It only makes sense that the employees of Comedy Central hold a true love for stand up. Such an assumption is true for comedian Jamie Lee – a former employee of the network who discovered her passion for the art while working in the network’s publicity department. After watching hours upon hours of stand up comedy, Lee found that her true passion lie not only in watching stand up but also in performing it.
Since first getting up onstage, Jamie has performed all over the country and recently made her late night debut on TBS’s “CONAN.” She has written for television – she’s currently writing on the newly-picked up Pete Holmes TBS venture – and hosts her own web series on YouTube titled, “Anne, Frankly.”
Recently she spoke with The Smoking Jacket about working at Comedy Central, writing onstage and the deception behind dark-rimmed glasses.
The Smoking Jacket: Is it true that you used to work at Comedy Central?
Jamie Lee: I did, yeah! Even before I started stand up. I was in the publicity department.
TSJ: How did you enjoy working behind the scenes?
JL: It was fun! It was my first job out of college. I learned a ton about how to be a professional person. I got there not really understanding what it was like to have real career-like job. That’s kind of why I left, but it was really a great job. It was also the reason I started stand up, to be honest. I didn’t go into it thinking Oh, this will lead me to stand up. I took it because in college I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I knew I loved comedy and writing and when I heard the job was available I saw that the description had “press release writing” work – which I didn’t know what it was – I thought it sounded cool.
When I was working there I became aware of stand up like never before. I was watching so much of it and started thinking it could be the answer to all of my problems; it was comedy and writing. Also, I was watching people who were actually doing it for a living so it wasn’t some crazy pipe dream anymore. I was literally working with comedians everyday.
TSJ: I’ve never spoken to a comic who’s worked there — that’s very cool.
JL: I’m not the only stand up who was there. I remember at the time thinking I felt guilty because I was there and wanted to leave to be on the other side, but I had read that John Mulaney had worked there and that Jessie Klein was an executive, too. There are so many more examples of comics having being there, especially as interns. A lot of interns wanted to do stand up. And I totally got that.
JAIME LEE ON “CONAN”
TSJ: Was there ever any thought to doing comedy before working there?
JL: I’m very spacey when it comes to goals. I feel like I’m really ambitious but have always been really afraid of admitting what I want because if I don’t get it I’ll feel like a failure.
TSJ: I can relate to that.
JL: Oh, good! It’s the worst thing ever. Some people are so committed to their path without regret. I’ve always lived in the gray area out of fear, so any inkling I could have had [that I wanted to do comedy], I’m pretty sure I would have squashed it. I was never like, My answer is to do stand up! Also, when I was in Texas, I just didn’t know anyone who had done it. I think if I knew someone who did it would have hit me earlier, but I just wasn’t around people who did it. All along I guess my inner voice was telling me comedy writing was what I enjoyed. I don’t know why it didn’t’ dawn on me earlier.
TSJ: I think that makes perfect sense. Growing up in a place where you don’t see it, it’s only in your head, but coming to New York, it’s right in your face because people are actually doing it and working in that industry. It’s a huge difference.
JL: Yeah! It was such a slap in the face when I started there.
TSJ: Was there one moment or person in particular, when you were working there, that made you decide to do it?
JL: No, I don’t think so. The first stand up I was interested in was Margaret Cho and then David Cross. I remember my first best friend in college also loved him. That was the first time I connected with someone about stand up. I think he was the first one I gravitated towards. His album was like music; I could listen to it over and over again.
But when I was working at Comedy Central, I worked on “Premium Blend” and then “Live at Gotham,” and I think from watching the emerging stand ups I saw a lot that I loved. Todd Barry might have been the first guy I really got into when I worked there.
“Comedy is really hard. I think a lot of people want to blame that on the city they’re in. It’s really all about if you’re funny and doing well. Even if you’re feeling like you aren’t getting the recognition you deserve, if you’re funny you will get it.”
TSJ: When you decided to get up onstage, was it similar to what you do now?
JL: There was a lot more shock and overcompensation for not having substance. [laughs] I guess it isn’t that much different than now but it feels different. It’s kind of like who was that person? I was also a lot more longwinded with a lot of set up. The punch paid off but it took me a year and a half to get there. That was a drag for the audience, but that’s gotten better.
My writing changed when I started doing late night shows at The Comic Strip. There was a really diverse audience, people from all over the world. It kind of helped us make our material universal within comedy, because if you led them astray they’d turn on you.
DANIELLE JONAS IMPRESSION
TSJ: Coming up in New York, was it at all difficult because of the strong comedy scene?
JL: I don’t think so. I definitely heard those complaints when I started, and I do now, but the truth is that comedy is really hard. I think a lot of people want to blame that on the city they’re in. It’s really all about if you’re funny and doing well. Even if you’re feeling like you aren’t getting the recognition you deserve, if you’re funny you will get it. I feel like people scapegoat New York. Yes, it’s tough, but stand up is hard.
TSJ: Do you feel certain parts of the country are more forgiving?
JL: That might be true, but I’d say they’re forgiving in that they’re excited to see live comedy. It’s exciting for them. I think that’s more venue-to-venue though. And sure, there are bits that work in New York that won’t fly elsewhere, but it’s hard to judge.
I was just in Nashville and remember looking at the audience; they were all super old country western people, and I thought it was going to go horrible. I had jokes about being Jewish – not saying they were going to be racist – I just didn’t know if they’d connect with it. But the show ended up going great; it was the most fun. I think it’s all about communicating effectively.
TSJ: In that sense, is it almost better to not look at the audience before you go out?
JL: I usually like to look at the audience before I go out because I tend to like crowd work up top to kind of get me in a comfort zone. But it is funny because it can work against you. I was doing a show with Sean O’Connor in Indiana two weekends ago and he went out to look at the audience. He comes back saying, “There aren’t enough people with black glasses.” [laughs] It’s so true because if you see people with black-rimmed glasses you think, Oh, they’re hip! They’ll get everything. It’s a comfort for you. If you see an old person you immediately think back to some event that went horrible with old people.
TSJ: That’s funny. There is something about the black-rimmed glasses that people immediately associate with being hip.
JL: Exactly, but it can go the other way. Sometimes they’re too cool to laugh or too politically correct.
TSJ: How often do you find yourself writing new material?
JL: Kind of all the time. I think the biggest shift for me in the past year is that I’ve gotten more comfortable writing onstage. I used to craft everything in advance, which I still do, but now I kind of just write something down and talk about it that night. I think talking about it onstage and getting it out without a punchline will lead me somewhere.
TSJ: That writing onstage is incredible to me. It’s got to be difficult.
JL: It really is hard. I’m not great at it but I’m starting to feel comfortable with it, which makes me so proud. I was so committed to sitting down and writing; I’d be one of those people at Starbucks writing with a pen and paper. But then I’d see my friends who were further along in comedy than me just going just write onstage. I was amazed. But now I get it, you just find your voice onstage.
TSJ: I guess at that point you’re almost walking onstage as a blank page, to a degree.
JL: Yeah, you still have your old jokes to go from but that gets boring. I’m so tired of my older jokes. It’s the worst feeling when they get old. Right now I’m teetering between featuring and headlining, and that forces you to have a lot of material. It’s really tough, especially because I started writing one-liners and I’ve always written much slower than other people. Now, I think it’s good to be a little more vulnerable onstage. I think it’s easy to shut people out when you have a six-minute set.
TSJ: I think from the audience’s perspective, you being vulnerable up there helps them connect with you more. I also think it makes it more enjoyable for them. It’s different than someone getting up there and reciting something over and over. They connect with that vulnerability.
JL: I think so. I like riffing up top too because even if I do go into old jokes during the show they are still with me. They sort of trust me.
TSJ: You do a lot of characters, such as your YouTube series “Anne, Frankly” or Kim Kardashian or Danielle Jonas; do you ever find yourself bringing the impressions onstage with you?
JL: I’ve had a couple of people say that I keep my characters and stand up separate and it is true. I think it’s just because I don’t know where to put them in my set, you know? I would love to integrate them more though.
I wish I could do what James Adomian does. His writing is so good and the reason his characters are so good – other than the spot on impressions – is that the words are so good. If I could do that onstage that’d be great. I’ve kind of started to try it out, and it’s gone well so far. But I’ve worked so hard over the years at writing, it’s hard for me to separate and just think,Why not trying to just be a funny person.