Interview: Hyperbole and a Half's Allie Brosh
The author and creator of the hugely popular Web comic chats about her new book, dealing with depression and more
Tue Oct 29 2013
Photograph: Courtesy Allie Brosh
If you've spent any appreciable time on the Internet, you likely already know about Allie Brosh's incredibly popular Web comic, Hyperbole and a Half—or, at the very least, you're familiar with some of the memes that it's spawned. (The Alot, "Clean all the things!", etc.) This week, both old and new comics will be published in Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem and Other Things That Happened, a book collecting some of Brosh's best (and funniest) work.
Aside from the fact that her storytelling is hilarious, Brosh is exceptionally talented at examining more serious issues—like anxiety, or the fear of growing up—and finding both the humor and deep truths in them. Nowhere is this more apparent than her two posts about depression, the second of which was published after Brosh had taken more than a year off from posting.
We chatted with the author about working through that period in her life, as well as what it's like to create a meme, and what's up with the Simple Dog.
Time Out New York: How did Hyperbole and a Half get started?
Allie Brosh: I've always liked trying to make people laugh. I don't know if it's the challenge or what, but it's very fulfilling for me. I was taking some summer classes to finish up my degree, and I had to study for a physics final. And whenever I have to be doing something, I do pretty much the opposite of that thing. I'm still productive, but I do something that would be productive if that was the thing I had to be doing. On this particular day, I was putting studying off and I decided to see if I could write something funny on the Internet. I opened Google and typed in "free blog" and found Blogger. [Laughs] I posted some of the stuff that I'd been writing on Facebook to see if people liked it. I maybe got three comments, and I remember being so happy that even just three people were reading and laughing at what I was doing.
Time Out New York: What appealed to you about doing these stories in Web-comic form?
Allie Brosh: My current style evolved as a result of a subconscious attmempt to re-create the feeling and timing of stand-up comedy. There's a dimension to stand-up that there isn't on the written page—body language, facial expressions, verbal tones—and in a way, adding pictures and stuff to my writing allows me to do some of the same things, but I don't have to be a stand-up comic. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: Are there any stand-ups or storytellers who have influenced your writing?
Allie Brosh: Oh gosh, there are so many of them. Patton Oswalt and Louis C.K. are probably my comedic idols. I really like Dana Gould, and also John Mulaney—they're fantastic storytellers, and both have a good sense of how to tell a long story and ratchet up the hilarity throughout the whole thing. It could be a story about nothing but you're laughing so hard because of the way they're telling it. And I really enjoy Mitch Hedberg—I got into him probably just before he died. I would have loved to see him live.
Time Out New York: How long does it take you to write and edit your stories, and actually be satisfied by them, before you start working on a post?
Allie Brosh: [Laughs] A long time. Whenever I sit down to write something, I have this intangible but very specific sense of how I want it to feel and how I want it to read. It's really difficult to figure out how to take this invisible thing I can sense in my own head and get it across so it goes into other people's heads in sort of the same shape. The bulk of the time that I spend crafting posts is just doing that.
Time Out New York: Has that changed at all since the beginning?
Allie Brosh: It's gotten easier and harder. Harder because I notice more when I'm writing something that's shitty or not up to par, so I can't get away with substandard work anymore. [Laughs] I think I'm also learning throughout this whole process, and because of that it gets easier to deal with.
Time Out New York: Were you able to go back and make any edits to pieces from the blog that ended up in your book?
Allie Brosh: I didn't do much, if anything, to the text, but I was able to update the art, which was actually a very important thing for me. My artistic style has evolved quite a bit since the beginning of the blog. I don't know exactly what about it has changed, but I feel better equipped to convey this weird shape of whatever is in my head on paper now than I did before. For example, "The God of Cake" is one of my favorite posts I've ever written, and I always felt like, Well, if I could just tweak the art a little bit, it could be so much funnier and so much more accurate than what I was originally intending it to be. And I was able to do that. People may not have even noticed I changed anything. It feels the same, but to me it made a huge difference.
Time Out New York: When did you first begin to notice how big the blog had gotten?
Allie Brosh: It all happened really suddenly. For the first year I was blogging it was just a small community of readers that would comment on things, and it was very personal. And then somebody posted one of my posts to Reddit. I had a stat counter on my blog that showed how many people saw this today or whatever, and I noticed that it was just vastly disproportionate to all the other days. And I was like, What is this? What's going on? And then I saw the thing on Reddit. So it was probably that day that it was like, Whoa, a lot of people are looking at this!
Photograph: Courtesy Allie Brosh
Time Out New York: How do you feel about the stuff you've created—like the "Clean all the things!" post–becoming memes?
Allie Brosh: I think it's fine, I enjoy that people are having fun with it. I don't enjoy when people use it to sell something or sell a point of view that really bothers me.
Time Out New York: I read a Gawker post about how Grumpy Cat sort of rips off one of Kate Beaton's comics; it must be strange when content that you've created sort of gets out of your control and becomes popular because of a whole other thing.
Allie Brosh: It's a little strange, but I've learned to embrace it. I think that people might get annoyed with it because it's so everywhere, but I think people understand that it's so out of my control. Every now and then someone posts one of the memes they come up with on my Facebook wall, and there've actually been some really funny ones.
Time Out New York: You write about very personal issues and stories; how do you balance that with not sharing too much with people? Or is that something you don't really worry about?
Allie Brosh: It's not really a concern. I'm not easily embarrassed—I figure, what's the use in pretending to be something that I'm not? There's a certain freedom in just being totally honest with things. If I can take the most embarrassing thing that's happened to me, and I can own it, then what's there to be scared about? It's sort of an invulnerability through vulnerability.
Time Out New York: Your posts about depression got a lot of attention—I saw them shared so much on social media, with people saying how much they identified with your story. What was the impetus behind sharing it?
Allie Brosh: Humor is something that I use to cope. And it was liberating to take this horrible thing, the worst thing that's happened to me, and put it out there publicly and just laugh at it. Like, look at how silly this can be, look at the silly aspects of this horrible thing that happened to me. It was liberated to own it like that. I don't know whether it helps change the way I viewed my depression at all—sometimes you can get caught up in how miserable you are, and it helps to be able to laugh at that.
Time Out New York: So it was therapuetic for you?
Allie Brosh: Yeah, definitely. There's a huge stigma around mental health. People, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable talking about it, and I wanted to be like, "Hey, look, I'm comfortable talking about this so let's talk about it, we can make fun of it." You can talk about something very serious with a certain amount of levity.
Time Out New York: Were you expecting how much of a response the posts would get?
Allie Brosh: I honestly didn't know! That happens with a lot of my posts; I'll write about how I experienced something, but I never know if people are going to relate to it. I wasn't sure that this was going to be relatable, especially when I was talking about how numb it was. There's this common misconception that depression is sadness, you know? And it can be. There are lots of different ways that depression can manifest. But I spent 11 months being totally dead inside—I wasn't sad, or happy or anything. It was just boring and horrible, I couldn't connect to anything, or experience or enjoy anything. I honestly didn't know if that was going to be relatable to anyone.
Time Out New York: It seems like not just with that story, but with stories about your childhood, or dealing with anxiety or whatever, there's always some universal experience or truth that people can relate to, even though they're stories that are specific to you.
Allie Brosh: Yeah, it's weird how people will e-mail me and say, "Hey, it really helped to read about your depression because it made me feel less alone." But to me, them saying that makes me feel less alone. It circles back around and it's like, nobody's alone! [Laughs]
Time Out New York: You balance out the kind of heavy, feelings-intensive posts with ones about your dogs or your family that are a little more lighthearted; is it easier to write one or the other?
Allie Brosh: The lighthearted ones are a little bit easier. It's easier to put them into words. With the feelings-intensive ones—my editor calls them the "thinky posts" [Laughs]—it's hard, because it's like I'm being my own therapist. And how do I put that into words that are both accurate and funny? But some of the childhood stories—like, there's one in the book called "Lost in the Woods," and that one was so hard to write for some reason. The story was long, and there were lots of things that happened, and I couldn't quite get the right structure for it. I probably drew 300 extra pictures that didn't end up in that post. I hated it by the time I was done with it.
Time Out New York: For a story like that, how much do you rely on your own memory, and how often do you have to go back to someone like your mom to fill in the blanks?
Allie Brosh: I do both. I tend to have a pretty good memory of most things after [age] three. My memory kicked in sometime between two and three. There are some blank spots—I remember most things, and then there's a glaring blind spot.
Time Out New York: Have your family members ever balked at being included in a story, or asked you not to write about something?
Allie Brosh: Surprisingly, no! Even though my family members are involved in a lot of my stories and I paint them with a satirical brush, I poke fun at them in the same way I poke fun at myself. They see it's lighthearted and I'm not saying anything bad about them.
Time Out New York: One final question: How are the simple dog and the helper dog doing?
Allie Brosh: [Laughs] Oh, they're doing good. [The simple dog] is such a happy dog. Everything to her is a game. I'm sad that we have to leave them here while I go on my book tour. I just miss my pets.
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)