'Well, I'm an only child': Why Kaylee Barnes Writes Comedy
‘Why Are You Funny’ highlights QTPoC comedic writers on their funny writings, words, and selves.
Why Are You Funny is a monthly interview series highlighting queer Black and brown comedic writers on their funny writings, words, and selves.
This month, I sat down with San Diego-born funny person and aspiring TV scriptwriter Kaylee Barnes. In a co-written, tongue-in-cheek pilot Ambiguous, Los Angeles-based satire buff eats Cheetos with chopsticks, actively dodging mixed-race microaggressions at every turn. When not delving into horror or comedy spec scripts, Kaylee copywrites, formerly lending her funny bone to Screen Rant to report the latest RHOBH scandal.
Here we discuss the emo/humor dichotomy, her horny acting troop of imaginary friends, and the complicated aspiring comedy writer-to-represented TV scriptwriter pipeline.
JAZ JOYNER: What made you laugh as a kid?
KAYLEE BARNES: Oh God, I'll be honest. When I was a kid, I was very serious. Everything hurt my feelings. I'd write dark poetry, "Bloody tears. My black heart," that sort of thing.
JAZ: Yes, okay, because I was gonna ask if you wrote when you were younger.
KAYLEE: I had a LiveJournal at some point. I had a Deadjournal at some point. Because you know I needed that sort of goth, darker edge in my work.
JAZ: I get it. How did you escape?
KAYLEE: My mom had a very strict one-hour TV rule growing up. And it was usually Turner Classic Movies because that was typically fine, minus the random titty after 8 pm—TCM is a very strange place. But as a kid, I actually spent so much time alone, because I didn't have any neighborhood friends. I'm an only child if that wasn't obvious, so I would actually most of my time playing make-believe with basically an acting troop of imaginary friends.
JAZ: I love that.
KAYLEE: I didn't have an imaginary pirate friend or mermaids. We were all in our 20s, and we put on these shows for my stuffed animals. It was really all improv. No one could actually find a script anywhere because no one was even real, right? But I'm like, "Yep, that's what he's doing, and that's what she's doing. This is what I'm doing." I'm was the director. I was the star.
KAYLEE: Everyone loved me.
JAZ: I read a few of your things researching for this and I stumbled on Supple Flesh for Insect Dreaming.
KAYLEE: Oh my God!
JAZ: Which I loved! I read it a couple times because I was fascinated. Very funny. Extremely dark! Could you say a little more about that journey from grim to comedic?
KAYLEE: I wrote it maybe senior year of high school? I think it was right before college because it's around the time I started getting more into dark humor, instead of just dreary emo. I wrote this thinking, 'What if my body was a playground, or like a fair, for bugs?" And then I immediately looked in the mirror, and I gave myself a big smile, and I said, "You fuckin did it."
JAZ: Do you remember the moment you decided you wanted to write comedy?
KAYLEE: It was a slow progression. When you're younger, you take yourself very, very seriously with a passion, right? Because you're going through hormonal changes, and you're like, "I'm ugly, I'm stupid, I'm bad." And so, I translated being serious with a passion to, "My passion must be serious, my writing has to be serious."
Then I got older and just realized, "That's funny, actually. Maybe I should write that comedically, instead."
JAZ: You grew into humor.
KAYLEE: Yeah, you're depressed and horny. You write your DeadJournal entry about your deep dark depression, and then you write your Lord of the Rings fanfic on Fanfiction.net.
JAZ: It's what you do.
KAYLEE: That's what you do!
JAZ: So I was reading some of your pilot descriptions. Popular Vote: Looks like a kind of presidential race that's also a parodied dating show? How did you come up with that?
KAYLEE: That one is based on The Bachelor. America creates a dating reality competition to find the next president. And there's a woman who acts as essentially the electoral college, but unfortunately, she's just really horny. So there might be a great candidate in there, but she's just trying to like, suck, and fuck everyone. She's not playing fair.
JAZ: Very parallel to how the government works.
KAYLEE: Absolutely. I have a lot of fun doing parodies. I love mockumentary-style shows like What We Do in the Shadows which also blends a lot of magic realism. Even if it's not a spoof about vampires, you're still turning something on its head that's already based in reality. I mean, there is a character in my pilot that's a corgi running for president.
JAZ: Because why not?
KAYLEE: I'm inspired by a lot of stuff made by people who do Upright Citizens Brigade. I was a big fan of the streaming service Seeso before it went away. Bajillion Dollar Listings, Burning Love, Another Period, I loved all of those. That kind of mock, over-the-top comedy with a bunch of comedians who get to riff off of each other, and you can tell it's written, but a lot of it's improvised. I love that balance.
JAZ: How would you describe your writing process?
KAYLEE: I don't know if I have an actual process. I'll have an overarching idea, and then I'll be taking a shower, and I'll dialogue with the character out loud and reenact the scene. And then I'll write that scene down. And then I sometimes just have to build around that, or I have to move that scene somewhere else, like putting puzzle pieces together.
JAZ: You're not tied to creating something linearly.
KAYLEE: Yeah. Sometimes it's as random as saying something out loud and then writing that down. Or, I just randomly think of something that happened in my childhood, and I go, "Oh, that would be a great character development thing that happens."
JAZ: A strategic sort of chaos.
KAYLEE: Yes! I mean, I've done outlines before, and they're helpful, but I think something happening organically usually produces the best results for me.
JAZ: So, we've briefly talked about this before, but I'm curious, what are your general feelings about finding an agent as a writer, specifically in LA?
KAYLEE: I actually think at this point, as much as I'd love an agent, I've actually focused more on trying to find a manager. A manager can help you grow your craft a little bit more, and there's more of a partnership there.
But both are so difficult to find. I'm at that place right now where, even if I don't get a manager, it's not the end of the world because I'm just gonna continue to do what I do. Despite how helpful it would be to have one, I think for everyone, it's a unique matchup. There's no streamlined way to do that, which is very frustrating. There's no guidebook.
JAZ: Yeah, it's kind of like a maze.
KAYLEE: And you don't always wanna have to sell yourself or pander to people to get them to pay attention. I want my work to speak for itself. It's unfortunate that the system is set up in a way where it's not just about your work.
JAZ: It can be frustrating for sure. There are a lot of great writers out there, but part of it is about playing the game and being a politician for yourself.
KAYLEE: Absolutely. Especially with those writing programs that I used to apply to a lot. You always have to tell your sob story before they even read the script.
So it's kind of like, "Are we looking for women right now? Are we looking for brown women right now? Are we looking for queer women right now?"
Sometimes I'm totally fine discussing those things, especially if it's for a project I think my voice would benefit. But if it's just some blanket, "Tell me why you haven't made it as a writer, yet."
No! But also, I guess! I'm mad about it, but I guess I'll answer the stupid question.
JAZ: So, with all that said, and knowing all of that about the industry, what does success look like for you?
KAYLEE: Longevity, really. I see so many of my friends who write on TV shows go through that seasonal lull. And there are people who are lucky and get rehired. If you're already kind of on a roster, sometimes you get picked up again. But there are others who wrote a season of something four years ago and they haven't been able to book another gig. So, success for me would be that I get to work, continuously.
JAZ: If you could change one thing about the industry, what would that be?
KAYLEE: One? Okay.
KAYLEE: Honestly, I think there are a lot of writing jobs out there. Especially when you get to streaming services and other forms of media. But, we still value names or personalities over finding new talent. I know a person in particular who needs to make a writer's room and employ people. I get that something is your baby and you don't want to let go of any of that creative freedom. But there's so much talent out there. I think the industry needs to make room, and it doesn't really want to.
JAZ: Yeah, it's that obsession with celebrity, even for writers.
KAYLEE: Right. Like someone who joined Twitter four years ago can't compete with someone with a blue checkmark. Even if those writers maybe were never television writers, suddenly they have a TV writing gig. And that's great, and congratulations. I'm not mad at you, but I feel like the industry should also take into account the people who've made writing their life's goal, who haven't been able to share a script.
JAZ: Yeah, it even has me thinking about Hollywood's obsession with remakes and sequels—easy money.
KAYLEE: Absolutely. And even then with the remakes and stuff, luckily there is enough leeway to get new writers in there to re-craft those stories. But sometimes that doesn't happen. Or sometimes, it's just about making the money. So they'll do this rapid-fire, "I know this is gonna make a ton of money. I'm not really gonna look at the craft or the writing. As long as we get some of the stars from the old franchise, we're gonna be good."
JAZ: And sometimes, after all that, it flops anyway.
KAYLEE: Yeah, especially during COVID. All these directors get so upset that no one's going to the movie theater to risk their lives and see their movies. And I dunno what to tell ya'. The streaming service was gonna give you the platform, but you said, "No. I just wanna have it in theaters."
JAZ: What is your favorite thing about writing, in general, and comedically?
KAYLEE: I would say my favorite thing about writing, period, is meeting that goal. So even just having a rough draft down is the best feeling in the world. You know you're gonna have four or five revisions of it, but just getting that initial draft down feels great.
And, I gotta say with comedy, my favorite thing is hearing someone laugh while reading it. That laughter is just like, "Yes!" That feeling is unmatched.
JAZ: What do you think your life would look like without writing? Without comedy?
KAYLEE: Oh man. I think I would be an incredibly depressed, angry person. Because everyone's always going to have trauma. There's always gonna be lemons. But, if you can't do anything with that, it's just gonna eat you up. I think as I got older, I found comedy in some of the tragedies of my youth. But if I didn't have that outlet, oh man, I don't even know. I really don't. I would definitely not be as secure of a person as I am now.
JAZ: I feel that.
KAYLEE: Like, at all.
JAZ: This is kind of a pageant-y question a little bit.
KAYLEE: Oh, hell yeah.
JAZ: What do you think comedy does for the world?
KAYLEE: I guess it's similar to how it helps me. It helps people process things that are really hard to process. I write comedy scripts, and I write horror movie scripts. I think those two things are very, very similar. When people get nervous, they start laughing. There's that need to soften something very harsh while still being confronted with it. We're still gonna see the person pop up. We know we're still gonna see the person getting stabbed. But now we've given ourselves over to that a little bit more by laughing.
JAZ: So. We've made it to the namesake of this interview: Why are you funny?
KAYLEE: If I was well-equipped for the world growing up, and I had a ton of friends, and I was the life of the party, and everyone wanted to be around me, I don't know if I would've needed humor.
So I think I'm funny because I'm a Gemini. I'm an only child. I was ugly and awkward growing up, I used to take myself way too seriously. I mean that. I really do think that's why.
JAZ: There's just so many reasons you have to find humor there.
KAYLEE: And honestly, it's a gold mine looking back in this mind.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.