GRACE HELBIG: 21ST CENTURY QUEEN OF COMEDY

I’ve got to admit that Skyping with YouTube sensation and funny girl Grace Helbig was a pretty trippy experience.  First of all, as a fan of her’s, I’ve grown accustomed to sitting with my sister and laughing at her videos, so, this time, seeing her on my computer and knowing that she sees me back was a quite the experience.  To top it all off, Grace is just as sweet and extremely cool as she comes across in her videos, which made the experience even better (despite the faulty Skype connections at times).  The most exciting thing of all is that Grace’s new movie—Camp Takota—that she made with two of her close YouTuber friends, Hannah and Mamrie Hart, is now available to buy and/or rent!  

MC: When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue comedy?

GH: I grew up with a bunch of brothers who were all really, really funny and I wanted to make them laugh.  I didn’t know I wanted that to be my profession.  It wasn’t until college that I got really into comedy.  I met some funny friends and we started a sketch comedy team.  I started taking improv classes in New York at the Peoples Improv Theater while I was interning during school, and the fascination with comedy just started to grow and grow and grow. At that time in college, Tina Fey was becoming a big name in comedy and the concept of females rising in comedy became this total fascination with everyone and I just grew into it.  I never had one point where I really made a choice.

You said that a lot of the reason you went into comedy was because you wanted to make your brothers laugh. What would you do? Siblings are a tough crowd.

My older brother and my older step-brother were always making each other laugh, they were a tag-team “off-the-cuff” people. I remember one family car ride and we were driving to the Poconos and they were riffing with each other—I was all the way in the back seat of my Dad’s SUV.  All of a sudden, I just started doing a Cartman impersonation quietly to myself and then I made it a little bit louder.  My stepbrother just lost his mind laughing and I remember I felt so satisfied that I got someone who I think is funny to laugh at me.  That became an obsession: getting people who I think are funny to laugh at stuff I think is funny.

Well obviously that one laugh has led to millions of laughs!

Oh, for sure, yeah it’s grown and grown—it’s so cool!

You took classes at Peoples Improv Theater in NYC during college. What did you learn there that helped set you up for success?

I learned the most basic concept of saying “yes.”  Saying yes is such a positive thing not only in comedy but for your whole life.  If you can internalize that, it is so, so helpful.  It seems basic but it really is the foundation of all really good comedy. And, I learned to think on my feet.  It’s how all my videos have been conceptualized.  To turn a camera on and just riff and then piece that riffing together into something that makes sense for someone to watch.  I encourage everyone to take improv classes even if you’re not interested in entertainment; it just helps you with human interactions and being able to speak without pre-planning it.  It’s absolutely terrifying but we only grow when we are afraid of something, I think.

You had a few internships in college like reading scripts for Degrassi: The Next Generation and transcribing tapes for My Super Sweet Sixteen. Do you think those were valuable experiences in teaching you about production and what not?

I did so many internships when I was in college.  When I graduated I got a job, but three months later I realized I hated working in an office and I wasn’t doing as much work as I was secretly writing sketches on my computer in between doing things for my boss, so I quit to wait tables because I knew I wanted to find a more creative job.  And I would rather take the risk of waiting tables for the rest of my life than to be on a path that didn’t feel fulfilling or satisfying.  Plus, florescent lighting in offices makes me have a panic attack!

What was your thought process in deciding to make YouTube videos? Why did you think that it was a good platform?

I never actually had that defining moment.  I was making videos with my friend, Michelle, from high school and we did it because it was fun and it was how we hung out.  We both would come back from work at the end of the day and we’d both taken editing classes and we wanted to take turns editing these videos and putting them up.  One hundred people would watch and we’d be like, “We’re famous!”

Then, Rob Burnett at My Damn Channel saw the videos and hired me to create Daily Grace for them specifically on MyDamnChannel.com. And I could get paid to make videos!  This was a very interesting new concept, but still my sights were set on the more traditional media:  TV and Film, and so this web video making in my mind just replaced working in a restaurant.  I could work at home instead of sling ribs at Houston’s on 53rd and Lexington! So I hadn’t understood the value of making web videos but the more I did it [the more I learned].  “My Damn Channel” didn’t restrict me creatively, and two years into it we started putting the videos up on YouTube.  I didn’t know much about YouTube only it had a bigger audience and then it grew and grew and grew.  And then at the end of 2012, I realized the value of creating content on YouTube.  This is really what I want to do.  This is what brings me the most joy and where I feel satisfied.

Also, I went out to California a couple of times and talked to other YouTubers.  Being in New York there isn’t a huge YouTube community so you really don’t feel part of something.  Coming out here it was [similar to] an improv community, this is my community—these are my people!  At improv I can’t talk about 1080P versus some other file format.  Now I am realizing that there is such a powerful force through the Internet and it’s such a launching pad and springboard and great intimate medium that I hope to continue to create on.

Does it feel more intimate because it’s just you and the camera or is it intimate because the people are just numbers and views?

That’s a good point because the numbers thing is always so interesting.  When I go to Vidcon and Playlist Live it’s always overwhelming experience because you can see a number, but you don’t think it’s totally real.

It’s a one-on-one conversation I’m having with my audience in my own home.  I’m talking directly to them.  I’m listening to their feedback.  I’m asking for requests.  I’m being inspired by their ideas and we’re growing together.  It’s so interesting when I meet subscribers because they know so much about me and I know nothing about them—but that’s what makes it so personal.  TV you just watch.  YouTube you interact.

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Grace getting ready to film

You have made tons of videos and all of them are hilarious. How can you tell what’s going to work or what people will respond to when you’re working on your own? Or do you just do whatever and not think too much about it?

I don’t know for sure and that’s what keeps me on my toes when I’m making videos.  There might be a day when people don’t like it and then I have to figure it out.  I can’t think about my videos as appealing to a mass audience.  The way I create my videos is I think about the funniest person in my life.  You know, when I was younger, it was my brothers and I just wanted to make them laugh, and now it’s different people.  I create my videos for that person.  Will this make that person laugh?  If that’s successful, then I’ve done it.  With that theory it’s so much easier to create because I don’t have to think about every single other person.  I just think about this one person and if it resonates with a wider audience, then that’s a bonus.  So far it’s been working for me.  Everyone’s got their own methods to creation.

I watched the documentary Please Subscribe and you said that you just put your camera up on a stack of books and that’s really it. So you like to keep it pretty chill and natural like that?

I keep it homemade because it is homemade.  I don’t know any other way.  I think that my videos are relatable to my audience.  You can make them, too!  We’re on the same level.

For the first time I’m working on a secret project that I can’t talk about but it involves a bigger crew than I’m used to.  It’s a very strange feeling, I feel overexposed because there are other people in the room with me now.

Do you feel nervous at all making your own videos?

Yeah, I can’t have anyone else in the room [while I’m] making videos.  Even when I’m making videos when Hannah, Mamrie, and I are all traveling, I try to do it when they’re not in the room with me—only if they’re going to be in the video with me.  It makes me very self-conscious.  There are moments in between jokes when I am thinking about [another] joke.  Everyone always asks about bloopers but the only bloopers there are, are of me thinking.

What does a typical work-week look like for you?

It’s gotten insane because we are in a concentrated PR time for Camp Takota.  It’s bonkers.  I have no real regular schedule.  Things come up all the time and I have to figure out when there’s time to shoot.  My goal is to eventually shoot a few videos in one day so I have more time in the week to think about all these other projects that are slowly evolving.  But right now, it’s all over the place.  But [my videos] feel fresh now.  I like the timely nature of them and I don’t want to lose that quality, but I also need to consolidate my time on a production level so I can be creative in other areas.

Camp Takota came out on Friday! How did the movie come about?

It was not expected.  It was a “say yes” moment.  Hannah, Mamrie, and I met a producer and creative Michael Goldfein.  Mamrie had been working on a movie about camp and it really resonated with Michael…We all just said yes to this and Mamrie and Michael wrote the outline.  Then we had a writer called Lydia come in and write the first draft.  After, Mamrie went in and hacked away and created the final draft.  We shot it, announced it at Vidcon, edited it, and now it’s out…It’s one of those things that happened naturally and organically. And we’re so happy with the product.

That’s kind of my new way of thinking about projects that now come my way—does it make sense for me?  My brand? Do I enjoy the people I am working with?  And will I have fun?  And all of those things happened in Camp Takota and we’re all really excited for all you guys to see it because we’re really proud of it.  It took a lot of work.  It’s something we’re really, really proud of!

You got to work with a lot of your friends. How did you find the balance of work and play?

It’s fantastic.  Working with friends is the greatest feeling in the whole world.  We’ve all been so spoiled to have this project in our laps and now we’re never not going to want to work with friends in the future.  [Grace laughs] Especially friends who help you be even more creative, and better, and more excited.  That’s what this project felt like.  It was such a sweet and special project. I think it made us all better creatives moving forward.  It is pretty hard balancing work and play and when we wrapped we all got pretty sh*t-faced to celebrate! [Grace laughs]

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Grace, Mamrie, and Hannah in Camp Takota

That sounds about right!

[Grace laughs] It was well deserved!

“My Drunk Kitchen: Movie Edition!”

Yeah, exactly!

Do you want to do more movies and TV?

I want to get into creating more original content that I’m part of, maybe not necessarily the face of but I’m in it.  I want to get into executive producing online and in traditional media.  I’m eventually working on a pilot on the E! Network, which will bring the Internet to TV.  But we’ll see.  It’s going to be a total experiment.  I’m approaching all future projects the same way I approached Camp Takota.  If it makes sense to build off the brand then I’ll say yes to it. And that’s what I am trying to do now, to build a brand that is multi-platformed, that has a specific voice.

Who makes you laugh?

Mamrie and Hannah, absolutely. They are fucking hilarious and they can’t stop.

You’re full of advice, which your fans are well aware of, so what’s your advice for aspiring comedians and/or YouTubers?

Figure out what your tone and voice is and who your audience is.  Give yourself permission to take time to figure it out.  It takes a while for some people.  It may happen overnight for others. Find your authentic, genuine voice that feels good for you.
And, make sure you’re having fun, too!  Your audience can tell when you’re not having fun. I’d rather watch someone having a great time! ♦

Photo Credit: Camp Takota, Bret Hartman/For The Washington Post
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