An unabridged interview with Charlyne Yi

Last year, I interviewed Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart; Knocked Up) for a stand-up gig she was doing here in Hawaii. (This is the edited version that went to print.) Charlyne's a cool dude. We spoke on the phone. Most of the time she says she's serious when she's really not serious with such a seriousness you're not sure if she's serious or not. Which...is...the...point?

MATTHEW DEKNEEF: Hey, Charlyne. It's 11a. You ready to deconstruct some comedy? Just kidding! That's so boring.
CHARLYNE YI: (Laughs) Oh man, nooooooo!

You're so talented, I really don't know where to begin. Let's just start with your music. Is that a serious ambition or more a hobby?
I actually have a guitar in my hands as we speak, so yeah, I'm pretty serious about it. I was always doing music before I started comedy, but back then my hearing was going bad, so I stopped playing. And then recently I was like, "Oh, I should just wear an earplug," so I started wearing an earplug. Problem solved.

That's... smart. (Laughs) Well, is there anything you're like, particularly obsessed with at the moment? Be within your own music? Or... anyone else's...? You should see the hand gestures I'm making to form this question 'cause I have no idea what I'm trying to ask.
(Laughs) We should start deconstructing your hand gestures. Well, I'm meeting my friend today 'cause I'm trying to start a new band. Like something, "country-tribal". You know, kind of country, kind of tribal? Actually, that doesn't make sense. Does that mean a lot of crazy drums or something? I don't know, but that's kind of what I'm doing. As for other music, my friends usually show me what to listen to. Honestly, I have a few songs I've listened to since I was born. Like really old songs. Like my favorite album of all time is The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky. Really, I can only name a few songs off a few people, like really old Whitney Houston songs. That's my music history: "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" by Whitney Houston. It's refreshing not to experience music sometimes. Like, I didn't know who Bob Dylan was until last year.

(Laughs) Seriously?
Yeah, I know. Recently someone was like, "You've never heard of Devo?!" And I was like, "I don't know what that is." And people were like, "No you know who that is." And I'm like, "No, no, no, but seriously... I don't."

Let's talk about the 7th Annual Girl Fest Hawaii. What will you be doing there exactly?
I think I'm going to do a little bit of music and storytelling. People always see me as a comedian, but I don't even know if I am a comedian because I don't tell, like, zingers. But if I do tell jokes, they're bad on purpose as a joke. If any jokes happen, they'll be obnoxiously gross and "Ha! Ha! Ha!" stuff. I'll tell silly stories, play silly songs, maybe some sincere songs. It's more a variety type show.

When'd you become so funny?
I really don't know if I am. (Laughs) Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I think when I first started performing it was some stand-up amateur night. I was working at a magic stand kiosk at the mall, so I thought, "Hey, I'll do magic!" Except all the magic didn't work. Then I went to like, grab the microphone and lift it out of its socket thing, and the mic hit me in the face and people started to laugh because it made them uncomfortable. That kind of became my thing.

And your stand-up has a evolved into something very audience interactive since. You'll bring people on stage to do improvised bits. Are you planning on doing that at Girl Fest? Or is it a spontaneous decision?
It's whatever I feel in the moment because sometimes I feel unsafe on stage, like if the audience hates me. I was performing in Scotland every day for three weeks, and then one day, just no one was laughing or paying attention and I wasn't doing anything different from the shows before and I can just feel myself dying inside. And I'm not angry or upset at the audience for not "getting it". It's like, "No! I feel so sorry for inflicting pain on you!" So I doubted myself after that. And then the show the next day was like, amazing.

Do you feel like a role model for young women?
I don't think people really have role models. I don't have any. We should be allowed to make mistakes. I mean, people should be careful what they do, period. The whole concept of having an idol seems a bit... disgusting. (Laughs) Why need a celebrity to look up to when you should have your own common sense? No one needs a role model. Just be good. Just try to do what's right inside your heart. I hope I'm not a role model.

What do you think it means to be a "girl" in 2010?
I don't know. I'm constantly unaware of it 'cause most of my friends are guys. So I always forget I'm a girl. I don't know if there's a difference between guys and girls, except for their privates. I mean, there are stereotypes, I just don't consider myself a stereotype. I have no idea what it means to be a "girl". I'm still figuring it out.

I know you're writing a series for HBO and something for Judd Apatow. What projects are you working on that you can talk about?
I've been doing a lot of benefit stuff lately like Oxfam International, raising money to build a school in Calcutta's red-light district. I want to start my own company, something that makes cool things like a dancing instructional video taught by Ted Danson called "Dancing with Danson". Or weird records that people collaborate on. Still making cool stuff, but also raising money and awareness for causes.

You always seem like such an upbeat, optimistic person. Is there anything that just makes you sad and stuff?
Oh yeah! A lot of things make me sad. People seem to think I don't get sad, like (robot voice), "Oh, okay, I'm a robot." I just never take myself too seriously. Like, I'd be sad if I was always so serious and sad. I sort of have A.D.D. so I get bored with being sad. Like, I hate sinking into my own shit. That's so boring! I'd rather do something. I just tell myself, "Not everything is sad, I'm only gonna be sad for so long, so like, grow up, Charlyne!"

I really liked your film Paper Heart. I thought it was fucking adorable. Is that the kind of reaction you were going for?
Yes, I wanted people to call me and say (creepy voice), "I thought it was fucking adorable." (Laughs) Originally, the movie was going to be a strict documentary because I'm so obsessed with love and love stories. I think people are constantly trying to find love, so I wanted to make it hopeful. (Laughs) Sorry, I feel so girly right now, that's so gross.

You're no longer dating Michael Cera, who co-starred in it with you. How has breaking up with someone informed you about love?
Well, one thing: we were never dating. And two: I don't know how things started, but it was partly a joke. People asked us if we were dating so much considering the film is half-documentary, half-fictional, things about it are all blurred in and of itself, so we just went along with it. It went so far, like, I told some magazine that I used to be his babysitter, like, "I remember holding his hand platonically to help him cross the street to holding his hand now, romantically at 33 years old, and thinking to myself, This is odd."

And I totally believed... even though I kind of don't believe you now. (Laughs) Not the babysitting, but that you guys weren't really dating. Is there anything else you want to add then, or set the record straight on?
I'm not wearing pants! Joking. Well, not really though, I'm wearing a dress. That's it.

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