Charlyne Yi is a comedienne and musician who has opened for Akron/Family, has had members of Man Man and the Vandals cover her songs, and pees while being interviewed. She does not know who Spike Jones is, has never been high, and is not dating Michael Cera. This interview by Dan Collins.
Tell us about your latest band, Old Lumps.
It’s scary! I feel like that’s one of the more serious bands I’ve been doing, just because we’ve been practicing, and it’s five of us… sorry, I’m out of breath! I’m running upstairs.
Do you work out often?
Lots of weights! Big ones! And now I’m going to pee with you on the phone, because I’m disgusting.
Wow! Okay… so, how would you describe the Old Lumps sound?
Pain! Emotional pain! I’m realizing that most of my songs sound the same now. I’m trying to define each song so they don’t sound like a mass of songs.
You’re also in Chandelier Teeth, and the Glass Beef, and Helen Hunt and the Twisters. How many bands are you in?
Ha ha, I think it’s only five, but the Helen Hunt thing is just random, whenever me and Kate [Micucci] happen to be free. We don’t practice really. They’re bands, but they’re not that serious. These are just like, ‘You want to play music? Okay, let’s do it!’ Helen Hunt and the Twisters haven’t performed in over a year. I think we’ve only performed four times.
Now that your movie career is taking off, do you think you could get Helen Hunt on stage to sing with you guys?
We have an idea that we would have, you know, one of those cardboard cutouts of her? And we thought it would be funny if that was our thing, and then one day when we were playing, she’d be hiding behind the cutout of her and she’d pop out!
You have a project called the Music Scientist, where you record demos at home, and fairly talented bands you hardly know record their own, more fleshed-out versions of those songs and post them on YouTube and whatnot. How did you get that project off the ground?
I don’t know! I wrote a lot of songs, but I don’t actually like singing. I was like, oh, this song would sound so much better if I was a man with a burly voice, or I wish I had more range, like an opera singer. I can’t hit any of these notes that I hear in my head. I can play them out on a piano, but never give the song justice. And so I wrote a song. And this band I listened to on MySpace, Twain, this guy had a really great voice. We didn’t even really know each other, but he had seen me perform, and I liked his music. And so I asked him, and he did it. And after I got one person to agree, I was like, ‘I’m going to ask everyone!’ It’s been pretty cool, to see what people come up with.
Shel Silverstein wrote ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and a bunch of other songs for Johnny Cash. Is there a really famous singer you’d want to write for?
Celine Dion! She has such a good range. I used to sincerely love her as a kid. She goes like ‘whooooooaaa’ a lot! I’d be funny to make her do that too much, where it’s overboard, and people are uncomfortable. I think it’d be really fun to make her sing something really sincere, but something really ridiculous coming out of her mouth. Maybe something really redundant, like ‘I LOOOOVE him! I LOOOOVE him!’ Like twenty times, singing the same thing! Besides that, I just want to hear her say really cheesy stuff, like complimenting a boy. ‘Your skin is so soft and silky, and I want to kiss it! I want to kiss it bad!’
You haven’t snagged Celene Dion yet, but you did have David Quackenbush and Warren Fitzgerald from the Vandals cover one of your songs. Did you know who they were when you got in contact?
No! But David came to a Glass Beef show, and I met him. I was like ‘Oh, I really like their music!’ And I just wrote him. ‘Hey, we’re doing this project, for fun. And there’s no money, and we just give away the song for free. If you have time and you’re into this idea—it shouldn’t feel like homework, it should feel like something you’re actually passionate about—then I want you to do a song.’ And he did it, hee hee! But no, I live in a bubble. I didn’t know who the Vandals were.
Do you identify with John Travolta’s character in The Boy in the Bubble?
I’ve never even heard of it, really.
That’s too bad! We’re all Scientologists at L.A. RECORD. If you had a child with undiagnosed autism who died, what kind of song would you write for his funeral?
I would burn his body, and then I would use it in my coffee and drink it, so we could be one. And I would play ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, and I’d imagine that he was here with me.
When you were a child, what music did you listen to? What are your primal influences?
I listened to K-Earth 101 a lot! And Elvis. And Queen. But I don’t think I sound like any of that stuff at all. I wish that I could, but I think it’s impossible for me.
Do you get inspiration from other musical comedians, like Spike Jones and Eric Idle?
I didn’t even know Spike Jonze did music! That’s really funny, ha ha!
No, not the director guy! Spike Jones from the thirties. He did ‘Der Fuhrer’s Face.’
Oh, ha ha, I’m way off! I’ve never heard of Spike Jones! I like Loudon Wainwright III. His stuff is a mixture of sincere stuff and comedy, too! And someone else just introduced me to Jonathan Richman, which I think is the same thing. It hits you instantly, and it’s funny, but there’s this undertone of sadness in what he’s singing. I found that really interesting, because when I do music, I like to throw people off by doing something silly and then doing something serious. People are like, ‘Whoa, should I not laugh at this?’
There does seem to be tenderness at the heart of your tunes. You and Kate Micucci might be singing about a booger trying to find its way back to the nose, but it’s sad at the same time.
We did do a weird booger song! I think sometimes me and Kate hide a true song with comedy, because we’re embarrassed of talking about something. That was like a mix of, ‘Oh, let’s sing about this lonely person!’ And we were like, ‘What if it’s a lonely booger?’ And we start laughing, because we were kind of getting depressed about what we’re singing about! It’s sad, but it’s also kind of gross and stupid. It’s fun to not take music too seriously. I think music is a great way to do comedy and still do sincere stuff. And I think comedy can be really sincere, too. It’s fun mixing with that kind of stuff. I have been reading Harpo Speaks, a book that Harpo Marx wrote, and I find him the most interesting guy ever. I starting taking up harp because I was reading that book! Something I related to is that he liked to play music, and back in those days, it didn’t have to always be funny. Like Steve Martin would tap dance, and play banjo, and some of the stuff he was doing wasn’t necessarily hilarious. But I was like, ‘I love to watch this! It’s kind of funny, but I love this song!’
Steve Martin’s Wild and Crazy Guy was one of the funniest comedy albums ever, but the song ‘King Tut’ sucked ass. What’s the secret to making a funny song funny?
I have no idea! My songs I think are kind of funny, but I don’t even know if they are funny. I did this one song where I almost cry in the middle of the song, but I’m not really crying, but I try to trick people into thinking I am, and people start laughing! Nothing about the words is funny—it’s just about the way the song is delivered, and how uncomfortable it is to see someone almost break down in the middle of the song. I’m not sure if my songs are funny, and I don’t understand why people laugh at them! I have no idea.
Steve Martin would open for bands when he was getting his start, like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Earl Scruggs. Have you opened for any acts that L.A. RECORD readers might know?
I have. It’s really scary! I’ve opened for Akron/Family, and I’ve opened for Sasha Smith. One time I opened for Man Man, and my set was broken up into two chunks of fifteen minutes. So I opened at the very beginning, and a band played, and it was supposed to be me again, and then Man Man. And when the band went off, they were like, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, Man Man!’ And it was supposed to be me next! And my friend from Man Man, Honus, carried me out, and I was like ‘I don’t want to go! People are going to boo me! Last time I went up, there was like 30 people there. Right now there’s hundreds of people who don’t know who I am from the last performance!’ And I go up there, and people are like, ‘Go back to Jersey! Get off the stage!’ And there was this guy who was like ‘I’m going to fuck you up! I’m going to go up there on stage and fuck you up!’ Thank god he didn’t go up there, but they booed me so I couldn’t talk at all! It’s rough sometimes.
Have you ever considered getting revenge by getting a band to open for your stand-up act, and having the audience boo that band?
I’ve thought of other ways to mess with them, in a non-malicious way. I opened for the Akron/Family in New York at the same place, and I thought, ‘I’m at the same place—I’m going to get booed again!’ And I thought if they boo me, I’ll be like, ‘Uh, the Akron/Family didn’t show up today, and so they asked me to fill in for them, and I’ll have to play each instrument alone, but just pretend they’re all playing at the same time. So it might take awhile.’ And so I’d just go do guitar, then go do drums… That was my back-up plan. But I didn’t get booed. So that’s nice!
Who do you think works harder, musicians or comedians?
I think both equally work as hard, just in different ways. Most comedians don’t get paid for 95% of their gigs, if not more! I’ve only been paid like twice in my life. It’s kind of disgusting, the realization that oh, I perform comedy for free—I’m like a big nerd! I just do this out of a hobby! I really like performing, and don’t get paid really! The way the venues work, most musicians get paid for their gigs, even if it’s a couple bucks. They get a cut of the door and stuff usually. But with comedy, you get a reaction with the laughter, and know immediately how you’re doing. With music, at a bar, people will talk over your music, and that kind of shocks! But then there’s the energy of the room. You’re like, ‘I think this is going well, but I have no idea why!’
There’s a lot of press recently about the renaissance in L.A.’s music scene, and we also have a bumper crop of funny comedians nowadays. But those scenes don’t connect nearly enough. How can we bridge that gap?
It’s weird. A lot of musicians I’ve met want to be comedy writers and perform comedy, and a lot of comedians want to perform music. Like my friend Paul Rust, he wanted to be in a band and stuff, and somehow we got mixed into comedy. And my friend from Man Man, he studied script-writing and stuff.
You not only co-wrote the script for Paper Heart, but you co-wrote the score! How did that happen?
Me and Michael Cera had never scored anything, had been writing music just in general, and sending these songs to Nick, the director. And he was like, ‘Why don’t you guys score the movie?’ And we were like, ‘That sounds awesome. But we have no idea how to do that.’ And so through the whole process of filming the movie and editing, me and Michael had separately been writing songs, and we would place them into the editing thing and see how the song would change the scene. And from that we ended up with this guy named Alden Penner from the Unicorns. I had never heard of them, but Michael was a really big fan of them, and sent me a CD of his solo stuff, which is music that Alden had just written in his bedroom. And I was really into that stuff, and so we contacted him and told him what we were doing, and showed him clips. And he was into producing it, and he had never produced a movie score either! So we were all new to this idea, and he flew up from Canada, and we all kind of experimented with the songs and tried to get them in different variations. It was fun!
You seem to have incurred the wrath of thousands of female Michael Cera fans by having a relationship with him.
It’s so strange! I have crushes on characters in movies, but I wouldn’t understand actually hating someone because of that. I don’t think that hate is true, because you can’t hate someone unless you actually know them. These people are crazy! How can you not like someone based on some weird form of jealousy that doesn’t even make sense? And me and Michael aren’t dating, actually, which is stranger. I’ve had people come up to me after shows who are like ‘Oh my gawd! That’s that girl that’s dating Michael!’ And one of them will come up to me and be like, ‘How old are yeeew?’ And I’ll lie to them and say I’m really old, and they’ll be like, ‘Ew, that’s so gross!’ Ha ha, okay!?! And how can they know and like someone if they don’t actually know them, if they only ever see glimpses of characters, or interviews. I’ve gotten weird hate mail regarding Michael. And I wrote them like, ‘Hey, we’re not even dating! I don’t know why you hate me; if it’s because of Michael, we’re not dating, so I guess you don’t hate me anymore?’ And they’ll just write, ‘Fuck you, you fucking bitch!’ I don’t take it personally. They don’t really know me.
You and Michael aren’t dating anymore?
No! How did you know that we were dating, if we were dating? People will say a lot of things! People said that I’m 33, and that was like a big issue, because people were like, ‘Why would a 33-year-old not believe in love in this documentary?’ It’s not even like a true documentary! There’s a lot of misconceptions about who I am and how old I am and who I’m dating. Two people came up to me and said, ‘Oh, where’s your husband?’ I don’t have a husband!
It sucks that people are judging you based on characters you portray! I mean, your breakout role was a stoner in Knocked Up, which isn’t you at all.
I enjoy acting, but I think it’s hard for people to cast me in things, because I don’t really fit a lot of things, and I don’t have much range. I’m not really a great actor. And after that movie, a lot of people wanted me to play a stoner, too. I didn’t know how I played a stoner! I think I did a really bad job, actually. I think I was just tired that day, and I sound like I’m stoned when I’m tired, and I was laughing at nothing! And I’ve never actually even been high.
Paul Reubens had to create a whole stage show for his Pee Wee Herman character before he could evolve past doing little roles in Cheech and Chong films and make his own mark. Do you think Paper Heart is a good way for you to present your best self to the public?
I think our movie has a lot of things I do in normal stage performances. I like mixing reality with fiction—whenever I bring an audience member up and make them do a half-hour show with me, that’s like them playing with me and taking them for this ride. It isn’t real, but it is real, because it’s a real person and they’re really interacting with me. In Paper Heart, I tried to play myself as much as possible, since I am playing a character named Charlyne Yi, and I am interviewing real people. But sometimes I am weird and I don’t come off natural, even when I am being myself. I think this is a good representation of me trying to be myself, ha ha! I don’t know if I always want to be myself in other roles, but I don’t know if I have a choice, because I don’t have range. I wish I had more range. That’d be awesome!
CHARLYNE YI’S PAPER HEART ON FRI., JUNE 25, AT THE L.A. FILM FESTIVAL AT THE LANDMARK 8, 10850 W. PICO BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 5 PM / $12 / ALL AGES. LAFILMFEST.COM. VISIT CHARLYNE YI AT MYSPACE.COM/CHARLYNEYI.