Janelle James didn’t dream of doing stand-up as a kid. She didn’t hone her craft in college. “I had no inclination to become a comedian,” she explains. The Caribbean-born comic was 30 and working in fashion when a friend goaded her onto stage at an open mic. A few short years later, she has one of the best reviewed comedy albums of 2017, an upcoming Netflix special, and just finished a huge tour opening for Chris Rock. Ms. James talked to Moontower about her early days in comedy, why she doesn’t worry about offending people, and why she’s juicing before heading to Austin.
On getting into comedy in her thirties
I worked in fashion and ended up living in the midwest for a short time. While I was there, someone was just like, “Oh you should come and check out this open mic.” It was a new town and I didn’t really have any hangouts yet. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll get out the house.” I watched it and they told me I should do it next week. I was like “Okay.” When I did it the first time I did pretty well so I was like “Oh okay, I guess this is what I do now.” I tried it and just really liked it and it evolved, basically.
On her process
I used to write everything out word for word with punctuation and practice it in my head and in the mirror. Now I write on stage. I just have the thought that morning or whenever and I’ll just go do a show that night and work through it casually. That comes with time and it also comes with the availability of stage time. When you start, you’re not able to work that way because you might not get a show that night. I’m at the point now where if I wanna get on a show, I can work out something. I can get on the same day with multiple shows. I live in New York, which is the best place for that because you can do three shows, four shows, a night. If I have a thought for a show I’m kind of “Eh, I don’t know where it’s going.” Second show I’m more fleshed out, by the time I get to the third show I know whether it’s a bit or not. That’s how I write.
On a recent case of writer’s block
I just watched a lot of Netflix and I posted on Twitter, “How do you deal with writers block? Do I like run into a wall face first?” A lot of people were like “Take a walk.” That really does work. When I saw it I was like, “Get outta here.” Then I got desperate and I went for a walk. It really does work. Basically the answer is go outside, comedian.
On whether she changes her material when she’s on the road
I don’t have that kinda time. Funny is funny. Certain people have their sensibilities but that’s everywhere. You know what I mean? Certain things offend, it’s not like more people are offended or into certain things more than other things. I feel like when a subject affected a person personally, that’s when they take offense. I don’t know if someone just had someone die and then I have a death joke or whatever. It’s not personal it’s the person. I don’t change my stuff at all. I got into this to say what I want.
On opening for Chris Rock
It’s surreal. When he called me he said, “Hi, it’s Christopher Rock.” I was like, “This isn’t one of my friends fucking with me because they would not have said Christopher Rock.” I was like “Oh my God you know who I am? You think I’m funny?” Of all the big guys to take an interest in me I feel lucky it was him. When I’m in a room with him in my brain is like “That’s Chris Rock!” Like I’m not cool at all. I took it maybe more professionally than anyone else. I was just like ” I’m here to do a job.” I was not even focused on the fun, I was just like “I will not disappoint Chris Rock.” You know what I mean? I think and hope he appreciated it. Of course now with doing stuff like that and then having to go back to a Best Western is like a downer but that’s all comedy is, is a series of super highs and lows.
On coming to Austin
Oh, I’m going to [Barton] Springs, I’m definitely gonna eat a lot so I just started my little juice cleanse to get barbecue. Barbecue, springs, and exhaustion. I’m so excited to do Moontower. I’ve been wanting to do that for years. I’ve seen all the other comics going and I look at their Instagram and I’m like “Goddamnit!” And now I’m going! See? Everything worked out.