Janine is a stand up comic, writer and performer. You've most recently enjoyed her writing in the amazing "One Day at a Time". She was also a writer and on-air correspondent on the FX series, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, produced by Chris Rock. Yeah, she’s a big deal!
Janine started doing standup comedy in St. Louis and has performed at clubs and theaters throughout the US and Hong Kong. She is the winner of the 2009 SF Women’s Comedy Competition, and recipient of Rooftop Comedy’s 2010 Silver Nail Award. Praised by 7x7 Magazine as “one of SF’s more daring voices” and one of “the 7 funniest people in town,” she was named the 2011 “Best Comedian with a Message” by the East Bay Express.
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You’re a brilliant comedian who has wowed audiences across the US and won the San Francisco Women’s Comedy Competition and the Silver Nail Award. Have you always done storytelling as well? If not, how long have you been doing it? What drew you to comedy? What drew you to storytelling?
I only do storytelling every once in a while. Usually I’ll be asked to do a storytelling show, then write something specifically for it. It’s a good exercise for me as a standup because it helps me mine things I may have never considered discussing onstage.
I was drawn to standup from a very young age, my Dad was a really funny guy who made jokes wherever he went, and my family watched In Living Color religiously. But I discovered storytelling by sheer accident, I was asked to do Risk! and a couple of other storytelling shows in SF after I’d been doing standup for a while. Switching gears into storytelling felt pretty easy for me since my standup already involved a lot of longer, story-like chunks.
How is your storytelling different than your standup? How do you decide what elements of your work goes into your standup and which become storytelling?
My storytelling’s different only in that there’s less pressure to cram jokes in. I definitely want my stories to have funny elements but, unlike standup, I can delve into serious stuff a little more. Whereas with standup, I’m constantly thinking “Where can I trim the fat to get to the joke? Or where can I fit more jokes in along the way to the big punchline?”
Both your standup and storytelling are full of memorable visual images. Is this something that develops as you write different drafts/try out jokes and stories on stage?
I guess that’s always been a part of my work? I tend to think very visually so I think that goes into my work naturally.
In one of your stories on the Risk Podcast “Tired Eyed Baby” you do an incredible job of using comedy to make the audience to fall in love with your father as a person. This includes the entirety of a joke he loved. It makes the audience feel the loss of this charming and wonderful man even more. Do you have any rules for yourself on how to balance comedy and emotion in your stories? Do you have a structural rule for yourself?
I absolutely allow more emotion into my storytelling than my standup, I’d never in a million years want to cry in the middle of a standup set. But, while that’s still terrifying with storytelling, that space feels much more welcoming to that kind of vulnerability. Structurally, I think I still want to give the audience (and myself) a break from that emotion so I try to sprinkle comedy throughout to give us all some relief.
Your storytelling feels a lot more intimate and vulnerable than a lot of other comedians who do storytelling. It makes your stories very memorable and effective. Do you have any tips for other storytellers on how to be more honest and vulnerable onstage?
I’ve never been a very good observational comic, and usually draw from my life for material, it just so happens that my life has had a few dark moments. If other storytellers want to be more honest and vulnerable, I’d encourage them to think about some of those lows. My coping mechanism for a long time was to just keep moving and keep working to distract myself but in reality those moments stayed in the back of my mind.
Storytelling allowed me a space to face those memories and release them in a very controlled environment, on my own terms. That’s what appealed to me about touching on these memories. I knew I’d be able to get it all out there, uninterrupted, and feel some release. So while it seems vulnerable to most, for me, it feels safer than having a conversation. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but I think coming from standup, I feel much more comfortable talking about things onstage where it’s just me and a mic, it’s made me feel much more in control even if it’s very public.
How do you know when an experience in your life is a story for public consumption and when it’s just for you?
This is something I’ve learned much more recently and along the way, I think the biggest factor is the people in the story. I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially those I love. It came up the hard way when I said some things about my Mom during a podcast, which I felt were matter-of-fact but ended up hurting her.
She cried about it, and I felt absolutely awful, because my Mom’s one of my heroes and someone who’s always stepped up for me and done the really hard thankless work in raising her kids. After that, I’ve tried to be much more careful about how my words will make the people in my life feel.
How long do you wait before a life experience becomes a story? Have you ever told a joke or story “too soon”?
The things I’ve discussed generally happened at least a year or more in the past so I can have a little perspective. Even then, I still struggle with how to discuss darker material in standup. I’ve definitely tried to talk about certain topics onstage and can feel the audience get scared, which is usually a sign that I need to take a step back and add some lightness/stronger punch lines.
Your work often deals with difficult subject matter. You have clearly been through a lot of tough times, and yet, even when people have been cruel to you in stories you avoid the temptation to turn them into caricatures. Do you have any advice to other storytellers on how to be even-handed in stories that feature people or situations that were cruel and unfair?
I think that’s stemmed from growing up a little, recognizing times I haven’t been so great, and recognizing people are complicated. It’s easier to view someone as all bad but that’s not the reality. I find people don’t usually set out to maliciously hurt one another. Things are rarely black and white.
Despite the fact that “Tired Eyed Baby” and “The Popular Girl” deal with a lot of pain and suffering they are both beautiful, funny and entertaining stories. It is a SUPER easy to stress out an audience by mistake or make them worry about you when telling a sad or vulnerable story. Is this something you are conscious of when you create a story? If so, what strategies do you use to “take care” of your audience?
I’m absolutely more conscious of it, coming from standup. My end goal’s always to make an audience laugh. My biggest strategy is to try and get a good joke out towards the top. It buys you MUCH more leeway into where you can take the audience, because you’ve already let them know they’re in good hands. It’s a little way to say, “Don’t worry, guys, I know what I’m doing and will bring you back from the depths.”
Does telling a story for a podcast change the way you will tell it compared to knowing it will only be seen by a live audience?
The biggest difference is that I try to have a better sense of things when I know it’s going on a podcast. I feel less pressure to present a finished product from the get-go if it’s only going to be seen by a live audience. I’ll usually try elements of a story out onstage or talk it through with a friend for feedback before a live recording.
Has telling stories and jokes about your life influenced how you see situations in your life? If so, how? Is this a good thing, bad thing, neutral?
It’s helped me see some common threads in life. It’s been comforting to learn people understand what I’ve felt even if their experiences differ.
What storytelling cliche would you love to see the end of?
I can’t think of anything I’d want to see the end of (I’m very spoiled because most of my storytelling experience is with Risk! where performers are vetted beforehand.) But my biggest piece of advice is never underestimate the power of jokes.
I think stand-ups make great storytellers because we know we have to give to an audience before we have permission to delve into things. Going into something without giving your audience a great joke or really really smart insight is just self-indulgence. You have to remember that this isn’t therapy, it’s still a performance, and people expect to be entertained.