The Skinny: An Interview with Filmmaker and Comedian, Jessie Kahnweiler

the skinny jewrotica

Photo credit: Amanda Hankerson

Editor’s Note: Trigger Warning: The following post has been identified by the Jewrotica staff as containing content that may be triggering for some readers. This type of content may include body image and eating disorders.

February is national eating disorder month. For more information, please consider the following resources: Jewish Women International: Healthy Relationships and Abuse Prevention and The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Feeding Hope: Eating Disorders in the Jewish Community

Rated PG-13

Jessie Kahnweiler – filmmaker, comedian, consummate chutzpah-maven – does not shy away from topics that are considered taboo. As she told ck on Jewlicious, “Jews have a rich history of using humor to embrace controversial and taboo issues. We don’t ignore the elephant in the room, we hoist him on a chair and dance till the sun comes up.”

Known for her web-series “Dude, Where’s my Chutzpah?” as well as her recent dark comedy, “Meet my Rapist,” Jessie’s new series, “The Skinny,” explores eating disorders. In a culture where bulimia is a topic no one, except perhaps the occasional Lifetime movie or after-school special, will touch on in any meaningful way, “The Skinny,” which co-stars Illeana Douglas, is “on a mission to combat apathy by using comedy to create content that no one wants to talk about.”

“The Skinny” pilot is being produced by Wifey.TV. Jessie is on Kickstarter to raise enough funds to finish post production. Show your support by donating to this worthy cause. Learn more about Jessie’s campaign here as well as at the end of this Q&A.

You said in your promo that topics like sex and drugs are accepted and readily discussed in mainstream media – but eating disorders are not. Why do you think bulimia is a taboo topic?

I think it’s because food is so omnipresent. You’re eating a minimum of three times a day – or if you’re like me, more like fifteen times a day. Especially as a Jew there’s a very deep relation to food, the body, sex – it’s all in the same circle of Judaism to me. Food constantly comes up in Torah, holidays, rituals, family – food is Judaism. That is just my story, my experience. With food, because it’s everywhere and it’s legal and it can’t technically make you high – it’s not chemically altering, it doesn’t seem dangerous – it doesn’t seem that you would need to regulate it. It doesn’t seem like something that could ever really cause you harm. Of course, physically, we understand you can eat yourself to death. But emotionally there’s a certain amount of callousness – that it’s just food, not a big deal.

Diet culture promotes “You can do it! Whip yourself into shape and take control!” There’s so much focus on owning your shit and taking control of your life – putting down the carbs. This culture, I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg; if it’s feeding us or we’re feeding the larger culture. We’re having issues with food, and on top of that we’re being made to feel we should know better than to have a fucked-up relationship with food. It’s everywhere and it’s nowhere. Or maybe it’s just LA.

I was still super-bulimic when I went to Israel. I thought I would wash away this shit with God. I was at the Western Wall just having eaten my body weight in hummus. I was at the holiest place in the world and I was throwing up.

As with “Meet my Rapist,” you seem to approach dealing with personal trauma through both comedy and self-exposure. Is revealing yourself publicly a kind of catharsis? Do you hope to reach other girls and women with similar struggles?

The experience of having people identify is really cool, but it’s not what drives me. That’s not anything I can control anyway. I try to be honest and that helps me process what happened.

At the same time, I’m not the spokesperson for rape or eating disorders. I’m not a politician, I’m not a rabbi, I’m not a policy-maker. I’m just making shit. I don’t have that agenda when I’m making stuff – nor would I want to. I understand why that’s relevant, but I don’t really care. Am I hoping to connect? Who the fuck knows? It’s like your mom’s advice, you know, “Try your best!” That’s all I can do. I can’t control anything else.

How do you feel humor helps us deal with uncomfortable or traumatic issues?

There’s an element to using humor that’s incredibly Jewish. It’s like, that is the most Jewish thing ever – that’s in our blood. We laugh at stuff. That’s how we cope and handle situations. That’s how we make meaning of our lives. It’s not just about the joke, it’s about the meaning and having to actually go through shit. One of my directing mentors/gurus, Joan Scheckel, is like, “You gotta give it up.” And I’m like “Comedy, comedy, comedy!” She’s like, “You’ve gotta give up that emotional real estate, really go through [the emotions], process them.”

But it’s not all about the joke: we’re complex people. I’m laughing one minute and crying the next and that’s human. That’s what inspired me about “The Skinny,” – like, this is something super melodramatic and [I’m also] making light of it. This is absurd and hysterical. And it’s deeply, deeply sad. I wanted to make something that reflected that, because that’s life – for better or worse. But I’m pretty sure it’s for better.

On a recent interview on Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, actress Melanie Lynskey discussed her own battle with bulimia. She stated that it hadn’t really occurred to her, until it was pointed out, that food binging and vomiting are violent acts. How is the violence of eating disorders reconciled with being a feminist?

Yeah, now you sound like my therapist. I think Melanie’s interview was totally badass. To hear someone be so vulnerable was so damn charming. I was like, “I cry and eat cookies and take baths, too!” I always forget that everyone feels like the outsider. Every time I hear that kind of honesty, it’s like a matzah ball straight to my soul.

A lot of my healing has come from having compassion for myself and why I did these things. Not because I was gross, or out of control, or a horrible person, or a bad girl – because everybody’s self-destructive at some point. We’re human. A lot of it is about control: how do I have control over my life? This fits in with my idea of feminism. It fits in with my idea of being a woman, of being sexual, of being funny. I will still catch myself being like: was I funny enough? How can I be funny all the time? Who do I need to be in order to be loved? That’s just not a way to live. That’s not a fully-formed human being.

At the end of the day, I’m not gonna have control over any of the big picture stuff. I don’t have control over what happens: that’s where I think having a spiritual foundation is crucial. I don’t want to believe in God, but I have to. Because what the fuck else is there?

How do your parents feel about this?

My parents, to their credit, have been awesome. I don’t know what I would do with me as a daughter. No one wants to know that their kid is in trouble or hurt or in pain – especially as a Jewish mom and pops!

I came from a very creative family, a “feeling your feelings” family – screaming and laughing in the same sentence. I had a goy boyfriend – you know, how you do. He had been at my house when my parents were fighting and he was like, “Oh my God! Are they getting a divorce?” No, no. That’s just my family. We are just talking!

I’m taking it to the next level for sure, but my parents really understand my mission. I really believe I’m a vessel with every fiber of my being. As a Jew, it’s in my bones to speak up and say something and shine light. This is my tikkun olam. I understand I’m not curing cancer, but this is me doing my part. No more, no less. I feel like my parents really understand that.

The most meaningful things are never easy. My parents understand and respect that it’s larger. They made me; it’s their fault. That’ll show you for being supportive Jewish parents who nurture my creativity!

It seems that there is a trend of young women producing their own TV or web-series that present voices that extend beyond what we typically see in the mainstream: real women who resonate with other real women. Why do you think this is happening now?

I feel super excited, like it’s never been a more exciting time to be an artist. It’s so awesome that we have access to all this equipment and more people who want content. There’s less of a gap between people that are making shit and what people actually want to watch, which is not shit. There’s always been a need for it, but now there’s more accessibility – and this drives people to be self-motivated and tell the stories that only they can tell. I call the internet “niche-core.”

Tell us more about your Kickstarter Campaign.

I wrote the script [for “The Skinny”] and nobody wanted it. Nobody wanted to buy it. It wasn’t happening. It was just about acting “as if” it were happening, pitching it to everyone – the mailman, the barista, the obgyn: “Would you watch this show?” And then you get to the point where you’re like, “I literally can’t NOT make this.” And then you sweat and cry and you find a way.

I’m on Kickstarter to raise enough funds to finish post production. With all of the footage already shot, we are truly at the finish line. The cash raised will go into editing, sound design, music licensing and other post production needs that can’t be bought with a beer and a smile (though I’ve tried!). Being on Kickstarter at this point in the process is such an asset because you get to connect with your community, get the word out, and start making noise.

It’s fun to do a Kickstarter and also a lot of work. You have to get creative with how to get peoples’ attention. We have some awesome rewards for donors – everything from yoga lessons to lunch with Illeana Douglas. YUMMY 🙂

Any project is like giving birth, you gotta push that shit through. You gotta take your anti-pain meds and just do it. We’re in the final push now and it’s a blessing to have Kickstarter to connect with people. It won’t happen, it just won’t be done without your help. That’s what so exciting about it, that I can ask for support. Like a nice Jewish girl.

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Managing Editor of Jewrotica, Emma moonlights as a librarian. She also writes Jewish horoscopes, short stories, essays and a supernatural noir novella.