Gaby Dunn on Not Asking for Permission and the ‘Rent’ Character She Most Relates To
You might know Gaby Dunn from her Buzzfeed videos, or from her writing in The New York Times, Playboy and Cosmopolitan. You might know her from the podcast Bad With Money, or her blog 100interviews.com. Or you might know her novel, I Hate Everyone But You, written with Allison Raskin.
However you know Gaby Dunn, you’re surely familiar with her smart, funny, curious approach to learning.
Gaby Dunn was my guest recently on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast in which I talk to queer people about the entertainment that has changed their life. Dunn cites Broadway shows like Rent, writers like Hunter S. Thompson and programs like The Daily Show as having steered her in the direction that was most fulfilling.
Though she started her career as a journalist, Dunn found the work alternately rewarding and draining. In college she had a single-minded determination to uncover the truth and hold the powerful accountable. A story she worked particularly hard on focused on her college’s disregard for faculty members of color.
After exposing the institutional racism that favored white teachers, she felt a determination to work in journalism. But Gaby Dunn soon tired of the exploitative nature of news. In order to attract the eyes of increasingly disinterested consumers, newspapers like The Boston Globe required that she chase down the survivors of crime and misfortune. “I had to drive around and talk to people after shootings and fires,” she recalls.
It was exhausting to pressure people for a quote while they were in terrible pain, and she sought other outlets.
One of those outlets was an independent project of her own whereby she simply interviewed interesting people. It began as a Tumblr with transcripts of conversations — a simple concept that soon drew a wide array of fans.
Gaby Dunn was inspired by rebellious, self-confident characters she saw around her in shows like Rent, relating particularly closely with Maureen, a flawed character who didn’t mind being flawed. With the success of her blog, she decided to stop waiting for permission to do the projects that excited her, and she began injecting herself more into her work, including her personal impressions rather than simply reporting dispassionate news — that’s where Hunter S. Thompson became an inspiration.
An internship at The Daily Show showed her that you don’t have to be a formal journalist to make compelling news. She thought everyone there would be a journalist, but she said, “They were like, no, we’re comedians.”
That pushed Dunn to refine her ability to do comedy and stand-up, skills that would serve her more as the host of her own shows and as an actor. “I did OK,” she laughs. “I was very scared of stand-up. But I also had this idea that work should be hard.”
But one of her most valuable lessons came when she started being more open about the work she wanted to be doing. On her blog, Dunn decided to publicly ask for help to find an agent so she could do more writing; some of her acquaintances criticized that move, calling it tacky.
But they were wrong. The strength of Gaby Dunn’s work had attracted readers who passed her information along, and soon she had found representation that allowed her work to expand and find an even wider audience.
There was an important lesson there — that it’s safe to ignore the jealousy of others when they’re trying to hold you back.
“When I feel jealous of someone, it’s because I want to be doing what they’re doing,” Dunn says, then laughed. “So just do that.”