Author Interviews
5:44 am
Tue July 9, 2013

Comedian Aisha Tyler Talks About Flipping Off Failure

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 11:50 am

Comedian and actor Aisha Tyler brews beer, plays video games, tells dirty jokes, drinks fancy booze and ... writes books.

She has a new one out this week: Self-inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humilation. We sat down in the NPR studios over a mug of 18-year-old scotch to talk about her most embarrassing moments on the road to success. (No, really, we did. Listen to us toast.)

For those of you wondering who Aisha Tyler is, here's a quick breakdown (to be read quickly):

  • She played Ross's paleontologist love interest on Friends. She was the recurring character, Charlie Wheeler.

  • She hosted Talk Soup, a show that aired on E! in the 90's. She'd play clips from talk shows and make jokes.

  • She's the voice of Lana Kane on the wickedly hilarious animated comedy, Archer, on FX. Kane is an international spy who can shoot a semi-automatic weapon in her lingerie while rolling her eyes at partner Sterling Archer's antics. (YUP.)

  • She waxes poetic about the day's news and gossip on The Talk with a handful of co-hosts (including Ozzy Osbourne's wife Sharon and Sara Gilbert, the angsty brunette from Roseanne who's all grown-up now).

  • And she hosts a podcast, Girl on Guy. She interviews chefs, actors, comedians, and athletes to find out how they made it. And in each episode she has them share one of the most humiliating moments on their path to success. She calls them "self-inflicted wound stories."

And that leads us straight to her new book. Tyler says it wasn't fair to make her podcast guests talk about their embarrassing failures without sharing some of her own.

In Self-Inflicted Wounds, Tyler lets you know early and often that she was big for her age. "I was the giant black girl," she says. "I mean I stood out for a variety of reasons: Because I was tall, because I was weird and because I was black."

Tyler grew up in Oakland and San Francisco, Calif., raised by vegetarian parents who believed in meditation but not television. Her family was poor, says Tyler. (And, I know you're probably running through all the Bay Area stereotypes and thinking, well that's not THAT strange. Sorry, not all Bay kids are running around meditating and eating tofu sandwiches. It's weird. Maybe not as weird as it would be in Boone County, Mo., but it's not how most kids are raised.)

So she writes about being that weird kid, and how her weird-kid mishaps were made worse by her size — and her total lack of fear.

She relates tales of her own self-inflicted wounds: nearly cutting herself in half playing on an abandoned hobby horse at age five, setting the house on fire while making french fries at seven, numerous failed attempts to trade veggie lunches for bologna sammy's at school, and ruining her chances with the high school crush. "Drinking too much and getting hung over and vomiting all over him and myself and his car," she says. "That was not a good look, at all."

The book may sound depressing but it's funny. And, for me, the footnotes provided those laugh-out-loud moments that make people next to you on an airplane turn and look at you like you're nuts. And speaking of nuts, here's one of my favorite footnotes from Self-inflicted Wounds.

Aisha Tyler's humor is dirty and really nerdy all at the same time. It's hard to explain because she's hard to explain. She writes about being a black whitewater rafting guide for underprivileged deaf teens in high school, singing in an all-girls a cappella group in college, and her grown-up "penchant for maudlin Korean pop." Listen to her read from a passage about how Koreans are "out-blacking" black folks these days.

And when she decided not to utilize her Ivy League degree in poli-sci and environmental studies from Dartmouth and become a comedian, she says she stood out all over again. This time as the 6-foot-tall black woman who didn't fit the Def Comedy Jam mold.

"God, I mean I had so many people tell me, what you're doing doesn't work," says Tyler. "I used to have to get on stage and apologize for talking the way that I speak. I think people assume that because I talk the way that I talk that I grew up with money and then I've had to say, 'No, I grew up poor.' And then I was like, 'Why do I have to play this game where the only black experience that's authentic is the one where you grew up in poverty?' I mean, it's ridiculous."

Tyler says she wanted Self-Inflicted Wounds to be funny, but she wanted people to get something out of it besides laughs.

"I felt like if I was going to have people sit down and give me a week of their life, it shouldn't be a waste of their time." The take-away is to be your authentic self, follow your dreams, and don't let failure and humiliation hold you back. Tyler tells 33 stories of her own humiliations and failures as proof that you can and will survive, and says she has enough left over to write another book.

Until then, here's the first chapter of Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heart warming Tales of Epic Humiliation.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear, now, about some heartwarming tales of epic humiliation.

They are funny because they are told by comedian and actor Aisha Tyler. She's beloved by sci-fi nerds and stay-at-home moms alike. And NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji sat down with Tyler to talk about her most embarrassing moments on the road to stardom.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Aisha Tyler brews beer, plays video games, tells dirty jokes and drinks fancy booze.

AISHA TYLER: Are we rolling? Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CLINK)

TYLER: I think there's nothing better than drinking scotch out of an NPR mug, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: We didn't have any glasses.

TYLER: Some vegan somewhere is rolling over in the back of their Prius. Mmm, it's delicious.

MERAJI: I thought Tyler might need a bit of liquid courage to talk about her epic humiliations with millions of NPR listeners. Or maybe I needed it. I don't talk to celebrities very often. And Aisha Tyler's been doing the Hollywood thing for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU")

THE REMBRANDTS: (Singing) So no one told you life was going to be this way. Your job is a joke, you're broke, your love life is DOA.

MERAJI: (Singing) Your job is a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA.

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Aisha Tyler played Ross's paleontologist girlfriend on "Friends." She was the six-foot tall black woman. So if you were into "Friends," you know who I'm talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ARCHER")

(SOUNDBITE OF A RINGING PHONE)

TYLER: (as Lana Kane) Ooh, I'm sorry. One sec, please.

MERAJI: That's Tyler as the voice of the bodacious international spy Lana Kane in the hit animated comedy, Archer on FX. Kane shoots semiautomatic weapons while wearing lingerie and rolls her eyes at partner Sterling Archer's antics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ARCHER")

TYLER: (as Lana Kane) Hello.

H. JON BENJAMIN: (as Sterling Archer) Lana you have to come down to Ron's dealership. He's got a chimpanzee in a little samurai suit slashing prices.

TYLER: (as Lana Kane) Archer, I can't talk right now. I'm doing the interview thing.

MERAJI: Aisha Tyler is also a daytime TV star, waxing poetic about the day's news and gossip on "The Talk." That's the show with Ozzy Osbourne's wife, Sharon, and Sara Gilbert, the angsty brunette teen from "Roseanne," who's all grown up now. They sit around an oval table and discuss.

(SOUNDBITE OF TALK SHOW, "THE TALK")

TYLER: Let's get started with Michael Jackson's children being forced to speak about their father's death.

MERAJI: Tyler slides easily from daytime talk to nighttime comedy.

TYLER: I married a white guy. Honestly I had to because my credit was (bleep) up.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: And that's not all. She also hosts a popular podcast called "Girl on Guy."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GIRL ON GUY")

TYLER: This is "Girl on Guy."

MERAJI: She interviews chefs, actors, comedians, athletes to find out how they made it. And in each episode, she makes them share one of the most humiliating moments on their path to success. And that leads us straight to her new book, "Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation."

TYLER: On my podcast, "Girl on Guy," every guest tells a self-inflicted wound story. It's like the way that the show culminates.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "GIRL ON GUY")

TYLER: Shall we do a self-inflicted wound? I've given you so much time to think of something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I - you know, I want to give you like literally...

TYLER: Self-inflicted wound story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me see...

TYLER: OK, self-inflicted wound. So you feel like something has gelled for you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I thought of one thing where we did a...

TYLER: So I just felt like it was unfair for me to ask a person every week to humiliate themselves on my show, without me just humiliating myself in return.

MERAJI: Aisha Tyler starts the book with very early memories of humiliation. And reminds her readers that sticking out didn't help.

You call yourself a giant black girl in this book...

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: ...so many times.

TYLER: I do, 'cause I am. I'm enormous. I'm huge.

MERAJI: Tyler describes herself as nearly six feet tall in junior high, wore thick glasses, was obsessed with science fiction and dressed in clothes from the free bin.

TYLER: You know, so I was such a weird kid. My parents were into meditation, and they didn't believe in television, and I was a vegetarian and we were poor.

MERAJI: She writes about being that weird kid and all her weird kid mishaps. Nearly cutting herself in half playing on an abandoned hobby horse at five, setting the house on fire while making French fries at seven, numerous failures trying to trade veggie lunches for bologna sammies at school, and ruining her chances with the high school crush.

TYLER: Drinking too much and getting hungover and vomiting all over him and his car and myself, that wasn't a good look at all.

MERAJI: The book may sound super depressing but it's funny. And the footnotes provide hilarious asides. In the section where she writes about the tribulations of being a vegetarian in elementary school, she talks about eating kids' leftover processed meat, Dorito bits, and Boston Baked Beans. Here's an example of one of her footnotes.

TYLER: It's on Page 36 of "Self-Inflicted Wounds." And it has some beautiful annotations from Shereen, including, yes exclamation point and must read.

(Reading) Boston Baked Beans is the worst name for a candy since Nut Milk. Yes, there is a candy bar called Nut Milk. Let it wash over you. Well, not literally. Eww.

MERAJI: Tyler said she had an entire list of off-colored candy bar names for that one, but Nut Milk was the only one her editor would grant her. This is Aisha Tyler's humor: it's dirty and really nerdy all at the same time. It's hard to explain because she's hard to explain. And when she decided not to utilize her Ivy League degree in poli-sci and environmental studies from Dartmouth, and become a comedian, she stuck out all over again. This time as the six-foot-tall black woman who didn't fit the "Def Comedy Jam" mold.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "DEF COMEDY JAM")

MARTIN LAWRENCE: Welcome to the "Def Comedy Jam," where we present the young, baddest comics of all over the country. We're having a good time. I'm so glad we're here doing it again. What's up, black people? What's up?

TYLER: God, I just had so many people tell me what you're doing doesn't work. You know, I used to have to apologize. I guess I'd have to get up on stage and essentially apologize for talking the way that I speak. You know, 'cause like I think people kind of assume because I talk the way that I talk, that I grew up with money. And then I'd have to say no, no - I grew up poor. And then I'm like, why am I playing this game where the only black experience that's authentic is the one where you grew up in poverty. I mean, it's ridiculous.

MERAJI: There is a theme in Tyler's book: It's authenticity. And she says being that black whitewater-rafting guide for deaf teens in high school, playing "Halo" for hours as a grown woman, and letting it all hang out on stage has misfits around the world sending her notes of gratitude.

TYLER: Thank you for making me feel OK about this thing that I was made to feel ashamed of; that I'm a girl who likes videogames, or that I'm an Asian kid who listens to punk rock, or that I'm a black guy who likes heavy metal, because all my friends make fun of me all the time for that. And now I know I'm not the only one.

MERAJI: I know, it sounds corny but the moral of "Self-Inflicted Wounds" is be you, follow your dreams, and don't let failure and humiliation hold you back. If you do that, you might just make it. Aisha Tyler is proof.

TYLER: Oh, if only I knew that this morning I knew I'd be drinking scotch in the NPR...

(LAUGHTER)

TYLER: In the NPR studios.

MERAJI: Out of an NPR mug,

TYLER: ...out of an NPR mug. This is living, ladies and gentlemen. This is class.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You are listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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