Noël Wells is one of the funniest women, nay people, on TV right now. But I don’t have to tell you that because you’re already obsessed with her. You binged Master of None, thought her character Rachel was the coolest chick to ever stream on Netflix, and praised Aziz Ansari for creating such a badass female character for girls across the world to look up to. I would apologize for being presumptuous but I know I’m right. Everyone is raving about Noël and you definitely are, too. In this interview, Noël talks about how she honed her hilarity, was a self-starter, and launched herself into success one laugh at a time.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue comedy?
This is always such a hard thing to pin down. I think I always secretly wanted to do comedy. Everything I did for my class projects was comedic. But no one ever really said I was funny. I think for young boys, when they’re funny, they sort of get celebrated. But I have a distinct memory in middle school where I was actually making a bunch of people laugh, and this boy I liked in my class turned to me and said, “Girls aren’t funny.” And suddenly, everyone else seemed to agree. And then eventually I did too. By the time I got to high school, I got very angsty and stopped trying to make people laugh. I wanted to be taken super seriously. I went to college and was planning to either be an auteur director or a civil rights lawyer. But then two things happened in college that made me decide to pursue “comedy”… in some form, as a career.
One: for a class project I wrote and animated a tiny short film that mostly had no talking. I edited it very specifically, but I was worried it may seem too dark or people wouldn’t get that it was supposed to be comedic. When I screened it in front of my class, to my surprise, people laughed, A LOT, right on cue. Then I submitted it to a shorts festival on campus and the same thing happened. It was like I had forgotten I had ever wanted to make people laugh and some beast inside me woke up.
Noël’s Short Film
Two: I saw Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic. At that time I thought you had to be a part of a comedy troupe in order to break into comedy and no one I knew wanted to do the type of comedy I wanted to do. Though I didn’t want to be a standup, the film showed me I could take it all into my own hands.
You said in an interview, “Nobody gets into comedy because they feel like they’re cool and funny.” So what exactly was the feeling that made you get into comedy?
It’s hard to say. It’s personally just a worldview I have. Everything is tragic, and for some reason, the only reasonable response I think people should have to it is to laugh. Being a human is embarrassing, but I feel like I’m the most embarrassing person I know. I have to laugh at that or I would have jumped off a cliff a long time ago. It also feels like, when you laugh at something, when comedy is done right, it actually almost liberates you and the people around from you something uncomfortable, it lifts off a burden or a pain. I always feel so awkward and weird and so I’m constantly trying to make it go away.
You studied Radio, TV, and Film at UT Austin. What did you learn there that you’ve found helpful in your career?
My film program was very open-ended. You could make of it what you wanted, so I mostly took production classes and worked on a lot of student films in different roles. I wanted to be equipped with a lot of different skills so I could take care of myself in the “real world.” Sure everyone wants to be an actor or make a movie, but it’s way more empowering when you can make those things happen without relying on anybody else. I wasn’t great at making things when I started out, but I learned a lot through experience. I guess that’s it! It’s way more interesting to learn things from experience than to learn things in theory.
You’ve done a lot of sketch comedy work. What’s your process for writing a sketch?
I don’t write as much sketch anymore, but I still get a ton of ideas, and usually when they happen, I can almost already see the whole sketch fully formed. The jumping off point is usually like a type of person, an unusual way of thinking, or just a flat out comedic game… if you expound on it honestly, there’s a natural progression of the way things should go. It’s a lot of rhythms and intuition. But after you get the idea, really, the hardest part is just sitting your ass down and writing it.
I used to watch your impression YouTube videos on YouTube before you were famous. Can you talk a bit about doing self produced work and why it is so important?
When I did those videos, that’s all I was capable of making at the time, so I did them. And so many interesting things came from them. It’s not necessarily what I wanted to represent me fully as a person or artist, but they were a stepping stone to other things, and it was important for me to have made them.
Some of Noël’s Celebrity Impressions
I think everyone has a unique perspective and voice, and in the comedy world I’m surrounded by so many interesting people that should be heard. But a lot of people think that if they have a voice, that’s enough; they should be rewarded for simply existing. But your voice needs to be developed, and no one is going to do that work for you (they’re too busy working on their own!). You have to figure that out on your own, and the quickest way to do that is to put it into action by making things!! It’s really scary because you’re going to fail a lot, and people will see you fail, and they’re going to think you suck, and they’re going to make you feel bad and you’re going to think you suck too. And then while you’re feeling bad for putting yourself out there, other people will look like they’re getting things handed to them for doing no work, but it’s almost never true. They most likely worked really hard, you just didn’t see it. And even if it is true that some people succeed by not doing much, that success probably won’t last, or it’s probably not the type of success you want for yourself. Over time, once you make enough work, you’re going to be in a much better place artistically than other people who took shortcuts or relied heavily on other people.
Also, people like people who help themselves.
You were on SNL for a season. What was your biggest take away from your time on the show?
The biggest takeaway for me was that I really had to start trusting myself. The moment I started mistrusting my instincts, I started floundering on the show. And in an environment like SNL, that gets compounded very quickly. I had gotten to this place where I really doubted myself and spent so much energy trying to write things that worked for the show, but it just wasn’t working, and everything I got on the air I hated. After I got let go, I realized that nothing really interesting happens when you exist in a weird limbo of trying to please everyone. At the end of the day, it was me and only me that got me onto that show…and that’s all I needed to continue. And I made a commitment to myself to either fully commit to the things I truly wanted to do, or just quit altogether.
Now you’re on everybody’s favorite new show Master of None playing Rachel, one of the coolest female characters currently on TV. What was your first impression of Rachel when you got the script?
Oh man, well I had been going out for other things that just felt so unnecessary, and the roles were what I have been describing as “a bundle of quirks” without much grounding. There is room for those types of characters on TV, but I think I had just gotten burnt out on sketch. So when I got the script (I only [read the episode] “Nashville”) I was like, Whoa, wait a second, this is a real person that has opinions! And not only that, they’re similar to mine and they actually wrote her some jokes. It honestly was the easiest audition I had ever prepared for…which is funny because when I went in to audition, they were like “Oh, forget about what you prepared, here are new sides. Also, you’ll basically just be improvising with Aziz.” That’s something that normally would have terrified me, but I felt like I understood the character already and it turned out great. Through the whole process, Aziz and I would continue doing that… throwing out the script and improvising, and so while she was already so clear to me on the page, I got to really define and shape her in ways that I’m very proud of.
One of my favorite parts about the show is that it has confronted a lot of problems in the entertainment industry (and world as a whole) like misogyny, underrepresentation of minorities on screen, etc. If you could write an episode for the show and tackle an issue that you see either in Hollywood or the world, what would it be?
I definitely would want to do an episode about religion or spiritual ideology. I’m sure all of our characters (and our actors) have really interesting backstories… I know I find mine pretty interesting. But think about like, Dev or Denise or Brian, or… oh my god, ARNOLD! Arnold was probably like a Catholic altar boy who became atheist by the time he was 16 but in college dropped acid and left school to study Theravada Buddhism in Burma and lead a monastic life where he didn’t speak for 2 years. I mean that has to be Arnold’s backstory, right?
Comedy Central is making a pilot of your show Bad Couple! What was the process like creating a TV show?
The process was… LONG! But the simplest way to describe it was that me and boyfriend, Flint Wainess, had an idea for a show loosely based on us, so that’s already a very easy place to draw from. We sold the idea to Comedy Central, then we wrote a pilot script, and then Comedy Central decided to make it, so then you have to hire a bunch of people to help you make the happen. Once you get that team in place, then you have to communicate to everybody what you see in your head. What’s so rewarding and also terrifying is that you get to make up everything about the world of your show, so you have to know everything about the characters, their friends, their hopes and dreams, where they live, what they have on their walls, what their sheets look like, and where they should stand when they’re saying their lines. It’s basically the coolest thing ever. Comedy Central has been wonderful, and I love being the boss!
What’s your advice for aspiring comedians and actors?
Don’t listen to people’s advice unless you really really know and trust them and know they have your best interest at heart. Otherwise, just kind of go with your gut, and research what other people did to make things happen, and try things out and see what works for you. There is no one path to getting everything you want. ♦