Janae Burris is a comedian, writer and actor in Denver Colorado. She’s been a featured performer at Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival, Limestone Comedy Festival in Bloomington Ind and Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival. She is the 2016 Comedy Works New Faces Champion, and performs regularly at both Comedy Works locations in Denver. Janae is a member of Pussy Bros, a comedy trio which hosts shows every first Friday at The Comedy Room Room. Catch her podcast “Let’s Talk about Death, baby” @sexpotcomedy.com and see her in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Cyrano De Bergerac summer 2018.
Listen to Episode #4 here
Doing Comedy And Theatre with Janae Burris
Our guest is comedian, Janae Burris. In 2016, she was Denver Comedy Works New Faces Champion. She’s also a regular performer at both locations. She’s a member of Pussy Bros, a comedy trio which hosts shows every first Friday at the comedy room in Denver. She started her own podcast called Let’s Talk About Death, Baby. In the summer of 2018,you can see her in Colorado Shakespeare Festival Production of Cyrano Debergerac. That’s all very exciting. Welcome, Janae.
Janae, if you weren’t doing comedy, what would you be doing?
Let me think about this. I don’t even know why I’m doing comedy. If I weren’t comedy, maybe I’d be teaching. Maybe I’d get a little more focused on that.
Have you taught before?
What did you teach?
I usually teach theater to little kids. I’ve taught at a film school, so those are bigger kids but still kids.
What film school was this?
This school was in California. It’s been so many years. I don’t know, it was in Reseda or something; a small film school.
I could tell how well they paid by how well you’re doing.
It was just so long ago. I taught acting.
You’ve taught to little kids, you’d come into schools and do this?
Private schools are usually the only places that can afford to have a theater teacher employed. I taught out near Ojai, Oak View Middle School, I taught there.
What production did you do?
They’re a very special school; specializing the kids have a lot of money so they can do whatever they want. We met in a large yard. We actually wrote a script around the kids.
Is this where they invented the participation medal?
In order to call it an English class to get credit for it. That’s English or whatever class it was, we had to do a bit of writing together, and we just wrote. We got to know the kids and wrote a script around them and rehearsed it and work that out. It was fun. It doesn’t feel like work but that’s what I like to do. When you teach theater to kids and performing to kids, you get a chance to help them come out of their shell. The shyest kids in the class, I theater, not everybody wants to perform, they can do the costumes then and they can do the set design or they play music. All of the kids play an instrument at that school. Some of them we had to write that into the show because they were just too afraid to act. At the end of the semester, they got to put on a production in front of their friends and parents and they’re so happy. The kids are so happy at the end of rehearsals. I love that part.
[Tweet “When you teach theater to kids and performing to kids, you get a chance to help them come out of their shell.”]
How’s that different than teaching the bigger kids in Reseda?
The bigger kids are there because they wanted to be there. They’ve already paid to be at that school. Most of them are seeking film degrees, some of them in directing, some in editing. One semester I taught mockumentary.
The whole class on mockumentaries?
Yes, which I don’t know how to talk myself into getting that job as some authority on mockumentaries, but I did. This was Spinal Tap was our course reading really and some Christopher Guest movies.
Mockumentaries have become a thing. It’s like The Office is mockumentary style.
Reno 911! was a thing at that point, which I really liked. In that class I tried to focus on staying in character. I was like, “We’re doing a documentary about your character,” and that’s essentially what it is.
You’re saying if you weren’t doing comedy, you’d be teaching something affiliated with it?
Yeah. I’ve been trying to pursue teaching arts and performance.
You said you wanted to do work that doesn’t feel like work.
Are you doing work that feels like work? I know you’re not. It can’t be.
Sometimes I am, but I worked very hard to focus on the things that don’t feel like working.
I think that’s everybody’s goal is to make it not feel like work. When I teach theater and performing, I can actually get there on time and stay there all day. For part of my last semester there, I was living in Fresno, so once a week I’d make that four-hour track down because I wanted to be there.
You talking about teaching theater, acting reminds me of a story. In high school, I started to come out of my shell a little bit and really embraced my extroversion. I would never say I was a class clown. I was always in the honors and AP classes, so the bar for class clown was very low. I would make jokes and try to be a little bit funny and stuff like that.
Still, your work was turned in on time.
I wasn’t a stellar student in high school. That came later. That came in college where I kicked it up a notch. There was this psychology teacher who had what he called psychodrama. He had this theater group that would do sketches about late teenage problems. You’d go around the local high school and junior highs and perform these things and then have these discussions with the audience.
It’s like alive after-school special.
I didn’t know about it. One day he made an announcement in the class, “Can I see student X, student Y, student Z and Peter McGraw afterwards?”Student X, Y and Z were stoked. They knew that this was the invite to psychodrama. I was like, “I would do it. Maybe they’d let me do the audio visual. Maybe they’d let me run the AV.” I didn’t have that performance part of me at the time and I ended up doing it and I ended up being a character in a variety of the different sketches. I swear I was good enough at it that when those laughs came, I was hooked. I got a little bit of a taste your world as a seventeen-year-old. I would do physical comedy. I was a clown in one skit scene and stuff like that. It got huge laughs and I just loved it. I’m probably going to need a hip replacement in about ten years because of it. Why did you become a comedian? You were teaching. Were you just using it to pay the bills?
I was teaching while also being a performer. I went to school to study theater.
Where was that?
CalArts in Valencia, California. It’s a great program. It’s an avant-garde theater program.
Aren’t all theater programs avant-garde?
Definitely not. Most schools don’t do productions where half the cast is nude. That’s avant-garde. How many kids are naked on this stage? It’s not avant-garde. We take a classical text. We take Brecht and then we add something or Shakespeare. Just take a classical text and the words are solid and inaccessible. The director puts a spin on it. That’s what most of the productions were. How do you get jobs in that? I’ve friends who were moving to Berlin, that made sense, where you can live as an artist and continue to do avant-garde theater for audiences. In LA as a performer, that’s not enough just to say, “I paid a lot for my private school degree.”
I was surprised by this. I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. I ended up going to a Shakespeare, summer in the park in Topanga Canyon or something like that. It wasn’t The Merchant of Venice. I can’t remember which one. Who is Beatrice?
Much Ado About Nothing.
I went with some friends to that, drove up Topanga Canyon. I was disappointed by the quality of the acting. I thought the acting would be stunning, “This is a stone’s throw from Los Angeles. This is theater.”Beatrice was great whoever played with her, but many of the other characters were not.
LA is not known for theater. We were told about that in school, “If you really want to pursue theater specifically, go to East Coast, go to New York or go to London or something.”If you’re already in LA, really you’re trying to pursue a television, film career. If you only have a theater background, you’re still going to have to do a lot of training and a lot of experience.
When you’re doing theater again, you’re doing Cyrano?
I am. I’m super excited about it.
Tell how that happened and why?
It’s been on my mind since I moved to Colorado. Colorado Shakespeare is a big deal. I know some people from school who really did pursue the theater and they’ve come through here a couple times for different productions at DCPA. Theater is really good here but comedy takes up all of my time. I never had three or four months to the side that I could do theater. The three years that I’ve been here, I’ve been looking into it. I finally checked out the DCPA audition schedule. I asked friends, looked it up online, scheduled it in my calendar.
I’m like, “I’m not missing these auditions this year.” Also Nataki Garrett, who was in a graduate program at my school when I was there and I was an undergrad. She’s now an assistant artistic director at DCPA; a big deal. She came out and I was like, “Nataki is going to be at DCPA.” That means DCPA is planning on doing provocative work, and I want to be there. I didn’t get an audition, I showed up like I’ve written books before, show up and beg for a spot and wait two hours until they gave me a spot, which I did. My audition sucked. I had not audition for three years. I felt embarrassed. I felt rushed. I felt out of my body and it was weird.
You got it anyways?
No, I didn’t. No, I didn’t get anything, not a callback, not a phone call, nothing. Susan Gregory, who’s the casting director at Colorado Shakespeare sent me an email and said, “I was there, I saw you. I hope you will audition on Colorado Shakespeare.” I was like, “Great.”Then in a couple of months, I got emails from other people, “You’ve been invited by Susan Gregory.” I was like, “I’m going to go to this.” I went and that audition was not necessarily better, but I tried to be funny outside of my piece. People hire people they like.
Hire people you like. I think in acting, if you don’t like their audition, you can see something in the person that you can work with, so I tried to be that. I’m like, “Here’s my resume.”They know my school. People in theater communities know my school very well. They know people on my resume, so that helps. I put all the names I could put on there. I got a call back. I almost missed. It was out in Boulder. I got lost. I was late. I hadn’t read my part. I was nervous. I was sabotaging it in my mind. I went and they gave me time to get my stuff together. I tried to do the same thing, be charming on stage. I got some ensemble parts, which I’m really capable of doing.
What is an ensemble part?
Not a lead, but I got a named character who will probably be in one or two scenes. I’ll play an actor over here. I’ll play an actor in this scene and play a bar winch in the scene or something. The play alone was super diverse. I’ll be this black woman and be like, “There are a lot of black women in that show. They’re all me. It’s just me.” I could tell that they understood that I was a performer and they can see that in me. When they called me to offer me a part they said that they liked my stage presence, which I’m like, “That makes sense. It’s basically all I had to offer because I didn’t act it well. I didn’t even take the directions well because I haven’t been directed.” Last play I was in was six years ago. I really wanted that but I really want to be directed.
It sounds like you earned this part six years ago rather than in the audition.
I tried to earn this part fifteen years. I guess I should say when I graduated school, six years ago.
More than six years ago.
When I was younger and really in theater all the time, I was constantly failing like, “I’ll just be a better actor and I’ll have a better audition. I’ll look better and I’ll work out.”It’s like, “No. What you have to do is get some years of experience and you have to build your resume and you have to build relationships, and that’s how you get the part.”That’s how I got the part because I’m six years worth of dust on my acting brain and skills. It didn’t matter because my resume still has the work on it.
What does it mean to take direction?
In stand-up comedy, I’m just writing.
You’re the director?
I’m the director. It’s a one-woman show. My feedback is in the response from the audience and I don’t get that until I show up. To be directed, you put your acting skills and performance skills in the hands of someone with some knowledge, with an outside eye who can help. I can get an outside eye right now as a performer. I really am thirsty for it. I’m constantly doubting myself, not trusting myself concept anyway. My comfort zone is theater and I do trust directors and I learned to trust directors when I started doing theater twenty years ago.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been directed. I was in the psychodrama when I was seventeen, but barely.
You may have a hard time with it. I could see you pushing back a little bit.
I think I’d rather be a director than an actor.
I know you would. Yeah, that sounds right. It’s hard to do. I wanted to be a director too. This is why I’ve pursued comedy is because I wanted some control myself. I didn’t want to wait for a part to be given to me. I wrote parts for myself, which is my stand-up and now I’m going back the other way saying, “Help me again. Bring me back to that place.” You have to give over the trust. You’re a meat pie. When some directors say that the actors are the meat puppets said to me before, you have to be just facilitative. You let them give you the direction. You let them have the vision. You trust their vision. They are working on this production a year before you ever get the part and you have to trust. They’re going to just help me produce the vision that they’ve always had for the play.
I think a good actor can bring that director’s vision to life. Once you are set free in front of an audience, then the actor comes alive and my personality and comfort in that part will come out, and that’s why they hire me for stage presence. They know I can get there. I really do want to have an outsider say, “You’re doing a thing.” I don’t know what my things are anymore. I don’t know what my quirks on stage are anymore. I know my speech and grammar has gotten really lazy because stand-up comedy allows you to do that. I know that even my breathing; my degree, all the money really, that four years I spent on learning how to breathe and speak.
I had a project for a while about directing and acting. I never even wrote it up but I’ve worked on it for a bit. The way I see it is at least in film, maybe theater also is like the director is the ceiling. It’s hard for an actor to be better than the director in the sense because the director directs the actor for that reason. It’s very easy for an actor to fall short if they don’t take the direction. There’s this interesting relationship between actor and director where the actor has to believe that the director can bring out the best in them, and then the director has to be able to let the actor play to his or her strengths. Let them be the kind of the best actor that they can be.
That’s why you have to hire actors that you trust in the first place, because in the end when it’s time to open for the audience, the director can’t do anything about it. They have to hire a person that they believe will carry through that vision.
[Tweet “You have to make the audience believe that, “I’m all alone having this emotional experience.””]
That’s the difference between film and theater. Film, you can say, “Let’s do another take. Let’s do another one. We’ll do another one,” and then you can edit them.
It’s edited to look how you want it to look. In theater, you’ve got to have some skill trained actors. It’s a three-month rehearsal process, so you hope you build some trust within that time.
Theater actors are more skilled than film actors?
Don’t say that. I wouldn’t say that. I just did a short film. It was difficult.
You wouldn’t say that though?
No, I wouldn’t say it. It’s two different art forms. It’s like they’re both martial arts. One is Jiu-Jitsu, one is Muay Thai or whatever.
I had a conversation with someone who worked in Hollywood films. He was on the special effects. I was like, “Is acting hard?” He’s like, “Yes. It’s incredibly difficult.”I was like, “Tell me how it’s difficult besides it’s difficult to be beautiful.”He said, “You have a camera six inches away from your face and then you’ve got this room full of people and then you’re supposed to cry.”
You have to make the audience believe that, “I’m all alone having this emotional experience.”
Then you might have to do it twenty times. I was like, “I believe it. It’s hard.”
I just did a short film. I didn’t study film and I hadn’t been in anything other than student films, little directed things. I did a short film through Project DU FILM, and they cast my buddy as my longtime partner. One of my girlfriends, we had to play longtime partners. She was going through a cancer diagnosis. I had to kiss my friend. The whole production I’m like, “I’ve got a problem. I could kiss girls but this is my friend. This dude right here is my friend. This is weird.” We just got to see a screener and it’s so weird. I got my hands on her face and I’m rubbing her hair. I remember being in that moment and trying to get there as an actor, trying to find reasons to cry and be intimate with her. It was difficult.
I’m sure it’s hard. That’s being a little cheeky.
I’m going to not let you be cheeky about acting because it is serious business for me.
You said that you’re always doing comedy. It takes up your life. It crowds out these other things. What’s a typical day like for you?
First of all, my memory is shut. It stopped remembering days.
What are the deeds? What are you doing?
I have a day job. I work at Modern Market. I’m the caterer. I have that job because it’s not stressful at all, not usually. Andy was my boss for a while.
Andy, your partner?
Yeah. He’s my boss.
People don’t know this but strangely, Janae and I just interject. I cast Janae in a comedy game show that I was starting. Everybody I talked to was like, “You need to get Janae. She’s perfect for this,” and she is. If it ever finds its way to television, she’s on. Then there was some Facebook thing and Andy was like, “Peter McGraw?”
Katie, her other cousin, was flipping through pictures and she’s like, “I know that guy.”Then she started stalking you. She was like, “I know my cousin was a professor in Colorado somewhere.” Katie calls me and she’s like, “That’s Peter.” I don’t know the other name they call you. Can we say your other name? Is that a secret name? Is that your alias?
Albert’s my real first name.
They’re both like, “That’s Albert.” It happened like that. Facebook, the internet photos and Katie. People know Colorado, they know Denver. They don’t realize Boulders right there and they were just like, “He’s somewhere in the mountains of Colorado.”It was close and it was my boss and Andy was being supportive of my comedy so he hired me to be the caterer and gave me whatever day is off I want. I can come in not whenever I want, but he was covering me so that I could go.
He’s paying you to do comedy?
No. He was accommodating is what it was. Other jobs might let you go, but he was accommodating because he saw that I was doing well in comedy and he wanted to help that. In my day I go in at 8:00, I make some sandwiches, I’m done by noon. Then I come home and maybe try to finish up some writing project that I’ve waited to the last minute to do, that’s how my creativity works. Then I get ready for our shows at night. That starts around 5:00 with the lashes and in the mirror coaching yourself really. I’m coaching myself.
What is that like?
While I’m getting dressed, I listen to music to get pumped up.
What do you listen to?
Mostly Kendrick Lamar. It makes me think of LA. I’m from LA. I think when I do stand-up, I want to be myself completely so I get back there. I’m putting on my makeup, I’m looking just like my mom. In the mirror, I look just like my mom. Then I’m still lazy and I start getting dressed two hours early, I rush into every show that I ever go to rush down there. Get in the green room and start trying to get the set ready, start listening to that audience. I go out in the audience and I peek around see who’s sitting down, who’s ordering drinks. Are they laughing before the show?
Why are you doing this when you scout the audience?
I get a feel about what type of material I might do in that room. I’m at Comedy Works South. It’s a really beautiful space. People pay a little bit more for a ticket, they dress a little better. Maybe they’ve come with some coworkers. They’re drinking martinis or something. I want to do some material that suits that audience.
Can you give me an example of a joke you would tell, like you would tell the Martini Southern Denver crowd versus the beer drinking crowd?
What works at the South Club, I talk about moving to Colorado. I talk about being a black woman in Boulder and a pop in the Boulder. The Boulder joke really works because everybody knows some local humor. People want to hear about themselves really. They want to hear about themselves. I talk about Andy a bit about us moving here together and moved to Colorado, “All the way to Colorado, I brought my own white guy with me from California to Colorado.” Everybody was just like, “We get it. Why did you do that?” “If I waited until I got here, it could have gotten me a fresh one right here on the mountain, on the big mountain white guy.” “Andy’s really nice. He’s a nice guy but he can’t dunk or play harmonica or anything. He’s just regular white guy.”
I talk about Boulder and I stick out a little bit in Boulder and they always laugh and say, “You’ve been.” That always works, “You’ve been to Boulder?”“I stick out in Boulder like a black woman in Boulder.” I notice me, everybody notices me and I feel like I have to be good when I’m in Boulder, “Don’t get in trouble, there would be too many witnesses. Officer, she’s an African. There she is right there.” They get all that. They want to hear about themselves. What I try to stay away from there is what everybody knows in Denver. If people have a little bit of money, it’s hard for me to talk about where I’m from. I think it’s hilarious. I say I’m broke all the time, it’s because I’m an artist and not because I’m black. Not because of where I grew up even. It’s because I’m an artist and it’s the life I’ve chosen. It’s just an unstable lifestyle.
You grew up in Fresno?
I grew up in South Central LA. My family made a lateral move to Fresno and begged me to move there too as an adult. I finally relented and saw for myself that it was a lateral move and I didn’t need to do that then I left.
When I think of ‘90s hip-hop, I always think of that part of the world. I think ‘90s hip-hop and his seems to be like that.
He’s really young but he talks about the ‘90s a lot. Sometimes I do the math when I’m listening to his songs and his songs are powerful, prolific and I’m like, “You’re seven then, Kendrick. You saw that on TV.” Still it speaks to me and he was very influenced by NWA and Dr. Dre. I’m like, “That’s where I’m from. He’s from Compton, which is ten, fifteen miles away from where I grew up.” My neighborhood, both of our neighborhoods were part of the war on drugs. We’re segregated. LA is segregated. We’re both in those neighborhoods where your parents own a home but the home isn’t appreciating or whatever.
There’s not an investment in the same way.
I get pumped and I felt that his anger and his rage a little bit about just the years that our families suffered in those neighborhoods. That gets me pumped but that doesn’t always translate to a Denver audience that pays full price for a ticket versus being in a bar or something.
Do you have a different opener when you’re in a fancier Comedy Works versus when you’re doing an open mic?
I usually open with something that I thought of ten minutes ago, an inspiration. A lot of people do. You make an observation. As an actor, I’m trying to be in the moment. I think that’s what I have over a lot of other comedians. I’m in the moment, I’m performing. After ten years of performing comedy, almost ten years, being in the moment is a skill that I developed. I’m able to perform with my eyes open. When I’m going out to look and see who’s in the audience, and I know that their coworkers maybe for Christmas at Comedy Works, I might say, “You guys all came. It’s an office party. You all came to see comedy. What better way to bond with your coworkers than to laugh at a dick joke in the dark with Carol from Accounting.” That’s specific to those guys. They’re all in an office party. At a bar, you make some observations about the drunks who are there right in front of you. When I’m in Colorado Springs I always felt like they drink a lot out there. I don’t know what’s going on in Colorado Springs but they want to talk about how blasted they’re getting. You can do that.
I’ve always thought that comedians had a stable of openers that they tend to use. Hearing that you come up with your opener based upon the environment is a new idea to me.
I think everybody knows that comedians have your hits. They love when you say something in the moment. Usually even with an opener, it might just be a tweak to something you’ve said. Maybe I’ll say the same thing in two different cities but I’ll change the name of the local lake or whatever it is. I don’t have any lake jokes. I don’t know why I say that. I like to say something fresh because it makes me feel good too as a performer. At the club, you tend to just do your A-material. You go hard on that A-material that you’ve rehearsed very well. I like to feel like I’m in the moment by saying something that I’ve just seen. I’m just making observations and trusting that I’m a funny person who can make an observation even if it’s not the most clever joke you’ve heard. I’m a funny enough person that I could sell that.
You are a funny person because you’re on this podcast.
This is how I know.
We were going through the steps of your day. You get ready. You put yourself in battle mode. You get pumped up. You become camera-ready. You scout the audience. You do your show. Then what?
I do my show then for ten minutes, I beat myself up about how crappy I did, just like the old time doing that and judging my set and judging my laughs compared to the guy who went before me. Then part of the job is hanging out a little bit.
Tell me more about that. I hear this a lot.
Statistically, 90% of us will say this. You’ve got to spend some time with either the audience and/or the other performers. Spending time with the other performers, it gets you your next job. I’m trying to book out two months in advance. People are asking me to do shows two months from now. That’s how I’m getting those shows by being a cool person that they want to see again. Sometimes with the audience, I’m building a fan base. I usually only hang with the audience when I feel I’ve done well. I feel like I can make eye contact with people at that point because a lot of times after a show I can’t make eye contact. I don’t feel good. It’s like a bad sexual encounter like, “I’ll just skip my clothes and get out of here. I don’t know where my earring is, just keep it.” I feel like I felt embarrassed and I don’t want to talk to anybody. When I have a good set, I’m out there.
Do you sell any merch?
I have some merch with my group Pussy Bros. We have t-shirts and stickers. We give out stickers, we sell t-shirts. Rachel is in the group and she designed the t-shirts. It’s Pussy Bros but it’s a picture of four cats. It’s just cats. People like those. When I go out of town though every now and again, those people want to buy stuff because they want to remember you. It’s almost doesn’t even matter what you’re selling. I am working on some merch right now for my personal.
From the comedians I’ve talked to who do it, they recognize this as a bit of a pain in the ass. You’ve got to have a second bag and you’re carrying around all the stuff. They don’t always feel comfortable with the selling part of it. However, it’s good money. The margins on those things are great.
You should really be doing it.
It’s mutually beneficial in that way. People get then remember you and they have a good feeling about it.
You have to recognize it as being mutually beneficial sometimes with the sales part. Even with selling my act to get the next job to ask for more money, I have to recognize that what I’m doing is mutually beneficial to myself, to the audience. It’s hard with merch. I forgot to feel confident and be ready to make some eye contact and be ready to push some sales.
It’s intimate. You’re shaking hands.
The Sklar Brothers, they are so good. I’ve gotten to work with them a couple times. They are so smart, so business savvy, very focused. They’re already excellent at their comedy. They’re money motivated as well. They’re paying attention to every aspect of it. They’re selling those shirts and those hats and those CDs. It doesn’t matter if you are a huge fan that has seen them twenty times, “Would you like to pay $30 for this shirt since you love us so much?”People do, it’s amazing. They spend time with every person. They shake every hand. They take every photo. They’re the best at it. When I worked with him, I just stand behind them. I’m like, “Okay.”
Part of it is being money motivated. Unfortunately myself and in my arts career, it’s been art-focused and never money-focused. I’m finally getting to a point where it’s like, “If you’d like to stop making sandwiches, you’d better find a way.”It’s been slow going for me and a lot of comedians but it’s so important. Eventually, you just hit a wall where you don’t have time to make sandwiches anymore if you’re going out of town, if I’m asking for days off every week. You better get some merch. I’m working on merch, literally put out a message to some people, just friends, and be like, “Who has got ideas? Who wants to design something for me?”
We could talk about what are good margin items and that are easy to transport? T-shirts are good margin but they’re a pain in the ass. You need four sizes and you’ve got to walk them around and so on, versus things like key chains and stickers. You can have a t-shirt made for $4 and sell it for $30.
The Sklar Brothers can. The rest of us are selling them for $20.
In my world as a business school professor, a good margin is 50%. That’s pretty good. This has come up a couple of times this idea of not trusting yourself for being very hard on yourself after a set. These self critiques, where does it come from?
Which is why I need a director now, an outside critique.
Because that will be more rational?
Yeah, it will be rooted in something versus just my mind.
Where are your critiques coming from?
It’s just myself criticism doubt as an artist. I don’t know if that ever goes away.
[Tweet “You have to have some talent, some drive but you’ve got to stick with it.”]
I feel like there’s this healthy level of self-critique. There are people who don’t know how bad they are because they don’t let themselves. They can imagine that they would be bad. There are other people who are good, who think that they’re worse than they are. In both of those cases you’re held back but in the middle there, it’s useful to be honest with yourself because it makes you work harder and be smarter about it.
The problem I’m having is it’s not necessarily being honest with myself. It’s some mental problem and a lot of us suffer from it. It’s like a crack in the armor somehow and some doubt just gets in there somehow; the one guy in the front who didn’t laugh.
In the Behavioral Sciences, this is called the negativity bias. I get this with students too. They do these anonymous midterm evaluations. Largely they’re good, work hard at the job but there’s always a few that are shitty and that attracts all your attention. The idea is that negative things have a much bigger effect on our emotions or attention. You need ten good things to outweigh that one bad thing or 30 good things to outweigh that bad thing.
You have one guy in the front with his arms folded, you need a whole other show. You need a whole other audience to cover that.
How do you overcome that? That seems like a critical thing to take things to the next level.
I think for comedy it’s a numbers thing. You just got to do it again, do it again and do it again. It took a long time to get to this point where I can get over it. While I take five to ten minutes to kick myself around a bit, I’d no longer take three weeks to show up again.
I want to cover a bunch of other things though because this is so good. What are you writing in? Tell me about your writing.
I write in journals and I like blank pages. Right now I have a sketch book. My friends are like, “You writing seems big.” I’m like, “I can’t see. I need glasses so I write really huge.”
This came up in Funny or True the game show that you were performing without your glasses.
I need glasses. I have reading glasses but they’re straight up magnifying glasses. It’s all bad until five years later, if you could hang onto it. We did a Nerd play where we play characters. I played Spike Lee.
In your journal it says, “It’s so nice to see all the women up here and Jodie Foster.”
It was a roast. I was trying to think of some roast jokes, Jodie foster was up there. That was about Hollywood directors. What’s being repeated in this particular journal because I have some that are full and some that I put away for a year and come back to. I’m working a long princess joke, a Disney princess joke, so that keeps being repeated every time I try to find something new. A couple of eulogies, I have no idea so Rapunzel.
I talk about wigs a lot onstage and so I can work Rapunzel in there. Her wigs weaved, broken edges. How her hair is probably dry. She probably has just one giant dry bag and how can anybody climb up there. Michael Bay. I doodle a lot, which is why I like to buy a drawing paper. I like how it feels. The comedy works pins or work really nice. 24 inches of Kima Sassy. I was getting real specific about the hair I was talking about, which is like that’s another thing that doesn’t necessarily work at Comedy Works South.
Like real topical?
I can talk about my hair because I’m a black woman standing up there with fake hair and they don’t know anything. If I’m the only black woman on stage, I feel like, “You’ve hired me to talk about myself so I’m going to talk about being black and what’s going on even if people don’t get all the references.”Right here started to go too deep. When I’m talking about it, I talk about my favorite wig, Sally. It’s a long Ombré girl and I like to talk to her around a little bit. Lately I was wearing this other straight hair, and at first I was calling it Michelle.
People got that reference. I was like, “This one’s Michelle because my regular hair is short and nappy. I’m an artist but Michelle went to Harvard. Michelle is great in job interviews. Michelle will be on time.” They start to get that. It’s one of Michelle Obama’s haircuts type of thing. I never used this. I wrote this out. I’m going to say 24 inches of Kima Sassy to be. They don’t need all of that. You can say Sally. One day at Comedy Works, my friend, Louis was headlining and there were ten black women. I can see the fake hair out there, so I got deep into it because they’re like, “This is the first time this ever happened at Denver.”
That’s where you’re scouting pays off, right?
Yeah. Go open your eyes, look at the audience, see who is out there and now you know. That wig joke is fun for me but I don’t always do it. If I see a room full of black women, I’m like, “They will get it.”
What are you reading? What are you watching these days? It sounds like you’re doing a lot of writing and performing, but are you consuming anything?
I’m constantly consuming which I keep trying to tell younger comics that’s part of the work too. A lot of the younger comics, they obsess about open mics and so they go for three hours. You should be reading and writing and watching other people as well.
In comedy or out of comedy, what have you read, watched or listened to that really has stood out that you’re just like, “Wow?”Something like the cream of the crop. There’s obviously a lot of good stuff.
The thing that I’ve read that’s the cream of the crop is Bossypants. That never leaves you. You can get very focused on this. Be very good. Be funny. That woman was funny on a page. In a room by myself reading that book, I was laughing out loud.
I re-read the book.
I’m always picking up Born Standing Up.
I just re-read that book too. For people that don’t know, Bossypants is Tina Fey’s memoir and Born Standing Up is Steve Martin’s memoir.
I was on a flight and reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing. I’m always on that, rereading those. I never make it through books. The last book I made it all the way through was probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That’s one of my favorite books too. That’s for the words. I could do a little better onstage. They don’t all have to be low brow dick jokes.
That will help you with the Cyrano, right?
I haven’t read Bram Stoker’s Dracula but I saw that there was a movie based on that.
Which I always love.
It’s with Keanu, isn’t it?
I’m a person who loves Keanu. I think that not everyone can be, he can be a blank slate. Not everybody can do that. If I’m in a play, I’m basically me and my mom all the time. You’re going to get a little bit of this all the time. Keanu can be a blank slate, so do like Meryl Streep.
I think that’s unfair to Meryl.
I studied acting. I see it.
He’s too blank. Here’s the interesting thing about Keanu Reeves. I think Keanu Reeves is one of the few actors who would be more interesting in real life than he is on screen.
Maybe that’s why you’ve got hired all those years.
He’s a professional. I actually liked that Dracula film. I don’t know if it holds up, but I remember.
The costumes were beautiful. I loved it as a kid. I love Gary Oldman.
He’s a good Dracula.
In reading the book, though the book is really just beautiful. It’s beautiful. It’s poetic. They talk a lot about the sea in it. I think anybody who talks about the sea somehow is compelling always. The language, it’s more religious than they portrayed it in the movie. Dracula’s essentially evil, Satan, that’s all it is. She is a religious, pious woman. Mina is able to overcome Dracula because she’s a religious pious woman. It’s just beautiful to read so I like to pick that up. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of Frederick Douglass is something that I like to pick up on occasion. My sister said that I got really ratchet once I moved to Colorado. Do you know what ratchet means?
I didn’t think you would, Peter. You might want to study the word. Ratchet, it’s slang for other slang words. I don’t even know how to describe it a little bit.
Don’t make me go to Urban Dictionary.
You probably should because I’m not going to give a good description of it. It’s a little more ghetto, a little more black essentially. My blackness is on my sleeve. I wear my blackness on my sleeve in Colorado. My sister was like, “I can’t believe you are that way.”
Because of the contrast here?
Yeah, essentially I feel like I have to be. I have to represent it for all the black people onstage. I am constantly refreshing my information about my history and my culture because nobody else is talking about it. I like to go back to Frederick Douglass. I like to listen to Kendrick Lamar. I like to go to my braid lady. I’ve been wearing braids for a year now. I like to connect because I’m in Colorado and it’s not my sister sitting right there. It’s not my family all around.
It certainly highlights that part of your identity. At home, you might be more of the artist type. What do you think the secret to success is that everybody knows but can’t seem to do?
[Tweet “The secret for success in our art is working hard, showing up, doing the writing, saying yes to free work constantly.”]
Hard work, it’s so annoying. It’s hard work. Everybody will tell you. I don’t know if you know Adam Cayton-Holland. He’s been really lovely and supportive of me since I’ve been out here. I see it in him, it’s hard work. I see it in all of his peers, it’s hard work. You have to have some talent, some drive but you’ve got to stick with it. Whatever it is, you’ve got to stick with it. You’ve got to have late nights. You’ve got to return those emails. The part that’s not the twenty minutes on stage where you’re getting all the laughs, not the drinks after, but the morning after where you’ve got to drive wherever. It’s like working out, you can’t get past it. You have to eat well and exercise. The secret for success in our art is working hard, showing up, doing the writing, saying yes to free work constantly. You’re not going to get paid for everything but some things will pay off later for you. You’ve got to be nice. That’s worse than the hard work part.
That’s connected to this networking, the hanging out after work.
Yeah, which I didn’t know in my first six years because even as an actor, I thought just the work. When I was acting, I was all about that work. Just the work though, never the hanging out and never the being nice, which my mom tried so hard to get me to be nice my whole life. It’s not in me. Always decent and honest and kind. Nice meeting like hanging out, laugh, don’t say the sharpest cheekiest thing you think of. You can’t say it. You’ve got to be nice all the time.
Since I first met you, I’m doing that show that I’ve always appreciated, I’ve always thought of you as a professional. I have this saying, “Be an effing professional.” I see this is with grad students and with my MBA students in this kind of way. That I think has that element to it, which is showing up doing the things that you’re going to do and then acting appropriately given the context that you’re in.
If people know you’re a comedian, you’ve got to be funny wherever you go. You can’t just be crabby. You can’t. They’ve hired you to be a personality.
There’s that expectation that you’ve been nice and professional and you’ve been funny today. Janae, it’s great to see you. Thanks so much for doing this.
Thanks for having me.
- Janae Burris
- Denver Comedy Works
- Pussy Bros
- Nataki Garrett
- Project DU FILM
- Modern Market
- The Sklar Brothers
- Born Standing Up
- On Writing
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula
- Narrative of Frederick Douglass
- Adam Cayton-Holland
- Janae Burris – Twitter
- Kendrick Lamar – HUMBLE. – YouTube
About Janae Burris
Janae Burris is a comedian, writer and actor in Denver Colorado. She’s been a featured performer at Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival, Limestone Comedy Festival in Bloomington Ind and Denver’s High Plains Comedy Festival. She is the 2016 Comedy Works New Faces Champion, and performs regularly at both Comedy Works locations in Denver. Janae is a member of Pussy Bros, a comedy trio which hosts shows every first Friday at The Comedy Room Room. Catch her podcast “Let’s Talk about Death, baby” @sexpotcomedy.com and see her in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Cyrano Debergerac summer 2018.