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Ally Pankiw's film 'I Used to be Funny' follows a stand-up comedian with PTSD


In a new movie, a stand-up comedian is paying the bills as a nanny. She and her tween charge connect over all things girl.


RACHEL SENNOTT: (As Sam) You know, I am working on some material about teens in general.

OLGA PETSA: (As Brooke Renner) Oh?

SENNOTT: (As Sam) Yes. How it's no fair that Gen Z already knows about, like, skin serums and stuff. So they're just going to rule the world with their pore-less skin forever.

PETSA: (As Brooke Renner) OK, you know, your skin is fine.

SENNOTT: (As Sam) Fine. Very generous. Thank you. Wow, fine.

KURTZLEBEN: "I Used To Be Funny" stars Rachel Sennott as Sam, the comedian. She and the girl she's nannying, whose mom has died, also connect over something darker. It's written-directed by Ally Pankiw. And a heads up that our conversation will touch on sexual assault. Ally, thank you so much for being with us.

ALLY PANKIW: Oh, thank you for having me, talking all things - the spectrum from skin serum to sexual assault. Here we go.

KURTZLEBEN: Let's start with Sam. She's kind of an unlikely nanny, as far as movie nannies go. She's not exactly Mary Poppins. Tell us about her.

PANKIW: Rachel plays Sam, a young woman trying to find her artistic voice and make it in the stand-up comedy scene. And when we meet her, she's definitely in a rut. She's depressed. In terms of, like, an unconventional nanny character, yeah, I think she represents, for me, that sort of cool, older sister, cool, older girl archetype in society that I think we all know as young women. Whether that was a friend's sister or a cousin or a camp counselor, it's just that girl who sort of opened the door a crack on life. But yeah, definitely not Mary Poppins, that's for sure.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And you wrote her material. What do you think makes her funny? What kind of material does she do?

PANKIW: Yes, I wrote some of the thematic guidelines for the stand-up, and then Rachel and I - because Rachel Sennott is an incredible stand-up in her own right, you know? That's how I first met her and discovered her. I mean, I'm not taking credit for discovering Rachel Sennott...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

PANKIW: ...That's just how I came to know her. We crafted the stand-up together to sort of, like, match Rachel's voice.


SENNOTT: (As Sam) So I realized something today. I realized I have a lot more in common with closeted homophobic youth pastors than I thought.


SENNOTT: (As Sam) The same way that they're denouncing gay people is the same way I'm denouncing straight men.

PANKIW: I think the thing that makes both Sam and Rachel herself very funny is that they both understand that they have tools that they can use to make certain demographics of people uncomfortable, using the way that they're perceived and playing sort of against that convention or, like, surprising people. Also, just like understanding the unique nightmare of what it means to be a young woman in the world. That's very much a theme of the film and the stand-up in the film. Just that we've had to sort of, like, develop this secret language between young women to navigate that and survive that, and we have a sense of gallows humor about it.

KURTZLEBEN: You have some male characters belittling women comedians for talking about being women. There's one character in this movie who observes to Sam that stand-up comedy is often about self-deprecation, but he adds, you're not obese. You're not ugly. You don't have a stutter. And it's a funny but really sharp line that made me sit up straight. I'm wondering, have you seen different reactions to this movie - men versus women?

PANKIW: Yeah, I think a lot of the time men are sometimes mad. There's, like, a bunch of male reviewers, like Brian at the movies and Josh at the flicks, and they're very mad. They're like, I knew what the mystery was. It wasn't a good thriller 'cause I figured it out. Well, no one said it was a thriller or a mystery. I think we all know what's coming down the pipeline. It's about something different than that.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, maybe we all don't know. That's the thing, right?

PANKIW: Well, maybe some people do, and some don't, and that's, I think, what's an interesting conversation to have. It's what is the instinct that allows mainly women to, of course, know what's coming. But some men, I think, maybe don't want to recognize that they have friends, or, like, they can see in themselves similar qualities to maybe the, quote-unquote, "bad guy" in the film.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, as we've gotten to a bit in this conversation, this movie hinges on something really serious - a rape - happening to someone very funny. And I'm wondering, was it difficult to find the tone and to strike the right tone with this movie between those two things?

PANKIW: The tone of this film was sort of the reason that I wanted to make it. I only ever saw stories about recovery, about healing told in, like, two very specific ways - either they very much hinged on revenge, retribution, justice - these, like, very male ideas of winning and a hero's journey being the key to recovery. And it's just not the case.

And then there's this other side of the spectrum when we talk about violence against women. And something as common, unfortunately, as sexual assault - it's treated as this, like, huge melodramatic thing. And the truth of the matter is just that it's very common. There's, like, a banality to being a victim.

I think the, like, nuanced way that we have to survive this truth, it is a little bit more in the gray. It isn't pure tragedy, and it isn't pure comedy. It is somewhere in the middle. And so representing the tone in which this touches our lives was sort of the impetus for making and writing the film in the first place.

KURTZLEBEN: I do want to shift away from the movie to talk about your experience in the film industry because you had this post on social media back in 2020. It was on your birthday, and you were turning 34 at the time. And you basically said - and I'm going to paraphrase here - if you're a woman in this industry, it's OK to be a little bit behind the men because they just have some big advantages. Why was that important for you to do?

PANKIW: I talk about this in a lot of different ways. Like, being a female director, it's just I feel very grateful and lucky that I am a part of the very small statistic that represents working female directors. It's a very depressing pie chart that I think we see trotted out, year after year, that doesn't seem to change. As a white female director I'm lucky 'cause the statistics are even worse for women directors of color and then obviously also queer female filmmakers, which I am. So I guess I am in one of the most depressing parts of the pie chart.

I would just encourage women to stick with it 'cause it just - it does take a little bit longer. The odds are not ever in your favor (laughter). But that's OK. If you have tenacity, you know, you can still do it.

KURTZLEBEN: That is writer-director Ally Pankiw. Her new movie is "I Used To Be Funny." Ally, thank you so much.

PANKIW: Thank you so much. What a lovely conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.