Writing Jokes with Ariana Lenarsky (UCB)

Jay Leno used to come glean the eight-year-olds for jokes during recess.

[@aardvarsk on Twitter]
Lenarsky (left) at a ‘Yo, is this Racist?’ podcast recording

Hi, Ariana. Lenarsky is a cool last name. Where does it come from?

Ellis Island. My grandfather Fievel Lenovsky came over on a submarine or whatever from Russia, and somebody at Ellis Island decided to change Lenovsky into “Lenarsky” to make it more Hollywood. He also changed a bunch of other Lenovskys into Leonards. So now I have a bunch of relatives running around with the last name Leonard that I’ll never meet because it’s so common a last name. And you know what? I don’t give a fuck!

Did you grow up in LA?

I was born in Kentucky, to be honest. There was no real reason for it. My father worked at Kentucky Friend Chicken. We came to Los Angeles when I was four, and my parents swiftly divorced because they wanted me to go into comedy. My mother lived in Burbank and my father bounced around the city until he remarried and transformed into an Orthodox Jew. This was weird of him to do. Growing up in Burbank was weird too.

My brother and I rubbed shoulders with child actors, and we fielded several weird teachers who were unemployed actors and pretty bitter about it, but still put on a good show for us kids. It was fun and weird and dumb. Jay Leno used to come glean the eight-year-olds for jokes during recess at my elementary school. On the weekends I was forced to go to keep shabbos and go to shul. What with the entertainment industry on the one hand and orthodox Judaism on the other, you really had to keep your eyes open. A lot of smoke and mirrors.

When did you realize you wanted to be a comedian?

I think being a comedian is something you’re born with and then have to deal with for the rest of your life, like having cystic fibrosis or a super hot mom.

You’ve done a ton of shows at UCBLA. How did you first get involved there?

I think I sang my way onto the stage, which is cheating. I got cast in “Tonya Harding: The Musical!” as a chorus member.

How did that come together?

Jesse Esparza, a crazy kid with a big heart and a big mouth, had the idea about two years ago, and cobbled the more musically inclined comedians together to be in it. It was a pretty dark show. We showed a lot of the abuse Tonya received from her mother and her husband/accomplice Jeff Gillooly. Nancy gets clubbed in the show too, obviously (spoiler). We had to balance truly heinous, world-famous abuse with some pretty bright, silly songs. But Jesse and his writing partner Manny Hagopian were fearless about it, and the women who played Tonya and Nancy (Leslie Korein and Heather Woodward) were disastrously, brutally talented. We sold out every performance for about a year and a half. I’ve never laughed harder during rehearsals. Also Tonya Harding is a tragic figure and should be awarded amnesty.

What are you working on now?

Dream City — a show I’m writing with my pal Lee Rubenstein about a struggling musician who thinks she’s had the best idea in the world: to sing people to sleep for a living as a professional lullabyist. This is based on my real life, unfortunately. I’m also finishing up songs for a musical about Marie Curie, written by Sasha Feiler & Dan Black.

What advice would you give someone who’s trying to get their work published online?

Don’t suck.

What do you enjoy most about writing jokes on Twitter?

I think I like knowing I made somebody else feel something for a second. I like trying to find a way to provoke and soothe a reader at the same time.

What do you like or dislike about the comedy scene in Los Angeles?

I like the women and dislike everyone else.

Why are comedians especially good with words?

We have no other weapons.

What makes a joke funny?

If I knew, I wouldn’t be a comedian.

You can see Ariana at Mcsweeneys, UCB & Dream City. Or at arianalenarsky.com

For more on humor, follow @jokewriting on Twitter.

Interview by Zuri Irvin (@withzuri)