s like, yeah someone in the midwest needs to see that I’m a trans character and I’m a person,” she says. “But for me it is very rewarding to get to just act and not have to think about my otherness for a few hours.”
In the same regard, Harrison often feels that speaking about the silly and mundane sometimes feels like its own political statement. “I’m learning now that just being a visibly marginalized person and not addressing it in an artistic space is almost more political than for me to be on stage talking about it,” she says. “It’s fully a privilege to be an artist and not have to talk about your oppression in your art. If you don’t have that challenge – you get to make art about a hoverboard!”
As for the dismal political landscape, Harrison says it’s only driven her to keep creating the stupidest jokes possible. “I think in the way that a lot of people’s bodies release tears when they’re stressed or sad, my body releases horrible, horrible jokes about bird assholes and the dumbest things I can think of, because – even if it’s just for a second – it [provides] relief. I guess the equivalent of taking a deep calming breath for me is like farting in a beautiful musical tone,” she says, adding, “Or farting with a dear friend! If you’re doing it with a friend you can harmonize a chord.”