Points of View is an ongoing series where we have conversations with writers about their work and their writing process.
Meet Karen Chee, an NYC-based humor writer and comedian. I’ve become obsessed with Karen’s brain ever since I first read her literary parodies (see: “If Famous Authors Described My Attempts to Date” on Catapult, which kind of killed me). She’s also written for McSweeney’s, The New Yorker‘s Daily Shouts/Shouts & Murmurs, Reductress, and Shondaland, amongst others. I wanted to speak with Karen, not only because her writing makes me laugh out loud, but because her work is an extension of her particular Korean-American experience, one where she grew up embracing humor, politics, literature, and more. I’m excited to read more of Karen’s work in the years to come. —JL
Do you remember the first time you wrote a comedy or humor piece?
I think I must have been 7 or 8. I wrote comics in elementary school — my older brother Danny and I loved Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, and we used to spend hours coming up with stories, drawing them, and then stapling them into little comic books. Mine largely centered on the Adventures of SuperDog (who should be added to the new Avengers movie) and Danny’s focused on people. I remember my mom would read and react to them in a very animated manner to show much she enjoyed them and then I’d try to sell them to her for, like, a dollar. I’ve been chasing commercial success ever since I was a young child.
What is your background in terms of creative writing? Was it something you studied in college, or was it a hobby?
It was a hobby! I was in comedy groups that wrote and performed funny things in college, and I started freelance writing for comedy sites and magazines during my sophomore year. I still remember getting my first acceptance email from Shea Strauss, an editor at CollegeHumor, when I was on a bus and really needing to pee. Such an insane thrill. I probably peed a little.
The only creative writing course I took in college was Intro to Journalism, which was taught by the inimitable Jill Abramson. This was actually incredibly helpful for comedy writing because for both journalism and jokes, you have to be super economical with your words — say as much as possible in the fewest words possible. I’m a rambling gal so this is something I needed to practice (still do!). We spent almost every class discussing great long-form pieces, hearing what Jill thought of them, and talking about how writers develop nonfiction stories. Jill is amazing and I loved learning from her.
I majored in American History & Literature, so my courses centered on reading and writing, and I wrote a thesis, which meant most of my senior year was just writing a lot and often. I worked so late that I slept in the library a couple times, which was a childhood dream come true for me. It was a lot less glamorous than I imagined, but I still loved it — the 19th Century English Literature section had some comfy couches. I love sleeping in public places. I’ve fantasized napping in almost every restaurant I’ve ever been in.
I love the breadth of your work. You’ve got humor pieces, and also sweet personal essays that aren’t necessarily humorous but reflective of your identity as a Korean-American. You’re also a stand-up comedian. How did you learn all these different avenues of storytelling?
Oh, thank you! That’s so kind. I’m not very confident about my personal essays so that’s sweet of you. I mostly publish them because I wish there were more stuff out there about being a Korean-American kid/woman/adult. My family falls pretty far outside the expected stereotypes of Asian families — we hug a lot and are very openly emotional and effusive! — and I’d like to contribute to widening the breadth of stories we read about Asian people.
I learn mostly from observing, so I’ll read or watch something and think, hey, I wanna try that! Seeing other people master a craft always makes me feel capable of doing stuff well, too; the best thing that this has led me to is trying things like comedy and stand-up, and the worst it’s led to is a month-long delusion that if I tried hard enough I could be like Simone Biles. I could never be like Simone Biles. She is perfect and unparalleled in her gym glory. Seriously, no one should even think they’re close to being as good as Simone Biles. I’m really sorry I did this.
I genuinely enjoy the process of learning and improving, so I love trying new stuff even if I’m terrible at it. The coolest thing to me is when skill sets are transferable across mediums — i.e. I think of stand-up as a mix of comedy writing and Practical Aesthetics-style acting. And making friends is a mix of smiling and nodding and waiting to go home. Transferable skill sets!
Do you find that your work leans towards certain themes?
I think a lot of it is political/social satire, and some of it is just ridiculous. I love work that unabashedly has a lot of heart — the comedy show Parks and Recreation is my dream mix of satire, silliness, and genuine goodness. I’d love for people to know that my work comes from a place of love and earnestness, and always punching up instead of down.
Are you a full-time freelance writer? What other kinds of writing do you do?
Basically, yes! I’ve been switching between a few small part-time jobs in case my freelance checks aren’t coming in steadily, but I’m trying to spend as much time writing as possible. I’m kinda all over the place — humor pieces and essays, sketch comedy, stand-up jokes, and have recently been trying some longer scripts. Who knows! I’m a dweeb who genuinely enjoys the grind of writing, so I’ll do whatever I find interesting.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received when it comes to humor/comedy writing?
Keep writing a lot until you figure out what’s funny to you. When you start writing jokes you will probably mimic other writers, and that’s okay! But if you keep at it, you’ll notice a unique, recurring voice at some point. That’s yours!! Hone it! Love it! Yay!
A bit about process: Are there times you explore an idea that doesn’t go anywhere?
Totally. Lots of my ideas go nowhere, and deservedly so! My brain generates a lotta dumb things. This is especially true for topical stuff, which is fun to write but heartbreaking when it doesn’t get published; the news cycle spins so fast these days that a topical piece has the shelf life of a day or two and is often rendered irrelevant by the time an editor has passed on it.
A bunch of your humor pieces weave in literature. The way you parody is so on-point. Are you a massive reader?
That’s really kind of you! Thanks for reading the parodies. I do read a lot (especially on the subway!) and I inevitably end up thinking in the author’s voice for like an hour or two, so this column lets me indulge in that lingering aftertaste. Every author I’ve parodied is someone whose work I really admire, so it’s super fun to play around in their style. My editor for the parody column is Nicole Chung, who is a fantastic writer and a phenomenal editor. Her edits are subtle but very effective and she really makes my work better.
Finally, what are some of your favorite books or writers?
Oh, so many! In terms of comedy prose and television writing, I love David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling, Mike Schur, and Megan Amram. Richard Ayoade is hysterical and writes/directs incredible films, in addition to having the best comedic deadpan of anyone I’ve ever seen. I think Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) and Alexander Chee (How to Write an Autobiographical Novel) write the most beautiful sentences. I’ve also long loved Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, which means I get along with white boys really well. My friend Sabrina Imbler is insanely talented and can make any subject engaging, and I think everyone should read her work and be a fan! And, of course, Chrissy Teigen is the funniest person on Twitter.