Rachel Sennott isn’t afraid of mess. Over the course of her ambitious career, it’s become a staple of her work.
There’s her chaotic stand-up persona, a self-obsessed and self-deluded lens through which Sennott satirises modern, millennial culture. Her sets chart various romantic and sexual failures, offering up a compelling portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous break-down, on a mission to laugh away the pain. Sennott talks bad dates, bad boyfriends and very bad sex. No joke is off-limits, no story too graphic to be told.
Then there are her sketches, short videos uploaded to her YouTube channel, in which Sennott poses the question – what if a seemingly ordinary concept (Instagram Influencers, yummy mummies, Hollister) became the most disturbing thing you could imagine? Each sketch is as glorious as it is deranged, tackling profound themes of maternal anxiety, corporate greed and the intoxicating power of an Instagram filter.
She is perhaps best known for her tweets, a carefully curated stream of consciousness that have proved enormously popular with Sennott’s predominantly millennial audience. They range from the satirical (“Moving to LA to get the lobotomy of my dreams”) to the oddly specific (“I don’t want a baby but I do want my boyfriend wearing a little hoodie and looking sort of tired holding a baby that is biologically mine”).
Her most recent creative venture is her role in Emma Seligman’s hit 2020 film Shiva Baby. Sennott plays Danielle, a soon-to-be graduate moonlighting as a sugar baby, who attends the shiva of a distant relative, where she finds herself at the mercy of a family that might just love her to death. Throw in the arrival of her ex-girlfriend, her sugar daddy and his “girl-boss” wife, and Shiva Baby is an hour of nail-biting, cringe-inducing chaos.
With an eye for cultural commentary and a knack for voicing the relatable (and sometimes the unthinkable), there really isn’t much Sennott won’t say. And now with 170 thousand hungry followers, a spot on Time Out New York’s list of top comedians of the year and a critically lauded performance in a feature film, Sennott is getting the opportunity to say it.
As we begin our call, Sennott has just received her Deliveroo order – a bowl of soup. “Honestly [having] soup in the summer, I feel like you’re really challenging yourself…and the air seems colder because you have something hot” she says wisely.
We begin by discussing Shiva Baby’s break-out success. “I’m so happy that it’s finally out everywhere because it takes so long. It’s just this whole year I was like…will anyone ever see the movie?,” she tells me.
Shiva Baby started life as a short film, written by Seligman while at NYU. Following huge success at a series of film festivals, Seligman decided to adapt her senior thesis into a feature-length.
It takes inspiration from an uncomfortable time in Seligman and Sennott’s life.“Between the short and the feature we would go on endless walks where we would talk and talk about where we were in our lives and the types of relationships we were in, not feeling satisfied or in control with any aspect of our lives,” she tells me, “I feel like that’s part of why it resonated with a lot of young people, especially young women, because there’s that chunk of life where you’re getting out of school and you can’t find validation in relationships or in your career and your parents are just like…what’s going on?”
This is felt strongly in the piece as Danielle is pushed, pulled, pinched and prodded by various relatives, who take pleasure in dissecting her weight, her lack of career, her sex life. She is equally powerless in her romantic relationships, reverting back to brattish antagonism around ex-girlfriend Maya and teenage angst with sugar daddy Max. Her frustration is palpable as she loses battle after battle.
Sennott recalls how agonising it felt to be that age: “I was crying publicly…all the time. I was always upset. Now, looking back, it probably wasn’t even that bad. But when you’re in that time of your life, you feel no control.”
It was during this period, a time she now affectionately refers to as the “Shiva Baby chunk”, that Sennott was introduced to the world of stand-up comedy. Initially unappreciated at the traditional venues she was performing at, Sennott recalls the disconcerting experience of performing sets about being fingered in Ubers to crowds of middle aged men.
“Everyone was like…who’s this little whore?,” she tells me, “I was so miserable.”
It was the intervention of comedians Catherine Cohen, Patti Harrison and Mitra Jouhari, who booked Sennott on their show, It’s a Guy Thing, and advised her which clubs to perform at, that granted Sennott access to an audience who could fully appreciate her work.
“Being in a scene like that where you’re performing for people who are your age, who are experiencing similar things to you, it allows you to grow. I feel like it allowed me to expand my voice,” she tells me.
At the same time her Twitter took off. Sennott would tweet numerous jokes a day, hoping one of them might land. And many of them did. Her intensely personal and highly relatable brand of humour resonated with her growing audience. For Sennott, the effect was cathartic.
“It felt really good because I was in a place where I felt not in control of my life at all. So if I was really miserable but I could make a joke about it then I felt okay…at least there’s a reason that I’m suffering. It also felt good that a lot of women related to me. I would write [about feeling] very degraded or unhappy and then 100 girls would be like…that happened to me too!”
The sensation of instant validation, she tells me, was addictive. “When I was first tweeting, being on Twitter all day got me through the day. I would be like… time to have another humiliating experience so that I can write a joke about it!”
And yet, as her follower count grew and the online landscape evolved, blurring the line between the personal and the public became less satisfying. Viral tweets invited unwelcome comments from Internet trolls. The effect was grating: “I don’t want to share something really personal if people are gonna be like… you should die, bitch!” To return to that relationship with the Internet would only bring her back to that place, she tells me. It’s something she wishes to avoid.
But can she ever leave it behind altogether? Can an “online comedian”, known for sharing her deepest, darkest secrets on the Internet ever truly go offline?
“I think I’ll always have a little bit of the personal in it, but I hope that I can make the transition where maybe I don’t have to be 35 and telling everybody everything that happened to me. I always want to keep a little bit of that personal self but I’m like….what’s the day that I delete my account and it doesn’t even matter? I don’t know. I think it’ll be a gradual transition. But hopefully people can get that and see me in a variety of different ways.”
Our conversation turns to her comedy stylings. Sennott is known for her relatable and insightful observations (“sexting is just calling different body parts big or small”, “I need a boyfriend because I miss smoking weed”, “every guy who works at Vice looks like a police sketch drawing of another guy who works at Vice.”) She has found her comedic voice – one part neurosis, two parts self-obsession – but where did this come from?
“I don’t want to be like…it comes from being self-obsessed,” she jokes, “I think it’s something that’s grown as I have. I want to say the Internet has also been a part of that because you say your joke, you say whatever you’re feeling, and you instantly see the way that people respond to it, especially when I was first tweeting very deeply personal things. I feel like I could see in real time the way people responded to what I was saying and that gave me this heightened self-awareness.”
There are echoes of her contemporaries in her comedic voice, but there’s also something uniquely hers. Sennott pushes through the familiar territory of millennial self-obsession to something altogether more extreme in her sketches.
There’s Baby Cult, a five minute fever dream about three women who work at a baby clothes shop and will do anything to get pregnant. The video’s climax shows the trio engaging in raunchy sex acts with extras from Sesame Street while Rhianna’s S&M plays in the background. It’s a testament to Sennott’s innovative and disturbing storytelling. She always keeps her audience second-guessing, never quite sure where or how far she’ll take the joke.
Her other sketch Three Instagram Models Have a Picnic is just as deranged. It shows Sennott, alongside friends Annabel and Sabina Meschke, dressed in low-cut vintage tops, picnicking on a glorious summer day. As the girls communicate in squeals and barks, highlight copies of Little Women and prance around to Enya’s Orinoco Flow, I feel as though I’ve joined a cult. And it’s one I have no desire to leave. Though, in typical Sennott style, it takes a horrific turn as the trio end up devouring a hiker who strays too far from the path, before posing for a photo with his corpse. Sennott is attracted to the disturbing because it “pushes the boundaries a little.” Her sketches, just like Shiva Baby, showcase “how being a woman is a horror movie.”
I’m struck by the overtly sexualised and, at times, disconcerting way Sennott captures herself in her sketches. One shot in particular interests me. We see Sennott’s leg smeared with jam. She looks directly into the camera, proclaiming, “I’m a little biscuit…” It’s both arousing and repulsive. It’s an intentional effect, she tells me. “People want women to be sexual, but not by their choosing. They want to look at an image of you and make it sexual. But in Three Instagram Models Have a Picnic, we’re making out with,” she pauses, “I just realised that in two of my sketches we make out with stuffed animals… that’s something I will talk to my therapist about. In both pieces, I’m choosing to be like…this is horny. And then it’s almost like the creator is in control as opposed to the viewer.”
This branch of her comedy feels distinct from her stand-up. Though Sennott assures me they’re closer than they seem. “I guess the connecting cord between all of my things is messy female characters,” she tells me, “I think so often in comedy, women are supposed to be really good. I think you can only get so much humour out of someone who’s good. I think humour comes from flaws too.”
The world is looking closely at what Sennott will create next. Both fans and critics have seen what she can do and now they want more. But what does she want?
“Oh my god, how dare you! I’m kidding. I don’t know. I think I want…it’s actually hard to tell because I always think that I know what it is, but when I achieve it I’m like…that’s not the thing. I guess I just want to be able to make things that I think are funny and good with my friends. And then like… have a little dog. But it never feels like enough. My astrology app told me that I would never be happy and so did a psychic recently. So…” she trails off, considering her next words carefully, “but I stick by what I said. I want to make movies with my friends.”
“In general, in my work, I want to explore being a woman who is flawed and messy. In general, I want to make comedies for women that are as funny and as fucked up as it is to be a woman,” she tells me.
As our conversation draws to a close, Sennott tucks into her soup, not the usual stand-up comedian’s liquid lunch.
“Sometimes you have to go for something else,” she says wisely. She’s right, of course. Rachel Sennott has made a career out of going for “something else.”
Image Credit: Sela Shiloni