Janelle James on Her Debut Album ‘Black and Mild’ and Comedy’s Point of No Return

janelle-jamesJanelle James is in too deep. Eight years ago she started down the difficult and objectively foolish path of standup comedy, and now it’s too late to turn back. “It’s the dumbest thing. It’s a needle-in-a-haystack-ass career. And I’m a woman. And I’m black. What? But I like it so much.” Comedy appears to be liking her in return. In the past year she’s toured with Chris Rock, made New Faces at Just for Laughs, and has now released her debut album Black and Mild. I recently talked to Janelle about the new album, the point of no return in comedy, and being too proud to beg.

I just listened to the album this morning. It was awesome.

You did? The whole thing?

Of course. You said it like you couldn’t believe I made it all the way through.

I’m just messing with you.

You recorded at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis. Why did you choose that spot?

It actually just worked out with good timing. Acme offered me the weekend at the same time I was thinking I should do an album. That was my first time performing at Acme. I didn’t want to do New York because I do a lot of shows here and I wanted new laughs. I wanted those shock laughs, that party/going out atmosphere that’s hard to get in New York because everybody is so used to seeing comedy here. Comedy fans are so used to going to shows here, where everywhere else it’s sort of an event where people are more likely to sound like they’re having a great time. I didn’t want my friends finishing my jokes for me and shit, saying it before I finish it, which happens sometimes.

What kind of friend would do that? If someone did that at my album recording they would no longer be a friend.

It’s not ever malicious. Sometimes you have a fan and they bring someone new to see you. I’ve heard people say, “Ooh, this next one is good.”

Yeah, you hope the crowd isn’t mic’d next to someone slapping their friend like, “She’s about to do the Black Bachelorette bit.”

Exactly! I didn’t want any of that. Also, Minneapolis is cool in that they give you a five-day run. I was there from Tuesday through Saturday. By the time we taped on Friday and Saturday I was warmed up and ready to go.

The album cover art is amazing. I love the aesthetic. It’s got a very late ‘70s/early ‘80s Diana Ross vibe.

That’s exactly what I wanted. The whole concept of an album is kind of weird now. People are like, “Album? What does that mean?” If I expect people to travel back in time I want it to be something worth purchasing. I am going to get some pressed on vinyl. I wanted it to look nice. You said late ‘70s…I wanted it to look like an Earth, Wind & Fire album or something you would come across in a record shop.

I was looking at a couple of interviews you’ve done in the past. In one of them you said comedy is just a fantasy career and in another you said it was a ridiculous thing to pursue. I agree with both statements, but why have you personally pursued it?

I feel like with standup, after a certain amount of time there’s no going back. It’s like, “Fuck, I’ve given six years to it.” Hopefully you’re not totally delusional and you know whether you’re good at it or not and you’re like, “Well, this is it.” But it is very silly to think that we’re all going to succeed. But it’s like, “What else am I gonna do? Excel ’98?”

You’re right. If you spend a certain amount of time pursuing comedy there’s that point where you realize you’ve made yourself irrelevant in other areas of your life. You’re not going to disappear from a regular career for years and then walk back in and get a job at the marketing firm again.

“What’s this gap about?” “Oh, I was doing standup comedy.” “What?” And not only that, but, “You’ve never heard of me because I’m a failure.” People will say, “I’ve never heard of you,” and you feel like you spent six years of your life being a failure to people who don’t know what this “journey” is.

I’m right there, just scraping by to pursue this dumb thing. My truck got booted because of an unpaid ticket last week and I had to shell out a ton of money. It was the money I had saved up to go on tour. All of these wonderful and kind people were offering to help me out with money and I was like, “I can’t let you people pay for my dreams.”

I would like to put on record that I’ve never had a GoFundMe.

Good for you!

I’ve spent so much money pursuing this shit. You spend a lot before you actually start to make money. You just have to keep going.

I love you even more knowing that you’ve never crowdfunded.

Never. I’ve put out so much product it’s ridiculous. I feel the same way. I will not ask people to fund my ridiculous dreams.

I’ll save the begging for when I need a kidney or get in a car accident or something.

“I’m not going to save your life now. I sent you to London.”

Yeah, I’d feel really bad if I got a horrible disease and needed help with medical bills and everyone was like, “Sorry, but we gave you money to buy podcasting equipment.” How long have you been at this?

Eight years. Year six is when you kind of can’t turn back.

You’ve had some pretty cool things happen in the past year or so. You got New Faces in Montreal and got to open for Chris Rock on his Total Blackout tour.

It’s all been cool and exciting. Even though I am super grateful, I feel like another thing in standup is that this is what’s supposed to happen when you’re working really hard, building a fanbase, etc. These things are supposed to happen. I’m not like, “Wow! This is happening to me!” This is what’s supposed to be happening if I’m putting in the work. If these things aren’t happening, then I’m either doing everything wrong or not making any progress.

 

Photo by Matthew Salacuse.

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