At first glance, "Just Between Us" looks like any other YouTube channel with two friends vlogging and answering random viewer questions. But the scripted advice show format is really a guise for Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn to feature their comedy. The two comedians and writers play caricatures — or the "worse versions" — of themselves: an odd couple with uptight, straight-laced Raskin in contrast to Dunn's unapologetic militant feminism. While casually lounging on an overstuffed couch, they field relationshipy questions like "How do I get better at sex?" and "How do you date a bi girl?" But the pair have said "Just Between Us" is more about showcasing two funny best friends than it is about answering viewer questions. And when useful relationship advice happens on accident, it is often on-point.
I recently sat down with Raskin and Dunn to chat about being comedy partners, writing jokes, and that moment when you black out because your joke fails terribly.
Amy Lam: Where did "Just Between Us" come from?
Allison Raskin: It came from a place of desperation. We were frustrated with our careers and lives and wanted to be productive. We thought, "How can we be productive with the lowest production value?"
Gaby Dunn: I had one friend with a camera. And I had done some YouTube vlogging stuff. We were sitting at a diner and said, "Let's come up with what we should. We'll come up with questions." The first few episodes is just Allison making up the questions.
You two can hang out together and talk about anything. Why did you think of giving advice?
Allison: The show is not about giving advice. That's the big ruse. We're horrible at giving advice. We wanted a structure where we could really work on characters and have a format in order to be successful on YouTube and with a web series. It's all about consistency. This was a format we knew we could do once a week. Honestly, the advice is not at all what the show is about.
But you do give advice. And sometimes it's really good advice.
Allison: Those are the episodes I hate the most. [Laughs]
Gaby: We wanted a way to showcase the two characters' totally different personalities and their reactions to stuff. It kind of started out with Allison as Gallant and me as Goofus, and it became two Goofusses. That's the trick we pulled. Everyone was supposed to be like, "Yeah, I agree with Allison. Gaby's out of her mind." And it has slowly shifted to, "They're both out of their minds." Which is great. I feel more of a pull to give actual advice just because our fans are so young. But the episodes that are sketches, where we don't even answer the question, are the ones that turn out better.
Allison: To me, it's an odd-couple comedy show. The questions are a way to highlight our differing opinions. Obviously, there are some episodes — because we do have this wonderful audience — that are more meaningful. We did one about my OCD and also Gaby's bisexuality and coming out. I think we can still do it in a funny way, but we're doing more than addressing the actual questions. But other than that, we try to keep it more of a character comedy show with this strange format of questions.
Now I'm getting more of an understanding about what your show is about. It's comedy first and advice second. But you do such a good and genuine job in your "characters" in giving your advice, even when it's absurd. Can you describe what your characters are for "Just Between Us"?
Allison: My character is neurotic, anxious and also abides by old-school rules of what it means to be a woman. That marriage is the most important thing in the world and is kind of afraid of sex. Gaby is the exact opposite of that.
Gaby: It's heightened versions of ourselves. If we had no self-awareness, these are what these characters would be. My character is just insane, a very militant feminist — which I sort of am in real life. I'm more like my character than Allison is like her character. [My character is] bisexual, sexually aggressive. I can't even say it's a character because this morning I opted out of the TSA screening [at the airport]. And Allison asked, "Was that some sort of political protest?" and I said, "You bet!"
Allison: I'd say Gaby is pretty much Gaby. And I'm playing the "worse" version of myself five years ago.
Do you worry people will think these characters are actually you?
Allison: All of the time.
What do you do with that?
Allison: What I do is things like this where you clarify. I also have a Tumblr, and on my Tumblr I'm my actual self. On my Twitter I'm my actual self. I think that people think our show is a vlog. It's not a vlog; it's a scripted series. The best thing I can do is say when I'm asked that it's a character. I think one of the hardest things about doing a show like this is sometimes people will say, "You and Gaby are funny together!" And we know. We're comedians. There's a level of misunderstanding — that we don't understand what we're doing. And we do understand what we're doing.
Gaby: The worst is condescension from men in the industry. Who say, "You really got something." Yeah, we fucking know.
Allison: We're traditional comedy partners. People think that we kind of fell into this thing. But it's something that we've been working on and growing with and figuring out and personalizing. We're starting to do more traditional sketches, and that will help clarify things a lot as well.
You described wanting to do comedy because of desperation. Desperation for what specifically pushed you onto the stage?
Allison: Fame and glory.
Gaby: Can I say it? To make sense of your life? To make sense of all the OCD and shit? Is that fair?
Allison: I don't know. It's like a blur. I knew I needed to be in comedy. I've only ever wanted to write comedy. And they all kind of fall into each other. I think most comedians are multi-hyphenates; they tend to write and act and do stand-up. It's this thing growing inside of you that you can't get rid of. All I do is chase laughter.
But why comedy and not drama?
Allison: If I did drama, I would have to kill myself. I can't talk about my life in a non-comedic way without people wanting to kill themselves.
Gaby: People already take your Twitter too seriously. You'll write a joke and people will ask, "Is Allison okay?" If you were a dramatic writer, you'd be writing "True Detective."
Allison: Totally. Comedy is the best way for people to think about topics that otherwise would make them uncomfortable. It's the best way to teach people things, the best way to change peoples' opinions on things. It's also a coping mechanism.
Gaby: Yes, wthat's true. My go-to is anger.
Allison: That's where we're very different.
Gaby: I have to remember to not be so angry. I have to remember to go back to the batting cages and just really have it out.
Allison: The perfect example between the two of us is when the video of David Letterman came out with him hitting on all his guests. Gaby just posted a tweet that said something like, "I hate David Letterman." And I just wrote a weird joke about me wanting him to compliment my legs.
Gaby, for you, when did you make the step to comedy?
Gaby: I use to watch stand-up all the time when I was a kid, but I thought stand-up was a thing that they let you do when you were already famous. I didn't understand, because the people were on TV. I just thought you get famous somehow, and from there you get a stand-up special. I didn't realize stand-up was its own thing.
I went to school for journalism. I was a news reporter; I did crime reporting all of college. I was in a sketch troupe for all of college, but I didn't take it seriously. In my senior year, there were no girls in the troupe. I was the only girl left, they all graduated. So I ended up being the daughter, the wife, the mother in all the sketches. I didn't know enough to be mad about that yet. Then I started doing stand-up because all of my friends had graduated and I had year left in school and I was bored, and alone, and in a comedy troupe. I realized I want to do comedy. It was a gradual transition. I still write for blogs, I still sometimes do journalisty things, I'll still write articles. That's still my background. It's a good way to get opinions out, and I certainly have a lot of opinions.
How do you put a joke together? When I watch your videos, it just seems like it just comes to you. But what's the process like?
Allison: Some jokes are handed to you like a beautifully wrapped gift. Other jokes, you have to dig for them and they're never as good. I'm like that crazy person who's talking to my friends, joking around, and if someone laughs a little harder than normal, I go, "Hmmmm..." and I write it down in my phone or in my notebook. You just keep a log of what's working and what's not.
Gaby: And then I get, "Gaby, is this funny? Is this funny? Is this funny?" And I say, "Yes! It's funny!" She also carefully constructs her tweets too. She'll spend as much carefully constructing a tweet than anybody I've ever seen do it.
Allison: I think it comes from a lot of places. Honestly, I think there are some people, no offense, who are never going to be funny. I think it's an innate thing. It's most similar to something like a musical ability. You have to have that spark, and then it's something you honestly have to harness and practice and get better and just keep doing. I'm a much better joke writer now than I was a couple years ago. It's gotta come from a place of truth. Wording is very important. In "Just Between Us," a lot of it is delivery.
Gaby: Delivery, using weird words, saying things in a weird way, pronouncing things weird. A lot of it is shocking the other person, saying something to surprise the other person.
Allison: A lot of what works in "Just Between Us" is our pacing, and we have very different pacing. Gaby — I yell at her a lot of times — she'll just ramble and go on and talk forever. If we were both that, it wouldn't work. If were both just one-liner, one-liner, one-liner, it wouldn't work. It's a balancing act.
Also in "Just Between Us," body language is a huge thing.
Allison: We work on that and we're aware of it. Because it's not a visually interesting show. We're not giving you amazing aerial views or even close-ups. Our bodies have to tell a story and be active.
Gaby: You have to react to the other person "big," almost theatrically.
Gaby: Allison's sitting up so straight and I'm manspreading, just totally spread out on the couch. We have a whole thing where she says, "Why do you sit like that?" And I say, "Because it's comfortable and women couldn't vote until the 1920s. So I'm gonna sit like this. Legs wide open." People hate it, commenters hate it.
Allison, you had a joke about why you sat up so straight. Something about how your mom said you'd be as pretty as your sister.
Allison: Now, that's true. One time my mom said I wasn't as striking as my sister because I had bad posture. I was on a bridge in Las Vegas; it haunted me.
Gaby: See, the things in the show are real. I think it's us before we were able to deal with those things. It's a version of us.
Allison: I think it's always the "worse" version of yourself that's the most interesting character.
Did you ever have a joke you did that you thought was going to be successful, but it bombed. What happened? What was that joke?
Gaby: I'm so glad there was no Twitter or anything when I was first starting. Because when I did stand-up in college, my jokes were misogynistic. My jokes were very anti-feminist. I had this, what I call the "Tina Fey brand" of feminism, where I thought that because I had glasses and wore cardigans I was better than other girls.
Allison: That is a real burn on Tina Fey.
Gaby: It is. Well, she hates sex workers. She's real backwards about her feminism. But I had felt that way, too. I thought that I had to be like part of the boy's [club] in order to succeed. Instead of just realizing they're not funny either. I would never say my old jokes now. I think you start out wanting to impress people and then you think, "Wait a minute. Let me do some critical thinking. Okay, this is what I really feel. This is more me, rather than just saying the thing that boys will laugh at." That was a dark period. [The jokes] did well with dudes. But, oh boy, they were not good.
Allison: I bomb all the time. You do open mics and you're writing new jokes every week. I'm not as active in stand-up as I used to be. But I bombed constantly. You can't blame the audience. A lot of the times, it's how committed I am to the joke, what mood I'm in, the delivery of that joke.
I can't even imagine standing there, and being in a room full of people, and you put your work out. And you're standing there, and nothing. How does that feel?
Gaby: You just keep going. You kind of black out.
Allison: It's awful. It's really terrible. One of the biggest things for me is if I can bomb on a joke and then my next joke can do well, it's a really big sign of getting better. It's not giving up in the middle of your set just because something didn't go over well. It hardens you. You have to be hardened.
Gaby: You have a weird out-of-body experience. Before every show, I say to myself, "It's fine. It's ten minutes. And after that you can eat whatever you want. You can drink water and breathe. How hard is ten minutes?" I have to talk myself out of thinking that it's a big deal. "You're just going to go out there and talk to some people for ten minutes. Everybody could do that."
Amy Lam is associate editor at Bitch Magazine, where this interview first appeared.