It’s best not to read Maeve Higgins’ new collection of essays, Maeve in America, in public. You’ll laugh yourself silly and look like a complete lunatic. Yes, her book is that funny.
If you don’t know Higgins, she’s a writer and standup comedian from Ireland who moved to the U.S. in her early thirties. She landed in New York City and quickly made a name for herself in the comedy scene and podcasting world. This new collection of essays—her first published in the U.S.—is filled with stories about and reflections on her experiences in America over the last four years.
Maeve in America starts with a story about swimming with dolphins gone terribly wrong, and only gets better from there. It masterfully balances comedy with more serious topics like immigration, self-care, and body image. One minute, Higgins hilariously laments beings “Vera Wanged” at a Rent the Runway brick and mortar store. The next, she boldly calls out the hypocrisy of Irish American men in Washington, D.C. It’s a delicate balance that she expertly sums up an essay titled “Pen as Gun,” in which she examines the shared space between comedy and tragedy.
I spoke with Higgins about performing standup around the world, the importance of telling immigration stories, how she practices self-care, and how to persevere in the face of creative rejection.
HelloGiggles: You allude to it a bit in the book, but I’d love to know more about your life in comedy before you moved to the U.S. from Ireland.
Maeve Higgins: I was a standup [comedian] for maybe five years before I started writing. I always wanted to write, but I found it really hard to actually focus and put the words down. Standup comedy is really spontaneous. You can have an idea in the morning and be on stage working it out that night. It’s a cool medium for that. I started doing open spots, where you do five minutes, then come back a few weeks later and do a different five. I worked up from there.
I didn’t do classes, I just did open spots. I was on a TV show back in Ireland the year after I started doing comedy. That was good, because it pushed me to raise my game. We did a tour and I traveled around a lot. I would go to Australia and New Zealand and England every year. I was a touring comedian; that was my job for seven or eight years.
With writing, I think it’s more of a mental discipline. But it suits me, because there’s more time to actually figure out, Well, what do you think about this? rather than on stage, where you have just a few minutes, and you also have to make a joke.
HG: In Maeve in America, you tell a story about some women you met at a comedy workshop in Iraq. They said they could never do standup because it’s too scary, and you said it was probably less scary than the 200-mile trip they took to get here.
MH: Standup is such a common fear that people have. But I never had that fear, so it wasn’t brave of me, if you know what I mean. Something is really brave if you’re scared of it, but I was never scared of it. I’m pretty scared of working at an aquarium, because I hate fish so much. [laughs] Or I’d be scared to be a teacher, because I’m sure I’d accidentally swear in front of the kids. Something with a big responsibility—I couldn’t handle at all.
HG: There are also always birds flying around aquariums for some reason, which I don’t trust.
MH: No. That would actually be my nightmare. You’re never supposed to tell people what you’re afraid of, but that’s mine.
HG: What do you do on days when you don’t feel funny? I think everyone, comedian or not, has days where they don’t feel powerful in their profession.
MH: If I can, I try and say no to things and take a break. If it’s really bad, I have to take a break. If I have an obligation, or if I really need to do the thing, I try to override my anxiety using logic. You’ve done this before. Look back at your schedule, you’ll see that you’ve done this three times in the past week. It’s fine, you can do it. This is just your head. That helps. Also, talking to friends and family helps me too. It’s hard. It is really hard when you’re not feeling up to it. I used to always power through, but I think ultimately, you pay for that as well. So now I try and take breaks.
HG: Has doing comedy abroad, or even being a part of two cultures, influenced or changed your comedy style at all?
MH: If anything, traveling around and doing comedy and meeting comedians from all around the world—it’s bolstered that sense that we are all so alike. I did a podcast about immigration and one thing that we do have in common is it’s actually really human to find some levity in something that’s heavy. You’ll talk to people, anyone really, and for example they’ll say something like, We were at this really sad funeral, and then we got the giggles. And the person, if they were there, they would have been laughing, too. That’s really universal.
Like you said, I did a workshop in Iraq, and the people there were interested in harnessing humor, because it’s a human trait. There’s no point in ignoring it just because there’s also sadness happening. To be balanced and fair, it’s better to include it. That’s what I’ve found time and again.
Coming from Ireland too, the people that are renowned for their sense of humor are Northern Irish people. They’ve had what’s called The Troubles up in Northern Ireland. It’s fine now, but there was a war there for a long time. That’s the bigger stuff. But I think even in the day-to-day, my friends who work in offices are like, When the boss is at their worst, I have this co-worker, and we can’t look at each other because we’ll start laughing. Something always happens to balance out emotions. That’s how we stay human.
HG: You mentioned your podcast of the same name, Maeve in America. Such a frustrating part of being a creative person is when you have a great idea, but you don’t have the audience or the timing or the support. But it doesn’t make your idea any less good. What do you do when you have an idea that you really believe in, but something is keeping you from bringing it to life?
MH: It’s like an exterior version of what we were talking about earlier. I have inner obstacles, and those are the ones that I’m like, Take a break. Treat yourself well. Talk to family and friends. Remember that you can do it. I go a bit easy. But when it comes to exterior obstacles, when you think, I have an idea, I know it’s a good one, I really want to get it made and get it out there, the only thing I found that works is if you just keep pushing. It’s really hard and it’s really frustrating.
I’m lucky, because I’ve been in the comedy business—or the content business [laughs] or whatever you call it—for 13 years now. This is my first book in the U.S. The podcast I did took a really long time to get people to fund it, and then they only funded us for two seasons. Then I tried to sell it as a TV show, and now we’re making it into a fictional podcast series. I keep trying and trying other ways. I keep talking to people about it. Basically, not giving up on what I know is a great idea.
In this case, any narrative about immigration is very vital. I’ve felt that for four years, since I got here. Now, I can see that people are paying attention. More people are covering immigrant stories and giving immigrants a platform for their voices, which is so needed. If you actually care about something and believe in it, it’s not crazy and it’s not corny to just keep pushing. I’m hoping this next project that we just got green-lit will be The One, but if it’s not, I’ll try it in a different way. That’s a really important message.
Lots of people hit on something quickly, or when they’re young, or they have something go viral. If it doesn’t happen that way, you might be tricked into thinking it’s not going to happen. But there are lots of different ways to have success. That’s something I’m figuring out the further along in my career I go.
For example, I started writing for other outlets about different immigration stories. And I wouldn’t have talked through that if I still had my podcast. I was like, Okay, I need a different way to tell these stories. Now I’m a columnist at The New York Times and at The Guardian and The Progressive. Those are three outlets where I’m getting to people who maybe wouldn’t have heard the podcast. You just have to put the time and energy into it, and don’t give up on it. Being a woman in comedy helped me learn that. The doors aren’t open for me in the ways they would be if I was a man. I imagine that if I were a person of color, it would be another challenge. Unfortunately, we have to work harder and keep on advocating for ourselves and the stories we want to tell.
HG: I’m glad the podcast can hopefully live on in a new way.
MH: That’s my next big writing project. I’m hoping this one might be a way to shift people’s feelings. I really enjoyed the podcast, and I’m really glad that we made it, and I’m so proud of all of my guests who told their stories. But I don’t know that immigrants telling more stories is actually helping non-immigrants. Everything that I see, it’s getting so much worse. When immigrants stand up and speak out, people can’t even hear them. I’m thinking fiction might be a sneaky way in. Immigrants have been treated really badly in this country for a really long time, and it’s something that native-born citizens don’t always realize.
HG: I was born in the U.S. and immigration is something I never really thought about until the last few years, which is sad.
MH: It is heartening to see that now, native-born Americans are like, Wait a minute. They’re understanding the details of the immigration process, which is a very archaic and broken one, I think. America is a fortress. Most people that want to come here don’t get to come here. And those who do are often treated as second-class citizens.
HG: My favorite story in Maeve in America is the one about Stormy, the dog with the calm eyes that you “borrowed” for a day.
MH: I have more info on that dog! I was reading that story at my show, and afterward my friend was like, Wait. My friend just adopted a dog named Stormy, and he’s crazy looking. And I was like, What?! And it was Stormy! And he is so much better. He’s really come back to life. It’s kind of amazing.
HG: That touches my soul in deep ways.
MH: Me too! I couldn’t believe it. She’s a magician, and she’s taking him on tour. [laughs]
HG: You have to write an update about Stormy’s new life in your next book. Last question: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten?
MH: I didn’t get this directly, but I got it from reading Nora Ephron. She says to change careers every 10 years. I’m only in my second cycle of doing that. I still do a bit of standup, but now I definitely see myself as a writer. I love that idea, because I think when I’m older, I’m going to do something else.
I don’t know if that’s great career advice if you want to buy a house, but for me, it’s really good career advice because you don’t want to be stuck doing one thing. You can change, even when you’re old. [Nora Ephron] was a film director when she was in her fifties, she was a blogger when she was in her sixties. I think that’s good advice—change direction every 10 years. It makes me not try and cling on to things and replicate things. If I do a good TV show, or even a good podcast, if that goes away, then that’s okay. I can do the next thing.
Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else is now available wherever books are sold.