Meet Me In New York: Janelle James

What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they’re comedians? No, that’s not it. It is a fact, though, that America’s biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York’s vibrant comedy scene. It’s called Meet Me In New York.

Janelle James won me over on Facebook long before she started winning at Facebook. Our Facebook chats proved insightful and entertaining enough that when I finally met James in person, I started seeking her out onstage more and more often. Watching her feature at Gotham Comedy Club prompted me to ask even more questions (and all good ones) and want to know more about her. And that’s before she began living that #listlife, making both a “50 Most Funny People in Brooklyn” list, and then one of the industry’s most prized actual list of lists, Just For Laugh’s New Faces of Montreal this summer. 2016 has also seen James make it onto your TVs and computer screens with performances and appearances on @midnight on Comedy Central, Night Train with Wyatt Cenac on Seeso, and Uproarious on Fuse.

James is Caribbean-born, and making the most of her New York City residency this week with multiple sets on the schedule of the 2016 New York Comedy Festival. You can find her performing pretty much every night this week — DAMN, She Funny tonight at Union Hall, Women of Letters on Wednesday at Joe’s Pub, The New Negroes on Thursday at The Bell House, as well as opening for Hasan Minhaj at the NYU Skirball Center, the “Boast Battle” on Friday at Union Hall, Nacho Bitches early Saturday at NY Comedy Club, “It’s A Guy Thing” at Union Hall, and the Brooklyn Knitting Factory’s popular Sunday night showcase.

And she’s got a brand-new podcast about to pop off on iTunes! Damn, she funny, indeed. Let’s get to know more about Janelle!

(Photo above by Mindy Tucker)

Name: Janelle James
Arrived From: Champaign, Ill.
Arrival Date: July 2013

When and where was the first time you performed comedy?

“My first time doing comedy was March, 2011 ( I looked it up). It was at a biker bar called Memphis on Main in beautiful downtown Champaign, IL! I went a week before to watch the open mic and thought ‘I’m funnier than these dudes’ (ha!) and so I did it the next week and much to my family’s dismay, I never stopped.”

What was your best credit when you moved to NYC?

“Starting in a small town worked out for me in that by the time I moved to NY I had already ‘done the road’ as they say featuring in clubs and toured with Todd Barry and Rob Delaney. Because of that I had opportunities to get ‘good tape’ so I also got into the Bridgetown Comedy Festival while still living in Champaign. I didn’t know that was a big deal at first but I remember one night I met Natasha Leggero (who I’m a BIG fan of) and she asked me where I lived then practically screamed “HOW DID YOU GET INTO BRIDGETOWN FROM THERE?” So then I knew. That festival was a big help because I got to perform with and in front of all these New York and LA comics who had never heard of me, so when I DID eventually move to New York they were all like “OH HEY! BRIDGETOWN!” and I wasn’t so much of an unknown. I also visited NY a bunch of times before I moved and did the mics, hung out at the Creek and the Cave , lurked in corners etc. I was nothing if not strategically prepared. ”

Why did you pick NYC over Los Angeles or anywhere else?

“I picked NYC honestly because i’d lived here before so I knew how to navigate it and because it’s closer to my mom. Well jokes on me, because now I’m in LA all the time and I’m so busy I never see her anyway, so there.”

How long did it take you to get paid work after you moved to NYC?

“I don’t remember exactly but I’ll guess 6 months or so. Eugene Mirman asked me to perform on his Holiday show, then his Boston show and from there I was accepted into the alt scene which, no matter what people say about it (and I don’t say shit cause I love performing in all kinds of rooms), they pay. I got passed at the clubs later.”

How is the comedy scene in NYC better/worse/different from the scene where you were before?

“HA! New York is the pits. OK, obviously, it’s one of the comedy centers of the world and if you want to get good at stand-up FAST this is the place to be. The whole story of being able to do 6 shows a night is true and I’ve done it (I’m usually no good after four though) and there’s so much competition it keeps you on your toes. It’s the same in that comedians are lunatics wherever you go, there’s just more to contend with in a big city. New York is worse in that you don’t get to do longer sets here much, you get 8-10 min on most shows so you can’t really stretch out and have fun which in turn makes you forget to have fun and it can become an exhausting drag working on your late-night set, and only your late-night set for years. Fortunately I get to leave  and do out-of-state shows frequently.”

Do you have any experiences that you’d describe as “only in New York” to your friends and family elsewhere?

“Looking for an apartment here is the worst. I’ve seen literal closets in someone’s house being rented for over a thousand dollars. One place had rolling wood floors like bodies were buried under them, another had no doors. None. No bedroom, no bathroom doors. When I asked where the doors were, the dude said ‘Oh! You want doors?!’ like it was a crazy request. As far as stand-up, I’ve had much more memorable interactions on the road. NY crowds are lightweight in the bad behavior department. The thrill/dread of the extra-famous surprise drop in that you now have to follow never dies though.”

What advice would you give any comedian who’s thinking of moving here?

“Def try to become to ‘big fish’ in your small pond first. In this age of the Internet, word will spread before you get here and you won’t have to do paid mics and dungeon shows as long, hopefully. Also don’t worry about money because everyone here is poor and NY is the best place on Earth to be broke-ass in. Remember that none of this means anything in the grand scheme of things, you’re pursuing a fantasy career and nobody cares about you and your dreams so just have fun, don’t take anything too seriously (except being funny) and keep your weirdo/creep vibes to a minimum.  Also remember that most of your work will come from other comedians so don’t be an asshole (unless that’s your brand) or waste time being a kiss ass  to industry cause they ain’t all that!”

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

“BOOM. I’m doing large theaters and shit. My friends are on tour with me and we’re fucking up hotel rooms across the country like some kind of female, middle-aged, rock group. People are asked, ‘Who are your top five comedians’ and they answer “Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr… (insert whoever you want here)  and JANELLE JAMES. One can dream.. no?”

That’s a quality dream to pursue!

Like I wrote up top, you can find James performing most every night of the week in NYC when she’s not on the road as a feature act opening for the likes of Hannibal Buress, Todd Barry or others. You can find her updated schedule here.

Here’s James from a previous gig on Night Train in 2015:

Which NYC comedian would you like to see me style and profile next for Meet Me In New York? Send your nominations to: thecomicscomic AT gmail DOT com

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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