By: Meghan O'Keefe
Jessi Klein's skills are prodigious. The versatile writer and longstanding-standup comic has been in the game long enough that she belongs to that rarefied ilk of WTF podcast guests who can speak with an innate sense of history in her voice, of open mics and pitch rooms filled with unctuous, aspiring comedypersons. Knowing that, The Apiary is quite fortunate to pilfer a few minutes with her ahead of her big ol' Comedy Central special airing Friday night. The old school, bespectacled comedian discusses writing a Saturday Night Live sketch for Tina Fey, doing a private show for Orthodox Jewish couples and feeling like a nauseous giraffe. Our comedy crush on Jessi has abated not at all.
Your first Comedy Central Presents special airs March 4. How do you go about choosing the material for that kind of show?
I cobbled together every joke I’ve told in the last nine years that got even a few laughs and then wrote them on index cards. Then I put the index cards on the floor of my living room. Then I panicked and ate ice cream.
Early on in your stand up career, you were given the "sexy nerd girl" label. Do you think that's still an apt way to describe your persona and how you approach your material?
Well, some guys used to refer to me as a “sexy librarian.” Maybe that used to be true, although over the years I think I’ve evolved into more of a bookish whore. I was a very late bloomer, and I don’t mean it in that cloying way that gorgeous actresses do when they go on late night shows and talk about how awkward they were as teenagers.
Then you see a photo of them in high school and they look exactly as hot as they do now except they have big bangs. From the age of 11 till about 18, I kind of looked like a nauseous giraffe. When I actually became a functioning member of the dating world, no matter what was happening, I still viewed myself as a nauseous giraffe. I still like talking about sex through the lens of someone who can’t believe she’s having it at all.
Every stand up comic seems to have "war stories" about shows so bizarrely bad they're hilarious. What is your favorite story like that?
I once got paid by an Orthodox Jewish couple to do standup at a party they were throwing at an art gallery. The “art gallery” ended up being their apartment and the “party” was them and two elderly neighbors. I told them I couldn’t do standup in that situation so they just asked me to talk about my “crazy” life. I think I just recited Sex and the City storylines for an hour.
Last year you worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live. How did that opportunity come to you?
Saturday Night Live was a huge part of my identity as a kid. Somewhere in the world is a videotape of me and my best friend in fourth grade wearing gray sweatsuits and doing our best Hans and Franz impressions. Over the summer my manager asked if I wanted to submit a sketch packet and I sweated over it for a few weeks. Then in November they called me and I got the gig. That was a surreal phone call.
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You wrote the commercial parody, "Brownie Husband," that aired during the Tina Fey episode. Can you describe the inspiration behind that sketch and how it made it to air?
There was this one Duncan Hines commercial that I kept seeing over and over, that showed this obviously single woman coming home from work, popping a single serve dessert into the microwave and then basically blowing the fork as she ate it. I was really struck by how directly they were promoting the idea of substituting food for sex. It was very funny and very sad to me at the same time and when I was writing my packet for SNL I thought it might be interesting to just eliminate the metaphor and show someone fucking and eating their food at the same time. I had a tagline which we had to change for standards and practices which was, "Brownie Husband: The first dessert you’ll want inside you and inside you."
What was your favorite sketch or idea for a sketch that never made it on-air?
Hmm. I had a thing I wrote with Jenny Slate and Abby Elliott, who are both hilarious, where they played these super annoying dumb sisters who crash their very waspy mom’s second wedding. Sigourney Weaver was the mom. We’d all had experiences with the kind of horrible sorority girl who writes terrible rhyming poems and reads them at rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions in lieu of a speech, like, “When Rachel met Josh/she thought oh my gosh/I’m so in love/I feel like a dove.” Horrible crap like that. It was something we started writing at 3 in the morning and at some point we decided that Sigourney was a senator named Lesley Gatch-Dore and I literally almost barfed from laughing. It went to dress rehearsal but didn’t make it to air.
A lot of comedy fans know you as a stand up comic and writer, but you started in development at Comedy Central and later went on to produce many of their most popular shows. How did you get involved with projects such as "Chappelle's Show" and "Stella"?
In a nutshell, I started at Comedy Central as a temp when I was 22 and was really lucky to be mentored by some wonderful people, especially Lou Wallach, who was the VP of Development in New York at the time and was an amazing boss and incredible friend. He was the executive on both of those shows and we worked on them very closely together. Being involved with those projects was a transformative experience. I learned so much just by getting to be in a room with them, because Chappelle and Black/Showalter/Wain were already comedy heroes of mine.
Does your experience working in development for Comedy Central ever affect how you approach your own comedy?
I’d say yes, to the degree that for seven years it was my job to think about comedy in a very critical way – I learned what I thought made bad comedy and what I thought made good comedy.
In the last few years, there's been a lot of back and forth in the media about the lack of visible women in latenight comedy and whether or not the environment behind the scenes at these shows is inherently sexist. As a woman who's worked behind the scenes and been a part of multiple writing staffs, what is the reality?
Well, I don’t believe that any one female writer can speak to the reality of all or even any of the others. I’m very wary of women who’ve never experienced sexism in late night comedy blaming those women who have for their own experiences, or implying that "They must be crazy, because all the guys who work at [blank] are awesome! Because they’ve been amazing to me!!!" I mean, Clarence Thomas’s wife seems to think he’s a sweetheart, but he’s clearly been a bit of a pill to other people, you know?
Conversely, I don’t think it’s fair for women who’ve had a tough time in one workplace or another to make a blanket statement about all of latenight comedy. I think the issue is really subtle, and I start to sound like a Barnard professor when I go into it, which is probably not a great tone for the Apiary. Personally, I’ve been fortunate to have very positive experiences. Except for that one time with that one guy at that one place. And for the record: I’ve seen as much sexism from women when it comes to comedy as I have from men.
What sort of advice would you give aspiring comedy writers and performers?
Go to as many shows as you can and watch other comedians. Perform as often as you can. Write every day. And then watch Louie CK’s specials. Seeing him onstage is the ultimate reminder: be honest, be honest, be honest. It’s the most important thing.
- THE PLUG: Don't miss Jessi's "Comedy Central Presents: Jessi Klein," happening FRI, MARCH 4 @ 11:30PM