Women’s Lib: Gilli Nissim Talks Going Any Lengths for a Laugh
Gilli Nissim is known for a show called 'We're Gross.' Be ready for anything.
Comedian Gilli Nissim revels in exploring facets of life that other people might shy away from. And she does it by making you laugh hard. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, the LA-native made a name for herself at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A., where her monthly late night talk show, “We're Gross With Gilli Nissim,” has a regular run.
“We’re Gross” has attracted a sizable following since starting up in 2014. The online description of “We’re Gross” spells out what Gilli’s world is all about: “We are going to celebrate how gross it is to be alive.”
The Kind caught up with Gilli via email and asked her about her namesake show as well as the lengths that she’s gone to get a laugh.
The KIND: Describe your UCB show “We’re Gross” for us.
Gilli Nissim: We like to call it an interactive, unbuttoned approach for a late night talk show. There are all of the traditional elements like monologue jokes, sidekicks (though we call them house buddies—it just highlights their personal worth a little more, ya know?) a bandleader, sketches, topical segments, and a guest interview. We simply use those elements in a more honest and cathartic approach. We have a lot of freedom in that tiny theater as opposed to the squeaky clean, lowest common dominator stuff you might find on TV. If the show had a tag line, it would be: "Don't sweat the small stuff. Laugh at the big, embarrassingly horrifying stuff."
So many weird things about us as human beings should bring us together. Even if my weird thing is different from your weird thing, just the fact that we both HAVE weird things should mean that we can relate to one another. We ask the audience to laugh at our weird things and maybe share some of their own if we earn their trust. Then we end it all with a song. It's all very nice, despite the grossness.
The KIND: How did the show come about?
Gilli Nissim: Jake Jabbour, a fellow comedian and the co-host of the show, actually emailed me saying he would like to work on a show at UCB with me, and he thought I should be the host. It was the most flattered I've ever been. He and I both love bringing things people normally keep private into the very public forum of the stage. We got addicted to the feeling of baring your scars and secrets, having people laugh at it because they relate to it, then feeling like you've been set free from the burden of that scar or secret. We made sure to add a ton of elements of audience participation so everyone could feel that way if they wanted to. When we meet, we talk about personal stuff that we're going through, make up a game or segment around it, and pray other people in the room will find it funny.
The KIND: What's your favorite part about doing the show?
Gilli Nissim: Really, truly, everything. I fancy myself an improviser, a comic, a sketch actor, a writer, a thrill seeker, a people person, and I love to sing and write silly songs. Being a late-night host allows you to incorporate all of those things if you want to! I have been in L.A. trying (with varying degrees of vigor) to be an actor most of my life, which already seems like such a ridiculous long shot. Now, at 28, I've gone ahead and made my dream even more specific and rare. I want to be the host of a late-night talk show on TV. Should be easy right? No biggie.
I've also painted my vagina to look like Kermit the Frog and worked my outer labia like a puppet while doing my best Jim Henson impression.
The KIND: How did you get started in comedy?
Gilli Nissim: Here's the cheesy story! I started performing in musicals as a kid. I thought of myself as a serious stage actor until I was doing The Sound of Music at age 15. I was Maria (I wasn't good, just less bad than other kids), but on some nights I played the lady who wins 3rd place at the singing competition. The part was so small, they couldn't give it to anyone. The first night, the line got a laugh. The second night, I drew on a unibrow and swapped out my costume for a tighter one, and it got a bigger laugh. The third night, I worked out a bit with the kid playing Max to play up how much taller I was than him. After that, I realized that I had more fun messing around with this one line and getting laughs than I was having being one of the stars of the show.
The KIND: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done on stage?
Gilli Nissim: I've been nude on stage quite a bit. I've also eaten crickets and dog food. I've also painted my vagina to look like Kermit the Frog and worked my outer labia like a puppet while doing my best Jim Henson impression. Twice. A lot of the stuff we do can be seen as stunts, and I wouldn't argue. But it (almost always) has a heartwarming message behind it. I am afraid of and embarrassed by things, but when other people are REALLY afraid or embarrassed, it makes me want to do the thing on stage. It's the only reason why I ever touch spiders in my house. My roomies are more afraid.
The KIND: Which comedians make you laugh the hardest?
Gilli Nissim: Hardest laugh to date is still held by Tig Notaro. I watched her do a set with her Taylor Dayne story at a Hot House show five or so years ago. My friends and I really thought we were going to die. She was up there with her deadpan delivery quite literally killing me. I can still remember the gleeful feeling of, "Oh, my God. This is the funniest thing. Ever. I am laughing, and I am not breathing. This is how I am going to die." Luckily she let up and we survived.
Mitch Hedberg was my first real favorite. My sister snuck me into the Laugh Factory to see him when I was 16. We loved his albums. Then, hanging around UCB, you are bound to laugh. My improv team, Winslow, is seven other dum dums who are all so weird and brilliant. They'll get you going.
The KIND: What advice do you have for hopeful improvisers looking to be a part of a theater like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre?
Gilli Nissim: Make sure you don't have all of your eggs in one basket—for several reasons. When people think UCB is their only ticket to stardom, they sometimes take it too seriously, dive in too deep, and become poorly rounded people, which is both bad for you the improviser and very bad for you the human. Try different styles of improv or totally different mediums of art to expand your mind. Maintain your friendships with people from back home, work, or just outside the world of improv. See shows and practice. Some nights stay home, eat a healthy meal, and sleep. I am absolutely talking to myself.
People have really woken up to the idea that you can smoke weed and be a driven, successful person.
The KIND: When you’re high, what is your favorite thing to do? What's your favorite thing to eat?
Gilli Nissim: I love talking to other friends who are high and letting ourselves get very silly. I also love going for walks. L.A. is a very underrated city to be on foot in. The other day while high I walked to get good Italian food, went to an arcade, and checked out some posters at a gallery. You can do a lot! My favorite thing to eat is popcorn. I love tossing in some truffle salt, olive oil, nutritional yeast (it's got a cheesy flavor), garlic powder, and a little freshly squeezed lemon. It's definitely a snack invented by a stoned person. I also love peanut butter on an apple or banana. Also pizza because I am made of flesh and blood.
The KIND: Do you feel like the world of marijuana has changed in the last few years?
Gilli Nissim: Definitely! Maybe even more so, I have changed within that world. My mom knows I have a card and smoke. I told her! People have really woken up to the idea that you can smoke weed and be a driven, successful person. I know some people are scared to get a card because it might "put them on some government list." Get me on that list, baby! Having a card is a conscious choice I made. Also it allows me to buy weed without bugging friends, so it's win-win.
The KIND: What would you be doing if you weren’t a comedian?
Gilli Nissim: I would've gone to law school, failed or bailed, and lived out my days as the creepy old person who manages a hostel in France and wants to party with all the young tourists.