Evanston born Emilia Barrosse is blazing a unique path as a comedian. This weekend, Emilia, who is known as a writer for the hit series Veep and Tacoma F.D., will return to her hometown for a two-night standup comedy event at Studio5 as part of the Practical Theatre Company’s new season.
At just two weeks old, Emilia became a Californian when her parents Victoria Zielinski and Paul Barrosse moved across the country. It would be another fifteen years before Emilia learned that her parents had created Chicago’s iconic Practical Theatre which also launched Richard Kind, Megan Mullally, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall – and that Paul, Gary, Julia and Brad had all continued on to Saturday Night Live. Not only that, but Paul and Victoria’s smart, zany, comic P.T.C. performances all around Chicago remain legendary to this day. Victoria and Paul did not reveal any of this to Emilia and her sister.
Emilia returned to Evanston to study journalism at Northwestern University, her parents’ alma mater. But in what Emilia describes as a “snowball effect,” she soon realized that comedy is her calling. She would become a production assistant on Veep when she was twenty-four, tasked with ordering coffee and lunch. Then, as Emilia recounts it, a series of fairy tale twists and turns changed her destiny. But speaking with her, it is clear that even if her history sounds like a fantasy come true, her journey has been shaped by her quick and incisive wit and an ability to embrace challenge and take smart risks. At age twenty-seven, she was promoted to writer, the only assistant in Veep’s seven season history to rise to that position.
Some of Veep’s best jokes were Emilia’s, according to both IndieWire and Thrillist. The show was known for its spectacular next-level Shakespearean-esque insults and Emilia’s were among the most creative and colorful. Thrillest specifically cites her sixth season gem “Shut the fuck up, you epileptic Picasso painting!” as one of the series’ best. Showrunner David Mandel agreed.
In addition to writing, Emilia has been performing standup for nine years. This weekend at Studio5, she will also welcome comedians Carla Collins and Josh di Donato to the stage. Carla was named “Comedian of the Year” by the Southern California Motion Picture Council and won an L.A. Film Award for best supporting actress last December. She also starred in the series Carlawood with her husband, Tyrone Power, Jr. Josh is a pioneer of the L.A. alt-comedy movement in L.A. He has opened for Maria Bamford, Sarah Silverman, Mitch Hedberg, Dave Chappelle, Marc Maron, David Cross, Patton Oswalt and many more.
Emilia kindly spoke with me by phone about discovering her parents’ history, her life in comedy, and what to expect this weekend.
LAUGHTER AND A SECRET PAST
Teme: What is it like to grow up with parents who are both such talented comedians? Did it seem normal or was there a moment when you realized that they’re extraordinary?
Emilia: Kids tend to take their parents for granted, but my parents really hung their comedy up on the shelf when they became parents. They were one hundred percent focused on being there for their kids one hundred percent of the time. Growing up, I did not know that they were comedians. I didn’t know that my dad wrote for S.N.L. I didn’t know that they performed together on stage at the Vic Theater and all across Chicago, and even in New York. They never talked about it. I just thought that everybody’s parents get you to belly laugh every dinner.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen and my dad’s old band, that he wrote this incredible music with, had a reunion because one of the bandmates got cancer. When they got back together and I met part of the “Practical diaspora”, it was the first time that I met people from their past and heard stories about their past. Then I started digging and I found the music and old VHS tapes of pilots that my dad had written and filmed. That was when I was like, oh, okay. They’re not just funny for us. They were funny for the world, too.
THE SEEDS OF A SUCCESSFUL CAREER
Teme: When did you first think about comedy as something you wanted to do?
Emilia: It was kind of a snowball effect. Growing up, I was a serious soccer player. I played for premier club teams in Southern California. We’d go to state and nationals. But then I tore my ACL, and I was sidelined for the first time. My soccer team was always my community. Once I wasn’t playing soccer anymore, I had to build community at my high school. I went to an all-girls Catholic school, but I wasn’t really close to any of the girls there and I didn’t really know how to connect with them. That was the first time that I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, you’ve got to be funny. You’ve got to make people laugh. That’s what you can do to connect with people.” I was like, “Maybe people here won’t see you as a friend, but they can see you at least as a spectacle that’s worth watching.”
So that was the first time that I really tried to be funny and started thinking of myself as a funny person. If anything, I thought of comedy as something that you do not pursue because my parents had done it and they stopped doing it to raise kids. But then I got to college in Chicago and met so many people pursuing comedy that I was like, “Oh, this is a thing that could be a full-time hustle.” That was when I started getting into sketch comedy. I started doing standup comedy after college, and that was what I really fell in love with.
Teme: Why did standup resonate?
Emilia: I think maybe it’s because I’m a perfectionist. With improv, you go out there with an idea and it immediately changes. With standup, I liked that I got to write the jokes exactly as I wanted to write them, tell them exactly how I wanted to tell them. All the pressure was on me. I didn’t have to worry about anybody else, like if the improv team showed up or if someone was on their game that day. It all got to be my creation.
It was also something that I’d honed in high school. I was known for going off on long rants and telling long stories that were funny. It felt like something that was inevitable. The only thing that held me back for so long was the fear of getting started. But I always tell people that the hardest thing about getting started is the fear that you build it up to be in your head before you actually do it.
Teme: What were your favorite comedy hangouts when you were in college?
Emilia: There was a place called Studio B where I used to do shows. I did a lot of improv and my first sketch comedy show there. I took classes at iO at the original location off of Addison. I would be at iO all the time watching TJ and Dave or Improvised Shakespeare and taking classes. On campus, the apartment complexes at Ridge and Davis were where all the comedy improv people would hang out. I lived there senior year. It was always a party. I went to Northwestern as a journalism major. When I realized that I wanted to do comedy, I tried to switch majors and they were like, “If you want to be here five years …” And I was like, “No, thank you!”
A NEW DIRECTION AND VEEP!
Teme: When did you switch from journalism to comedy?
Emilia: It was after college. I had my first couple journalism jobs that I really, really couldn’t stand. I was doing standup in Los Angeles and just loving it. My parents are good friends with Julia Louis-Dreyfus from the Practical Theatre days. So when Veep moved from filming on the East Coast to the West Coast, she was like, “Emilia, would you like an assistant job on this show? You’ll be getting people coffee, but at least you’ll be able to be in the realm.” I was like, “Absolutely.” So getting that first job as an assistant really started my career and I have Julia to thank for it.
Teme: You have a great story about how you went from a production assistant to a writer!
Emilia: Yes, it’s a fairytale story. The joke submission process for Veep is blind. Every day, they emailed out all the scripts and the scenes [to the writers] that were going to be filmed the next day. Then the writers punch them up with extra jokes. On the set before they film, the showrunner reads back through the punched-up script and calls out loud the new jokes that he likes. I didn’t even know that email existed. I was the only person not cc’d because I was not really connected to the writers’ room. I sat at a desk outside it getting lunch and coffee and answering the phone.
When I realized that email existed, I was like, “Please, I would love an opportunity to submit.” So finally I got on that email and the first day I submitted, they filmed four of my jokes. I remember standing on set in the back holding two coffees and a bunch of sides, and hearing the showrunner call my jokes out loud, and not being able to believe it. But then also feeling this deep sense of stress because nobody knew it was me. And I was like, “How could I tell people that it was me without sounding like I’m bragging?” But luckily by then I had made friends with a couple writers that I felt comfortable sharing that with, and they were all so supportive. They were like, “Every time you get a joke on, let us know and we’ll tell the showrunner.” On season six I got enough jokes in enough episodes that they decided to staff me for the final season.
Teme: What is your advice to people who would like to develop the ability to find jokes and add that value to a script? Is there a way to hone that skill or is it just natural?
Emilia: On Veep, it was like I was getting perfect pitches. They were just writing the best scenes that made it easy to knock it out of the park. But it is something that you definitely can get better at. Just keep doing it and keep doing it. I always tell people, the first three ideas you come up with, don’t use those. They’re too obvious. Do the fourth or fifth idea that you come up with and really spend time with them. I believe that you can hone any skill. I don’t believe anything is out of anyone’s reach.
Teme: Did you come up with your ideas spontaneously or did it take time to develop them?
Emilia: I remember them literally flowing out. I was just in the luckiest situation. Those scripts are so good that it’s so easy to come up with five or six punchlines for a joke. It was just so much fun. And then submitting it and hearing them get called out. When the writers were in a room and didn’t know who wrote a joke, they would say, “That was probably an Emilia one.” It got to the point that I was getting so many on it was a joke among the writers.
Teme: That’s so awesome. What is the feeling like when you’re watching the show and you hear your words?
Emilia: Watching the show is amazing, but also being on set and hearing Patton Oswalt say your joke, Hugh Laurie say your joke, or Julia Louis-Dreyfus read your joke… Being there in person and seeing it happen, it was a fairytale. I had to pinch myself for years.
Teme: Do you have a favorite story from working for the show?
Emilia: One time, we were all hitting our heads against the wall trying to come up with a perfect joke for something and I said a joke and the whole room laughed, and they just put it right in. I had a couple moments like that throughout the season when you have the breakthrough idea, those were just the most rewarding moments for me.
Teme: That sounds like life transcendent.
Emilia: It’s literally like a fairy tale story to have been the only assistant in the show’s history to have been staffed on the show. Some shows promote their writers’ assistants and their PAs. Veep was not one of those shows, because the writers have these incredible pedigrees that no assistant can compete with. It’s just lucky that the joke submission process was blind, and that our showrunner, Dave Mandel, didn’t have an ego about him and was like, “I’ll take the best joke no matter where it comes from.”
Teme: How did you go from Veep to Tacoma F.D.? Both fabulous shows, but very different humor.
Emilia: I got on Tacoma F.D. because they read a pilot that I wrote. They liked it and they called me in and I got the job. It was so different. Veep, we’d be there until 3:00 a.m., night after night. Whereas the Broken Lizard guys are like, “Show up at 10:00 a.m. By 4:00 p.m. we’re home to our families.”
Teme: Do you have a favorite story from Tacoma FD?
Emilia: One day they said, “Hey, everybody, give us your car keys. We’re going to fill up your tanks for you today.” And I was like, “Oh my God, how nice.” I just so happened to be running on empty. I loved working with those guys. They were so nice and generous. Everybody was so supportive. It was another great environment.
Teme: How would you compare the two writing rooms?
Emilia: They were different because the Broken Lizard guys have their voice and their vision, so they’d tell us what the episodes were going to be about. Then it was up to us to help come up with the scene breakdowns and things like that. But it was very much that they were the mastermind and the rest of us were just helping to create that vision. Whereas Veep was much more of a group process of coming up with what each episode was going to be about and what the season was going to look like.
HEADLINING THIS WEEKEND!
Teme: Of course, I would love to hear about your upcoming show with The Practical Theatre!
Emilia: I’m so excited that I’ll be performing alongside Carla Collins and Josh di Donato, two of my best comedy friends. I did shows with Carla all the time in Los Angeles. We’re flying her in for the show. I met Josh in Los Angeles. We didn’t see each other for a few years. Then I got to Chicago and saw him at an open mic. And I was like, “What are you doing here?” He was like, “What are you doing here?” It turned out we had both moved to Chicago because we love the comedy scene here. For this show, I’m putting together all my best bits from the last nine years that I’ve been doing standup.
Teme: How would you describe your standup? What are your favorite topics?
Emilia: It’s all really random and really observational. I don’t consider myself a political comedian. I don’t sit down and think, “Okay, it’s time to come up with comedy bits.” It’s just literally while living life, ideas will pop into my head and I’ll have to write them down. I never know where the inspiration’s going to come from. New bits that I’m working on right now are on Socrates and the NBA. Two very different topics, but all things that I’ve been thinking about lately.
Teme: What does your comedy say about you?
Emilia: Maybe that I think differently; that I have a different perspective on things that people don’t expect, and that I’m generally pretty upbeat.
Teme: We need that so badly these days. There’s nothing as therapeutic or fun as a comedy show with an upbeat perspective and shared laughter.
Emilia: Yes. One of the best compliments I get after my show is when people say, “I laughed and I felt good about laughing!”
SOME COOL FACTS
Teme: What are some fun facts about you?
Emilia: I have a cat that I’m allergic to who is the center of my universe. I can’t breathe because of him, but I wouldn’t trade him for anything. Also, you wouldn’t expect it, but I used to be an athlete. I’m really good at soccer. Now I’m an out-of-shape comedian.
I guess the most weird story about me is that I used to be terrified of dogs. But I went to a palm hypnotist who massaged my palm at the age of seven or eight and immediately I lost my fear of dogs. Leave it to Victoria Zielinski to find me the palm therapist who’s going to heal my fear of dogs. I have been hypnotized and I can say that it works.
Teme: When you’re on the road, is there one thing that you bring with you to remind you of home?
Emilia: This is embarrassing, but I still have a blanket that I had ever since I was five that I bring with me.
Teme: I have one, too, named Pinkie. It’s more hole than blanket. I used it to play tug of war with my dog when I was little.
Emilia: I call mine my pink blankie. It’s got the holes that are memories.
Teme: Exactly. I’ll have it forever.
Emilia: Same. I’m thirty-one, I still have my pink blankie, and I guess it’s time for people to know about it. I was hiding it but now I’ve told, so let the rest of the world feel less bad about their childhood.
Teme: I’ll be on the record about mine too, and I’m a lot older! There’s probably a whole society of us out there.
Emilia: Whenever I tell people about my childhood blanket, most of the time, their face falls. Then they tell me the story about when their parents threw out their childhood keepsake. There’s no need to do that. You can hold onto it and still be an adult and pay your bills, but still have your pink blankie.
Teme: What is the best and worst advice that you’ve ever received?
Emilia: Somebody once told me not to fight for your ideas in the [writers’] room. That was the worst advice. I’ve also found that it’s so much easier to get burnt out when you’re not fighting for yourself.
The best advice is to not wait for somebody to give you permission to do your art. Always be creating, always be putting your stuff out there. Don’t wait to be accepted to that group or to have your script be selected for this competition, or wait for yourself to get that grant. With the resources you have, with the people you know, with the tools at your disposal, just do everything you can to make your art and put it out there for people to see.
Teme: What question would you like someone to ask you, and how would you answer it?
Emilia: I would love somebody to ask me anything about Taylor Swift, and to have a long conversation about her discography. I’m a big Taylor Swift fan. I love her music and could have a philosophical debate about her for hours.
Teme: Absolutely anything else we should include?
Emilia: I would just like to thank my parents for believing in me and giving me this opportunity to be a part of the Practical Theatre Company. It means more than I can adequately describe, and I’m just so humbled to be a part of it and so excited for the show.
Emilia Barrosse, Carla Collins and Josh di Donato are appearing at Studio5, 1938 Dempster Street, Evanston on Saturday, May 13 and Sunday, May 14 as part of the Practical Theatre Company’s new season.
Saturday, May 13: 8-10 p.m. Hosted by Paul Barrosse. Tickets here.
Sunday, May 14: 6-8 p.m. Hosted by Dana Olsen. Tickets here.