Writer/director Jessie Kahnweiler discusses her painfully funny webseries The Skinny, now available via Refinery29.
by Daniel Barron
The pratfalls of making it and faking it as a Millennial have become well-tread ground in film, TV, and especially DIY online content. We persevere in the face of questionable internships, a noncommittal dating landscape, a fickle job market, and the pursuit of abstract concepts like “influencers” and “going viral.” Self-reflexive, yes, but often still in good fun. That snake finally chokes on its tail with writer/director Jessie Kahnweiler’s honest, acidic webseries The Skinny, which premiered in January on Refinery29 from Executive Producer Jill Soloway (creator of Transparent). The six-episode show follows Kahnweiler, playing herself, as she attempts to preserve her dignity and sobriety while chasing success as a YouTube star. The comedic actress has previously drawn praise in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Cosmopolitan for her provocative, often hilarious, videos that gave a royal roasting to rape culture and white privilege. She is no more charitable when examining her own issues, including bulimia and toxic co-dependency. If most mumblecore is Billy Madison, The Skinny is Punch-Drunk Love. The series also co-stars Illeana Douglas as her mother and premiered at this past Sundance Film Festival. It went on to receive a Webby award for Best Dramatic Series.
The concept of capturing what is “real” or “authentic” in entertainment is better stated than achieved, and usually is an ideal that exists to be varnished and homogenized. These notions clash with Kahnweiler, who has little interest in safe material, and The Skinny resists classification. Kahnweiler may be widely recognized as a comedic actress, but her creation defies the impulse to be a non-stop joke machine. “I certainly thought a lot about tone,” she says, “but I also think it’s really counter-productive to say, ‘This is going to be a comedy.’ It makes more sense to work from the inside out. What is the story you want to tell?”
This ethos is perhaps best exemplified in a scene that occurs early in episode 3, where Kahnweiler is pitching her material to a roomful of potential financiers. She shows them a clip in which she shows her support for veterans by crudely offering them sex. “Real women are the next wave of clickbait!” enthuses her producer. “No one likes women that real,” someone deflects.
“I think [that scene] was a reaction to being a female trying to create content in a very specific way while trying super hard to make men and women like me. You want me to be funnier, you want me to be louder, you want me to be real, but you also want me to be sexy-real. It’s exhausting. Who do I need to be? That’s a question we ask in the show.”
So how has the actual public reacted? “There are people who really don’t like it and that’s actually a huge compliment. I want everyone to love it- slash me- but they don’t and I think that’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to polarize people [laughs]. Any kind of reaction is a win.”
Sometimes that means winning big, especially from young women who connect with the material on a deep personal level. Kahnweiler has spent the past year touring The Skinny on college campuses and having an open, often humbling, conversation with students. “It’s special because it’s so much bigger than me. There’s so much shame that no one wants to talk about. What does it mean to be a feminist? What does it mean to hate myself and not know what to do about it? For me observing other people allowing themselves to be so vulnerable is the greatest gift.”
As with her onscreen counterpart, coming to terms with her own limitations is part of the growing process. “I’ve also learned that I can’t be responsible for fixing people.”
Since self-help is rarely an easy process, the The Skinny leaves no tidy conclusion for its protagonist, who tiptoes towards recovery. Details are tight on a second season, but Kahnweiler states that there have been discussions. She is, however, very pleased with her results. “Making [The Skinny] was a great exercise in getting out of my own way and making something really personal.”
Admirers of Kahnweiler’s work get can dirty again much sooner when her podcast Safe Space debuts on the Earwolf network this coming January. The show revolves around Kahnweiler getting personal with some of society’s most infamous public figures, such as comedian Steve Rannazzisi and pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli.