If I’ve ever done an interview that I wanted to release as a podcast, it’s this one. Pamela Ribon has a joy for writing, telling stories, and connecting with people that is simply contagious, and it made our entire conversation delightful.
Pamela’s career started when she began work on her memoir, Notes to Boys (And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public), around the age of 14 – little did she know that the letters and scraps of poetry she was composing during her high school years would lead not just to a memoir, but to a new short film, My Year of Dicks (dir. Sara Gunnarsdóttir), that’s currently winning awards all over the place. (As someone who’s been lucky enough to see it, I can say that it deserves each and every one of them.)
I first encountered Pamela’s writing (and you might have, too) through a viral post on her website, Pamie.com, called “Barbie Fucks it Up Again.” If you need a primer on Ribon humor, that’s the place to go.
But Pamela also wrote on Ralph Breaks the Internet, Moana, has written five novels and a host of comic books, including the acclaimed SLAM!, about some badass roller derbyers. She co-hosts the very funny (and endearing) podcast Listen to Sassy, which digs into the classic Sassy Magazine one issue at a time.
Like these interviews usually do, our conversation ranged widely, from growing up in Texas to connecting with audiences, from coming up in sketch comedy to the need for earnestness and empathy in our work. It’s a long read, like these always are, but part of the joy I hope you’ll find comes from sinking into the discussion. Get yourself a cup of coffee (or water I guess), and enjoy how woefully underprepared I was to interview Pamela Ribon.
And remember folks, the key to success is to be a little bit funny, a little bit mean, a little bit cute, and a little bit old.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Noah Lloyd: Thank you again for sitting down with me. This is kind of on a lark, simply because I saw that you were from Texas. My writing partner and I were talking about how unlikely it would be for any other screenwriters to come from this tiny suburb I’m from. And then she found a stub on Wikipedia that was like, “screenwriters from North Richland Hills,” which is the tiny suburb. Although I don’t think you’re actually from there?
Pamela Ribon: But I lived there for a bit.
NL: So how do you go from small-town Texas to screenwriting in L.A.?
PR: Well, I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to thirteen schools. We used to move every six months.
[On cue, the branded “ding” of a Slack message.]
And I’m turning off this Slack so it stops doing that while I’m talking to you. My parents were in hotel management. It was a lot like The Florida Project except not outside Disney World.
So we lived in a lot of towns near big cities. And because I moved a lot, I didn’t have, you know, consistent friendships. And my dad was an aspiring writer and I had a big imagination.
One of the things my mom told me to do to fall asleep was to tell myself stories. I had a lot of imaginary friends and a big, rich play world, you know?
[On cue, the distinctive “ding” of a doorbell and the barking of a dog indicate the arrival of – ]
My groceries are here. May we take a minute if I have to put them away? Can you wait one sec? Like I’ll be back within five. I’m so sorry.
NL: Totally, no worries.
PR: Thank you, Noah. Okay, hold on.
PR: All right, thanks.
So how did I become a screenwriter? I mean, I told myself stories to have fun and keep myself entertained and have friends.
I wanted to be an actor. I went to the University of Texas at Austin for drama. I was doing directing – I like directing – and I was doing playwriting. My writing was considered pretty strong, and I figured out pretty early that if I wanted to get on stage, I could just write my own material.
So I was doing sketch and improv comedy in Austin with a troupe called Monks’ Night Out, on Sixth Street, and also doing plays at Hyde Park, and writing what became Pamie.com. That was the first dot com wave. I was writing online before the word “blog” existed. I learned a lot, when I was a kid, from reading Sassy magazine and seeing how they were creating this group feeling. And the internet felt a little like that.
There is a former Sassy writer named Christina Kelly who had put her portfolio online and, you know, early internet-explaining how to become a freelance writer. So I reached out to a site called HissyFit and pitched something, and I got paid in candy.
NL: Legitimately? Candy?
PR: Legitimately. I got paid in candy and like a journal and some barrettes. And I was like, “I want to do this for the rest of my life.” And so I wrote for that site a few more times, and they eventually got funding and they created Television Without Pity. And some of those people are now who I make a podcast with called Listen to Sassy.
But a lot of us launched out of Television Without Pity, as writers and filmmakers and NPR contributors and journalists and network executives. It was a really good launching pad for a lot of us.
NL: I’m not familiar with Television Without Pity. [See the unpreparedness, folks? This is literally on the front page of her damn website.]
PR: It was like the first television recapping site. It started as Mighty Big TV, and then it turned into Television Without Pity. It was so early in the internet.
What was wild was learning that, you know, we were all over the country and the world, and then to learn that television writers’ rooms were reading the recaps to each other, and it was affecting [their writing].
And there were forums. So that was where you could just go be a fan who wanted to talk about the show all day. It was wildly popular. And now recapping is just something that most entertainment sites do. But it was the original.
NL: It sounds like a great way to build the network of people that you’re going to be working with for the next decade.
PR: Well, it was an incredible school of writing on deadline, writing with an audience, writing criticism, but as someone who is also a [television] fan. So it really had me thinking in a very different way about why we consume, and what it feels like to be an audience member.
You had to deliver a lot of these things within twenty-four hours or three days. A deadline is a deadline. Training yourself how to do quality work, delivered on time, is a skill.
NL: How do you think that’s translated into your writing across various media?
PR: I think, “Who is this for?” a lot when I’m approaching a story. What is the size of the audience?
You know, when you’re writing a Disney movie, it’s every single person in the whole wide world, which is very just… a demographic that you can’t… it’s just so easy. [Laughter.] If I’m writing, maybe a novel, where I know the friend of mine who would really love it, then I write toward her.
At one time I was working for a show that I knew my sister really liked. So just telling jokes to make her laugh.
NL: Are there any pieces you remember writing for Television Without Pity that you still find yourself thinking about? A particular episode of a show that you remember recapping?
PR: Well, I often had running gags, running bits during whatever show it was. There are people who still write about them, by the way, because you would just get these inside jokes that the readers would then circle back to in the forum.
You never felt like you were watching TV alone anymore. And that was kind of a new concept. There was one – I remember I recapped a lot of Gilmore Girls –
PR: There was a time where if the show was going in a weird direction, I would just list out another item that was in my bag. I also had these glow-in-the-dark patron saints of television, and sometimes they would have skits about what they felt was happening in the show. There were so many fun stories.
There was a show called Young Americans that was a summer spinoff of Dawson’s Creek. It had Ian Somerhalder. And it was brought to you by Coca-Cola. So there were all these Coke ads in this summer, where they were like hot, young townies. It’s a ridiculous show. I loved it so much. It was trash, and everyone who was watching it was like, “I love every inch of this piece of trash.”
[Growing up,] I never got to do, like, Rocky Horror or anything. I was always in a small town, and what that early stuff gave to me was that feeling. I wasn’t watching a cult classic that I had stolen or gotten from the video store, [but] I’m getting to indulge in trash and filth and fun with other people who get the same jokes.
I can imagine you know what that feeling is, where you’re like, “Well, I’m the only one who finds this funny. Maybe it’s me… let me re-examine my morals.” I just remember small-town Texas, a feeling growing up that there’s got to be someone who knows why this is funny. And being like, “I guess I won’t make the joke…” and eating what your gut tells you to do.
I don’t know if you were a class clown, but I was a shy person who would just quietly pitch jokes to the class clown. Which is really what my job is now. Sit at home and write jokes for the class clown.
NL: Continuing on your trajectory… I don’t like the narrative of “when were you discovered,” because really, I think people just work their asses off until they make it. But where along the timeline of Television Without Pity, Pamie.com, etc., do you make it into a writers’ room, or sell something that gets made for the first time?
PR: Well I was hustling a lot in Austin, I was doing comedy five nights a week, and then I was also in plays and I was writing – and I worked at IBM at the time, so I just didn’t sleep much. But I’ve always tried to go toward what was interesting or new or I hadn’t done before. And if there was an invitation, I was going to go that way.
People didn’t really understand what I was doing on the Internet. It was so new, but I knew I had an audience there. I’ve really only come to this conclusion at this moment, but I was heading towards audiences. Now I know you’re developing your voice. But I think there was a voice that was always there – I was learning how to have the conversation with the receptive audience.
I eventually got to where I’d do well at something, and it was, “Well, let us know when you’re in L.A.,” or, “Let us know when you go out to New York.” I really was one of the last of my comedy friends to move out to L.A.
Oh, I also did anime scripts. I was an anime actor, and then I was writing dub scripts. All these jobs went toward exactly what I do for a living. Learning how to write jokes backwards, learning how to write to something you can’t change, but to translate it for another audience and make them laugh, whether it’s recapping or a dub script where I count mouth flaps and then do a line reading for an actor in Vancouver to match. What a weird job.
But it’s always thinking of communicating and storytelling from multiple angles. And that’s also why I think I wrote books, because people didn’t know what to do with the website. So I wrote a novel that’s got pieces of the website in it. And that was my first screenplay sale. Television Without Pity led me to my first agent. I wrote a feature script and that got me meetings and ultimately became the script that got me a Disney job fifteen years later or whatever.
The nice thing about writing is it does start working for you in the pipeline. It lives on while you keep moving forward.
So the first TV writers’ room job I got came out of doing a show for the HBO Aspen Comedy Festival that included Liz Feldman, who went on to create Dead to Me, to win many Emmys for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. And that came out of creating/writing/directing a successful comedy stage show twenty years ago where I cast many of my female friends in LA that at the time – including Liz, Academy Award-winner Sian Heder, who made Coda, and Jackie Tohn, who has been in a lot of things, like G.L.O.W., and she was an American Idol person.
You can fix that in the transcript. [I didn’t.] That’s probably not what I’m supposed to call her, “American Idol person.” [Laughter.]
Cynthia Szigeti was in it. She was a legend. It was such a fun time, and it’s been crazy to see where all the people have gone from there.
And it was joyous. There were fourteen women, there was never a fight, it was always just – we couldn’t believe what we were doing. We couldn’t believe how much fun we were having. And the audiences were really enjoying it, just rolling with it. And… and it felt nice to be young and in L.A. and doing comedy that was very “us.”
From that, my friend Liz [Feldman] and I put together a show that went to the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, the same year as Flight of the Conchords and Freestyle Love Supreme. And out of that, Liz got on The Ellen DeGeneres Show as it was just starting up, and I got on a Comedy Central show that was just starting up, and that started all of this.
NL: Got the ball rolling. There are so many directions I feel like we could go from there.
PR: Yes. I mean, I’m talking about twenty years ago, too, almost twenty years ago. But I don’t know how it would be now. You think it would be easier, but it also might be harder, [the show] might have just gotten lost in the amount of [content].
NL: That’s one of the directions I was thinking about going. You’ve gone viral a few times. There’s an AFF interview where you say that you can tell when something’s going to catch on.
PR: I can tell when something has the potential. I mean, nobody knows how to have lightning in a bottle, but you can certainly feel like you’ve put the ingredients together for the spark, you know?
NL: I think that’s the question. And maybe it’s just because it’s happened to you enough times at this point, but what is the feeling? Or what are the ingredients?
PR: Well, a lot of it has to do with who I am. I try to… I’m not sure… I’ve never had to answer this question before –
NL: That’s the kind of hard-hitting journalism I like to do here.
PR: Definitely when I was working on Ralph Breaks the Internet, I remember saying, “You can’t figure out how to make something go viral.” I remember saying those words quite emphatically, ‘cause that day I was tasked with trying to come up with a tried-and-true formula for making a meme go viral. I was like, “If we knew how to do this, none of us would be screenwriters. We would be meme writers, sitting at home.”
NL: We would be marketers.
PR: We would be marketers, yes, we would be rolling in it. But what I did come up with that day was, you know, it’s a little bit funny, it’s a little bit mean, it’s a little bit cute, and it’s a little bit old. Like, there’s something about the outrage of our nostalgia getting adjusted. Injustice that has an easily shareable story.
So, Barbie, that’s an easy one, right? Like here’s a book about, “I can be a computer engineer,” and she’s not. [Laughter.] That’s it. And you know that people are like, “There’s what and how and what’s happening and can that be fixed? That seems solvable.” But I could not have imagined what I saw by the end of the next day: news reporters chasing women in parking lots, going, “Ma’am, ma’am, have you read this book? Do you have a feeling?!”
I couldn’t imagine that we would become a question on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, or that Ireland’s NPR [would] interview me. Like, Good Morning America was at my friend’s house! That’s not what you picture.
But sometimes there can be a story that happened to you and you’re like, “I have to tell everyone.” “I have to tell everyone because everyone needs to know this.” There’s something about that.
I know how to tell you in a way where you are going to say, “I’m going to tell Karen. Does my mother know this?!” That feeling of, “I need to share this story because it made me laugh and I want to make her laugh,” or, “It made me feel like we can do something about this.”
I’ve gone viral in a charity way, too. [See the Dewey Donation System.] And a lot of it has to do with making sure that it’s accessible, that there’s empathy in it, that there’s… what is the word I’m looking for? It’s not… well, I guess it’s humanity. There’s actionable humanity.
And whether that’s sharing a laugh or sharing a cry for help, or sharing someone’s story that’s going to touch your heart, there’s actionable empathy.
Television Without Pity was like the top of snark, right? So I came up in that nineties, snarky, shit-on-it-and-that’s-what’s-funny way. And comedy shifted with the internet. As it became more and more accessible, and the next generation who had grown up more in it was using it, there was this move toward earnestness. Which… people are just better people. [Laughter.]
I understand why people push back on earnest, honest empathy, because it’s vulnerable, and once you do it, you can’t go back. I mean, you can’t undo putting your heart forward like that. You can get hurt and change your mind and decide not to do it again. But when someone’s coming at you full heart, and you can receive it, nothing beats that.
Someone snarking on it… it just feels like a cheap and lazy way to say something in a conversation you weren’t invited to.
NL: Actionable empathy. That might be the title of this interview. [It is.]
PR: Yeah, I’m going to get a shirt. Gonna get a little mug. I think you found my brand, thank you!
NL: You’re welcome.
What you’re saying also strikes me as what you were talking about earlier, about speaking to audiences. Acknowledging that there are other people out there and that they are going to feel something. And what is it that I want them to feel? I think that it’s all connected.
PR: Yeah. I don’t know if you saw the commencement address – [Jesus Christ folks something ELSE I missed. It’s even on her wikipedia page.] – that I did, one of the best days of my life. It’s a commencement address for the UT College of Fine Arts in 2019. And this is the question that I get to there.
Instead of wondering, “Did you like it?” when it’s over and someone comes out [of the theater], that’s the question you should ask before you begin. What do I want them to think? What do we want them to feel? Then you are the one who’s going to know if it’s working. How are they feeling? How are they looking? Did you get what you wanted?
I think there’s such a difference [between] figuring it out, getting it right, knowing what they’re going to want, and, how do I want this story to make someone feel? And that’s your north star. Whether it’s sweet, crying, devastated, horrified, furious, that can range. But that is how you want to approach that story, so you can take them on that journey, just like you got it when you got that idea or you learned that story or you lived that life where you’re like, “Yeah, and then this happened!” and people are like, “WHAT?”
That’s not, “Oh, I know how to make a true crime story.” You can’t, you have to have found one. I mean, it’s the true part. So what do you do with the true part? I think, a lot of times as a storyteller, you have all your tools. How do you make something true, and how do you make something feel relatable, even when you’re talking about, I don’t know, fish or an octopus or whatever, right? That’s a real trick.
It’s a trick, but it’s also a talent to go, “We’re all just octopuses, if you think about it.”
Octopi. Fix that one, too. [Nope.] I meant octopi. [Laughter.] I’m a professional writer.
NL: If this was live I feel like we would just have to end it there.
PR: We can go to Q&A. We can take some questions.
NL: So you got a Disney job. You worked on Ralph Breaks the Internet, you worked on Moana, and now you’ve got… My Year of Dicks.
PR: Mm hmm. Yes.
NL: According to the internet, which I assume is you, [yes, dear Reader, the entire internet is Pamela Ribon] My Year of Dicks is based on your memoir Notes to Boys. What was it like adapting your adaptation of your own life story?
PR: I want to say familiar… but also comfortable, because I was adapting it into animation. So for the first time I wasn’t going on stage reading these [stories]. Normally I’m reading them and talking about them, or putting them online to be read. This was letting another world be the story.
And because of that it was easier to play with extremes. It actually felt like I could show you how it felt. Instead of trying to describe how it felt, I could show you. It made the young version of me have agency and existence in a way that I don’t think comes through in the book, and doesn’t come through even when I’m just telling an old story as myself on stage. It’s still through this filter of grown-up me.
Even in the book, it feels like I’m putting a spin on it, because it’s me talking about young me and… I’m not in My Year of Dicks, you know? Because it’s set when it’s set. And young Pam is the protagonist.
[On cue, the sound of what could only be described as a whale being dragged bodily across a tile floor.]
I’m sure that’s fine. Do you hear it?
NL: Of course I hear it.
PR: Oh my god.
NL: It sounds like they’re moving a whale.
PR: Someone would tell me if they were moving a whale.
But yeah, I wasn’t doing it alone. So many people contributed shades of their own feeling, or how they see this and hear that or interpret that. It feels like it got to have its own life and world. I think that’s what I was trying to say. And I have concluded with the whale launch in the middle.
NL: I’m sorry, I’ve been listening to a lot of heavy metal lately – [Okay, here we go kids, now the interviewer is going off on a totally unprovoked and unforgivable tangent.] –
PR: Uh huh.
NL: And as soon as I heard that sound I was like, is someone playing Gojira?
[Okay, but in my defense the noise did sound not unlike certain moments of this song.]
PR: Oh there’s heavy metal in My Year of Dicks. I forgot that you hadn’t seen it. [She’s just rubbing it in now.]
I was like, “Oh, my gosh, is he going to talk about Dead Horse? Like, is he going to talk about Texas metalcore?”
[I didn’t know about Dead Horse, but should have given the kids I hung out with in high school.]
NL: Okay, sorry. What made you decide, while you’re working on Moana, to take up a short as well? And this is probably coming from a limited perspective on my end, seeing someone who has worked on some very successful features, and wondering why they’d put the time into a short also.
PR: Well, I do like making my own material. From the beginning, like I said, I would write my own stuff to get on stage. It’s so collaborative to work on something like a Disney film. There’s just so many people involved. And if we do our job well, we appear to have never existed. Moana just is a person who did this thing. Also, maybe because of hustling, always doing five or six jobs, I do have more than one idea at a time, and everything works on different timetables.
So I have the time to make a comic book if someone gives me the space to do it, because there are ebbs and flows in how films work. I tend to try to fill it all up, because that’s how I get to work with the most people that are cool and fun and have a great time, and I think that was always the goal. As hard as it was starting out, the goal was always to be able to work on the things I like to work on with people I like to work with, and always be learning something new.
And it comes from moving every six months. I know that I can get in, make a family, find some friends for life, and then move on to the next thing. I hate saying goodbye. Very bad at it. I hate it. I hoard the internet. I hoard memories.
Which is why I have a short about my book, which is about how I wrote two-hundred notes to boys and kept all the first drafts. [Seriously, read Notes to Boys. It’s great.]
There is something about how, once you’ve shared time and space with someone, they’re a part of you. I have always felt that, since I found that audience with Pamie.com, that they’ve been a part of me. So maybe that’s it too. I keep making things so that I never lose that connection to writing online. Writing an online diary, you know? There is something to processing my life by seeing what I said about it, or hearing someone laugh too, and go, “Okay, that’s terrible. I’m horrified.”
You know, actionable empathy does feel like what writing is a lot of times.
Or making something like My Year of Dicks and knowing that here we are losing female rights, rights for people with uteruses. It’s so beyond – it’s so many people losing their rights. You can restrict a baby-makeable body, but you are actually restricting generations of human beings this way. Past and present and future.
This is a town that had, you know, problems and struggles. And it was small and had a lot of ingrained systemic racism, [and dictated] what a girl was supposed to do or not do, or be or not be, and it feels like when we started this, even in the book, it was like, “Oh, it’s almost quaint to think how high stakes it felt to think about losing your virginity.”
But now it’s beyond high stakes. It’s more. It’s higher stakes than I had.
I just think the naivete that I was under then is what I’ve been under. To think. I don’t know. Like somehow that younger version of me has at least the benefit of getting to learn from her mistakes. And just as equally, whoever she’s with has the ability to make a mistake and to grow and learn and make better choices.
They tell people to stay young but then they want them to be adults.
Now I’m just bumbling around because I don’t have the profound way to say it. But I know I’m feeling something. I think you’re watching my writing process.
I know how I feel about what I’m trying to say, but I don’t know the words for them yet. But I feel… oddly nostalgic. But there’s a fury in it. It’s an unfair nostalgia. I shouldn’t have to think, “Weren’t those the great old days?” That’s sad.
I didn’t set out to make something that was – I mean, everything is political, but I didn’t know when I was setting out that I was going to talk about something that just can’t happen right now without dramatic repercussions.
NL: And that it’s coming out at such a contested, heated moment.
PR: Yeah. You know, when you’re a young person you’re struggling to figure out how to be yourself and how to make your way through things, how to love someone, how to accept love, how to be loved, what love even is and how it’s different from desire. And it’s different from want and need, and you don’t have all those, those answers. Sometimes we’re still looking for those answers.
To turn human lives into just vessels is heartbreaking. How are you supposed to have a dream?
It feels weird to be accepting awards for a comedy about a girl trying to lose her virginity that at the same time in the same state women are losing their rights.
[There’s no good way to transition out of this, but we have to have the lightning round, okay?]
NL: A little change of pace, and then the lightning round. Are you still playing roller derby?
PR: I’m still skating, but I’m not playing roller derby because it takes a lot of time. And also my league moved just too far enough away for me to do it without, like, never being home. It requires a lot of hours, but I text with my derby friends all the time and not a day goes by that somehow I’m not doing skating in some way. It’s a part of me.
NL: I love it. Okay. Lightning round. Favorite cocktail, mocktail, or other beverage.
PR: Or other beverage? Well, that’s coffee. If I could only have one it’d be water. Let’s be clear. I understand I need water. But I also need coffee.
NL: Alien or Aliens?
PR: Aliens. But I don’t know that I’ve seen either in a very, very long time. I should watch them again.
NL: If someone told you that you had to memorize an entire novel word for word, which book would you pick?
PR: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”
That’s the first line of The Outsiders.
Junior high, I think, is when I first started reading it. I read it so many times that eventually I would read it pretending I was one of the characters. I was Dallas’s younger sister, and I would join Ponyboy and Johnny on their trip. And many, many, many years later, at the Festival of Books, I got to meet S. E. Hinton, and I had her sign my battered old copy of The Outsiders, and I told her this story, and she was like, “Have you ever heard of fanfiction?” [Actually, Pamela, have you ever heard of roleplaying games?]
I was like, “Wait! No, I’m here for a book that I wrote.” [Laughter.] She was very gracious. I’m sure every day someone comes up to her with big eyes and a book, but that was a big one.
NL: Most underrated or sadly forgotten TV show.
PR: Well, it’s funny. I can only remember what I was just agreeing with someone on Twitter about two seconds ago. Every other thing is gone. But it was Bravo’s Work of Art, which was a reality show about artists. Oh it was so good. It was Project Runway but art. Sarah Jessica Parker was the Heidi Klum.
NL: That sounds rad. Tell us about one thing we haven’t talked about today that lives rent free in your brain.
PR: The song “Sowing the Seeds of Love” plays like Muzak in my head whenever I’m waiting on something, always. I don’t know what it is, but it sure does. I never told anyone that before.
It’s a good song.
NL: It is a good song. Thank you, Pamela. This was really fun.
PR: It was really nice to meet you.
NL: It was really nice to meet you, too. I did not expect to laugh this much.
PR: That’s my brand, too. Accidentally funny. [That was the other potential title for this interview.] That’s the thing that when people read something of mine, they’re like, “I didn’t think I was going like it as much as I did.” One of my friends is like, “You notice how honest people are with you.”
Yeah, it’s okay. It’s great. “You didn’t expect to laugh as much as you did” is funny too. It’s funny to me. It’s an honest thing to say that. It’s very me to bring that out in people, and then also accidentally say things.
[Okay, but I should defend myself for this one. What I meant was that I’ve never interviewed someone who is literally a comedy writer before!
How was I supposed to know that comedy writers are funny in person?
I’m just some wannabe screenwriter on the internet.
Why would someone funny waste brain space…]
I find none of it upsetting. It’s great. It’s real people.