‘Happy is the Most Subversive Thing a Woman Can Be’: An Interview with Tabatha Southey

The author of Collected Tarts and Other Indelicacies on The Simpsons, pranks, and saying hello to puppies. 

“Tabatha Southey is smart, funny, and very beautiful. She has the prettiest eyes. She has a lovely laugh and has been nominated for ten National Magazine Awards. She is also an excellent cook, terrific in bed, and weary of self-deprecating chick writers.”

I lifted that description from Southey herself, from the author bio on the back cover of Collected Tarts & Other Indelicacies (Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.), a new book of Southey’s humour writing published between 1999 and earlier this year. It’s as good a description as any. Lifting heavily from her columns in Elle Canada and The Globe and Mail, Collected Tarts covers a range of topics from being fitted for a bra to the Rob Ford crack tape scandal. Though Southey writes through a reliably progressive lens, she will never go for the obvious joke. Her humour is as absurd as it is subtle; her columns would find her in a bar interviewing anthropomorphic apes about recent scientific discoveries, or hypothesizing on the events that must have led someone to become a “pee mule,” swapping out lab samples of steroid laden urine for Russian athletes during the 2014 Olympics. 

Southey was born in Vancouver, about nine months after her parents immigrated from South Africa (she was, as she puts it, an anchor baby). She grew up in Guelph and moved out on her own to Toronto when she was sixteen. Her writing career didn’t happen until later in life, after she had worked a series of odd jobs, lived in the United States, had two kids, and moved back to Toronto in the late ‘90s. She regularly read “Dinner Date,” the column in the back of the TV Guide, in which an actor was taken out to a restaurant and interviewed about his latest project. Southey thought she would be excellent at this job. So, she made her case, in a piece called “Drunk With Men,” which opens, “At the age of 15 I was taken from the suburbs and abandoned in the woods. There I was found and raised by a pack of feral single men aged 15 to 26 who didn’t get a date until they were 30.” The National Post published the piece, and job offers started pouring in.

I spoke to Southey on an unseasonably hot fall morning. We met at a cafe in Toronto’s east end that I picked at random, but where Southey seemed to be on a first-name basis with everyone. “They say about this place, you want to stay long enough to hear the gossip, but not so long you become the gossip,” she tells me. We picked the quietest spot we could find at the back of the room,

Anna Fitzpatrick: Let’s talk about your author bio.

Tabatha Southey: The publishing company said, “Are you sure you want to use that?”

You are “weary of self-deprecating chick writers.”  

I’ve said it before, being happy is the most subversive thing a woman can be, so get on that. I do feel women and humour is tricky. You’re not supposed to laugh at men. A lot of what I think women succeed at is making the jokes about themselves that men would make. So a series of “I’m a fat chick,” or “I’m a slut” jokes. You watch early Joan Rivers, she didn’t do those jokes about herself. She’s very, very funny, and it’s interesting what she had to do in order to succeed as well as she did. Some of it’s pretty questionable.

There’s this reaction cycle. Women are supposed to be perfect, then some women comedians are like, “Well I’m not perfect, I’m gonna laugh at myself!” and then soon women are supposed to laugh at themselves all the time, and then there’s a pushback to that.  

Of course we have to be able to laugh at ourselves. That’s how you end up with a sense of humour—by understanding your own innate audaciousness. But the best humour, I think, when I watch other comics, when I watch standup, they hit home because they made the audience laugh at themselves. They made the audience go, “Oh yes, that’s me, busted, I do that.” That can be quite edgy sometimes.

What comedians do you like?

Chris Rock, Louis C.K., Rick Mercer, Samantha Bee. Paula Poundstone I once saw do standup, and it was an hour-long show here in Toronto. She was so on, she basically went another hour over. It was like seeing a musician just having a perfect night, and that’s always stuck with me. 

Did you grow up watching a lot of comedy?

Yeah, I mean, I think I liked Monty Python a lot more than other Guelph kids. We had comedy albums. We always had Flanders & Swann At the Drop of a Hat. My brother and I would listen to that all the time. I realize I still make references to those albums all the time. When I moved to Toronto I started hanging out with comics a lot. I went down to see Theatresports. I kind of think I was raised by the funniest men of my generation and I feel pretty lucky about that.

Monty Python and stuff, how did you get turned onto that? 

I remember my father smuggled me in to see Jabberwocky because I was way underage. He brought me in literally under his overcoat to go see it. My parents are—humour was important. I started to tell funny stories. I would think back to the anxiety of telling a funny story at dinner, because there would be this pause when my father would say, “Did you get that math test back?” I was just trying to be on so you didn’t get that question. I never thought of myself as someone who was “in comedy.” I always appreciated it, but I never thought of myself as [in] it.

There’s one piece in your book where you get your brother to sit on a bottle of water you collected from the Loch Ness. You tell him the air bubble in it is a monster egg. Were you much older than him?

Three years. I named him. 

Finnegan, right? 

I wanted a dog so badly.

The Loch Ness thing was so creative and sadistic in such a big sister way. Did you and your siblings pull a lot of pranks?

I played with Finnegan a lot. I actually raised him like a little dog. I taught him tricks and stuff from the time he was little. I used to tell my older brother stories, and I would tell him stories at night. He always called me Tum Tum, that was his name for me. I vividly remember him saying, “Tell me a story,” and the deal was, if he stopped calling me Tum Tum I would tell him a story. I had three brothers, which is why I wanted a dog. I was like, enough of this shit, get me a dog.

The first column that appears in your book was published in 1999. What were you doing before then?

I married pretty young and I had two children, and that’s what I was going to do. My passport says “Housewife.” I was like, we were reclaiming the word. That’s what I did. I had my kids. I was never bored. I was really good at not having a job. I worked a whole bunch of jobs when I first moved to Toronto. I worked as a nanny, I worked retail, I ran a vintage clothing store in Kensington Market. People always ask, “Oh, so you worked at Courage My Love?” No. It was called Breakfast of Champions, and my first job in the morning was to take all the chickens and ducks that we kept in cages out. Courage My Love had no livestock. I sold a lot of dead men’s overcoats to young boys.

I came to Toronto with the hope of finishing high school at an alternative school. I messed up every level of high school. I basically didn’t go to school after grade eight.

Did you ever finish high school?

No. I still have nightmares that I just have six credits left. I did go to university when I turned 21 as a mature student, but I only took three classes and then my partner at the time moved to New York so I moved with him and never finished. Which I regret. Stay in school, kids.

Why didn’t high school work?

I’m quite severely learning disabled, and that was a time when there really weren’t accommodations for that. You just made it or you didn’t make it. My handwriting was just appalling. I carry a business card so I’ll never have to write down my number. [She hands me a business card that says “Tabatha Southey, you lucky bastardwith a picture of a butterfly on it.] I embrace the internet so much because it allows people like us to get away with murder. I just failed a lot. I actually failed kindergarten, and pretty much failed everything after that. I didn’t read until I was quite old. I don’t know if I could read and was just too shy to let anyone see me read. My mother, to her infinite credit, always said, “I don’t care” when the teachers freaked out that I couldn’t read. She said, “I read to her, and she’s not interested in your books.” She said she found me one day on the last page of Alice in Wonderland, and I said, “Hey, that was a good book!” Still one of my favourites. But I picked it up late.

When I went to university, I had worked pretty hard and had enough money to buy a computer. There are accommodations made, like you can take your notes on your computer and they give you extra time for tests. I went from being a D student to being an A student. I see sometimes, professors posting on Facebook, “Get your laptops out of the classroom!” That’s like saying, “Take off your glasses,” to someone with a vision problem.  

So you went back to school, then New York, then you lived in LA, right?

I did live in LA, yeah.

Then you came back to Toronto, and that’s when you started writing.

Which I sort of really did just stumble into. My first pieces are laminated; I really didn’t think it was something I’d do forever. 

You stumbled into it in that you didn’t take the traditional path, but your work stood on its own merits. The strength of each piece brought in more work.  

Thank you! I still write everything out loud. I keep reading out loud until it sounds right. My favourite thing is when readers e-mail me to say, “I read it out loud to my wife every morning.” That makes me happy. I think what I started doing was writing down all the things that I generally just said.

You’re able to do this great thing where you take a political moment and jump back in time to tell a story from your childhood, and—sorry, I don’t want to keep embarrassing you by laying on all these compliments.

Oh, please! For the love of god! Do it more, do it louder, do it so that guy over there can here.

I guess what I’m trying to ask is…how are you funny? How do you do it?

I don’t know. You’re very funny. You’re extremely funny.

But I feel like all my writing has an obvious structure. Like, I just take things to their most extreme end. 

Which I think is a big part of writing humour. You just don’t filter it. And trust the reader! Think in your mind, you write to make one person laugh. Sometimes an editor will say, “That joke isn’t going to be got.” And you know what? The five people in Canada that get that joke will appreciate it so much. Besides, I want it in there.

The pieces of mine I always like the most never get much traction elsewhere, but I think they’re so funny.

And those are the pieces that are going to last. There are a few pieces where I’m like, Nope, but they evoke a time in my life. But the slightly odder pieces… When I started to write for Elle, the former Elle Girl said to me, “Oh, you’ll write these pieces that you think are hilarious, and you’ll get very little response, and you’ll write something deeply personal and confessional, and they’ll love it, and you’ll be completely creeped out by that.” It’s very much true. Sometimes people say to me, “You could also write not funny,” as if that was a better thing to do? I’m like, “Bitch please.” As they say, dying is easy, comedy is hard.

I’ve done both. Comedy and writing about myself, I mean. So I had this thing I wrote, actually I wrote and published it as a Craigslist missed connection. It was a long, rambly piece I churned out in the middle of the night a few months ago about being sexually assaulted that I impulsively posted. I fell asleep and when I woke up it had been getting a lot of attention on Twitter. I wrote it to be cathartic, but I didn’t know if I actually liked the writing. It got deleted from Craigslist, and a few people reached out, to say, “You should post it elsewhere.” And I said, “………..No.” It felt good to write, but then all these people said to me, “You’re so brave for talking about this!” And it didn’t feel brave. But I get it, because I’ve called other people brave. 

Yes, and occasionally you’re like, “That was brave, but.” I wrote about being sexually assaulted. I don’t even think I put it in the book. Literally at that time there was a story out, and I was like, “I think I have a small perspective on this that I can offer.” It felt like the right and relevant thing to do. Is it brave? No. I’m sure you did the same thing. I have a thought here that needs to be said. But you don’t want to be defined by that. We don’t want to be defined by the tragedies in our life. No negative attention, please!

The week after my assault happened, I was at the airport trying to get to New York stuck in a line, and I texted my friend, “Ugh, these American customs lines are worse than getting raped in the ass.” [Both start laughing] Which is how I felt in that moment. But that wouldn’t have been considered a brave thing to say! Still, I like a lot of internet feminism, and I remember that relief in first finding these people online who take seriously the things that were never taken seriously in high school. I used to be so angry, and I’ve kinda grown out of that. But I still feel a kinship with them.

I think it’s a golden thing. All those things that we didn’t talk about, and now we talk about it, is such a win. There is this idiot pushback we’re seeing on people telling their truth. You and I both know that almost every woman we know has been raped, you know? They all say the same thing, “Yeah, I was raped.” They tell you quietly their whole story. So do I tend to believe women who say they’ve been raped? Yes, because in my experience, they’ll quietly tell you some horrible story that most of us have been through, and I think it’s really good that that’s getting out there. And watching the men respond can be really beautiful; there’s just more awareness now. The way eighteen-year-olds are talking about these issues has changed for the better.

Yeah. And I do think it’s brave for these women to talk about these things. It’s just, in my instance, I just wanted to rant this thing out.

Yeah. 

Trying to be funny makes me way more vulnerable. If I say, “This terrible thing happened to me,” I know in my liberal feminist circles, everyone will support me. But no one will laugh at my jokes if they’re not funny.

I could be serious three times a week. I was funny once a week. Six days of work went into that. When you’re angry and you write, you’re only less convincing if you fail. When you try and be funny and you fail, you’re basically running around the room naked. You’re so exposed, and you really feel it when you’re like, “Oh that was lame.” Writing straight, being angry about something, like, you can do that, you know?

Let the recorder show you made a jerkoff motion.

Let the recorder show I made a jerkoff motion!

So how does a typical Southey day go?

I have a puppy. Cherry. She’s sixteen weeks old. [She takes out her phone and shows me pictures.]

Oh, hi! God, now I’m talking to a picture of your puppy. It’s an instinct.

I say hi to dogs all the time, since I had a head injury. I never used to do this. Now I say, “Hello puppy!” Interestingly enough, I had a friend who had a concussion at the same time as me, and when I finally told someone, I said, “I say hi to dogs!” and she said, “I say hi to dogs, and I don’t even like dogs!” I’ll shout it across the street. “Hello, puppy!” Anyway, I like to keep busy. I like to walk. I walk a minimum of five miles a day, and I’m a daily swimmer. And I read. When I was doing the column, I read a lot of news. I was always a big newspaper reader. 

Did that ever get exhausting?

Yeah, you’re never not working. There’s a lot of anxiety in finding your stuff. When I was with the Globe, I was filing Thursdays. What you’re looking for is a story that will still be alive Saturday, but will not change on Friday afternoon. I’m like, “If you resign, you cocksucker, I’ll be so mad!” You’re always looking for that arc of the story. And I would try to keep on top of news. Especially when you’re writing humour, you gotta have your facts down. You can go off those, but you want to make as few mistakes as possible.

You said you weren’t much of a reader as a young kid. Did that change? 

Oh, I was a huge reader as soon as I could read. And my parents read to me a lot. From the minute I could read, that’s all I did. When I cut school, I literally would go to the library and read all day and come home at the end of the day. I was so grateful to the library.

I used to cut school my senior year and just go to magazine stores downtown and read the indie magazines, and write to the names on the mastheads to ask, “How can I write for you?” That’s how I had shitty grades but was getting paid.  

As you should be! You’re very funny. 

Thank you. Ugh. Aside from Alice in Wonderland, what else did you like?

I loved the Moomintroll books when I was little. I read The Lord of the Rings, a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I would read fairly adult books because they were in the house. I read a lot of Graham Greene when I was eleven, and there were these spy novels that I liked. I basically just read anything that was in front of me, almost indiscriminately ,which I think is kind of cool. Joan Aiken books, did you ever read those? It was almost like a steampunk things based in history, full of spunky little girls. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Nightbirds on Nantucket, all of those. I always give them a push when I can. You’re looking for a book for an eleven-year-old girl? Oh boy.

Collected Tarts is not your first book.

Oh yeah. The Deep Cold River Story. It was a book a wrote for my children. I remember saying to the publisher, “Promise me, if I publish this book, I will spend the rest of my life sitting on library floors reading to children,” because that sounds perfect to me, and they looked at me like, “We’ve got a live one here.” They said, sure, sign it. I didn’t understand much about publishing. There was no book launch, it never really did anything. But I really like writing for children, and would possibly like to do more. 

Publishers take note!  

I have part of a children’s novel actually that was the next thing I was writing, but then I got caught up in the humour writing and never finished it. 

Would you ever write a novel for us old people?

Yes! I have part of a comedic novel that I started writing, then I was doing the column that was pretty all consuming. Maybe I’ll go back and do something like that. 

What are the funniest novels you’ve read? 

Oh gosh…hmm…. 

I can find a lot of great humour writing, but laugh-out-loud funny humour fiction is harder to find.

Honestly? People always ask me what humour I enjoy. Between us, a lot of what people recommend as really funny is not that funny.

I read lots of stuff where I think, “Huh, that’s amusing,” but—

There are cute lines, but it’s really hard to do. I mean, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, those are laugh out loud funny. I’m trying to think of others. David Sedaris, I think the thing about him is he’s a really, really good writer, even when he doesn’t do funny. But he’s also really funny. Jane Austen is a comedy writer in a lot of ways. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s solid.

I find when I read older books and I catch a funny line, there’s this validating knowledge of, “Oh, people were funny back then!” When you’re fourteen and you’re reading Shakespeare for the first time and your teacher explains, “This is actually a dick joke!” I remember reacting like, “Oh, you could do that? I thought everyone was supposed to be repressed.” But I’ve never laughed out loud reading Shakespeare because I find I have to put so much work into just figuring out the jokes.

But a lot of it’s very funny. A lot of it’s about timing. I love a good dick joke. I remember seeing The Taming of the Shrew when I was a little girl, it was at Stratford. The way it was done was, it struck me as feminist, as Shakespeare’s happiest couple. It just really stayed with me, it was almost like a straight comedy.

There was the one really old adaptation of that play, with I think Mary Pickford? It’s been years since I’ve seen it. At the end, she gives this big speech about honouring thy husband or whatever, then she turns to the camera and winks. Like it’s all this big joke she’s in on.

What TV shows do you like?

I love sitcoms. I just like the idea of having to work within a tight structure and still making it funny. The amount of jokes they have per minute in an episode of 30 Rock

That show is so tightly scripted and paced.

One note I made when reading your book that I think is similar to 30 Rock, is so much of what you’re writing about is topical. A lot of your earlier pieces you included intros of the news happening at the time.

I put those in to try to explain context to people that wouldn’t know.

Yet the columns are still funny on their own. There are so many jokes in 30 Rock that are timely. Like one storyline they did with two janitors competing for a cleaning spot that mimicked the Conan versus Leno thing.

I had completely forgotten about that! 

Exactly. Even if you don’t remember what was happening, the jokes still hold up. I think that’s hard to do, to have something that’s a reference but still stands up on its own.

I know when I watch sketch comedy stuff, it’s so much better when you don’t make the topical joke. It’s like a standup going, “What’s with the mayor!” It’s a cheap laugh, most of the time.

It’s still hard for even good comedy to be completely timeless. Seinfeld isn’t topical, but so many jokes have been built on what Seinfeld started, that when you go back and watch it, it might not be as funny. A lot of people would disagree with me.

You know, I wanted to like it because he was a really solid standup but I found it kind of irritating a lot of the time.

I think my problem is, I’m younger than the show, so I grew up watching the things that Seinfeld had influenced rather than the show itself. I did watch The Simpsons though.

And look at how timeless The Simpsons is. I feel like there’s a generation raised by The Simpsons, and they’re so much better for it.

What sitcoms do you like?

Well I’m a huge Simpsons fan. I don’t watch TV the way I used to. When my kids were born I was just really, really busy, and when I was putting them to bed I just ended up going to bed too. Given that I used to watch everything. I’d pay attention to the ratings and I knew what was going on, comedy wise. People in the industry used to call me and go, “So what’s good?” I was thinking the other day, it used to be the new cast of Saturday Night Live was something that was not just noted but was analyzed and discussed endlessly. But I’m not in touch with the television anymore. 

Do you still feel connected to the comedy scene?

No. I have a lot of friends who have worked in comedy, and I like it when it see someone coming up who I think is great.

Have you ever considered yourself a comedian?

No. I think I’m a humour writer. It took me a long time to be able to say that out loud, especially because you don’t want your pieces labeled “humour.” You sort of fight that in every possible way.

People go in with an expectation when that happens.

Yeah.

When I meet people, especially non-writer people, and they ask what I do, I say, “I’m a writer,” and they ask what I write and I say, “…book reviews?” Because when I say I’ve written humour they expect me to be funny, and I’m an awkward person.

Me too. My ex was a comic, and people will always say to someone who’s funny, “Were you the class clown?” And you’d say, “No.” Because the class clown was never actually funny. He just repeated jokes that he heard on Happy Days. And that’s generally true—that the funniest people you meet are not all that on.

God. I remember the one time I tried to make a joke in class, a French class in grade nine. The teacher was explaining some vocabulary, and I realized I could make a pun out of the words I had just learned—I don’t even remember what it was, it had something to do with the word for back pain? I was just really excited to pun in another language. So I said this joke out loud, and the teacher was like, “Excuse me? Do you have a question about the lesson?” So I had to explain really quietly, “No, it was a joke.” And the popular girl sitting in front of me just turns around and gives me a look. I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. 

Well, where is that popular girl now?

It was always the guys, the jocks, who were considered funny. I guess they had good timing, but—

The material is bad. I look back at, there was one guy in grade seven and eight who was funny. In science class, looking at the parts of the flower, Richard says, “Number seven is the anther, what is the question?” Bless him! We’re still friends to this day. He’s still funny. But he was also just a weird guy.

And then there were the improv kids, some of whom could be really funny, but in this theatrical way. I was bad at improv. Everyone else would be pretending to be a table or something and I was just on stage mumbling jokes. 

Everyone I knew was doing improv, and it never occurred to me. I can’t sing, and it seemed to me they wanted you to sing. I’m shy. I still sort of resist hosting things, or things like that. I feel awkward about that.

We’re just writers. Nobody thought I was funny until Facebook happened, and I would only update with jokes.

I feel this way about Twitter. I watch the medium, and I’m like, there are people you knew your whole life that were funny, but they just didn’t fit into a particular category. I love that they found a medium a medium that suits them and they completely understand it. There’s a guy that comments on Reddit, and his username is hallucinatesowls. There’ll be a picture, and he’ll come in and go, “Man, love the owl!” And everyone will argue with him and go “There’s no owl there!” The username on Reddit is really small and nobody pays attention to it. So they’ll go, “No you idiot, that’s a swan!” I just want this guy to win some kind of internet prize or award for understanding the medium so perfectly. It’s so funny in the most intimate way. Like, Anchorman is great because they’re making each other laugh. So much that you see, you know, this is not scripted. This is, in fact, stupid. They’re doing it to make each other laugh. That’s what I mean by intimate, when you watch someone have an account like that is clearly just their little gem. They get it.

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