It’s important to point out that Sophie Zucker did not make out with her cousin at her grandfather’s funeral. But the protagonist of her new musical Sophie Sucks Face, definitely did, and is more than happy to tell you about her incestuous dalliance through characters, songs, and the occasional tap number. Through the show, Zucker proves herself to be a masterful storyteller, skillfully combining the theatricality of a big, brash musical with the intimacy of your best friend leaning in to tell you a juicy secret. It’s a delightful showcase for her cornucopia of talents, but perhaps equally as important, it is very, very funny. She spoke to Paste over Zoom about her inspirations, her anxieties, and her favorite joke in the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Paste Magazine: You’ve noted that this show is a mixture of Bo Burnham’s Inside, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and Stephen Sondheim’s Company. How do you see those influences playing out in the production?
Company has themes of growing up, settling down, and finding someone you want to love forever, so content-wise, I think that’s where it’s influential. In terms of Fleabag, I love the TV show, and found some clips of the stage production online and it was like, 90% comedic. I think that was sort of rare in terms of what you think a one-woman show is going to be, since often you imagine it as like, a long monologue about love and loss and all this kind of stuff. But Fleabag was very touching, and very sweet, but also so funny. And that was something I was really trying to do. As a comedian, this is my version of an hour. But it’s not an hour of jokes, it’s a narrative showcasing my best material. In terms of Bo Burnham’s influence, I was pulling from how he parodies different musical genres. That was something I wanted to keep in mind, where I didn’t just want the songs to be funny and clever given what was happening in the play at the time, I wanted them to feel like a Charlie XCX song or a country song. And because I was satirizing a specific genre, it would make the situation in which that genre was being used much, much funnier.
Paste: How did you first conceive of the show? You mentioned that these events happened in 2019 which to me seems like a very quick turnaround.
Zucker: To go even farther back, I’ve written musicals before. I wrote a musical with a few collaborators called Nervosa which was about eating disorders, and then I wrote a musical by myself called Misstressbate, which was about a female masturbation scandal and a high school. By the time I had the idea for Sophie Sucks Face, I was on my third musical. so I had been honing this muscle for quite some time. It didn’t just come out of thin air, but it did come to me kind of quickly, which is sometimes how you know it’s a good idea.
My grandparents died seven weeks apart, and we had two funerals for them, and it was a really strange experience. The first funeral was very touching and nice, and everyone got to see each other again, and we also kind of knew my grandfather was going to die. Then my grandmother died very unexpectedly. And my aunt got this text that was like, “What the fuck is going on with your family?” And that’s like how it felt, we were like, What the fuck is going on? Afterwards, I had this idea, but I didn’t want to write about a funeral. I didn’t want to write about loss and death. Honestly, it felt overdone. So I thought, maybe I’ll write about this girl who hooks up with her cousin at a funeral and thinks she’s never going to see him again. But then the second grandparent dies, and she decides to seduce him. And then pretty quickly I got these ideas of songs like, “Yoni Got Hot” and “It’s Not Cheating If It Is Gross.” I thought maybe it should be a movie, but I didn’t have enough money to make it a feature, so I was like, I’ll make it a musical, like I know how to do.
Paste: How has the show evolved from when you first wrote it to where it is now?
Zucker: The first time I did it was in this basement space in Gowanus called Life World, which is a great DIY space. We taped it, then I looked over the footage and I just analyzed it like a sports analyst where they’re going through the play-by-play. I figured out what could be cut, what could be trimmed, where the laughs weren’t as much, where I had to beat the joke, all that kind of stuff. But the overall structure, and the characters, and even like most of the dialogue didn’t change, it just got cut or tweaked. Between when I did it over the summer and now, I still went through and tried to improve the laughs, since that’s mostly what I’m playing for. And I added a tap number because my producer Zach Schiffman was like, “You could do a fake tap number,” and I was like, “Okay, I’ll do that!” And obviously, it changes in every space we’re in. We’ve had really elaborate lighting setups, and we’ve had none, and we’re trying to make the show as adaptable as possible.
Paste: You’ve talked about how this show is a defamiliarization of the “dying of a broken heart” trope. What attracted you to defamiliarization when you were writing this story?
Zucker: When I was younger, I always loved “fractured fairy tales,” like anything that was like a recognizable trope, but sort of turned on its head. I like satire for the same reason, there’s an accessibility there. It’s showing you what’s funny about it, or a new way of looking at it. And so defamiliarization, which I really only started to learn about when I was reading In The Dream House and Her Body And Other Parties [by Carmen Maria Machado], it’s just the act of inspecting a story really, really closely. I think my way in with this particular show is, two older people died of a broken heart. And the amount of people that have said, “That happened to my grandparents too,” it gives me the leeway to get really weird with it, to talk about incestuous relationships and do funny comedy asides. I like to make the audience feel taken care of, they’re not here to see something that is entirely avant garde, or too alternative, but once they trust me with the basic premise, then I have the freedom to do that.
Paste: Was there a part of the show that was difficult to write or that you struggled with at all?
Zucker: The beginning. Beginnings are always hard for me. When I’m performing it and we introduce the characters and introduce the conflict, then I feel like I’m cruising. But the beginning I rewrote a lot. The opening song, the lyrics go, “We’re talking about me, but it’s about him.” At one point, they were like, “We’re talking about him, but it’s about me,” but because of where the notes were, the “it’s about me” was lower in my register. And so it wasn’t as exciting. It needed to be this big explosive number where it’s about me, and that took me a long time. And then just like bringing the audience in in a way that didn’t feel too like, this is a one-woman show, and we’re doing theater. You know, I was trying to make it really feel casual and like a comedy, like stand up.
Paste: Do you have a favorite part of the show?
Zucker: I have a favorite joke. It’s where my character, Sophie, realizes that her cousin might not have come to the second funeral after she got all dressed up for him. And she starts to cry and she says, “This is humiliating. He’s like, the only reason I came to this thing!” And that is my favorite joke I have ever written because it’s simple, and it makes sense in context. It’s not something that’s like, overly wordy or zingy, or anything like that. It’s just like a true emotion set at the wrong time. I’m very proud of that joke.
Paste: Family is obviously a key part of the show, and your parents were even in the audience. Have they been supportive of your comedy career from the beginning? Or did it take any sort of convincing?
Zucker: No, they’ve been very supportive. I wanted to be a pop star when I was younger, I really wanted to be a singer-songwriter, Britney Spears type, and that I think that scared them more. So relationally, comedy seemed safer, even though it is not a particularly safe or stable pursuit. I do think there is slightly more of a linear track and more opportunities than like, being a pop star would afford. So they’ve been very supportive, they come to every single show. This most recent time, my mom was like, “Maybe we’ll just come to two of the shows,” but my dad was like, “No. All three.”
Paste: In the show, you talk a lot about time: wasting it, running from it, all that. Obviously the show is fictional, but those moments do feel very personal. It feels like they touch a nerve. What about time is so important to you?
Zucker: Well, I’m 29 years old, and something that has been on my mind for all of my late 20s is, “When am I supposed to be hitting the milestones that people around me in their 30s seem to have hit? Am I supposed to be further along in my career? Am I supposed to have established myself even more by the time I’m 30?” Because 30 feels like it’s old, and 29 feels like it’s young. And in terms of family, am I supposed to be married and settled down by the time I’m 30? I think I’ve always really identified with being a young spirit, full of energy and maybe kind of impulsive, maybe a little irresponsible. So in my late 20s I have really just started to think like, “When is it time to grow up for real?” You’re on the precipice of a lot of stuff. You can’t pinpoint, or make a decision like, “Okay, next year, it’s gonna be different.” It just kind of happens gradually. And so we’re still left with a lot of questions and anxiety about it.
Paste: You’ve noted in a different interview, “being ironically detached from your art is boring and overdone,” which I happen to agree with. Can you talk a little about a little bit about why you think it’s important to be invested and be genuine about the art that you create?
Zucker: If you want a career in the arts, there is no doubt that you have to work so hard to get yourself there. Not just in terms of working on your craft—which of course you have to do, without question—but psyching yourself up to get rejected all the time and promoting yourself. Even in front of people who don’t give a shit about you. There’s a lot of vulnerability in that. I remember there were friends who lived in New York, who I didn’t see for like a year because they didn’t do comedy. And I was only hanging out in comedy spaces to acclimate myself and get booked on shows. It’s so much effort, and to pretend otherwise is dumb and harmful because it makes it seem like it’s easy, and it’s not! Everyone should know that there’s no shame and it being hard. I think you do a disservice to yourself to put so much work into something and then present it like, “I don’t really care.” You know, like, “Oh, here’s just my little show. Here’s my little dumb show.” Like, no, “I worked on this for a year, here’s my huge show!” And I think there’s also a big gendered component to it where women do not want to admit that they care because it’s so “not cool” to be emotional about stuff. And I have never been able to hide that. I care a lot about everything and everyone.
Sophie Sucks Face just finished its run at the Soho Playhouse in New York City, and will be playing February 1st at Dynasty Typewriter in Los Angeles.
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.