Stephanie McHugh a Denver-based comedian, returns as a guest co-host to join Peter McGraw in conversation with her friend James Warner. James is a remarkable Solo who, for his 40th birthday, participated in a stand-up comedy and bodybuilding competition in the same year.
Listen to Episode #173 here
Beauty and Brains With James Warner
I’m here with Stephanie McHugh. Stephanie is a Denver-based comedian. She’s a coach and also a previous guest on the very popular How to Not Go On a Date episode. She’s returning as a guest co-host. Welcome back, Stephanie.
Thank you. It’s so good to be back, Peter. Are you having fun?
Not everyone gets invited back.
I feel honored.
You suggested our guest for this episode. These episodes take on a variety of formats. One of the formats is to talk to a remarkable solo. Allegedly, our guest meets those criteria. Would you introduce him?
Of course. Ladies and gentlemen of the Solo community, I would like to introduce you to my friend James Warner. You may not know, people out there, but you’ve already heard about him because I talked about him on the episode How to Not Go On a Date. I brought up that I was coaching someone. We talked about if you’re not dating, you have more time to do amazing things. James 100% fits this.
James, for his 40th birthday, wanted to do things that he has wanted to do his whole life and that were a challenge for him. He did standup comedy, has a fear of being in front of people and public speaking, and did a bodybuilding competition in the same year, all in his 40th year. James, thanks for coming to the show.
Thanks for inviting me. This sounds like a really cool experience. This is my first time on the show, so good luck out there.
James, I’ve read your bio and your background. You had tough circumstances as a young man or as a boy. Where do we start?
We’ll start our episode with a little bit of a Debbie Downer. It’s fine. I’m 1 of 7 siblings. I grew up in a really challenging home. We had some food insecurity, some housing insecurity, and drug and alcohol abuse. It was a challenging start. For people out there that may be familiar with the ACE score, my ACE score is a 6 or 7. On the ACE spectrum, the higher the numbers are, statistically, the least productive you’ll be in society.
It’s like a predictor of your future.
That is correct. I should be in jail on heroin charges, but the fact that I’m out being a productive member of society is a thumbs up to this guy over here. Resilience is the word we use for a general topic. It was a tough beginning, but with the support of family, friends, and some internal resilience, we’re ending on a high note if 40 is the end.
You became a ward of the state when you were a tween.
In ninth grade, I was taken out of my parents’ home. All of us were. The boys went to go live with my grandparents. My four younger sisters were separated between different family members in the Southeast. We were a unit of individuals in a chaotic household. I was the parent of my brothers and sisters. When we were separated, it was, “Everyone, fend for yourselves and try to figure out how to navigate.” The courts, instead of taking us into actual custody, decided that family was the best option for that. I spent the remainder of my high school years with my grandparents. I am very thankful to have a house, have food, and be in a consistent situation for at least the end of my high school career.
What I love, too, is you are still close to your family. I could see how that could possibly break up a family.
When you’re in those challenging situations, you have to hunker down as an individual. I was one of the older ones. My older brother was more of a disciplinarian. I was the mom of the house, so I did all the cooking and the cleaning. I did a mean high ponytail for my four younger sisters.
That’s not an easy skill.
Since it was in the ‘80s, it was a high ponytail with a braid. If we were feeling frisky, that’s what you got if you were one of my sisters. It’s an absolute blessing to be a part of this family. My siblings and I are very close. Everyone has a little bit of their own challenges, but everyone has been succeeding. Of us, we have 6 college graduates, 1 Military, and another with an electrical certificate. Everyone has done something, which is great.
We share an alma mater. I did my PhD at Ohio State University. You studied Exercise Science and you were a cheerleader.
What was interesting is that even though I was in a chaotic situation with the family, I had an aptitude for breaking furniture while flipping. I have an aunt who runs a ballet studio. My aunt and uncle decided they would fund my ability to go to gymnastics classes as a 6 or 7-year-old. I excelled at gymnastics, but I wasn’t able to continue because the family situation was chaotic. I had to get pulled out of that due to my parents not being able to transport me to and from. With 6 or 7 kids, that’s a lot to ask to transfer one on a consistent basis.
I found cheerleading in middle school, and that was the one sport where I can show off my tumbling abilities. I was always a star, so I needed to show off. I was the only male cheerleader in my middle school and my high school. I was standing out very early in school. With a chaotic home life, who cares if you’re going to be picked on at school? I was going to do the things that made me happy, and flipping down the football field made me happy. It was nice to find an athletic sport and community, being on a team sport, and being with other individuals who were a good distraction from the challenging home life.
As an aside, what years were you at Ohio State?
‘03 to ‘07.
I was there from ‘97 to ‘02. I was wondering if I saw you at a game or something at some point.
I feel that shows your ability, even from an early age, to take something and get really good at it. What are some of those skills that you learned then that helped you in year 40?
I don’t think I had a clear plan then. It was, “Do the next right thing. Figure out how to get to the next level.”
When you were in college?
Even in high school and college, I was pretty intelligent as well.
I don’t think I knew that you were the only male cheerleader in middle school. I knew you did it at Ohio State.
They didn’t have a uniform for me, so they had to get the coach’s T-shirt, like a collared polo and I wore khaki shorts. I was like a mini coach, but I was cheerleading with the girls with their uniforms. It’s small-town Georgia. It’s these conservative mindsets and conservative individuals. Looking back on it, I’m like, “That’s badass that I was willing to stand up and be like, ‘This is something I want to do. Is this against the grain? Let me go and do that.’” You give a big middle finger to society.
Is that how it went? You said, “I want to be a cheerleader. How can I try out?” or did someone say, “You’re really good at this.”
It was self-generated. People had seen me tumbling at gym class. That was my way of making friends. In any situation where I was unsure of myself or in a crowd of people and I didn’t know what to do, I would start tumbling randomly. I’m like, “I don’t know how to impress you, but I can do this. Let me go over here and tumble.” People had been seeing me tumbling in PE. When I made the request to the cheerleading coach in my eighth-grade year, I was a known entity of being able to do flips. I was then learning the sport of cheerleading. It was fun.
How did the girls treat you on the team?
Let’s go to high school. In ninth grade, it was a little bit tougher because I was a ninth-grader in a high school setting. I was being picked on constantly. The girls didn’t know how to operate because I was the first guy cheerleader. It was almost like, “Stay away. It’s a little weird.” They didn’t know. As I progressed through my tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade years, the girls started to come to my aid and protect me. I was popular by association. I was running with all the attractive females in their short skirts. If a guy was being mean to me specifically, then that would look negatively against him to her. It was an interesting safe space when it comes to the girls on the team being a protector. I was pretty talented, too, so they wanted to keep me as a group.
You were not interested in girls?
No. Early on, I was very clear that I like guys. My second-grade coach Noswerley, in those little coaching shorts, used to ask me to demonstrate handstand forward roles. I was giving him the best handstand-forward role possible because I needed to show off for him. I was convinced in second grade that he would lead me and his twin kids, boy and girl, and we were going to ride up into the sunset. I was clear early on that I was into dudes or bros.
Was that dynamic when you were cheerleading in high school? Did the girls know this?
No. I played. This is the late ‘90s. Will & Grace wasn’t out yet. Ricky Martin was about to do his She Bangs. There’s a little bit of stuff starting, especially with those frosted tips. It was all coming.
This is Georgia, too.
This is small-town Georgia. Everyone was a hardcore Baptist. We were also raised Catholic. Even though I was Christian, I was the wrong kind of Christian. It was obvious. I try to think that I was able to butcher it up a little bit. In walking down the hallway to stop myself from swishing from side to side, I used to straddle the square. There used to be square tiles, so I would try to straddle the squares and cowboy down the hallways to try to hide.
Anybody who knew the lifestyle, they’re like, “James.”
They kept asking. I didn’t come out officially until I was out of high school. I held onto it the entire time.
How’d that feel?
In a small town community, let’s say you are a family of color, when you go out into that community, you may be seen as different, but when you come home, you’re the same. You at least had a home base even though you’re in a society with people that are a lot different than you are. You’re the singular group in that society. As a gay kid, when you go out into society, you’re different, and when you come home, you’re different. You’re never in a safe space. From the family life I grew up in, there wasn’t a safe space. It was very isolating.
I would cry myself to sleep from 8 years old to 16 because I knew what it was. I knew what it was called. I knew that it was “evil” or “wrong” per the church. I prayed every for the Lord to please take this away, and nothing changed. I and religion have a very dicey past because I felt completely judged, not supported, and isolated by the dogma. It was interesting. I was an ultra-boy. I did all the things at church. I was a part of every youth group. When I saw the path of like, “I’ve done all this and nothing has changed,” when the possibility of like, “Maybe if I go into the priesthood, that’s the next big jump I can do to being a good Christian.”
You’re like, “I’m doing everything possible.”
Once I had that a little bit of, “I can go to the priesthood,” I was like, “This is not good. This is not going to be okay.” I realized I had to choose me. If it is a topic of someone coming home and saying something to their parents and the parents disown them, maybe teen pregnancy is one of the examples. As a young gay kid, when you do come out, you have to prepare yourself like, “If I say these words, my family may disown me and I have to be okay with whatever happens next. I have to be ready to live on my own, do it all by myself, and have no support.”
You parent yourself as I like to say.
I parent myself the rest of the way. Coming to that precipice and coming to that decision was not easy. It’s the ultimate choosing yourself over society’s expectations.
I never thought of it until you mentioned how being alone when you go out and also not fitting in when you go out, and not fitting even at home when you’re in the privacy of your own home.
It must have been very difficult.
We said Debbie Downer in the beginning. It gets better. I didn’t start the campaign, but it does get better.
I‘m sure you were a great altar boy. It sounds like there was a little bit of a flywheel effect in your life. You put your mind to something, get good at it, start to excel, and you build on that skill.
If we fast forward, and we’ll talk about it later, but when he went to an open mic to get ready to get on stage to do standup comedy, I’m like, “You already did it.”
We had a big deal. We had a big show with a big club that Stephanie got me the opportunity to perform at. We went to a tiny club where no one would be there so at least I could get my feet wet. I was baby stepping my way into my first time on stage so that I didn’t flood the big experience.
Let’s get into this. I think we should. 40 was coming. Were you single?
That’s important. I made this comment when Stephanie was mentioning this. I immediately said, “If he was married, I don’t think this happens unless his partner is incredibly generous or a fellow solo.” It is like, “You go do your things and I’m here for you when you need it,” that kind of thing. You had these two tracks happening simultaneously. It’s not like, “I’m going to tackle the comedy thing and then I’m going to tackle the bodybuilding thing.” You tackled them at the same time. Let’s talk about what went into the decision to do this.
In my early 30s, I decided to do bodybuilding. I’ve always been athletic. I enjoyed trying different things out. Prior to my 30s, I did full functional fitness and I got really lean. I didn’t like the look. I had a skeletal face. I was like, “This is not what I want to do.” I went lean and did the keto thing, and I was like, “This is not my jam. Let me go the other way.” From 30 to 40, and this is for me, I had no desire to go on stage ever. To walk on stage in your underwear and have people clap for you, the idea of that and then the cajones of people.
They’re judging you also.
Don’t you find that interesting that he’s like, “I feel nervous about that,” but also, he was a cheerleader in middle school. The only boy.
There is a paradox.
I was doing fitness for myself. I was getting bigger. I was getting smaller for ten years because I wanted to do it. I would plan vacations at the end of a big bulk or a big cut. I would be like, “Let me go and do that,” as a present to myself.
Will you define what a bulk and cut are for someone who doesn’t know bodybuilding?
Sure. Typically, in bodybuilding, you want to bulk first. That means you want to put as many calories in your body as possible so that when you are stressing the muscle, you have the fuel around the muscle and the opportunity for fat.
Can I say that is a fun time to hang out with James? It was the middle of the pandemic. He was bulking and we were doing comedy. He goes, “I ordered Voodoo Doughnuts and pizza.” I’m like, “This is amazing. I love this.”
It was a great time. Cheat days are a fun time.
Cheat days are great.
Bulking is trying to build the muscles and when you want those excess calories to do that. Once you vulture a certain point, you then want to then trim away the fat and see what kind of tissue you’ve built underneath there. That’s the bulking. You get big first and then you shrink.
You’re cutting now?
I’m cutting. I have a show in eight weeks. I told Peter and Stephanie on the way in. I’m like, “I have rice krispie treats and Gatorade. If my blood sugar drops low because I am at a calorie deficit, whatever is happening here and coming out of my mouth, probably it’s not me. I’m on autopilot.”
He’s always a gentleman. We were meeting not too long ago. He goes, “I have to eat my chicken and rice. I feel so bad eating in front of you.” I’m like, “I’m good.”
I did my bodybuilding by myself in my 40s. It was the pandemic when I was like, “The world is coming to an end. Now I need to have something to look forward to.” I’ve never wanted to get on stage and do the bodybuilding thing, but I needed something to shoot for.
Does bodybuilding was your first choice?
It was both. I was trying to decide for my 40th what I wanted to do. What did I want to do as a present to myself for my 40th? Bodybuilding was the easy track. It was like, “This makes the most sense. This is something I’m already doing.” It’s interesting. I try to go against my appearance sometimes because when people see me, initially, the conversation is very, “What’s up, bro? Do you work out? How much do you lift?” People ask me whether I work out, how much I lift, and how much I squat. They are very basic questions that my appearance is a great conversation starter. It’s a good opener.
Especially when you can lift a lot.
When you look like I do, it’s great. I’m an interesting person. I have a mild intellect. I wanted to show off some of my other skills. I thought that comedy was the odd choice. Bodybuilding makes sense in what I’m already doing, but the comedy was something to maybe show a different side of myself that was the funny, witty guy that maybe is not obvious upon appearance.
You’ve always loved standup comedy. We’ve known each other for fifteen years.
How’d you meet?
We met in 2009.
He was roommates with one of my best friends. I met you when you came.
On Roommates.com, I met Marie and we decided we would do this. I was moving from the Southeast out to Denver. Marie introduced me to Stephanie the very first week. Stephanie had a show. I love standup comedy. I’ve been watching all these different specials. I’m like, “Now I have a comedy friend,” which is awesome. Stephanie and I became fast friends. I was coming to a lot of her comedy shows. Also because I was new in town, I was getting a lot of date offers.
You were the new guy.
I was the new meat. My go-to was I have a friend who does comedy as a first date option. I would always ask these guys to join me for a comedy date. It was a revolving door of dudes that Stephanie got to introduced to initially. She never said their name because she doesn’t want to get confused like, “Is it Trevor? Is it Chad?”
I was like, “Is it Dave or Doug?” I get so confused.
For those of you who do want to date, comedy is a great first date.
If you’re both laughing at the same things, it suggests that you have similar values, lifestyles, interests, and so on.
I like it, too, if you’ve experienced something together. I do comedy and then drinks afterward or dessert afterward. It was so that if the conversation is stale, at least you could at least talk about the show you saw. If you see that they’re not laughing at the things that you’re laughing at or didn’t laugh at all, then you’re getting a lot of tell by going to a comedy show.
When I was early on doing standup comedy, I’m like, “I feel like I’m getting fat” and I wasn’t fat. I then realized I put my thong around backward, which would make the women laugh. If the woman is not laughing and they’re on a first date, the guy is not going to laugh. That’s interesting that you brought that up if you both went on a date.
That may be my bias. I did all this work in comedy. That’s how I met Stephanie. I get these journalists who say, “If you want to impress someone on a date, what kind of jokes should you tell?” I always say, “You should talk about what you think is funny. If they don’t think it’s funny, that’s good because now you know you shouldn’t have a second date. If they think you’re hilarious, that’s great.” That’s always been my thing. As long as it’s authentic is the point.
You don’t have canned three jokes that you’re going to deliver on every date that you’re like, “I’m going to lay in these three jokes. If the plane lands, I’ll get a second date.”
I’m always thinking about what the title of the episode is. I came up with the title while you were talking, James. It’s Beauty and Brains with James Warner. It’s very Socratic of you. It’s a scholar-athlete kind of approach to your 40s. You were like, “I’m going to challenge myself intellectually, and I’m going to challenge myself physically. I’m going to do them together to develop this whole person.”
It was the pandemic, too. The world had shut down, so it’s like, “What do we do to then have something to look forward to and something to plan for?” I’m a planner. If I can put things in a calendar, if I can have a to-do list and check things off, I feel safe. I feel like I’m whole.
Did you develop that as a way to cope with the chaos in your home?
I think so. My therapist calls it positive distractions. I like to have things that are goals that I’m shooting toward that are keeping me out of my internal monologue or the negative self-talk. It keeps me on a positive path forward and I am choosing good things to focus on versus a crappy childhood. Everyone goes to the therapist talking about their bad parents, but I really have bad parents. I choose things that are more fun and interesting. I like that it’s organized so that if I’m on a plan or on a path, I feel safe and contained.
I really admire that about you.
I hear that. Thank you. I feel that.
On a much lighter scale, I feel like my oldest daughter is that way, too. She has to plan everything out because I’m a little scattered and so is her dad. She finds comfort in having her day or her schedule. When she goes on a trip, it’s all planned out. She’s like, “Here’s where I’m going to be.” That’s on a much lighter scale.
On the bodybuilding side, people typically in the prep or getting ready for the show, they are eating every three hours. The strict nature of calorie depletion, I thrived in that. The fact that I knew what I was doing every single day and the day was so organized and so detailed that I didn’t have to think about it and it was going on autopilot, that made me feel safe and secure. I loved it. Most people like the day of, like the bodybuilding day, the show, or the beauty pageant of it all, and walking around the stage in your underwear and sparkly bikinis.
You look the best possible that you can look. You’re super lean and super muscular.
You need that day on the calendar so that you can prepare for that date. I don’t necessarily care about the day of. I’m not trying to win a trophy. I want to put a good presentation on the stage. It’s the pre-work that I enjoy, which most people hate. My trainer is pretty proud of what we can do. He’s like, “When I give you a program, you do the program. You follow instructions well.” He’s also hot. I’m like, “Whatever you tell me, I will do it.”
You have flashbacks to second grade.
I noticed the second time watching you prepare for the bodybuilding, you are in the zone and not nervous.
You’re very engaged.
I would miss food or anticipate missing food but you don’t. You’re ready.
Think about you’re in a bikini on stage. There is an impetus that people are going to see you mostly naked. You pass on the Voodoo Doughnuts once in a while.
The mouth pleasure can wait.
The visual is a huge part of it.
It wasn’t easy so where was the challenge? Let’s stick with bodybuilding. We’ll get to the comedy and the brains. Don’t worry.
Even similar to this show and this is my first time being on a show, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve only done one bodybuilding show to date, so I didn’t know what to expect. It’s that nervous excitement of what to expect and what’s going to happen. That was the challenge. It was managing my emotional state and making sure I was staying in the program. It’s also finding a good partnership. You have to have a team. I had tried out three different trainers before I chose the one that was going to be the better trainer.
He happened to be the hottest one of all.
He’s very attractive. We work so well together. He’s very knowledgeable. His quads are three times the size of mine. I was like, “I want someone who looks ridiculously huge and I know who’s done the work and knows how to do it.” Finding a good trainer is important. I have someone prepping my meals for me so I don’t do the meal prep. I have them delivered to my house, which is awesome.
It’s those systems and putting systems in place. I was like, “Cooking food is going to be a limit to me, so let me figure out a way to have the food prepared in a way that I know that I can get it in. Let me have someone who’s a solid coach who can give me the right programming and that kind of stuff.” The challenge was finding a good team of people to help you with that but then also the managing emotions of not knowing what to expect.
What was it like learning these poses and stuff?
It is the most uncomfortable, unnatural thing that you ever do. Breathing, for me, is the weirdest part of it. You have to hold in your stomach the entire time. You’re holding poses for a while. I personally am suffocating myself because I’m not breathing, but there’s a trained method of breathing in your upper chest and not passing out. I’m close to passing out every time. I’m nervous, excited, and holding my breath, so it’s awkward.
You’re holding your breath without water and many calories a couple of days before, too, correct?
Yeah. You have little to no water. The day of, you’re calorie depleted. You’re a zombie. You get on stage and monkey prance, and then you do flex and pose the right way. You hold your stomach in, poke your butt out, chest up, and smile. Don’t forget the smile.
You were witnessing this, Stephanie?
What were you thinking as he was working on the bodybuilding stuff?
I would have to say I learned how he goes about things. It’s like what you said. He has a system in place. He gets people to help him.
He has a team. I love the word team.
I finally had someone help me with social media. It is huge to have a team or someone to help you in the areas that you’re not good at so that the whole goal, you accomplish. I did like that. He’s super helpful.
You went to the show.
People are dying to know how did it go.
It’s my first show. I did the open heavyweight, so that is 200 to 224 weight-wise. I was weighted at 203, which was my lowest. I was on stage at 207. I was on the smaller end, but I was up against the big boys. I got fifth place in my first show. I looked good in my bikini, so for me, it was a success. I did a photo shoot two days later because I was like, “This is me at 40. If it all falls apart from here, I want the photo to document that.”
Your dating profile is going to be banging for the next five years.
I was so proud of it. It was so cool to watch someone.
Also to see all the other people. There is a lot of hard work that goes into that.
It is a unique group of people. The people that would do that to themselves I thought were like, “I’m outgoing. I’m gregarious. I’m going to meet all these other fun, outgoing, gregarious bodybuilders.”‘ Personality was not a characteristic of most of these individuals. I was clapping on stage for everyone. Everyone else was scowling. They were hungry and thirsty, but I was still being a good sport about it. It’s such an interesting thing as well. The girls at the end, they make them hug. They’re like, “Hug each other.” The guys don’t hug. They don’t smile at each other. They don’t clap for each other. They do their manly agro thing and get off the stage.
Not as much camaraderie.
I was thinking I would find a community there. Similar to comedy, I thought I was going to find this outgoing, stable, and great group of comedians who also had a good sense of humor. I was like, “That’s not the case.”
I had a retired professional basketball player on the show. We’ve talked about his career. He was more of a journeyman. His name is Paul Shirley. We did two episodes. An interesting insight was being a professional athlete is not nearly as romantic and exciting as you think it would be. It’s a grind, especially for the average person. It’s highly unstable work. It’s risky work. It’s hard work. It’s painful work.
It’s body-dependent and injury dependent.
That’s right. It’s not as great a life as you think it would be. Do you have any regrets about the bodybuilding?
Definitely not. I thought it was something I would do maybe for my 40s and then maybe for my 50th. I thought I was going to do a milestone. Once I realized I really liked the suffering of the prep and how your body can change. I liked how every single time you do it, at your next show, your body is that much better because the baby fat you used to have is no longer there. The fat doesn’t come back the same way. Your body composition is different after your show. If you keep doing it slowly, your body starts changing. You don’t have these deposits of fat that you used to have. I enjoy the suffering of it all. Every two years is the plan through my 40s because you need about two years to grow and get bigger before you look different on stage.
Are you vain?
There’s an element of vanity here.
I’m vain, so I feel very comfortable asking that question.
I should ask Stephanie that question. Is James vain?
It has a negative connotation. I don’t know if vain is the right word.
Vain isn’t the right word, but he cares about the presentation in a loving way.
I call myself vain.
This is how I have been in the past. Anytime I give myself a regimented eating structure and then go off of it, look out because I am going hard on the Voodoo Doughnuts or whatever. You did not do that. You had a plan also for when it ended so that you wouldn’t go too far the other way.
When they do the rebound, people gain all this weight back. Speaking to the vanity, the summer before, I was fat. I went on stage in November 2022, which means throughout the summer, I was a roly-poly. I was determined the following summer I would have abs. I controlled my rebound so that I was contained. I didn’t let myself go off kilter because I knew what it was to be a thickens the summer before. I wanted to have my new summer body.
That was impressive. He’s very helpful to me.
It’s controlled vanity.
I feel like I’m going to get canceled in this show, but one thing I’ve learned is that men are visual. I am not making that wrong, right, or anything. I’m noticing that men are visual. My two gay friends have an opinion more about what I should wear on stage than heterosexual men that I know. I find it interesting because they are the ones that care for me, both of those friends, but also, they’re not trying to get anything from me.
They’re giving you unbiased advice.
The other way I realized this is I did the Tough Mudder. We were in Beaver Creek. We were walking up this double black diamond. It was so steep. There was one guy. If you wore the least amount of clothing, they would give awards.
You’re exposed to the elements and so on.
You’re doing Army crawl through snow. You’re getting an electric shock. You’re jumping in cold water. There are a lot of obstacles that were rough.
That sounds like a lot of chafing. That’s all I can think of.
The guy had a loin cloth. It was a piece of fabric in the front and a piece of fabric in the back. He was young and fit, so he was going up way faster than everybody else. I could tell where he was because I could hear guys going, “I don’t want to see that. What is going on? Stop it.” That was because as he would go up, you could see everything. I was like, “Men are visual. They are tuned in to visual and they don’t like it or they do like it.” It’s interesting. I adore that about men. I’m fascinated by that.
James, let’s stop objectifying you and talk about this gray matter. You were saying earlier that you like standup comedy and you’re watching all these specials. You have your standup comedy friend who also happens to coach standups and help people develop a comedic voice, more generally. That’s Stephanie. Do you do this online, too if anybody wants to reach out to you?
They could. I’m not doing as much as I used to, but I do it.
She’s a great coach.
She is a great coach and has great feedback. If you’re new and interested in the Denver area getting some coaching, Stephanie is a great coach.
One of the things that was shocking to me when I stumbled upon this question of what makes things funny, I decided to go to an open mic. I did it for journalistic purposes. I did it with very little preparation and no coaching. It was a disaster.
What was the topic?
My bit was about nicknames. It was at the Squire Lounge in Colfax. It was in August. It was a hot night. The audience was filled with other comics. I was wearing a sweater vest.
Isn’t the Squire, for a time, known as the roughest open mic in the country? I’m paraphrasing that.
Certainly in Denver and arguably in the country.
It had a reputation.
The MC that night, I remember him saying, “It’s the only bar that has an indoor outhouse.” That was one of his jokes. It went very poorly. For the two of you, you’re not surprised by that. That’s typical. It was especially typical given how little preparation I had. One of the things that I discovered, and I wrote a lot about it in my second book, was how much of a grind developing comedy is.
Ideally, you’re writing every day. You’re performing every night. You’re getting feedback. You’re revising and honing. At the same time, you’re developing an ability to riff, crowd work skills, a voice, and so on. It is a non-trivial task. It arguably takes about ten years to get really good. That’s the magic number that comedians talk about. Turning your attention to this, in some ways, there’s an interesting parallel, which is the grind of lifting weights, eating, and doing all these things, and then the grind of developing new material.
I will say positive and negative that when you’re learning about comedy, you’re learning these tricks, the rules of three. There are all these kinds of things you’re learning. Almost as a lover of comedy, since I know the tricks I’ve seen behind the veil, you are noticing other comics do these tricks. You’re like, “Should I have even done this because now, every comic I watch is doing it?”
It ruined it.
It’s a grind. My goal was to try to perform once a week for an entire year. That did not happen because the bodybuilding show started afterward. Signing up for an open mic at 8:00 PM and not going on until 2:00 did not work well with food, sleep, etc.
In that way, it’s a major contrast. The lifestyle is not amenable to good health.
Also, it was a little bit during the pandemic. I performed 16 or 17 times, some of them on Zoom, and some of it on stage. It is learning your voice and learning what you wanted to do. I’ve always been impressed by, generally, female comics that have interesting intellectual comedy. It is story-based typically but has a fun turn of phrases and that kind of thing.
Who comes to mind?
Stephanie is wonderful. The first person that sparked me was Margaret Cho in the late ‘90s. I saw one of her shows in an indie theater and I was like, “A foul mouth Asian female. I love it.” Ellen DeGeneres was a great example of that kind of stuff. Iliza Shlesinger is also an example of this. Those are all great examples. My first time on stage, I did more of a story-based monologue/funny tale.
What was the topic?
I’m an IT consultant. I go into different hospitals for a period of time for project work. I was in a hospital in Kansas. After about three months of being on the job, the one hot girl on the IT team, we were walking down the hallway and she shoves me into a side office. She goes, “Why haven’t you asked me out yet?” I don’t know if I “pass,” but in a professional setting, as a consultant, you can be let go for any reason. I present very professionally at work. I don’t bring out the glitter or the Britney Spears remixes right away. She thought I was straight and I was gay. To me, that’s hilarious.
Her name was Christie. I was like, “You’re lovely.” She’s also an Amazon. She is six foot. She is very athletic but a large woman. She was towering over me. The contrast was similar. The dynamic was different as I was a male and she was a female, but physically, she was bigger than me. The fact that hot women, when they don’t get the attraction they think they deserve and then demand it, was so interesting to me. That little story was my intro to comedy.
It’s fun. It’s a reversal.
There is a lot to play with there.
A big element of comedy is the reversal.
I also dress very plainly on stage. I came out on stage as well. In the end, it was like, “I’m gay.” I didn’t want to lean into the gay thing and to be the main shtick, but it was interesting that I don’t necessarily present gay right away, and then at the end, I’m like, “Hey, girl.”
When you say plain, what do you wear?
I was wearing brown pants and a black shirt. I had very basic colors and a plain look. I didn’t do anything. A lot of my T-shirts, and Stephanie sees them all the time, they’re a lot of fun and colorful. They’re like, “I called in thick today.” There are a lot of fun sayings. In my normal play clothes, it’s a little bit more flashy.
Did you coach him on what to wear or did you feel like he already had a good look?
He already had it. Without saying vain or anything like that, he didn’t need me.
What did he need you for?
He needed me to help him with technique, but also, “You can do this and here’s how it’s going to be.” He’s very good at preparing, so I was preparing him for that. If you’re reading this and going, “I could never do that,” you genuinely do have fear towards it. You work through it and do it. It’s to be the coach through it if that makes sense.
If there’s something that scares me a little bit, I try to lean into that. Something I’ve been choosing to do as I’ve gotten older is that if it scares me a little but I want to do it, then let’s lean in and do that. It keeps life interesting.
I like that. I did an episode about psychological richness. In many ways, James, you’re a perfect example of someone who’s pursuing a psychologically rich life.
I would agree.
There is a variety of traditions. If you’re a well-being researcher, what you tend to focus on are people who live a happy life, a life filled with positive emotions. No offense, but you’re not living that life per se. You put yourself under load, under duress. You put yourself in uncomfortable situations and stressful situations. Your life is not always pleasant.
I hear that.
You could also be living a meaningful life. You could be trying to cure cancer or volunteering at an adoption agency, or whatever. What’s interesting about a happy life or meaningful life is that it can get boring. It’s the same thing. What you’re doing is a rich life. It’s one that is challenging and that has variety in it, in a sense. It’s not always pleasant and it doesn’t have to be meaningful. It can be for you, in that sense, but it’s still remarkable.
We had one of the topics that came up with the researcher who wrote the paper. She’s wonderful. I’m trying to recruit her to be a guest co-host. She has a great voice. People are like, “I love listening to her.” We talked about how being solo can allow that richness in seeking out challenges. What I like about your story is it’s a challenge of both body and mind. It’s made even more difficult because you’re doing them both together.
I came out as gay. I also need to come out as solo. It’s a new step. Until this opportunity where Stephanie presented the possibility of being a part of the show, I hadn’t heard about the term solo. In doing the research, because I’m a preparer, I started checking out episodes and did the first five.
That’s a good way to do it.
In the last five, I was seeing what the art of the show was to see what I was getting myself into. Let me say I’m a fan girl, so I was impressed. I’m hearing all of these interesting, articulate individuals doing so many fun things in life. The one that comes to mind right away is the nurse who does the bike ride across Africa.
That’s Jill Cohen. People love Jill.
She is awesome.
She caught my attention. I see myself in this solo community. I didn’t get the toaster. I didn’t get the welcome mat yet. It’s the jargon, finding a community. I am appreciative of you even creating this space for people that are living that solo experience to be themselves. Honestly, since coming out as solo, I’m considering myself a recovering romantic because I thought that I was bad at relationships.
Join the club. I used to feel that way, too. I’m like, “I’m great at them.”
I’m great at relating to people. it’s just that my life is very chaotic, interesting, and new, and having a plus one doesn’t always fit into that. There are some individuals who want someone at their side 100% of the time and I’m on the go constantly. It’s either jump on board and come with or this is not going to work.
It could be, “I’ll see you in two weeks.” It takes a special person who’s also a solo.
Gay guys are too codependent. They’re like, “Where are you? I want froyo.”
It’s been very cool to be at the beginning. We were doing your other show, I’m Not Joking. You shared that this was a concept in a show that you were doing. To see James have that turn and go, “I am remarkable,” there are not as many people that are doing what you’re doing or where you are. I want to say there’s nothing wrong wherever anyone is. It’s what you are up for is a smaller group of people to find someone that would like that.
I was flogging myself for being bad at relationships. It was a to-do list. I love my to-do list. It was something I had to be able to cross off the list.
I didn’t like one of the guys either. I didn’t like one of them. I liked him, but you were like, “I like him and this isn’t working.” I’m like, “He’s not in a good spot. You are doing way too much to help him. I want you to find someone who’s doing that.” I was like, “I’m cockblocking this right now hard. Where is he?”
Ultimately, what you said is true. It was because of my tough childhood that I have done a lot of internal work. A lot of the therapy I did was in my 30s. I’ve done a lot of internal looking. One of my favorite phrases from my therapist is that we all have baggage from our previous relationships or life experiences. It’s our responsibility to know what’s in the bags. No one else is going to carry them for us. We carry our own bags. We need to know what’s in our bags. I’m very clear about my crazy and what I’m carrying into any relationship.
As you start doing the work and start becoming a little bit more enlightened in what you’re looking for, a hot body and a nice smile don’t do that anymore for me. You need someone who is up to par. I don’t want to use the word evolved, but at least introspective or interesting. Gays are 10% of the population in one study. I’m attracted to 2% of that 10%. Of that 2%, who has done the work, and who is emotionally available?
The pyramid keeps things smaller. I feel like I’m a stellar individual. I bring a lot to the table. I expect a plus one is going to meet me where I’m at and be not on my path but on their path and be excited about their life. When it comes to that, it has been a challenge to find and I’m also okay not finding it. If at some point that happens, then great. If not, then I’m still out there.
I have these terms. There’s the someday, the just may, the no way, and the new way solo. The somedays are traditional singles, looking for their person. You strike me as a bit of just may. You’re like, “It may happen. I might stumble on this person who’s done the work,” and so on. It sounds like you have an open heart and an open mind that you’d give it a go.
My guess is also, you might be a little bit of a new way. You’re like, “Maybe there’s a different type of relationship that could work for us,” one that gives you space that you need to be James. I’ve only known you for an hour. Stephanie, back me up here. I can’t imagine you meeting someone and you going, “I’m going to put all this aside for this person. I’m going to put myself in orbit around this other person. We’re going to do everything together and all the things that are expected from an all-or-nothing relationship.”
The mentality that we’ve lost is that it takes a village. There is your friend that loves horror movies and you go to see horror movies with that friend. There’s a friend you know loves to do cooking classes and you do that with that friend. To expect one person to like the same things you like and want to participate in the exact same activities, that’s a lot of pressure for any one person. My family members who I adore, I can handle it for about three days. On that fourth day, I’m like, “You are near and dear to my heart, but I got to go. I got to need to do something different.” It’s finding what fits you and me. Putting all my eggs in one basket doesn’t work for my lifestyle.
People reading this are like, “Hallelujah.” The nice thing about solos is they’re not anti-relationship. Many of them would welcome it. They might want a conventional one and they might want an unconventional one, but they’re not going to judge someone for wanting something different. I shared your perspective. I thought I was really bad at relationships. The reason I thought that was because I had a fraught relationship with my mother and then I realized my mom had a mental illness. She didn’t get along with anyone. I was like, “I get along with everyone except her. I need to find a way to manage this relationship better.” It’s a different beast that’s there.
I thought I was bad at romance and romantic relationships because I could not fully commit. If I had gone to couples therapy, which I didn’t with my girlfriends, the girlfriend would be like, “Why can’t he do this?” The therapist would be like, “Why can’t you do this?” It wasn’t anything about me. It was this thing was not the right thing.
The average person never considers. The thing is that if I ask my friends, “Is there something wrong with me?” They’d be like, “You’re a different kind of person but no. You’re stable and you’re healthy. You’ve got these great friendships. You have a good relationship with your family. You have good work relationships, etc. You’re not a broken down individual.” You would never think they’d be like, “Maybe you shouldn’t think about dating like this. You’re off on a plane all the time and you’re doing all these other things,” and so on. It is being able to recognize this and to recognize it young.
40s is young.
You said you didn’t work in your 30s. That’s still young.
That is one of the things I appreciate most about the solo community. If you are a certain way, they can appreciate it even if it’s not the way they are. Whereas if someone is in a married relationship or something like that, they can only see it that way. It’s just this one way. I like people who are like, “That’s interesting.”
Maybe the gay thing’s a little bit of an insight into that. As a young gay person, the idea of the stereotypical heterosexual relationship with marriage, a house, and a kid is not an option for you. You already are starting off without having those societal constraints.
It’s difficult but it’s liberating in that sense.
I’m leaning into, “What do I want? What feels good to me?” It’s a great way. Another key phrase for my therapist is that you come into this world alone, and everyone you love, you will lose through death or through moving or you’re passing. The most important relationship is the relationship you have with yourself.
I like this therapist.
She’s lovely. She’s a 65-year-old Jewish woman and about 4’1”. She’ll wag her finger at me. It’s cute. Finding a therapist that works for you is awesome. What do I want? If there’s a partner out there that’s similarly capable or able to fit within the lifestyle I’m living, then great. If not, then I have my solo community. You can find me @BeefCastle on Instagram.
I’m not surprised by that.
@BeefCastle is a vain handle, building one brick at a time.
I’d like to do two things. I want to finish by returning to a question that Stephanie started, which is advice about how you tackle these big challenges. I didn’t feel like we dove into that enough. The other one is you have this turn of phrase that I like about a scrapbooking life that you view your life as a scrapbook of sorts.
When people ask me how to explain what I’m up to, it is that I view my life as a scrapbook. I want to have the most interesting variety of experiences to put into my scrapbook. Stephanie told me this once. I don’t know if she remembers. You used to volunteer at a hospice facility or an old folks home. You said that the two things that they always complained about at the end of their life was they didn’t travel enough or they didn’t have enough sex.
That was years ago. I’ve been traveling a lot since then and having a lot of sex, so thank you for that, Stephanie. Those are some of the scrapbook memories. I’ve been to thirteen different countries. I’ve lived in every time zone in the US. In 2024, I’m moving to Europe. I’m doing the digital nomad visa where I’ll be traveling around Europe, working for a US company. I’m learning German. During cardio in the morning, I’m listening to German lessons and repeat that on the treadmill. People who do not have their headphones are like, “What is this crazy person doing?” Cobbling together all these unique different experiences and having your tagline. A remarkable life is something I’m up to.
That’s why you’re on here. Do you have any advice?
I’ve prepared. I’ve heard a lot of intellectual people join this show. My little dog and pony show may not live up to some of these really intellectual individuals that have been here. One of what I consider the core values that I wanted maybe to share is to be kind. The basic step or step one is to be kind. If you’re putting out good energy to other people, then good energy will come back to you.
It’s clapping for your competitors on stage.
Maybe smiling and being good to others. Have fun. Make sure you’re having a good time. If you’re having fun, they will have fun. It’s going to be fun. Be prepared. It’s very much that Boy Scout rule. Do things that scare you. Even when I got the call for this show and Stephanie said, “There is a possibility that you would join me on a show,” immediately, I had a tight chest. I lost all the moisture in my throat. I was like, “A show?” If something scares you, consider what’s scary about it. What is it that scares you? Is it something you want to tackle? Is it something you want to continue to be afraid of?
I’m going to share a little insight. I don’t know if you remember this, Stephanie, but I said, “James would be great for this.” You were like, “I don’t know if he’s going to do it.” Do you remember what I said?
Does he know this?
No, I don’t think so.
Should we share it with him?
You were blasting me? Let’s do it.
It’s not a blast. You said, “I want you to say, ‘Do you want to do it or not?’ and then be quiet. Don’t say anything more.” It was a good lesson for me. I go, “Okay.”
I was like, “Don’t oversell it. He’s either going to want to do it or he is not going to want to do it and he’s going to come do it himself.” I knew your story. I was like, “Of course, he can do it. This is nothing compared to those other things. Give him the space to say yes.”
That was a good learning lesson for me, too, in trying to make someone feel good and give them support. It’s still giving them support, but giving them space.
It’s honoring his desires.
She knows this. It’s listening to my body, too. If I’m getting these little tingles of nervousness or fear around something, then I’m like, “This is probably something I have to do.” It’s not comfortable. It’s not an easy life.
It’s a psychologically rich life.
What I loved is you said, too, “This first show is going to be so hard.” Even though you were having a lot of fear after you said yes, you were like, “This is the first one and I’m up for any more.”
Episode number two, I’m going to crush.
You would go up and down a little bit, James. I could see you would be nervous and you would want to prepare. Also, as the unpreparer in this group, there’s something to be said about the spontaneity of having a conversation.
It’s the crowd work.
That’s what you said, too. It’s a conversation. I love to converse. I love to be engaged with individuals. I was like, “What am I scared of?” One thing I’ve done this time around that I haven’t done in other things that have been a challenge is that I didn’t self-flagellate. I didn’t flag myself and make myself crazy for the weeks leading up to this. I mentally had to tell myself, “This is going to be fun. You’re going to have a good time. Lean into having fun and not let that internal dialogue that could be negative squash those or turn the volume down on those. Lean into this. This is going to be fun.” I have been so far.
I appreciate your vulnerability and also your awareness. There’s also a lesson in here about the team because the two of us were not going to let you fail. In that sense, we want to see you succeed. I had this experience once. I’d like to tell this story. I used to go to this gym. On Monday nights, they had a yoga class and it was followed by another class. It was a class called Dance Jams. There were two women from the gym who would go to Dance Jams and I knew them.
They were always like, “You should stay for Dance Jams. It’s so much fun.” I remember thinking, “That is terrifying to me.” I remember being in the locker room one day and I was like, “I need to do Dance Jams.” I went one day. I went to the yoga and they came in. They were like, “You should do Dance Jams.” I’m like, “I’m in.” Let me say I was not a natural. I found that I had to pick either to follow along with my lower body or my upper body but I couldn’t do both. I had so much fun. I ended up going out on a couple of dates with the instructor.
I was going to say there’s something attractive about someone who’s like, “I’m here. I’m in it.”
I was having the time of my life, making try jokes and everything.
Go and try even if you’re terrible at it. Trying something even if you’re going to be bad at it is awesome.
It was a fun thing, and then I had this wonderful woman I went out with a couple of times. Do you have anything else on your list?
My last thing was the bucket list now. Instead of waiting to do your bucket list where you are like, “One day, I’m going to do this. One day, I’m going to learn a language. One day, I’m going to learn to play the piano,” for me, let’s start doing them. Let’s go ahead and have a very clear list of things you want to try. Living abroad is one of them. Learning a new language is one of them as well as doing a bodybuilding show and doing comedy. It is things I’ve always been toying with and then I’m like, “Let’s start doing them now.” Financially, am I saving for the future? Maybe not as much as I should be. I’m more like, “Let’s do it now,” because you don’t know what tomorrow has to offer. That’s my trend.
I had a guest on the Enjoy Your Solo episode. She mentioned this. I thought it was so profound. There are a bunch of people who are waiting for their person to do all the things. I meet my wife or my husband and be like, “We’ll go to Hawaii. We’ll go to Machu Picchu,” or whatever that thing is. What are you waiting for? I love that idea. Did you call it a bucket list now?
Yeah. Put it on a bumper sticker or on a T-shirt.
You gave a great example of that. Although I don’t know if your dream was to do Dance Jam. You go, “When I find a woman who will do it with me, then I’m going to do it.” You were like, “I’m going to do it and I’m all in when I do it. Even if I’m not good, I’m open to the experience,” and then you went on a couple of great talks with someone.
It was fine.
I love hearing the stories of women who are having children alone. That’s awesome. Instead of waiting to find that perfect someone, they’re like, “I want to be a mom. I’m going to do it now and do it by myself.” That’s such courage that you’re very clear that you want to be a mother and you’re going to make it happen regardless of a plus one. That’s cool. Those examples of people doing those are phenomenal.
Stephanie, thank you for the introduction, facilitating this, and being such a wonderful guest co-host.
Thank you. It’s my pleasure. Did I do okay with the co-hosting this time?
You crushed it.
It was a lot of fun. It’s always fun. Thanks for having me back.
It is my pleasure. James, I’m very excited for your future and I’m proud of you for your past. This is an inspirational account. I thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your story.
Thanks. This has been fun. Is there sweat behind my knees? Yes, but whatever. It’s fine. It’s been an awesome experience. I appreciate you. In the solo community, I’m a new member. I signed up. In any solo events in the Denver area, I’m excited to join in.
This is perfect. I started conversations for a new location to start doing Solo Salons again. That’s coming in late summer or fall 2023.
I like the alliteration, but salon?
Was it a French term?
Yeah. 18th century France. Age of Enlightenment. These were social gatherings where people shared conversation talks.
I’m a White trash from Georgia. I have not heard these words, so this is great.
That’s a wrap. Cheers.
- Stephanie McHugh
- How to Not Go On a Date – Previous Episode
- Paul Shirley – Previous Episode
- @BeefCastle – Instagram
- Enjoy Your Solo – Previous Episode
About James Warner
James Warner was born and raised in LaGrange, GA along with his 7 siblings. He was a Varsity Cheerleader at THE Ohio State University and graduated in 2007 with a Bachelors in Exercise Science and Sports Medicine. After 10 years of working in Rehab medicine, James pivoted and now works as a Healthcare IT consultant. For his 40th birthday/mid-life crisis, James decided to take to the stage as an amateur bodybuilder AND stand-up comic. He is also a new member of the Solo community.
About Stephanie McHugh
Stephanie McHugh is a Denver-based comedian, speaker, voice over artist, and humor coach who has performed stand up at a recent Solo Salon. She has also appeared on Peter’s previous podcast: I’m NOT JOKING.