If you don’t know the name Janelle James by now, I suggest you commit it to memory. James is most probably your favorite comedian’s favorite comedian, and is sure to be yours very soon. She has opened for Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, and has appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Comedy Lineup on Netflix, and HBO’s Crashing — just to name a few.
James has never moved to the beat of anyone else’s drum. That’s what makes her special. She fell into the comedy world by chance: she got her start at an open mic in Illinois after working in the fashion industry for eight years. “I kept doing it, basically. Very unglamorous,” she told me. She let out a wonderfully hearty laugh and an instinctual “you know what I mean?” after every sentence. There are some laughs that are just naturally infectious. Hers is full, unapologetic, and authentic. It’s a metaphor for who she is. She’s just that funny, but she doesn’t really give a fuck whether you think so or not.
You either like her or you don’t — but, that said, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with her.
Who are some of your comedy inspirations?
Who are my comedy inspirations? People I look up to?
This is gonna sound…. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to anybody. I think that comes from me not wanting to become a comedian my whole life. I’ve never been like, “I wanna be like so and so…” I really don’t pay attention to anyone. I always feel like a special case in that I’m in every scene but I don’t have a scene, you know what I mean? Like, everybody knows me, but I’m not trying to be apart of any cliques or trying to emulate anyone. I’m just doing me. Of course, there are people who are funny whom I admire. Chris Rock and all of those people, but I’m trying to build my own path.
Do you think that has set you apart from the rest of the comedians that you’ve come up with?
I don’t know what everybody else is doing, so I can’t really say that. I don’t know if they’re also doing that, but again, that all goes to the same thing. I don’t care what anybody else is doing, so I don’t care if it sets me apart or if it doesn't. I don’t care to even find out. It sounds real bitchy when I say it, but now that I’m thinking about it… I’m just like, “Hey, this is cool.” Or, “Oh this job popped up, that sounds fun.” And then I do it. I don’t even have an end goal in this shit.
Well, it’s certainly more fun that way if you just take the pressure off of it.
Yeah, if anything starts to feel like work, I don’t want to do it. That’s how I’m trying to keep it.
So a few publications are calling this a milestone moment for women in comedy. Do you agree with this? Do you feel this representation of women in comedy has extended to Black women as well?
Really? Really? (laughs) Who’s getting these milestones?
Well, mainly white women…
Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, or-
Oh! Okay, see, I love her, but I don’t even consider her a comedian. She’s a writer who writes funny stuff. Does she do improv or something? She seems like an improv-y kind of person. Anybody that mugs at the camera, like, that’s improv.
I feel like there’s been an upward trajectory for women, but I don’t feel like this year has been a milestone. There have been women around for a while. Now there’s more of us, so that’s cool. There’s more of us in a way that you can’t even ignore it. Nobody can do that whole “well I can’t find any,” type bullshit anymore. So that’s a milestone. That used to be their excuse.
As far as opportunities for Black women... I get this question all the time. Hollywood is still very white-focused and the people in power are still white, so if minorities are not in the seats of power and making the decisions, then of course there’s going to be less of us.
In your own career, do you feel like you’ve noticed more inclusion since you’ve started doing comedy, or do you think it’s still majorly a boy’s club?
I would say I’m an odd case in that I started on the road. I feel like a lot of women don’t do the road because it’s harder for women. It’s harder to get booked at clubs. It’s a hard life. It’s unsafe. I did the road for years and years and years, so nothing phases me after you do that. And then, once I got off the road — or not that I got off the road, the road has taken me to extraordinary places — I started touring with huge comedians. If I’m touring with Chris Rock or Amy Schumer, it’s not like I’m being prevented from doing anything. I’m like, in a private jet going somewhere. I’ve lived a fanciful past and I’ve “paid my dues” to get there. I don’t have any place where I haven’t felt included because I’ve been chosen to be there, if that makes sense.
This is the second year of the Janelle James Comedy Festival since you took over from Eugene Mirman. For those who aren’t familiar with the festival, what can they expect?
What I heard most from people who went last year was, “Oh my god, it had such a good vibe,” and that made me really happy. That’s the sole reason why I’m doing it again, because there’s not big money in doing a festival. I hope everyone knows that. But after all the stress of putting it together, and dealing with comedians, and the “Will anybody show up?” and “Oh my god have I made a huge mistake?” Afterwards, everybody was so happy that I’m like I’m going to do it again. It was just such a cool, fun time. I feel like people really left it like, “Oh, that wasn’t a waste of my time.” That’s my goal in everything, in comedy, in events that I throw... I don’t want to waste anybody’s time or have them go home feeling like they wasted it. You know, it’s December. It’s cold as fuck in New York. We’re about to go into the darkness of January and February and all that. I just want to give people a reprieve. That’s what comedy is for me, it’s like fun. I love to laugh. I’m one of those Tinder profiles, you know, “I love to travel.” I genuinely do this to have a good time. So, I’m just trying to extend that through me to other comedians. Forreal, forreal, people were just coming up to me like, “Yo, this was so fun.” It just made me happy.
What are you excited about hosting this year around? Any new comedians performing with you that you’re excited about bringing on?
Well, this year I have a couple Chicago comedians, 'cause last year everybody was from New York, so this year I actually have a couple out-of-town people from Chicago. Chicago comics, I don’t know what is in y’all’s water there, but there are so many good comics there. (Writer's note: My Chicago origins came up at the beginning of our conversation.)
Open Mike Eagle is going to be a music component to one of the shows. I plan on doing some different formats. Last year, I had burlesque dancers dancing to my [comedy] album. Burlesque dancing to spoken word, a puppet thing… We try to mix it up and have some non stand-up portions as well.
I think this year I’m going to have a look back at the year — a comedic look at all the bullshit that happened this year. Just trying to keep it light and moving. I’m excited for the comics that we have this year, and we’ll see what famous people I can convince and beg to show up like I did last year, basically. I’m most excited to see who still fucks with me. That’s what it all comes down to. Last year I was able to convince Amy Schumer and Hannibal [Buress], and Dave Cross to come, and I was like whoa. Who knows this year. I will be going desperately through my rolodex.
I’m sure they will come, but even if they don’t, you can call them out.
Well, no one owes me anything. Even if they don’t, I’m confident in the lineup that I’ve booked of so-called “unknowns” that if Carrot Top or whatever famous person people want to see doesn’t come, they’ll still have a good time. Those people who showed up last year were like after dessert, you know what I’m saying? The show was already good, and it would’ve been good without them, so I’m not worried about that.
You have an amazing lineup this year. Jaboukie Young-White is performing, Ayo Edebiri, Sydnee Washington...
Yeah, I tried to book it so not everybody is the same type of comic. Everybody’s funny, but they’re not doing the same type of act. I would hope for people to know that, since this is a woman-run festival, it’s just a different vibe: I'm not there to shock anybody or badger anybody, laughing at dumb shit. I’m not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings. You know, there are edgy comics, but I don’t want to have any shit that’s anti-woman. We’ve all left comedy shows feeling bad. That’s not my intention. I want people to feel light, go home exhausted, abs on fire from laughing, and then that’s it.
Do you feel like you've been at open mics where it’s felt hostile for you or the audience?
I mean, yeah. I started comedy in the Midwest, what do you think? I’ve done comedy in Ronald Reagan’s hometown, you know what I mean? I feel like comedy is all about intention. I love “offensive jokes” and sometimes they don’t land, but I feel like people can tell whether you’re trying to make me laugh or you’re just trying to make me angry or offend me to make your balls feel bigger or whatever. People know intention. I don’t want any of that on my shit. I’ve disregarded some people who are pretty famous or may be well know who people would be excited to see who had that vibe, and I just don’t want it in my shit. They have plenty of other places to perform.
It’s all about creating a good space, a fun space.
Yeah, but also I don’t want to make it like I’m doing Sesame Street. You know, it’s still adult. We’re not all freeing the nipple or anything, but I just want people to have a good time, man. I just want to respect their time and the money that they’re spending, the time they spend with me.
What’s your advice for young female comedians, or even just comedians in general, who are coming onto the comedy scene now?
Stage time. I mean, I don’t know. That’s all it is. I know people don’t like to hear that, but that is what it is. You want to be a stand-up, you gotta get on stage. Just like you would go to med school for however many years to become a doctor, you have to do comedy for a certain amount of time to find yourself, to be comfortable. I know there’s this whole new movement now of like, “Oh, it's not that hard,” I see a lot of comics saying that 'cause maybe they had some success sooner than other people so they say, “Oh, stand-up is not that hard.” Sure, because the hardest part is the stage fright part. So if you’re one of the few people who isn’t terrified to get on stage and talk in front of people, that’s number one. People are already in awe of that, because most people are afraid of doing that. Sure, then it can be easy to construct some jokes, but if you want to be great, then it’s stage time. It just depends on what your goal is.
If you want to be great, which I do, you gotta get on stage. I’ve done thousands of shows. People say, how can I be like you? Do more shows. Do more shows and be like you. Don’t worry about what I’m doing. That’s my advice. I really don’t worry about what any other person is doing or why they’re doing it, or trying to emulate anyone else, or follow in anyone’s footsteps. Fuck that. I’m doing what I want when I want it. I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do, and that’s the goal. To get to a place where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You don’t want to do fucking comedy in a bikini on MTV or Comedy Central or whatever, you don’t have to do it.
People are doing that?
I mean, I’ve seen people do that. Just some of the things I get offered, I’m so glad that I’m in a place where I can turn it down. Not even in a place; I’ve always been like that. Even when I didn’t have shit, I did what I wanted. I feel like that’s led me to where I am now. It’s all in what your end goal is. If you’re just trying to get paid, go on Instagram and do that thing. But if you want to do standup, it’s all stage time.
I think that’s really inspiring. You knew your worth before you came into the comedy scene.
Well, people talk about sexism a lot. Another thing that holds women back is ageism. I started comedy later. A lot of people start when they’re teenagers. I started in my late twenties, so I already knew who I was. I didn’t have to search for my voice. I always feel like the reason the entertainment industry likes younger people is not only for their tight skin, but because you don’t know who you are, so you’re more willing to do things that you might not be comfortable with. Or you don’t even know you’re not comfortable with it until it’s over and now you feel bad about it. I didn’t have to go through that part. I already knew what I liked, what I was willing to do, how I wanted to do it. I already knew I never wanted this to feel like work, because I know I have a short attention span. As soon as things start feeling like work, I’m out. If you have to start doing things you don’t want to do, that’s when it starts getting whack. “How can telling jokes for a living feel like this?” That’s whack. I’m not doing that shit.
Are there any other projects you’re working on besides the festival that are coming up?
I have a new podcast. Netflix is doing podcasts now.
I didn’t even know they were doing podcasts.
Yeah, they have a radio station and a podcast network. You know when conglomerates get going, they want a piece of everything. [The podcast] is called Strong Black Laughs. It will be on Spotify, iTunes, all of that. It’s me interviewing strong black comedians, icons, and idols. And you can find out information about all of that on my website or by simply googling my name and all of that shit will come up.
Grab your tickets for The Janelle James Comedy Festival this December before they sell out! You will not want to miss it. You can listen to Janelle on her podcast Strong Black Laughs here. Janelle will also be featured on our very own Poptarts podcast at the end of the month. For more updates, go to her website janellejamescomedy.com.
Header photo courtesy of Kathryn Musilek with Shark Party Media
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Stephanie Tinsley is a Brooklyn based writer and filmmaker originally from Chicago, Illinois. She currently studies Film & TV at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She spends her free time watching The Real Housewives and fighting with film boys on the internet.
@madamebruja on Twitter