The Storytellers is an interview series that seeks to understand what it takes to tell better stories from the perspectives of professional storytellers from all walks of life. In this series, we’ll talk about story crafting, narrative devices, and dissect the unique challenges of visual, written and oral storytelling.
About Evelyn Ngugi
Comedy writer and Internet personality
Evelyn Ngugi is an Austin, Texas based comedy writer and Internet personality. She’s a 2021 graduate of YouTube’s Black Voices program and has collaborated with Complexly, PBS Digital Studios, HBO Max, and Google. Her supporters (affectionately called Internet Cousins) know her as Evelyn From The Internets via the YouTube channel she’s maintained for over 10 years.
As a comedian, why is storytelling important to you?
[Storytelling is] a vehicle to share your perspective. And I think, especially with comedy, there’s this assumption that you have to appeal to the broadest audience to make an impact, but I don’t actually believe that. I believe that when we share our unique niche stories people are better able to relate. And one of my favorite podcasts is Black on the Air, and [Larry Wilmore] was interviewing Phil Rosenthal, who’s the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond. So there’s these two guys who made these two very different TV shows: one made The Bernie Mac Show, the other one made Everybody Loves Raymond, and they were talking about how sharing their specific stories as an Italian family and as a Black family actually appealed to the masses, because no matter who you are, you can relate to the power dynamic between a mother-in-law and a wife [or] you can relate to the power dynamic between an older brother and the younger brother. I think storytelling for me is important because it’s the way I get to share the things that I’ve been through, the absurdities of life, and it allows people to relate to me in that way using comedy.
Have you always been a storyteller?
I want to say yes. I’ve always been a media maker, for sure. When I was little, I got my first camera, it was a Barbie camera. It was just a film camera, but the fact that my parents got that for me and were willing to then go to Walmart or CVS and develop the stupid pictures I was taking for, like, 99 cents per photo, which is kind of expensive, that just shows a lot. And I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember, whether it’s photos or burning songs onto cassette tapes and pretending I’m the radio host.
I remember when I was like nine or 10 years old, I was in daycare and the big kids could join a club, so I chose to join newspaper club. I needed to get down to the bottom of things because the main daycare lady was so mean. And I was like, “Well, let me interview her because why is she in this line of work if she’s horrible?” I’ve just been interested in talking to people, getting people’s stories, getting my questions answered and seeing the ironies of the contradictions of life.
What opportunities and difficulties come with storytelling as a comedian?
Comedy is such a brief, concise art form. You don’t have a lot of time–a joke is a sentence or two. It’s a great opportunity to literally change people’s perspectives on things in such a short amount of time. And even if you don’t change their perspective, you literally control their emotions. Sometimes it creeps me out, if I am screening a film or something, and I’m in the back and I’m watching to see if people laughed at the right parts. When everyone laughs on cue, it’s kind of weird because it’s like, “I just controlled their emotions, and they had a physical response.” I view that as opportunity to make people’s day better, in a world that kind of sucks.
I would say the hardship is just the classic trope, which is true. A lot of the times the funniest people are often the saddest, and it’s because to be in comedy is to observe everything. And so, if you are observant, you can see how everything is trash or you can see the problems in everything and in yourself. And you’re choosing to express that through comedy, but that doesn’t make the suckiness go away. I would say that’s the biggest difficulty.
How does storytelling build community?
It’s about shared experiences, shared feelings. That’s the quickest way to build community is to say, “Hey, I felt this way. Have you?” That’s an invitation for people to reflect on their own stories and to see if they have something that might be kind of similar or something that’s the complete opposite. It’s opening the floor to anyone watching and saying like, “Hey, you can contribute to this conversation as well.”
I have immigrant parents, and while they might be from a specific place in the world, the experience of having immigrant parents is similar across communities. We all have things that we relate to each other through that builds a sense of community that’s more about the feeling and less about what you look like.
Because I don’t try to tell a broad story, I just try to tell my story, it also invites people who are like me to be like, “Oh yes, you put what I’ve been thinking and feeling into words.” My videos technically are for Black women, because that is who I am, and I build community by saying, “Have you felt this way?”
Have you ever decided to not tell a story, and if so, why?
Absolutely. I realize that I share stories of things that have already happened, and I have finished processing. Now there are some that I’m still processing, especially when it comes to politics, but if it’s about my life, I definitely don’t share stories of things that have yet to be resolved or [that] include things that aren’t my story to tell. My personal compass is if I don’t want to be asked a follow up question, then I shouldn’t be talking about it. Cause that’s not fair to someone to say, “Here’s this story, but don’t ask me anything afterwards.”
What advice do you have for people who want to learn to tell better stories?
Focus on feelings. It’s easy to focus on what’s happening, [but it] isn’t as important as how it feels. Whether you’re writing a script or writing a joke or an essay, whether it’s fiction or based on your life, it’s important to capture the feelings, because you can fill in the blanks of the plot later. Shonda Rhimes is not a doctor, but Grey’s Anatomy, the greatest show of all time, isn’t about doctors, it’s about how they feel while they’re doing their doctory things. That’s why writing about your specific feelings can relate to so many different people. If you’re writing about betrayal, if you know what that feels like, it doesn’t matter if the betrayal is on a show about firefighters or a show about stay-at-home moms. Betrayal is betrayal. And people will feel that.
Anything else you want to share about general storytelling practice?
As humans, we’re all natural storytellers. That is what we do, so the rest is a learnable format. Try not to get caught up in, “Am I telling the story the right way?” We will always tell stories the right way. You can always learn how to put it in the right format of a novel, a TV script, a YouTube video…but at the root, [storytelling] is something that I think everyone is naturally capable of.