Dina Hashem: Dark Little Whispers on Prime Video.

Interview: Dina Hashem’s ‘Dark Little Whispers’ Sounds And Looks Like What An Important Stand-Up Special Should

Dina Hashem: Dark Little Whispers on Prime Video.
Dina Hashem: Dark Little Whispers. Corutesy of Prime Video.

In 2017, Dina Hashem had a Conan set that introduced her as a dark comic voice with a flat, almost conversational, accidental delivery. The set stood out, not because it accurately portrayed what Hashem can do on stage (it didn’t), but because it captured a sharp and unique comic mind at an early step in her career. Unlike a lot of sets that were arguably tall, silly white guy heavy, Hashem decided to deliver a memorable set with jokes that felt like perfect ideas of comedy, the way Coca-Cola perfectly evokes winter or Christmas. Since then, Hashem has grown a lot as a comedian, with who she was in 2017 an almost unrecognizable version of the comic she is now.

In her debut special, Dark Little Whispers, Hashem finds so much room for brightness, experimentation, beauty, and, of course, great jokes. I could not have been more excited for this to be released, since she’s one of maybe five or ten comics from her cohort who are really making interesting and brilliant work. We spoke by phone before the special came out, but my hope is that you’ll have more time to discover it now over the holidays, so that you can perhaps gift someone or yourself with tickets to see her be funny and (maybe) play the drums live

You grew up in New Jersey. What are the basic tools of your voice you feel that you found growing up there?

I don't really think of myself as being from anywhere. I mean, the biggest thing and the most  important thing that happened to me was going to Rutgers, which I had. And I'm sure I would not be doing stand-up or anything remotely where I am now, so that's like the biggest effect New Jersey has had. But yeah, I never particularly felt like a New Jerseyan or a Jersey girl or whatever. The open mics I started out with were in Jersey, and I definitely felt like I stuck out just in terms of my demeanor and the type of comedy I was doing. So I guess, in a way, maybe that sort of honed me in the sense that I learned how to just say what I want to say despite people in the room being confused, I guess. 

Growing up, was there comedy you were taking in that you connected with, or was trying it really just kind of a lark and you trusted yourself enough to see what would happen?

Definitely a lark. I mean, I grew up, you know, loving stuff like The Simpsons and South Park, all the usual things a young person would like. But standup, I never really watched that much of it. Like, I would watch whatever was on Comedy Central, whatever they were playing occasionally, and Daniel Tosh was one of the first specials that I watched that I really liked. I really spent a lot of time growing up in my head. I couldn't communicate with a lot of people, especially like in my own home. I sort of retreated into my little artistic space. So that was really where I developed most of my voice, just with, like, writing things that weren't necessarily comedy, like poetry and things like that. And I guess that ultimately is what helped me get into stand-up, just having that love for writing. And I guess when I tried stand-up, to me it was just like, Oh, this is a new and exciting way of writing that, um, that also allows me to communicate with strangers in a way that I never was able to. 

The comic you are when you have the Conan spot, and the comic you are in the special are two very different voices, right? I think because of that Conan set, you kind of have all this stuff put on you all the time. Even in reading theoretically current interviews, or write ups for when you're touring through clubs, the language around what you do is still like "dark" and like, you know, kind of like "one linery" at times, which I don't think is accurate. Again, I think that they were written around the time of that set or those earlier days of of your career. Do you recognize a specific moment where you switched from that version of yourself to who you are in this special? Like, is there a like a delineating thing to you?

Yeah, actually. I am curious about what you're saying. I don't really read that many descriptors of myself. Dark. Definitely. I know dark is out there, but I would say the special is pretty dark, no?

But the thing is, the angle that all these write ups kind of lean into is less generous than the special is. The corners of it are so bright, and there's so much room in that. There's so much you're doing in that special. It's much more complicated than simple descriptions like that, you know?

That's cool to hear. I mean, I guess I sort of struggled with that in that I feel like I don't fit a box. Like I always never know how to write my description, because there's a lot of different things I like to talk about, and there's like the dark part of me, but then there's the absurd part. I feel like there's a lot of stuff I want to do. I guess the main thing is that I became more relaxed and confident since then. Whenever I'm taping, I'm nervous. I mean, even the special I wasn't super happy with because I could tell that I'm nervous. The energy in the special, I still don't feel like that reflects what I do just at a club show, you know what I mean? So there is still a discrepancy from Conan to the special to what I feel like I do and want to do on stage going forward. But to answer about what the delineating change was, to be honest, after like the whole incident where the joke I told on Comedy Central generated all these threats and stuff, there was one message I got that was more painful to me than any of the death threats, or rape threats, or even my address being posted. And it was him saying, "you look scared onstage." And after all the roast battles I've done, no one ever really hurt me or said anything that bothered me. But that really bothered me because it was something that I knew was true and that I felt myself. I was always scared onstage, and I was so bothered by that and just the whole experience of it in general, it just made me relax in a way that maybe I hadn't before. Before it was like, "Oh, this is dumb. Stand-up is dumb. What I do is dumb. And you can just have a bunch of people hate you for no good reason." So I sort of started treating everything a little bit less preciously. And I think that sort of translated into my presence on stage changing. So I'm actually quite thankful to that troll. 

In the special, it was so great to see how dynamic your voice work is. You have a very fun voice for God and other female characters. You have a perfectly stupid, like, male voice that you do. There's all of this stuff that's coming into how you're playing here vocally, so it sounds like it was just a matter of you becoming more comfortable with yourself.

Yeah, Thank you for saying that. I sort of always feel like I'm trying to get closer to the person I am inside and showing that on stage. I'm not there yet, but I'm glad to hear you notice that there's been changes and that there's progress. I mean, my main stumbling block through life and also in comedy is just anxiety. I'm always trying to work through that and feel comfortable seeing and acting the way that I really feel. And that's not unique to me. There's that great quote, it takes a long time to sound like yourself, you know? I'm glad you noticed the voice thing in particular, because I started doing voice work recently, and it's something I've always wanted to do, and I love doing it so much. It's so much fun. And I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, I could be doing that in my act too, if I wanted to.’ It's always just a matter of fear and thinking, like, ‘that's not you, that's not what you've been doing this entire time. You can't just suddenly change your demeanor on stage. People will be confused.’ That's not true. I could just do whatever I want. 

One of the best jokes from the first half of it is you talking about quiet people, and the way quiet feels like a slur when someone who isn't quiet says it. But you tag the joke by calling yourself as this non quiet person “a fucking slug,” right? But you get caught on the first fucking, almost like you didn't know that was the language that you were going to use at the end of that bit. So was this a space where you were riffing a little bit or was that just a hiccup?

That was one of the rare jokes that I think I thought of on stage, and so I think that break came from that original delivery of finding that joke onstage, and gained emphasis doing that.

Something that blew my mind was the point you make to the audience about communicating and listening and there being 100 mouths and 100 ears, and the idea that the audience is going to receive this and in the moment, accept that they might be misunderstanding you or bringing their own thing to it You work from that, and then you're in that space where maybe the audience doesn't know what to do with that, but you manage to then walk back to a place where they can keep working with you. So how tricky was that?

I knew it was something I wanted to express, but I also felt extremely self-conscious any time I enter serious or sincere thought, which  we think of as taboo in stand-up. And so it was like, I would like to address this thing, number one, because I felt like I was having to justify my even doing this special. I always feel like I have to justify my existence as a stage performer, because it's not really natural to me at all. I address that in other jokes too. I think I was just feeling very self-conscious about everything. So it was like, let me just explain why you bought a ticket to be here. Then I was like., “How do I make it clear that this is about jokes and I'm not trying to be preachy or go into this pseudo-philosophical space. So I thought it'd be fun to jump from that thought directly to what I find is one of my favorite jokes. 

Did you play around with where to place it?

So that's actually funny because in the original arrangement of jokes that I taped, I believe that part actually came a little bit later in. And then as I watched it, I was like, “Oh, I want to bring this earlier into the set,” so hopefully it's not noticeable. We had to do a lot of rearranging to get that joke earlier on, mostly because I'm very aware that people stop watching specials at, like, the halfway point. I wanted to get all of my favorite jokes closer up to make sure people hear them. 

It's also, I think, beneficial to you that you're performing in that particular space because it invites intimacy. How has your relationship to these spaces that you might be playing changed over time?

I chose that space because I had performed in it once before and I just liked it. I like, as you say, the intimacy of it. It just felt like a good space where I could say things that I really wanted to say. Whereas, like in a club, I feel like I'm delivering to a club crowd, and they're not going to be down with necessarily everything I want to express. I mean, that's sort of been an issue for me throughout my career where it's like, yeah, I’ve sort of become a club comic. Even though I had done those Brooklyn rooms early on, or when I was still in New Jersey, my act was a little bit weirder, a little alty-er. Over time, I think I started gearing myself to stick to that specific club-style of comedy.. So that's what it was. The rooms definitely did inform my act. And I sometimes…I won't say regret, because I am where I am, and happy with that, but I do think of how my act could have been and still could be different based on the rooms that I'm in, and how I can sort of start playing around with other rooms where I can do things that don't necessarily work like a comedy club. 

We're in this era right now where comics might not tape even though they should, or they're great and they just don't get that opportunity. How did you know you were ready to tape?

I was certainly extremely hesitant about taping, just because it was going to be my first time, and like the idea of having to start over has just always been so mortifying to me, I often think I do not have another hour inside me, and that might very well be true. I guess we'll find out. It wasn't a feeling of like, “Oh, I'm pregnant with material that I need to deliver into the world.” It's just like, I need something that might get some extra attention to me because I want to be able to sell tickets. And like, I don't want to just burn jokes online, even though I don't know if that's a concept anymore. It seems not to be, but I also don't just want to keep posting crowd work. I think I was just feeling too invisible. I was like, “this is the only thing I can think of that's in my power to do on my own.” I just went ahead and started planning it, and it was always like, well obviously it'd be great to get it on a streamer, but if not, then I'll throw it on YouTube. Maybe I'll even just chop it down to a half an hour and just throw that on YouTube. But then we got the Amazon offer, so it just made the most sense to do that. I'm still hesitant about it. I hope people watch it. There's always the fear that, you know, they won't. I mean, you never know. 

You ask for applause for people who are married, have kids, believe in a higher power, voted for Trump, or are a white guy. You then move it to a joke, I should say, because you've created a buy-in for the audience by having them participate. I know this isn't the hard part of the joke, but I am curious about how you create space for yourself at this point to be surprised by reactions or to find play in between bringing them in and getting it to the payoff.

I mean, you don't know what you're going to get, but like in a taping, like I wasn’t expecting to get any unexpected responses. You know, I've asked those questions of crowds many times, and, you know, nothing that crazy happened. Questions I ask don't really invite much response. Mostly it's just interesting for me to find out what kind of people are in the audience with those questions. What I like about the joke is everyone can laugh at it, so it almost doesn't matter.

When you get to that part in the special where you mention the idea of jihad and there's that errant laugh, even if you know that that's going to happen, you play it off like there's a 5% genuine surprise. I'm curious if that's something that's totally real, or is that something that you can just play so well that it comes across that way?

That's purely performative. It just happens every time. I can remember one show where nobody laughed. It was for the Daily Show stand up writer's tour, so it made sense that everyone in the crowd was quite smart and knew what it meant, so they didn't laugh. But other than that, it always gets a laugh. The whole structure of that joke is built around somebody laughing, so in a way it's interesting that I did that because when people don't laugh, I have no way of continuing the joke. 

I'm really curious about the different voices that you're utilizing in the language of these jokes. In the abortion joke, you describe it as “goo that needs to be cleaned up,” right? And that word goo is so great. You have the yelling at your asshole, “like a dog jumping out of a bathtub.” “911 Unforgettable” in that whole PR think tank bit. So how do you see the relationship between the tenor of the language and the delivery or context of the joke? Is the speaker dictating how much you can dial up or dial down the language?

Interesting. I'm not sure if I'm even consciously aware of these decisions, so it's interesting to have to think about it. I think I'm always just like, what would be the funniest choice here? I think if I'm hitting like a darker note, I feel like I have to sort of help the audience digest it with like a sillier voice or like going a little bit higher. I think that's usually where I make my decisions from. It's either, you know, just what's funny for this, what feels right for this, and how do I help the audience digest it? 

I also love the framing joke for the special, which is the music that you come out to and the juxtaposition between how hard that track goes and then you just showing up on stage. I think that the drumming and when you close out and you show yourself building the track, was this an idea you had for the special initially going in where you're like, I want to kind of build this hardcore track and kind of create my own music? What is your relationship to drumming?

I'm glad that you got the heightened song contrast with me saying, “Hey,” which was a very deliberate joke. The idea to create the song came from me actually starting to play the drums, which I've been obsessed with, and I'm just like, “Fuck, I should have been a drummer.” Then it was a thought of like, “How does music work?” I don't think I can use something copyrighted. I have very specific taste in music, and I didn't want to do that. And then it's kind of like, “Oh, what if I made it myself? Then I asked my friend who plays guitar, who's on that track, if we could write something together, and he was down for it.Then I think that idea came of like, “Oh yeah, having this insane, like, hardcore soundtrack and contrast with how I get onstage could be funny.” I wasn't sure if it would work. I'm glad to hear that it does. 

Obviously now the special is out. But after working on it in editing, has anything shifted for you again in terms of your approach to the work of being an artist?

I'll be honest. I'm kind of like,” how do I get the drums involved in my stage act?” I feel like I've been dabbling in musical songs, which I have never done before, and I didn't like everything I'm doing on stage, really. I feel like there's space to do something, partially as a result of doing intro music for the special. I don't have a new hour of straight up jokes yet, but I do have these song ideas. I bought this portable electronic drum kit. So I'm like,“Fuck, I can actually take this on the road with me.” I'm trying to see how to have more fun on stage in a way that feels truer. I mean, I hope enough people see the special that I can have people at shows who already know who I am and allow me to sort of do things that I hope they'll like. I would ideally love for that  to be the case where I can start trying things that people have more patience for.

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