The Secret to Chelsea Peretti’s Greatness

Comedy Features Chelsea
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As awards season reaches full swing, it’s hard not to feel like Chelsea Peretti has somehow been overlooked. True, she only has a supporting role on Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but her character has a higher laughs-to-lines ratio than any of the leading Golden Globe ladies. And although there is not yet an Oscar for best hour-long stand-up special, if there were, her remarkably well-reviewed experiment on the form, One of the Greats, would handily top the category. As it stands, the Year of Peretti might have to wait until the Emmys to receive the formal recognition it is due.

But Chelsea Peretti is precisely the sort of lovably monomaniacal personality who could get away with giving herself an award at her very own ceremony. She would host, she’d take home every statuette, and even though she’s not dead, she’d dominate the memoriam montage, too. It’s a scenario that’s not all that far-fetched. She’s already declared herself “a direct vessel of God” in her special, she has her own mobile app with her own soundboard, she held a book signing even though she’s never written a book, and she is spectacularly self-aggrandizing on Twitter, where she recently wished her followers a Merry Christmas so long as they are famous like her:

What is the source of Peretti’s self-declared greatness? And how does her performative narcissism manage to be so charming? None of Peretti’s personas—whether on her award-winning Twitter account, on her call-in podcast, in her standup, or as her reportedly true-to-life alter ego Gina Linetti on TV—are particularly nice. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s second season premiere, for example, Peretti delivers this devastating put-down: “Every time you talk, I hear that sound that plays when Pac-Man dies.” And when Pete Holmes invited her into his closet for some wardrobe assistance, she insulted him while texting the entire time.

But Peretti’s not classically mean in the Regina George sense of the word, either. It would probably be most accurate to call her the anti-mean girl, the refreshingly cathartic id of every digital age woman who grew up neither too popular nor too secluded. Whether she’s mocking overly evangelical vegans—“I think my least favorite part of the vegan diet is the verbal part where they explain it to you”—or ribbing women who make a show out of posting their #NoMakeup selfies on Instagram, Peretti carries herself with a subtle sense of superiority that feels almost earned from a life spent as a so-called “regular girl.”

And besides, Peretti comes nowhere near the same level of self-confidence as, say, Kanye West, who actually called himself a vessel of God. Despite the title of her Netflix special, Peretti is genuinely self-effacing. She interrupts her special with bizarre, scripted reaction shots in which she taunts herself, calling herself a clown and telling herself not to “turn all [her] feelings into jokes.” She openly fantasizes about being someone with more confidence (a.k.a. a man): “My fantasy of what it’s like to be a guy is you just wake up in the morning and your eyes open and you’re like, ‘I’m awesome! People probably wanna hear what I have to say!’” Peretti is still human and she manages to temper her comedic egotism with a degree of self-loathing.

But unlike other comedians, Peretti doesn’t ride her own spiral of denigration all the way to the bottom, buoying herself up instead with her trademark claims of grandeur. And in a world where we expect women to hate themselves, Peretti’s living legend persona comes across as an almost radical form of self-love. As Peretti said in an interview with Splitsider, “Now, do I see myself like that every day? No, but I think it’s a funny attitude and maybe on some weird spiritual level maybe it’s a good attitude.”

In one episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the psychology faculty of Columbia University gape at her character’s irrepressible arrogance when she drops astonishing claims like “I feel like I’m the Paris of people” and “All men are at least 30 percent attracted to me.” The psychologists pathologize her, of course, but the truth is that Peretti qua Linetti is simply vocalizing sentiments that many men honestly believe—researchers have found, for example, that men are much more likely than women to believe that their opposite-sex friends are secretly into them.

Perhaps the secret to Peretti’s success, then, is that she gives off an unmistakable air of being comfortable in her own skin. She’s the co-worker who rushes straight home at 5 to curl up with Netflix and her dog. She’s the friend who never comes to the party, not because she’s too cool but because she just doesn’t want to be there. She refers to lunch as “the thing that people who hate each other do.” One early review of her podcast criticized her for “making herself laugh” but watching Peretti bring pleasure to herself is a pleasure in and of itself because when you’re at that party and Peretti’s not there, you secretly wish you could be as comfortable staying at home as she seems to be.

In the season six premiere of 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy grows suspicious of a surprisingly self-possessed Liz Lemon, eventually discovering that she has a side career as a WNBA dancer. His jaw drops at the sight of Lemon shaking her ass with reckless abandon. It’s probably not a coincidence that Peretti’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine is also in a dance troupe (called Floorgasm, of course) or that her dancing is similarly used as a symbol of self-confidence. The crucial difference is that Peretti’s character is open about her Floorgasm membership whereas Lemon keeps her WNBA gig a secret. If there’s a single way to sum up Peretti’s appeal, it’s this: she’s the negative image of a Liz Lemon, not endearingly neurotic but refreshingly unruffled. Liz Lemon is terrified of choking alone in her apartment; Peretti can’t wait to get home and tweet about how awesome her own tweets are.

Chelsea Peretti, after all, is one of the greats and—strangely, paradoxically—what makes her so great is that she knows exactly how great she is.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.