Jen O’Donnell is a Los Angeles based stand-up comedian, producer, host, writer and reality TV development consultant. She’s the producer and host of the Ladies Room comedy show and the podcast Take Down the Patriarchy with Solange and Jen.
Listen to Episode #45 here:
Searching For “A-ha” with Jen O’Donnell
Our guest is Jen O’Donnell. Jen is a Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian, producer, host, writer and reality TV development consultant. She’s the producer and host of The Ladies Room Comedy Show and the podcast, Take Down the Patriarchy with Solange and Jen.
That’s pretty much everything about me. I’m also from Buffalo, New York. That’s maybe important for people to know. People love people from Buffalo.
Welcome, Jen. I want to compliment you as being the first woman on the podcast to break the rules.
I broke the rules already? What did I do?
There are these implicit rules about waiting for your moment to be introduced.
Why? I don’t know.
I think it’s great.
I didn’t even realize there was a rule to be broken. I like to break some rules.
You’re a comedian.
The first rule of being a comedian is break the rules.
If I were to use correlation to infer causation, it would suggest that you have a bright future. Let me tell you why because off the top of my head, the other two comedians to break the rules, Neal Brennan, co-creator of Chappelle’s Show and Netflix’s 3 Mics Special.
It’s also a rule-breaking special.
Then Jimmy Carr.
I’m the first rule-breaking woman. This is great.
I could also say you’re probably younger than those two. You’re the rule-breaking Millennial.
Women are socialized to not break the rules because that’s how we survive in the world, there’s that. It’s true. It’s the reason why women tend to be much better students, why they tend to do well in school because school is a system of follow the rules, do what the teacher says and you will be rewarded. When women who are high-achieving and smart get into the real world, they tend to get into positions where you are doing other people’s work for them and not breaking the rules and being rewarded for that. You have to break rules to be successful but nobody’s going to tell you that in a brick building. That depends on people following the rules. My grandmother told me that when I was in second grade, my teacher told me that I thought outside of the box. My grandmother was like your classic 1950s school teacher. My mother told me this story and she was like, “As soon as I told your grandma that, who by the way is called Maga.” It’s unfortunate. She tells my grandmother, “Her teacher said that she thinks outside the box.” My grandma was like, “That’s not good.” It’s not good especially for a woman. She was taught that it’s not good because your path is going to be harder and that’s the truth. I think sometimes it’s supposed to be.
My belief is anything worth doing is going to be difficult. The only reason why I brought up your gender was because of your Take Down the Patriarchy Podcast.
I have two comedy things that are very gendered anyway.
Ladies Room Comedy Show.
It’s impossible to ignore that and I’m totally cool with that. The point of it is to generate conversation. It’s something that I don’t want to ignore. It’s totally fine too.
I want to talk about that too. If you weren’t working as a stand-up comedian, producer, host, writer or Reality TV Development Consultant or podcaster, what would you be doing?
I had a dream that I went to see my doctor and he told me that the air quality in LA was so bad that I was going to die and I had to leave and move to Arizona. I was so relieved. I was like, “I have to give up my dreams? Thank, God.” It was a relief.
You’re going to retire?
Yes. It was a lung doctor and he was like, “You have to move to Sedona where the air is clear.” I was like, “Thank, God.” I had this excuse to start over. I would be good at being an investigator for sure. I have done that a lot in my reality TV work. When you’re a Reality TV Development Producer, especially your job is to be a scrappy investigator. You have no money, you have no budget, you basically have to get people to trust you, like you and tell you information that they wouldn’t tell anybody. I would be a great investigator like private investigator or an investigative journalist, something like that. My dream is somebody recruits me for a top secret think tank and I have to be a futurist or somebody who has to develop a utopia. That would be the dream. I don’t know how good I would be at that but the first one I would be great. I could get better at the second one.
I like that I asked you what you would be doing and then you gave me your alternative world. Then the fantasy off your alternative world.
It’s true because I literally went down that rabbit hole and I was like, “If I was an investigator or an investigative journalist, then I’d be living paycheck to paycheck and I would have to probably like go and live in different cities and in crappy hotel rooms. I would be working for nothing.” Then I created the fantasy of that world. A top secret think tank that I have a Jacuzzi and I can look at the stars every night. That’s all I really want.
I hung out one day with a bunch of futurists.
They’re my favorite.
Talk about a job with no consequences.
Nobody’s holding you to anything, it’s great.
The other thing that is really fun about being a futurist is I actually think it’s a lot like being a comedian in a sense. Let me make a case, on one hand you need to be doing research, reading, paying attention.
You need to be very well-immersed in the present.The first rule of being a comedian is to break the rules. Click To Tweet
You need to be paying attention and good comedians pay attention. Then you also need to relax. You need to break away from it and do pleasurable things. Allow your mind to work through these things and have these insights. The average comedian does that way better than they do the first part. My argument is you need both in order to produce brilliant ideas.
The pressure of producing brilliant ideas, you would think that as a TV Development person that would be the opposite of what my dream job would be. When you’re in Reality TV Development, it’s like you’re a sales person. You are trying to sell things to networks. It has nothing to do with the most original concept that’s ever been created. You are trying to sell a product that people will watch. Sometimes those out-of-the-box crazy things are the best thing that ever happened, but most of the time you’re looking for some freakshow on YouTube who has a crazy following, and seeing if TLC will buy that show.
You’re saying that part of the reason that people complained about television is not being wholly original, redundant and so on is because the people who are buying the shows are not risk-takers.
This is actually one of my favorite conversations. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I see so many tweets that are like, “Producers, why don’t you stop making the same movies from the same books, the same scripts and the same universe all the time? We want to watch new things.” I’m like, “No, you bitches don’t. You never watch new things.” Nobody does.
I want to hear what does it mean to be a Reality TV producer? When you put Reality TV Development Consultant instead of saying TV Development Consultant, what’s the difference?
The development part is the difference. I basically work on things that go to pilot and then I’m done forever. Then I start on a brand-new thing.
The Development Consultant is like an incubator or an accelerator.
I was staffed for a long time at companies who would pay me to sit at a desk and come up with ideas, which I thought was my dream job for a long time. That has its handcuffs especially in reality. Basically when I was staff, that meant that I was at the back and call and be like, “Come join this weird meeting with this weird talent.” Or it would mean that I found something in a weird article or I had heard about something at a bar when I was at this last shoot. I was like, “Send me out to this place with a cheap camera, get an interview and see if something’s good.” You’re there for that original nugget of the idea. Your goal is to sell that nugget of an idea either with the sizzle reel or with a paper treatment that you write to a network who basically gives you a deck. I’ve deck some decks before, great deck maker. If anybody needs a deck, call me up. You’re doing that most of the time, you’re Skyping people and you’re making decks. The goal is basically to get a $10,000 development deal from a network because your job as a development person depends on that. That’s your “sale.”
You said, “I want to talk about people who want to do stuff.” I want people to understand exactly what you do because it’s an interesting world.
People all the time will be like, “They should do a show about this thing that I’ve never seen ever.” I’m like, “That’s been pitched 500 times.” People are like, “We see the same thing all the time.” This is related to women in comedy. People are fed a steady diet of something that isn’t much of a turn from what they’re normally used to. I watch TV because it’s my job but it’s tedious. I’m watching at my parents’ house and they’re straight cable people. They have watched the sitcoms over and over. I’m flipping through the cable networks and I’m like, “All of these shows are still the exact same thing. The same shows have been on since I started this job and everybody is still watching the same thing.”
You’re talking about reality in particular or TV in general?
Reality in particular I guess to keep it simple. You’re seeing the same stuff. To take a risk and show people things in worlds that they have never seen is so much of a leap for audiences, that the people who are making those decisions, networks, advertisers, they aren’t people who are risk takers in general. Those are people who have the golden handcuffs of a $2.5 million house in LA, which is a three-bedroom house with maybe a pool. It’s not a glamorous life. You’re struggling to keep up paying for childcare, keeping up with working twelve-hour days. That’s the job and you are basically saying yes to the best bet you can see. You’re not going rogue.
You want somebody that’s going to be good enough.
That’s what television is.
There are innovations but your argument is that they’re incremental. They’re not truly disruptive. The example I have, I couldn’t tell you why I watched it. Maybe people had conversations about it and word of mouth was I watched a couple of episodes of the new Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Netflix.
It’s one of the best done new shows.
I remember watching the old version of it back in the day, not coincidentally around the time where I started taking better care of myself. For the audience who haven’t seen the show, it’s worth watching. What they’ve done is made the show psychological, emotional and not just physical.
They also have figured out how to bring in perspectives of people who would have no business watching the show in the first place.
Tell me more, what do you mean?
I’m thinking of maybe the first or second episode.
I’m making a note for the exhibits and I wrote, “Queer eye for the short guy.”
Which is probably a show I’ve pitched before. We do a lot of pun changing. We’ll take stacks of index cards that have different words on them like, “Mormon Matchmaker.”
The Polygamy Matchmaker.
We’ve pitched that. You take buzzwords like, “Amish Makeover,” we’ve done that. You come up with good shows from that. People see extreme, they see makeover, they know what they’re getting into and that’s why they’re slipping into TV. They want what they have already eaten before and they don’t want you to introduce something new. They just constantly tell you, they meaning the audience, they meaning the buyers, the networks, that they want disruptors and they want the next big thing but nobody does and it’s annoying.
There are people who do want it, it’s just that there are small audience. They don’t watch television to begin with.
Nobody’s catering to them.
They’re getting it on YouTube and Instagram.
In some ways I defend the “producer” of the network a lot when I see the layman saying like, “Where’s all the original stuff?” You’re not going to watch it. The thing is it’s already there and you could find it but you’re not watching it. Who’s going to trust that you’re going to actually put your money where your mouth is?
Advertising model doesn’t support it. The new subscription models that are starting to get popular, obviously Netflix and Hulu are the most prominent, HBO and so on. There’s a place I think for some of that. I’m worried that Netflix is going to cause the world to run out of jokes.
They have this bandwidth that’s incredible. It might have already happened and we don’t know it.Sometimes those really out-of-the-box crazy things are the best things that ever happen. Click To Tweet
They talk about an infinite number of monkeys.
Sometimes I like to think that it’s already happened.
This might get back to what you were talking about women in comedy. We talked about Neal Brennan’s show. That show felt different and it proceeded Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which also did a little bit different. People went crazy over Nanette. All she did was get serious.
She did some storytelling. All she did was the oldest art that has ever been invented and people are like, “What is this new nonsense?”
Comedy that’s not funny.
The oldest form of art, people are like, “What is this new thing?”
Where a comedian forgoes laughs, which is interesting.
It basically snowballs and when you can do it right, you do it right.
You have to do it well. You’re going to be a futurist.
I would like to be a futurist mostly so that I can change all the rules for the world. There are five to ten people in control and I want to be one of those people. Is that so much to ask?
Are you an Illuminati believer?
I’m going to say Ancient Aliens as if that’s the show I do work on because it encompasses all of the shows I do work on. You can’t work on a show like that and not every once in a while I’ll be like, “There’s something to it.” I like to entertain those ideas because they’re entertaining.
It’s not as stretched to add a lot more people to that group and basically talk about oligarchies and things like that. There’s good evidence that the world is truly ruled by relatively small compared to nine billion people who hold a lot of sway.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch at all.
When is Jay Z and Beyoncé making that?
You’ve got your red herrings. You have to because it’s entertaining. They’re throwing them off the trail, which I love, which means they are Illuminati. I would love to be a futurist. I feel like I’m maybe sometimes born like a little bit too early and I’m bored with everything.
I feel lucky about when I was born.
I feel super lucky that I was born now instead of 100 years ago.
For you especially, no doubt.
I’m a human supposedly, but that was up for debate 100 years ago. People forget that.
You have a podcast called Take Down the Patriarchy.
It’s a pretty aspirational, subtle title. What could that be about? No idea.
I want to ask you about an idea that I was puzzling over the rise of some of these male media personalities, the Joe Rogans, Jordan Petersons of the world. I was puzzling over that idea. You said 100 years ago it would have sucked to be Jen O’Donnell. Are you Irish?
Yes. I can tell you exactly what my life would have been because it was my great, great grandmother’s side.
Which is what?
I’m 31 and when I was 27, I had a pulmonary embolism, I for sure would’ve died instead of kept living. I also would have had five to six children. Some of them may not have made it, I may not have made it. I would have fulfilled my duty as a woman on Earth, which is to have children. As a person who would like to someday raise humans, I also still want to have children. I would like to live through it and also be able to make my own choices and to live my own life as well, which for the first time in the eternity of humankind is possible for me. I’d be basically living on a farm in Ireland and eating potatoes, which by the way I don’t like. The famine is in my DNA, I don’t really like them. They’re basic, there are so many better foods to eat.
I don’t think anyone likes potatoes.
People do, they get mad. I don’t like French Fries. They get upset about this.
I don’t even consider French Fry a potato.
I would have not been afforded the opportunity to travel the world, get an education, pursue in art.
As I was puzzling over these guys, I was thinking about the patriarchy, the notion of oppression and the conversation that’s happening now more than ever. There was Equal Rights Amendment. There was a time where it was also at the forefront.
This is the first time that it’s really in the cultural zeitgeist. I think and hope that there’s action versus conversation.
I’m supportive of it. I’ve considered myself a feminist. What I was puzzling over is why our young men looking to these guys, listening to them, hearing the way they talk and stuff? I have an answer. Your partner 100 years ago would have benefited greatly from the patriarchy. The man who you married and impregnated you five to seven times.
The systems that are in place for that man and the patriarchy, he gets the toll. You can line up because he has the ticket because he had worked at the factory. You’d get bread because you all subscribe to this and then the church is there and they’ll be able to cover any medical expenses. In order to get money from the church, you have to follow all their rules of the patriarchy. As you know the Catholic Church is not a lot of above the line stuff. It sucked.People want what they have already eaten before; they don't want you to introduce something new. Click To Tweet
If you had said to him, “You have so much privilege in the world. It’s so easy to be you.”
He would be like, “Are you out of your mind?”
He’s out tilling the land, breaking his back, trying to provide and doing all of those.
He would in turn say I had all the privileged because I was kept safe and I didn’t have to toil. All I had to do was keep a home and he afforded me the privilege of being able to keep that home.
Depending on the man, I’m hoping you have good tastes.
This imaginary guy needs a name like Shamus O’Toole or something. That’s what they call him at the bar. He’s a drunk.
He also might truly adore you and care about you and be willing to break his back.
This is important, provide an opportunity for his offspring. That’s a big one. All of these sacrifices are to ensure that this generation continues, which I find very noble, great and something we should keep doing.
By the way, those motivations are no different for men and women. Fast forward ahead 100 years, the point which is interesting is there are a lot of men struggling in the world. They’re incarcerated, they’re homeless, they’re suffering from mental illness, they’re toiling in coal mines and factories. They’re doing backbreaking work. They’re not that sophisticated because the world doesn’t allow most people to get sophisticated.
Especially now because we’re in an information age, where toiling in a coal mine is increasingly becoming not a way to make a living or sustainable life.
It’s a harder job. If you’re lucky you might be a coal miner, if you’re not lucky you might be unemployed, cooking meth or doing whatever. The point is you can’t even get a woman.
They’re the ones complaining.
To me, that’s exactly the point. If the conversation becomes, “Look how great you have it, look how bad we have it. We need to equal the playing field.”
They’re like, “What are you even talking about?”
It’s a very difficult conversation to have versus saying, “Look at all the ways women have it difficult. Look at all the ways that men have it difficult. We both live in a system that creates these difficulties.” There’s an asymmetry obviously, that the difficulties are different and the historical inequalities were much greater. My point is it becomes a different conversation.
I truly believe that with everybody I’ve spoken to and everything that I’ve read and all of the imaginings I’ve done for the future, that system that you’re talking about that isn’t working anymore is patriarchal rule.
I’m not debating that. It’s not about the cause, it’s about how you approach the solution.
I also think that there was probably a time where that patriarchal system was exactly the best we could do. That was maybe the best way for us to survive as a species. We’re coming to an age where we no longer need the same things that we needed to survive. A lot of probably men don’t understand that feminism wants to save them from that. Feminism could help this guy who has had a lifetime of this toxic masculinity forced down his throat. If he doesn’t provide for his family, if he doesn’t have the hottest porn star wife or all of those things that are expected of him, that he’s depressed, unemployed and all of those struggles could be taken away. The easiest way to always put it is we have mistaken the half for the whole, for as long as we’ve ever been on this Earth. What if everybody was empowered and what if everybody was running on full brain function? We would be on vacation right now in Europa and I would have a hot tub looking at stars and different planets.
You would have to have a new comedy show and a new podcast.
I would love it. I’ll gladly retire my podcast. Joe Rogan to me is the quintessential version of male mediocrity rising. I think that he is smart and talented and interesting and funny. There are ten women I know who are just as talented as he is, but the world isn’t set up for them to succeed as easily. Nobody likes to hear that they don’t work hard and nobody likes to hear that they didn’t start from nothing and struggled because he did. He did all of those things. Nobody wants to hear that. He does have a perspective that’s important to share and he also has a really heavy burden that I almost sympathize a bit. He has people’s ears and that’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t know if I can handle that much responsibility ever. It’s tough. I think that people really respond to him because he is a representation of a guy who’s just like us. The woman who’s just like us is something that has never been invented.
I might push back on the mediocrity thing because that guy at the very least has a motor unlike most people on the planet.
Mediocrity, I guess when I’m putting him in a lineup of people who if they had had the same audience lined up and the same network execs who saw themselves in his jokes, and who knew that there were a rabid audience who would also see themselves in his jokes. I was thinking about this. I went to a women’s open mic, which is something that is a pretty common occurrence. There are open mics and legally you can’t tell men not to come, but only women go up. Sometimes there are men in the audience, sometimes there are not. Mostly when you’re at an open mic, there’s not really an audience. People talk all the time like, “What are you going to do when you’re out of that safe space?” They love to say that. What I was thinking about is that it’s probably a safe space because you have familiar faces in the audience and you also know that you can walk to your car safely and not feel uncomfortable because you may have said something to piss somebody off. It’s nice to see other women who you know who are there. Or even if you don’t know them, just other people who get it and who are on the same journey as you. There’s that.When you can do it right, you really do it right. Click To Tweet
There’s another layer to it, which is that when those women are in the audience listening to your jokes, those women have spent a lifetime empathizing and understanding your perspective. If I’m telling a joke about a sports bra, to them it’s going to go really well, if it’s a good joke. I can work out that joke and there are some things that they really like and some things that they won’t. I can be like, “I can workshop this because the people here, which is 50% of the world understand it.” I could take that same joke to a regular open mic, which I will. If there are three women, they might giggle, but you’re going to laugh a little bit less if other people aren’t really quite getting it. I’m saying these jokes to these men who aren’t going to get it, so there’s no real way to workshop things that they may not understand.
If you flip it, you’re like, “Women go and they laugh at things male comedians say,” but that’s because we’ve seen the male perspective and have only been given the male perspective in the books we read in school, in the movies we watch. We are so conditioned to see their point of view. We laugh because we’ve spent our whole lives trying to get the joke. Men for the first time are being told that they should try to get the joke because there’s half of the world that they haven’t really listened to and their minds hurt way too much to understand that. Then they tell us to die on the internet. That’s where I’m at.
I understand this. It’s difficult. Trust me, I’m not excuse making, I’m puzzling over this phenomenon. I believe that when it comes to any type of social justice is that you needed the whites in South Africa to hand over power. The people in privilege need to come along and it helps with both a carrot and a stick.
It’s a good exercise though because then you think, “What’s the cure for that?” I honestly feel sometimes knowing that you actually don’t want all the power is a really good thing.
You already said, “I’m not sure I’d want all those responsibilities.”
I don’t know if I would want that. I don’t know if it’s good for one person to have that much power. I left my job in Reality TV because I wanted to pursue stand-up and writing more. People thought I was pretty nuts.
This is perfect because what I’m about to say, “What are you working on?” This is a good segue.
That was a few years ago. In the meantime, I had hip surgery, which was hilarious because I quit my job to do stand-up and then I literally could not stand up. I might have to have a shoulder surgery, which would be extra funny because then I couldn’t write. I left my job and I was getting paid. I got paid a lot of money. Even when we were talking about liking LA, I’ve always loved LA. I’ve had a great life here and I’ve been here for years. I’m like, “Only in the last year has it really felt hard,” and that’s because I voluntarily decided to make much less money than I’ve ever made.
As a side note. When we were setting up, I was talking about how much I like LA but I’ve never spent more than a month here.
I was like, “It took me eight and a half years.”
This is a total digression. LA is like most major cities. It’s great if you’re wealthy.
I have a New York price that I would live for and so I could ever move to New York.
If you make $1 million a year, New York is amazing. Even if you make $100,000 a year, which almost anywhere else in the country is outstanding money to live a good life, you feel like a pauper in that place.
When you’re working in Reality TV and that’s how much money you make and you still can’t buy a house and you’re like, “This is what my job will still look like in twenty years.” By the way, all the richest, most powerful people who we work for and see day-to-day and hear their ideas day-to-day and know their lives day-to-day, you’re like, “I don’t want that life.”
Be careful what you wish for.
That’s the same thing where the power conversation comes into play too because I think that the stories we tell are really important. The words we say are important because we are people who create and you reach a lot of people. If you don’t take that very seriously, you should. Maybe that’s just me being really self-important. My YouTube videos get dozens of views. When you’re working in Reality and you know that you get sent to this dinner in the middle of the swamps because this family business is really cool and you’ve got to shake them out, see if they have the personalities. Then you think twenty steps down the road and you think about that bearded Duck Dynasty guy on the cover of Time magazine telling everybody that God hates gay people. There was a moment where I could have sent an email that said, “I don’t think they have what it takes.” I just don’t think that there’s a pile of money that I could sleep on and be okay with that. Also I don’t miss my family enough. I just think that it is a lot of responsibility. Even when I’m writing jokes. There are jokes that I don’t do anymore because I’m like, “It’s funny and it works.” It’s a low-hanging fruit.
I want to ask you about this. You said as constraint on what you joke about.
What I was also going to say is I don’t miss my family to chase Sasquatch for my whole career in Los Angeles. I could be working in advertising in Buffalo and be doing something else, versus something that I’m going to spend my whole life doing. Then perhaps feel really guilty about because I’ve put these messages into the world. I’ve plucked people from obscurity and given them a microphone and that’s on you. When I tell jokes, it’s almost the same thing. I used to tell this joke about how I wasn’t a sexy drunk. I was a snack drunk. I would go home and have wild snacks was the joke, and wake up with a pizza box and be like, “What happened? I have to get tested.” The joke was for diabetes. Everybody laughed and it was fine. It was like an early joke.
There was a girl who had diabetes and I was talking to her. There’s a lot you don’t know about diabetes and it’s also not really caused by eating too much. Then I go down this hole where I’m like, “If I say that joke about diabetes, people are always going to think that about diabetes and then people with diabetes have struggle and then there’s going to be less money that’s given to diabetes funds because people think it’s a lazy people disease,” and then you just throw it out. I’m like, “There are probably so many other people who just don’t care about this.” Also it wasn’t that funny of a joke anyway.Hard work is necessary but not sufficient; you need creativity, too, because a creative life is fulfilling and fun. Click To Tweet
What if it was really funny?
If it’s so funny and it’s saying something important, then that’s the best thing ever. If I have five minutes and I’m not saying something that I think is important, then why did I drive an hour into Hollywood during traffic and why am I wearing tights that hurt and why did I put rollers in my hair? It just doesn’t seem worth it to me.
That’s the next level stuff. I always like to say that comedians foremost want, “haha.”
Which is what we talked about the a-ha and the haha.
You said it’s not that funny a joke, but then if it was funny, now you have a “haha.”
This doesn’t make me your average comic who you’re used to and who is easy to digest. I know that about myself, I guess I’ve chosen to lean into it instead of lean away from it. I think we’re in a world that’s changing that will give me opportunities and it will be worth it. Frankly, it’s a bet. Having a podcast called Take Down the Patriarchy, having an all-female stand-up show, that means that male stand-up comics don’t care about me in LA. This is a really broad generalization but they’re not like, “Maybe she’ll put me on her show.” You take yourself out of a whole half of the game in a way because that’s the point of producing a show is so that you have something that’s yours, so that you can book people who you think are funny so you can build community. I’ve taken myself from half of that.
It’s even more than half because there are more than 50% male comics. I’m glad you’re making a bet. I think it’s good. I’ll tell you why I think that. First of all, if you’re just doing what everyone else is doing, it just became a lot harder to be successful.
You have to be really good at it doing whatever everyone else is doing.
It gets really hard if you just do everything everyone else does.
That’s what I feel Joe Rogan is. He’s the best at doing what everybody else is doing. I’m picking on him right now because he just came up, but that’s a lot of people and that bores me really fast.
I think that’s fair to say that if you look at podcasts, perhaps even this one run by straight white men, you get a lot of the same stuff. It’s not that different. I have to tell you that I get bored easily and so I’m looking for the things that are different and so on. I also believe I’m a marketing professor and so I have to teach marketing. There’s already been a bunch of marketing-related lessons with what we were just talking about. For instance, when you were talking about workshopping jokes with mostly female audience and the opportunities that that provides. That certainly makes sense from a business standpoint because the average comedy club audience is 50% women. If you can allow yourself to make them laugh and get the jokes to the next level, which can also get their partners, male friends that are laughing, now you have an edge.
I dream about that conversation they have in the car on the way home where he’s like, “I don’t get it.” Then she tells him something that is something that’s so rudimentary about the female experience. Then that turns into this nugget that he then takes to the office. I really tend to go down some rabbit holes here. That’s how comedy can save the world because it’s the quickest, easiest, most painless way to empathize with people who you may not normally understand.
Do you have a phrase that you use? I have to name this podcast. I’m already working on the name of this one. It’s this second-level joke. Do you have a way that you describe a next level thing? It’s like the Chaos Theory of your telling.
I should have an answer for this, but I don’t. Maybe I just haven’t really dissected it enough.
You don’t need to label it because it’s just what you do. It sounds to me that when it comes to your profession, whether it be telling jokes or developing shows, you care about entertaining people, that’s primary. You need to entertain people or else they’re not looking at it, you can’t make money and make a living. There are tons of competition. However, you’re also willing to make some people uncomfortable in order to make other people highly entertained. This is this idea of I call it creating a chasm. You polarize people.
There are a lot of risks involved in all of these things. Realizing that is interesting.
Reward is always accompanied by risk. It’s necessary at least to some degree. It’s a high reward. This third element to it is you want this to be a meaningful message or at least a non-negative message. It would be okay to tell jokes that do no harm. If you can do a joke that changes a perspective into that a-ha.
The metaphor that just popped in my head is the best delicious, most well-made junk food that there is.
Be careful, this might be called making delicious junk foods, healthy junk food.
Next level junk food. I’m from Buffalo, I love chicken wings. If I see the wings at 7/11 and they’re just sitting under the heat lamps and people are like, “Wings, great.” There’s a wing that’s good and it’s worth it, and then there’s a terrible wing. I’m just like, “You can eat the same thing, but I can show you how to eat the best one.” There are better things out there that are still really great. You just have to give them a chance. Choose the best one.
I love this perspective and this idea. Clearly, it guides you. You leave this job and now you’ve been on your own.
Basically, I’ll consult at different companies. They’ll bring me in and either pay me hourly to toss ideas out and then I shape them or tell them what networks they could go to or they’ll say like, “Can you write a deck for us?” I also have done a couple of weeks of casting at a time where they get development money and they need three experts for a panel or they need a food talent for this particular kind of food show. I go down these crazy rabbit holes. That’s the thing that I love the most about the job is I can climb any tree and I can find those really interesting people in these worlds that you just would never know about otherwise. That’s what I’ve always loved about TV.
It’s heartbreaking too because you meet so many fascinating people and you hear so many stories and you find these crazy worlds that’s like stranger than fiction. Then you take them to networks that get thousands of pitches a year and maybe they get developed, maybe there’s a pilot but they go away. Then those people are still in my life. They’re still texting me. You get a phone call from somebody in Los Angeles who wants to give you a TV show. I always say that I could just probably take a road trip across the country and stay for free everywhere I went because I have so many friends and so many little weird enclaves. It’s like stories that never were. That’s what I love.
There’s a book idea in there. Let’s do some more rapid-fire stuff. I’m curious what you’re up to.
Ladies Room, Take Down the Patriarchy. I’ve got a couple new things in the works that I’m working out. One that I interviewed you for, The Internet According to Jen, which is based off my newsletter, which is a version of what I was just talking about. It’s people who I think are like mini-television shows that there is not a cable network for. I have talked to the most interesting people that I’m like, “This is great. Maybe nobody’s ready for this on cable. Maybe that’s not a Netflix show, but there is a nugget of something here and people should know about it.”If you do what you love every day, then you'll never work a day in your life. Click To Tweet
When I do media, I don’t normally consume my own media. I did watch some of that. You had some funny jokes that I really enjoyed. I was like, “I definitely have to get her on the pod,” but I was blinking too much. Is there a hack for that like in television?
This might make me a bad producer. I didn’t notice you were blinking at all. There are other people whose job that is if you have an actual crew. I don’t think that there’s some blink hack without getting your eyes really red. The truth is that my job as a TV producer is to get you to cry as fast as possible.
What are you saying no to?
I’m saying no to things that aren’t going to make the world a better place. I just turned down a job that I was like, “I don’t want my name on that.” I didn’t say that. I said, “I’m really busy.” It’s a production company ran by somebody who you just don’t want to work for.
I’m curious about this. You told them that you were busy versus, “I don’t do this kind of work.”
I was like, “Frankly, I am on something right now. Also just as a heads up, this isn’t something that I would have said yes to.”
Do you have a rival, frenemy or even an enemy who motivates you?
I’m really glad you asked this question because I was just talking about this. Do you follow Roxane Gay on Twitter?
She is a writer feminist, really fascinating, talented, hilarious person. She has an enemy that she talks about all the time. It really bothers me on what she does. I think it’s a bad form. Also me talking shit about Roxane Gay, I’m in trouble. When I see it, there’s this instinctual thing that I’m like, “We’re supposed to all be getting along and this is a bad look for all of us.” The things that she tweets, she’ll be like, “My enemy had something in her home that I had in my home, so I got rid of it.” It’s unnamed. People have theories about who it is. My theory is that it’s Reese Witherspoon for a few reasons. It bothers me so much that she’s doing this. Also anytime there’s a lot of onslaught of people getting on board for anything, I immediately shut down. I immediately go like, “You are wrong. Here’s why.” As soon as there’s a mob forming, I have to be away from that mob. I’m like, “Why does it bother me so much?” Everybody retweets it and they’re like, “Who is her enemy? I love this so much. This gives me life, reply with gifts.” I’m like, “This is so annoying to me but is there a reason? Am I annoyed by it because I also have an enemy and I’m unwilling to admit that to myself? She is fully embracing it so much that it’s making me uncomfortable. The answer is probably yes, I do.” It’s Reese Witherspoon.
What would be worse? This enemy is real or it’s a made-up thing that she uses for just entertainment?
I wondered if she was doing like a grand experiment and was going to reveal it, which also made me really not want to be a part of it. If I replied once or liked it once, then I would be just a number in her game. I think it would be worse if it was made-up for sure.
What is the secret to success that everyone knows but can’t seem to do?
My first instinct was to say hard work, but that’s a lie because some people just aren’t afforded the opportunity to literally work hard. There are so many people who I came up with or went to school with or grew up with who are just as smart and talented as me who have had much more difficult lives and didn’t have the opportunities that I was afforded. Also if you compared my lives to a lot of other people, in my mind I would say that I have worked much harder but that’s not true.
I feel like hard work is necessary but not sufficient.
It’s also boring.
That is the secret that it’s a grind.
It’s a grind and it sucks. I think that there’s a lot of fun and this faux enlightenment when it comes to this idea that a creative life is fulfilling and fun. The phrase, “If you do what you love every day, then you’ll never work a day in your life.” I saw a tweet that was like, “No, you’ll work every single day and you’ll never have a moment where you’re not doing it.” That’s exactly what I do. I have such a hard time watching television, watching movies, reading articles because everything for some reason directly translates to how I pay my bills. The one thing that is not that is reading books. When I think about the idea that reading books would be my job, I have just made myself the most miserable person on the planet because it’s all I have.
I get this point because you work in media and entertainment and a lot of consumption is media and entertainment based. Now you’re just mixing both your rest time.
Work and pleasure are the same exact thing. It’s like, “Am I taking a break?” I have a friend who’s a writer, and I still haven’t looked at it, but he was posting about it. He kept a chart this year of every piece of entertainment or media he consumed, which is obviously a very tedious thing to do. I bet that you can really get something out of that.
What are you reading or watching or listening to that really stands out that’s really good?
I have to watch things as we talked about, it’s my job. When something new premieres on the Travel Channel, I at least need to watch an episode and understand why they bought that show and what makes that talent interesting and how that show is formatted, which makes watching TV really miserable.
I went to a stand-up show with three quite good comedians, and I really didn’t enjoy myself that much. It’s just because it’s a little too much like work and I’m doing too much analysis.
When people are like, “Do you want to go see this comedy show?” I’m like, “No.” The idea of going and sitting through comedians and not going on stage is misery. I don’t watch the shows that people are watching scripted-wise, mostly because I hate thrillers. I don’t like to escape to worlds that are stressful. It’s work and it’s tedious. I will never watch Bird Box. The shows that I like to watch are usually escapes to worlds where there are only women and the only real problems are interpersonal problems and there’s also beautiful food to look at. The best example would be Gilmore Girls. That’s my favorite show of all time. We’ll go from there.
My fiancé is a video game influencer. We have a very successful life. I’m a stand-up comedian. He’s a video game player on the internet. He has a YouTube channel where he plays games as a pacifist. He breaks the rules in video games. What he’ll do is he’ll go and shoot in a game, and people don’t know this but you can actually like pick your camera angles and go in and basically shoot a script and then write it. He’s an editor and a graphic designer. He was just nominated for a webby for it. His name is Jeremy and his web series is called the Grand Theft Auto Pacifist. He also plays other games as a pacifist. He’s working on a game. He’s working on a new series about Red Dead Redemption, which is a Western. We decided to really dig into Westerns together. We watched humorous Westerns but then also Buster Scruggs and things like that. We just see where stories go, the jokes that have already been done, Blazing Saddles, we re-watched. He loves to force himself into understanding other people’s perspectives to a fault. He picked the show on Hallmark. It’s a Hallmark channel, original TV series that you can watch on Netflix called When Calls the Heart.
At first glance it’s this woman who is rich. She moves out to this coal mining town during the pioneer days. She’s a teacher. Forty men have just lost their lives in the coal mine and she’s this teacher who’s there to help revamp and save this town. She’s in love with the constable who’s been sent to protect her from her father. There’s this weird patriarchal love story. Then it’s this woman who has knowledge who comes to this town that’s an old coal mining place that’s stuck in their ways. It’s a great episode. In season one, fourth episode, the women in town decided that their husbands died in the coal mine and the women are like, “We are going to go in the mines to save this town.”
If they do, if they hit this arbitrary goal that the evil mayor made up, they get to keep their homes. It was so entertaining to me this idea that the women could literally put on their husbands’ coal mining gear, put on the light and have a satchel for their lunch and go into this coal mine, totally untrained. You can just learn how to do this in a day. Then leave this entire village empty, that you have to feed the children, that you have to make bread with yeast. You have to beat clothes to wash them. Because they were in the coal mines, the whole town comes to a dead halt because nobody knows how to do the jobs that the women do every single day. They were so easily trained to jump into a coal mine, but by the way, they have zero power in this town. They’re not the ones who are holding the power even though they’re the ones who hold all the power. Meanwhile, it’s a Hallmark channel show. We will come home and we’ll get on the couch and be like, “What’s going on?”
I assume you two have pretty in-depth conversations about the meaning of this?
It’s fun to sit with another funny person and make fun of television dialogue.
I am spending very little time on Twitter these days. Who were surprisingly powerful people in this country are the TSA. If you work for the TSA, things haven’t exactly turned out for you.
You make in Buffalo, $36,000 maybe a year.
It’s a thankless job, not terribly rewarding.
You’re on your feet, you’re around a lot of germs and a lot of miserable, rude people.
It’s not a great job, yet it matters and because of commerce in this country flows through our airports. The TSA are not being paid right now and so they’re starting to call in sick. They’re calling in sick for a good reason because they can’t afford to pay childcare. They have to take care of their kids and the only way that you can take care of kids is to call in sick. It might become the thing that gets the government opened again.
You don’t think about the people who are slogging away, who are literally running the entire country. They are the literal backbone.
You can call them the lubricant. You can call them the ball bearings, however you want to think about that stuff.
Without it, the system comes to a dead halt.
Jen, this is a lot of fun.
Thanks for having me.
This was great. Thank you.
- Jen O’Donnell
- The Ladies Room Comedy Show
- Take Down the Patriarchy with Solange and Jen
- Neal Brennan
- Hannah Gadsby
- Jen O’Donnell’s YouTube
- Joe Rogan
- The Internet According to Jen
- Roxane Gay on Twitter
- Grand Theft Auto Pacifist
About Jen O’Donnell
Jen O’Donnell is a Los Angeles based stand-up comedian, producer, host, writer and reality TV development consultant. She’s the producer and host of the Ladies Room comedy show and the podcast Take Down the Patriarchy with Solange and Jen.