Witching Hour Q&A: Janelle James on developing her comedy style

Witching Hour: Liza Treygar w/ Janelle James

Englert Theatre — Saturday, Oct. 13 at 9:30 p.m.

Comedian Janelle James perfoms at The Mill on the fifth night of the Mission Creek Festival. Saturday, April 8, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Janelle James, one of the featured comedians for the 2018 Witching Hour festival (presented by the Englert Theatre and Little Village, has become an up-and-coming performer on the East Coast comedy scene, having left the Midwest, where she first discovered comedy, and now claiming New York as home. James performs at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13 at the Englert Theatre (tickets $15-55) on the second night of Witching Hour, opening for fellow Illinois-to-New York transplant Liza Treygar.

The Caribbean-born comedian’s humor provides a focus on the family in a not so “family friendly” way. At the same time, through the occasional raunchy elements, James’ comedy has the virtue of empowering people in a holistic, generous way. I was able to speak with her about her upcoming show as she waited for an Uber.

As The Daily Show and its offshoots have shown, comedians generally have an important role in telling truth to a society. What kinds of truth do you think your comedy allows?

My truth. I guess, whereas The Daily Show has a mission statement that multiple writers write toward, I have my own mission statement: my thoughts. I don’t think I’m trying to change anyone’s mind about anything. My first goal is laughter.

Stylistically, you are super chill and laid back in your delivery, which I think relates to your pauses as much as your slower rate of speech. In what ways do you think your style frames your content and allows people to laugh at things they wouldn’t normally think are funny?

When I first started, I was mimicking Todd Barry — he’s the first person I ever toured with … With stand up, a big part of it is timing. Richard Pryor always had a lot of silence. I’m trying to give people a chance to absorb what I was saying. I’m pretty laid back in real life delivery also. I just like that style of … silence. There’s room for silence in stand up. It doesn’t have to be joke or laughter: It can contribute to the laugh if you know how to time things right. Most comedians do that: We mimic someone until we find out who we are.

What was informative about the tour with Todd?

Not to drink before I go on stage … but a lot of how the business works. Get paid what you were promised, how to control the crowd — just how the business works. You get to perform for larger crowds than a solo.

What does it mean to control the crowd?

My trick is being funny. Everyone has their own trick … but you can’t compete with alcohol, so I have disruptive people thrown out. I started in the Midwest where everyone is rowdy. Timing, pacing — I speak in a way that people tend to pay attention. You speak softer so that people have to lean in to listen rather than yelling.

You’re now an East Coast comic?

I’m still always in the Midwest on tour, but I live in New York.

Why New York? What’s changed?

You perform more, so I’m better. If I watch a video from six months ago, I can see that I’m better. You can get into things besides stand up.

What do you think your perspective adds to the world? By this I mean, beyond your delivery, how do you think that your point of view allows your audiences to explore the unknown in a different way?

I perform for a lot of white audiences, and it may be the first time anyone has heard a black woman, or even a woman, for that amount of time. Having to listen to a woman speak for 45 minutes to an hour is a new thing.

Why is it important to have white men listen to black women?

I think it is important for everyone to hear different perspectives than we’re used to — we live on the same earth. Everyone needs to hear. Why wouldn’t you want to be more well rounded, a more empathetic person? Who likes a close-minded person? To gain other perspectives …

Why is it important for me to listen to someone speaking?

I’m not forcing anyone to see me — my ultimate goal is to make people laugh. If you gain something else, that’s a plus. I’m not doing Ted Talks.

Why not?

Those are a “sit down and listen” platform, whereas comedy is “come and enjoy yourself.” It’s not serious.

Describe your creative process: What is it that you do in the pursuit of a joke? How do you transform the commonplace into the hilarious?

My writing style now — when I started I tried to write everything, but as I’ve gotten better, I can have a thought now, and go on stage and say it. I write on stage, now. How I turn things into jokes — it’s hard to explain. I think and say it. I think in joke form now. It’s like a muscle — I can turn anything into a joke.

A lot of your comedy (or at least what I have heard) deals with questions of race — taking on racists, recontextualizing racial slurs — but you do it in an incidental way that makes the racism part of a comedy of everyday life rather than “racial comedy.” How is it that you developed that approach?

I feel like you’re wrong in this interpretation. I feel like I can do an hour of comedy, and if I do two jokes about race, it becomes the only thing that is heard. I’m not a racial comic. But this is the thing that white people, white dudes in particular, pick up on … Race isn’t a construct, or race theory, or how I think things should be — but how real life situations are funny and they just happen to involve someone of a different race. Usually the situation happens because of that. I assume that you’re a white dude?

Yes. I am. And I haven’t listened to all of your material, and so there’s a decent chance that my question was swayed by my sample set. This question will probably be just as bad, so be ready: You also tend to articulate the experience of being a woman in a distinctive way that undoubtedly has helped your success. In what ways do you see your comedy as exploring the unknown in this regard?

Yeah, that’s the same answer as the race thing — when white men listen, they hear it as being “about a woman.” I only can talk about what I know. I’m just talking about myself — but because people aren’t used to that … female stand ups are seen as doing something new. But I’ve been a woman my whole life.

Your comedy is pretty intimate, focusing not only on your relation to your body, but also detailing who you are as a mother and as a daughter. At the same time, this vulnerability is offered up as something empowering rather than offering yourself (or anyone else) up as a punch line. Not even racists or pedophiles really come off as a punch line. How is it that you can do that?

I don’t do much self-deprecation. I’m never trying to be mean. But I do like to weave in and out of things that make people uncomfortable. I want to make people laugh, not feel bad. That’s why nobody is the butt of the joke. And I’m not perfect! Who am I to say anything about anybody else? These things are okay to laugh at. I genuinely like making people laugh — some comedians just like hearing themselves talk. There’s a power to it: I feel powerful by making people have that experience and reaction.

What’s the role of discomfort in humor?

The discomfort makes the laugh better — if you’re uncomfortable and you laugh, it’s a bigger laugh. They’re even more grateful to you that the laugh came. It’s a device that everyone uses. It is always cool to have some discomfort before the laugh. I think people are expecting me to be mean — so if you’re not, that’s even more pleasurable to them. Comedy is sleight of hand with words.

How do you hope to influence your audiences, beyond the moment of laughter for a night?

I want people to come and see me more, to buy my product. I’m a product.

Really? That sounds so cynical and reductive given everything you said about laughter!

The fantasy is that people think this isn’t a business — cynical or not, I’m not just about spreading joy. It is a business, and I need to make money. I’m not a clown, I’m a product, and that’s why you train for years and years not getting paid — so that you can. I think it’s less cynical and less egotistical than to think that I’m changing the world with my jokes.

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