Turning Lemons into Lemonade, Q&A with Johanna Stein

Kids have no problem expressing their unfiltered thoughts freely. Any parent can tell you story after story of how their kids have insulted and embarrassed them but Johanna Stein has turned this into an uproariously funny book and viral marketing campaign to compliment it which has now led to a television pilot and brought a lot of media attention. I am extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with writer, producer, director, actor and author, Johanna Stein.

How did you get started in comedy?

I started doing theatre at around 10 years old. My family is a very intellectually inclined so I think they were a little confused at my jones to perform. I did it all through high school, then got a degree in theater with minor in chemistry from the University of Winnipeg. I was getting all my pre-med requirements - my "fallback plan" was to be a doctor... 

Then something happened in an acting class that really pissed me off -- the teacher was kinda browbeating one of my classmates, and she started crying. I was so angry about it -- I thought "screw this business", walked straight to the library and grabbed a book: “The 100 Highest Paying Jobs”. One of the jobs was commercial airline pilot - according to the book, a great way to learn to fly is through the Air Force. So I walked straight to the Canadian Armed Forces recruitment center, and six weeks later was sent to an army base in Toronto for aptitude testing... Fast forward six months, I was hired to go on a cross-country tour with a theater company when I got a phonecall: "Congratulations! You've been selected for the officers training program! You report to basic training in a month!" I was shocked and asked... "Uh, can I call you back.” The guy on the other end paused, then said, “Uh, suuure.” That was the last I ever heard from them. Needless to say, I did not become a pilot.

I moved to LA to go to film school and majored in cinematography, then worked as an assistant during the day, while doing comedy with my friend Joy Gohring at night. We had a two person sketch/vaudeville-y comedy act. We got scouted for the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, and went from doing live sketch comedy in a crappy Hollywood theatre to getting signed by Bernie Brillstein (a legendary comedy manager), to having a tv deal with Carsey Werner who had us create a television show for the Oxygen Network. It was a great, fun show that got cancelled after 3 episodes. Welcome to Hollywood!

Are your parents funny and did they support your dreams?

My family is very funny. My mom thought I should be a writer, or maybe a teacher, but she and my dad supported all of us kids (me and two older brothers) in doing whatever we wanted. If I'd said I wanted to be an undertaker they would have said sure, do you whatever you want, knock yourself out with those dead people.

My 11 year old daughter says she wants to be a paleontologist and a comedian. What advice would you give to a kid who wants to be a comedian?

I would say go out and start doing stand up in comedy clubs, but at 11 she’s a bit young for that. So my advice would be for her to keep a notebook and write the funny things she thinks of all day long. Maybe she’ll be the first "Comedian Paleontologist" and corner that market. 

Who influenced you to become a comic?

Growing up, Carol Burnet was my #1 influence. Also SCTV’s Andrea Martin and Katherine Ohara. Those 3 women, I couldn’t get enough of them.

Who is funnier, moms or dads?

There's this ongoing conversation in the media, “Why are Women Not As Funny as Men" -  I have to say that question never occurred to me as a kid, and it all goes back to Carol Burnett. She had her own show, and she surrounded herself with the funniest people I'd ever seen - male and female. It just never occurred to me that there was a divide between men and women where comedy is concerned. So I guess my answer is: Moms and Dads are equally funny. At least in my house they are.

What does your spouse and daughter think of your act? 

My daughter is old enough now that I'm very careful about what I write about her - I would never want anything I write to come back to haunt her. And my husband has total veto power over anything I write about him. Having said that, there are couple of things in the book that we discussed at great length.  This one story, it’s about my husband thinking he has an intestinal worm after going to the bathroom. It turned out to be a piece of dental floss that I'd tossed in the toilet earlier that day. When he said he didn't like that story (he thought it made him look stupid), I said, "if it was something that happened to me, I would tell that story all the time" because it’s just such a funny, relatable event. It's not a story about being stupid -- it's a story about being human. In the end he changed his mind and now it's in the book. Score!

What does motherhood bring to comedy and what does comedy bring to motherhood for you?

Becoming a mom completely changed my writing. I’ve always been attracted to absurdist comedy -- I'd get inspired to write by a funny idea or an absurd notion. Once I had a child, I found my inspiration in this new and deeply personal experience that I was going through -- suddenly my creative output was all about being a mom. 

My poor daughter, if she's upset or mad about something, my first go-to is to make her laugh. She's probably a little tired of it. No one wants to have someone make jokes while you're in the middle of having a tantrum. 

Tell me more about your book, "How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane and Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source."

It came out in May 2014. I had an experience on an airplane where, in a moment of inspiration, to calm my daughter, I pulled out an air sickness bag and drew a puppet on it. When my plan worked I figured I'd make a second puppet! So I grabbed the air sickness bag in front of my husband's seat, drew on it, put my hand in it and found to my surprise/shock/horror that it had been recently used. 

Around that time I read in the New York Times an article about a woman who was kicked off a plane because her child was crying. I wrote to the columnist, Lisa Belkin, and told her about this funny thing that happened to me. She wrote back asking if she could publish it. I screamed silently at my computer -- then wrote back, "of course, that would be lovely".

What’s the difference between writing for animation, stand up and a book?

Animation writing is very visual - it requires being able to visualize gags, and crafting a story that can unfold without dialog. I really enjoy thinking in that way.

For me the key to stand-up is figuring out who you are onstage, and working out out how you come across to an audience. Most people don’t have a lot of objectivity about themselves - it took me a long time to figure out my onstage persona.

Sketch writing is conceptual, almost mathematical. I've always enjoyed taking an idea and obsessing over how I can play it out, heighten or exaggerate it, with a surprising twist. I love short form humor.

For personal writing, the most important thing is to figure out what the deep truth is about - whether it’s funny or not. Often I'll write a first pass with no jokes, just to figure out what the kernel of truth is in this story. I don’t always know what it is when I start. Once I know what my take on a subject is, then I work at figuring out how to make the read a fun and enjoyable experience.

Different forms of writing tickle different muscles. More pertinent to me is how I approach writing when I am hired to write for other people vs. when I write for myself. I am very clear, when I write for other people I am writing to serve their vision … it’s a very different activity for me.

Talk about how you've marketed this book.

When I sold the idea to the publisher, part of the conversation was, how are we going to market this book? I told them I'd put out videos and pound the pavement and the publisher said “Great!”

When the book came out we made an ad called “Thanks, Mom” which was a parody of those Procter and Gamble ads you see during the Olympics.  It did well – it got 100K hits. For Fathers day - we did a similar one called "Dad You’re My Hero" and that one did pretty well too.

Then in August, Will Arnett's company, Electric Avenue, optioned the book and we got to work figuring out what the pitch for the tv adaptation would be. 

In August, I figured it was time to make another video for the book. I shot it with my friend, Suzanne Luna, who directed and co-produced my Yahoo web series, "Life of Mom". I stuck a Go Pro on my head, had my daughter read lines from my book and called it “MomHead.” On Monday I uploaded it to YouTube and sent it around to family and friends. By Tuesday night Buzzfeed had picked it up and it shot up to over a million views. The next day I'm walking into a network meeting to pitch the television show, and CNN is calling to interview me. I had to say, “Uh, if this were any other day I would love to talk to you but I’m kind of in the middle of something right now.” It was nuts.

I love MomHead. So does your breath smell like a fart?

I’m drinking a cup of reheated microwave coffee, so probably.

Finish this sentence – The best thing about being a comedian is…..?

Hearing laughter. That’s my currency. The funny thing is that financially speaking, I'd do it all for a nickel. (Just don't tell anyone I said that because I do need to make a living.) So yeah, the laughs... and the hours. The hours are great.

What does being a comedian mean to you?

Humor is a crucial part of life for me. When something makes me laugh hard that's the greatest feeling in the world -- and getting to do that for other people, it’s incredibly meaningful to me. 

Johanna Stein is a writer, producer, director and actor has been seen in such places as Comedy Central, The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, The NYTimes, Parents Magazine, The Huffington Post, PBS, The Oxygen Network, Showcase, The Movie Network, UPN, VH-1, Noggin, CTV, The Family Channel and The CBC. In addition to her TV and film work, Johanna’s comedic essays on parenthood have been published in such outlets as The New York Times, Parents Magazine, and The Huffington Post. She lives with her family in Southern California.