When Patti Harrison answers the phone, she quickly divulges a deep, dark secret. “My dream is to get rich enough from an absolutely soul-disintegrating campaign where I sell my morals to buy a house in Ohio near my family,” she says jokingly. The performer is calling from Los Angeles, where she recently relocated more or less permanently, in order to crank out the numerous film and television projects she is working on at the moment. “I know in lockdown it seems like I’m doing all this stuff at one time,” Harrison says, explaining that a lot of her creative endeavors, from Together Together (in theaters April 23) to Made For Love (now streaming on HBO Max) had already begun production before the pandemic. “But the majority of my lockdown has been in deep devastation,” she says with a laugh, making another joke with a shred of self-deprecating truth to it.
Harrison’s mode of humor exists in the absurdist, gross-out realm also inhabited by the likes of Eric Andre, Eric Wareheim, Tim Heidecker, and Tim Robinson, while simultaneously positioning her alongside the young humorists, including Jaboukie Young-White, Mitra Jouhari, and Catherine Cohen—a crew of early-entry comedians who have found increased popularity online (due to the occasional troll-like antics) and are becoming more and more mainstream by the day. It sometimes feels like Harrison’s comedy knows no bounds. In other words, she might make jokes about gender along with a handful of scatological quips and impersonate a family brand on Twitter (which, in fact, resulted in her being kicked off the app) on the same day.
The brilliance of Harrison’s comedy is that while it is unabashedly inappropriate, there is substance at its core, making her a unique satirist for this era. It makes one wonder, how did Harrison become this bastion of inappropriate millennial comedy? When the actress was a kid, drawing was her passion, and she also played golf in high school. “That was fun, but I was dead weight for the team, for sure,” she says with a laugh. But her sisters, who were in their teens and twenties when she was a young child, served as inspiration for Harrison to get into comedy. “They had this evolved sense of humor and they were kind of inappropriate,” she says. “I thought that was so cool.”
Harrison says her sisters have been supportive of her creative ventures since Day One, though her mother, whom she often razzes on Instagram and is “super conservative” to the point where she would never utter a single curse word, is another story. “My mom is pretty unimpressed by everything,” she says. “She loves black-and-white movies, and the only things she watches in color on T.V. are Judge Judy and Geico commercials because she loves the Geico gecko. I think it would mean something to her if I made it in a Geico commercial.”
When Harrison went to college in Ohio, she decided to take a risk and try stand-up comedy for the first time. It didn’t go well. “I think I made a rape-adjacent joke, and this is when I was male presenting,” the actress says. “It may have gotten the deserved response! I came away from that experience at like 20, being like, I’m never going to do that again.”
But she did try again, having learned from her transgressions, and moved to New York where she honed her comedy chops onstage at UCB, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to perform a set about Donald Trump and the transgender military ban, and presented some musical comedy as part of a trio with Catherine Cohen and Mitra Jouhari known as “It’s A Guy Thing.”
Her latest project—of which there are many at the moment—is an unconventional rom-com called Together, Together, in which Harrison stars as a surrogate mother to Ed Helms’s single dad. The film, directed by Nikole Beckwith, premiered at Sundance in 2021, with Harrison’s performance sparking critical acclaim. When the actress first received the script, she was worried that it would be just another “corny rom-com” but what she found was a tender, intimate portrayal of a different kind of family than what audiences may be accustomed to seeing on screen. “It really subverted a lot of my expectations and was very smart with a potent, sincere, and funny point of view,” Harrison says. “It felt completely out of my comfort zone and what I imagined could happen with my career at that time. I literally never thought I would be playing a pregnant cis woman earnestly. I thought maybe I’d do that in a sketch or something.”
Harrison says for those who watch the film without knowing the she is transgender, the conversation around representation or the film’s narrative having a “queer ethos” might not even happen. When you look at the film at surface level, it’s really about a straight guy who wants to have a baby, and forms a semi-romantic relationship with his straight surrogate. “There are so many layers about this movie, to me. There were times when I thought maybe I shouldn’t do it because it would be too on the nose, being a transgender actor playing a cis woman, or it would feel like stunt casting,” she went on. “I had all these apprehensive thoughts about the optics, but then I was like, ‘What do I want? Am I going to pass up the opportunity to play a lead role, an opportunity I would probably never get again?’”
“It was nice to enter a space creatively that has been marked off as not for me” she went on. “I appreciate the opportunities that come to me, but especially being trans, [I notice] an overcorrection in the entertainment industry where I’m only being considered for these ‘Yas, Queen!’ or ‘tragic tranny overcomes oppression and violence’ roles. The struggles of being transgender are already present in my everyday life. There are very few moments in my life where I feel normalcy.” (Playing video games, she notes, is one of the rare occasions when she feels free to not think about gender so much.)
While the actress appreciates increased media visibility, Harrison would simply rather not perpetuate a reductive conversation around what it means for her to have “representation” as a transgender woman of color (Harrison is half Vietnamese). She acknowledges the importance of it, of course, but sees it as the baseline for a much larger structural issue that would require a complete overhaul of our understanding of what gender can even be before we see real progress. “It feels like people are taking my agency from me when they say they only want to see me in queer narratives, as if the stories about surrogates or whatever are only for ‘normal’ people,” she says.
But Harrison’s appearance in a film like Together Together is exactly what she has wanted for herself as a performer all along. The actress has already appeared in big studio films, like Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor and Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, and will costar in the final season of Shrill with Aidy Bryant and Jo Firestone in May. Later, she’ll also star in Mack and Rita with Diane Keaton and Taylour Paige, and The Lost City of D, alongside Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock—the prospect of working with the latter is so exciting that it, as Harrison puts it, is “making my DNA helix unwind.”
For now, she’s letting herself exist in the moment without getting too caught up. “My inner child is really amped up for this,” she says. “I’m trying to let myself be excited and feel good and hopeful for once, despite my anxieties. I’m making an effort to be present and thankful.”