The single 2014 season of Marlon Wayans-hosted TBS competition Funniest Wins might have passed even hardcore comedy fans by. Runner-up Jenny Zigrino‘s May Conan performance, however, proved widely revelatory. Equal parts exuberant and self-effacing, Zigrino debated the pros of plus-size bodies and temperamental cons of remaining Friends with Benefits.
The Comedy Central, E! and IFC vet hits the big screen January 29 in Wayans’s Fifty Shades of Black parody, and shares the screen with Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates this Thanksgiving in Bad Santa 2.
You’ve lived outside Minneapolis, on the East Coast, and now in Los Angeles.
It’s complicated. I was born and partially raised in Minnesota until I was 11, when my mom moved to Boston. I spent a year in Boston and then started going back and forth during summers. I moved back to Minnesota when I was 14 so I could go to the Perpich Center for the Performing Arts high school out there. I started comedy when I was 16 – actually at the same theater Maria Bamford started at, Stevie Ray’s. I did it a few times and then stopped because it was scary. Then I moved to Boston when I was 18 to go to college. I got a film degree, but in the middle of my junior year picked stand-up back up again and haven’t stopped. I consider myself a Boston comic, because I really started in Boston.
Dave Chappelle started performing when he was 14; Eddie Murphy at 15. So you’re in good company.
I just always knew. When I was around 5, I remember watching Kids in the Hall on Comedy Central. And they were still running Monty Python episodes.
What triggered the impulse to first perform live?
It was seeing Dane Cook’s first Comedy Central half-hour when I was 16. All of my friends were up at 2 in the morning being goth and listening to Korn, and it came on. I remember thinking, “Yeah, that looks fun.” I asked my dad for classes.
Have you met Dane Cook in person?
I met him in May just before my Conan set. Turns out his mom and my mom lived in the same apartment complex in Revere, Massachusetts. His mom lived the next building over from where my mom lives now.
Who else do you consider your influences?
I respond to fun storytelling. Kyle Kinane’s one of my favorites. Sean Patton, Kate Berlant, Marina Franklin I love. I haven’t seen Wanda Sykes do comedy in a long time, but I remember her specials are always like a conversation. For me, with a lot of one-liner comedians, I just get bored.
When did you move from Boston to New York?
2013. I was five years in of doing it solidly. I moved with Langston Kerman, so we were roommates for a year. We actually just did Adam Devine together, and get to be in the same episode. I was just starting over and getting re-established in New York, and in April I got Funniest Wins, which is Marlon Wayans’s stand-up competition show. I stayed in L.A. the five weeks of shooting and ended up getting second place. My manager at the time told me I should move to L.A. permanently. I was like, “Really? Do I have to?” I did it and have no regrets…now. If you’d asked me six months ago, I would have told you everything was the worst.
I live in Echo Park with my dog Lupe. She’s from Harlem. Both my neighbors are named Lupe, so when I shout her name, I think they wonder why I’m yelling at them. And right now I’m watching my sister’s dog. His name is Boo, and he’s a street dog from Compton. He’s like a terrier-poodle-something. And he’s just sweet and dumb.
You just landed a part in Bad Santa 2 that Jennifer Lawrence was in consideration for. How did the role come about?
Hard work and dedication to the craft! [Laughs] I don’t know how much I can tell you, but I’ll be in the whole movie unless they cut me completely. And they’d have to change the movie a little bit, too. I play a character named Gina. I’m sassy. If you watch the new film I’m in, Fifty Shades of Black, I play a sassy, ratchet character. This character’s also sassy. But not ratchet.
Where does acting fit into your big picture?
I’ll always do stand-up. I think the goal is that eventually I’ll get my act together and finish the movie and/or pilot I’ve been trying to write for a year. And then be in it, so that’s where the acting mostly comes in. But for now, if I’m up for a cool role, why not? It’s fun! Eventually I’m just going to move into having creative control over everything [laughs], but for now this is fun. I’ve gotta put butts in seats when I go on the road. But I do feel some guilt: I see people who struggle every day to get a bit role.
My end goal is just to get enough money to buy an Eighteenth-Century, historically-accurate house decorated in the period style, and then just chase kids off my lawn in my Eighteenth-Century attire. I just want to be an old, eccentric woman people talk about in the streets.
What’s the writing project you’ve been working on for a year?
I’m working on a movie mostly about body positivity. It has burlesque in it. I used to do burlesque in Boston. I hosted shows for three years. When I hosted, I was a character called Liz Fang that was a British rockstar who came to Boston. I would wear really crazy clothing and go into the audience and rub up against people, call them “wankers” and be super inappropriate. The most fun I’ve ever had onstage was hosting those burlesque shows.
What I loved about the Boston burlesque scene was that there were so many more body types, and it was smart. There was so much nerdy, fun burlesque: The Legend of Zelda, routines about Planned Parenthood. The leader of our troupe, Rogue Burlesque, had a Miss Piggy routine. The caliber of the women are so much smarter. There’s substance, and they do it for the art and the social-issue aspects, as opposed to, “I’m gonna be pretty and dance!” The burlesque I see out here is just pretty girls bumping and grinding.
I moved before I had the chance to do it, but I had this whole Jon Snow routine. I made the costume and wore a beard and everything. Jon Snow comes out really sad that he’s a guy, and then realizes, “Underneath all this clothing, there’s a beautiful woman!” I get to strip with a beard on; that’s fun to me! Way more fun than just shoving my tits in some guy’s face. I really miss that.
Are you a fan of Bridget Everett?
I love Bridget Everett! I’m hoping when I get my treatment done, I can get Bridget on board. So that’s me asking the universe: “Get me Bridget!” Whenever I see her, I get nostalgic for my days of Liz Fang.
Jenny Zigrino makes her first appearance at the Moontower Comedy Festival this April.