Recently published author & G.L.O.C. JANE BORDEN took time out of her busy touring schedule promoting her book I Totally Meant To Do That for a gorgeous interview with G.L.O.C. Jane spoke with me from her family home in Greensboro, NC about the Southern sense of humor, her history with comedy in New York and what she hopes to see in the future from women in comedy.
Congratulations on all the success with your book! Did you expect the response to be this huge?
I didn’t know what to expect. It’s really fun. I’m on tour right now so it’s a lot of reunions with people I haven’t seen in years.
What’s been the strangest part of being back home in the midst of all that’s going on?
A photographer from the Greensboro News & Record came and took a picture of me in my parent’s living room. That was really surreal.
You grew up in the south, how would you describe the Southern sense of humor?
Oh, interesting… I guess there are a couple of kinds. There is the kind that my aunt has and some of my friends from college where, because they are these very proper ladies with the manners and being sweet, nice, never cracking and that sort of thing, that the humor comes from whenever you break that character. When we were kids my aunt used to—and she is the one who is so proper—she used to pull up her dress, show us all her different undergarments, turn around and go, “Boo booptee doo!” and we would just lose it. When you’re so put together a lot of the humor comes from when you come undone. That’s a very specific kind [to my family], I wouldn’t want to generalize.
Where do you think you got your sense of humor?
The south is still very patriarchal, particularly the kind of south that I grew up in, and girls were just never as important socially. I have a lot of memories of, in particular high school and college, the guys having all the power because they threw the parties. I have a lot of memories of talking to guys and feeling as if I was being dismissed. It became this challenge where as soon as I could get them to laugh I knew I had them. I would watch the looks on their faces change from kind of being, “Uh huh, uh huh”—kind of looking over my shoulder—and then I would make them laugh and I would watch them become engaged and be like, “Oh! she’s interesting” or worth my time, or whatever. And it’s so twisted, I began to get this perverse thrill out of it like, “Ha! I gotcha!” The reason I say perverse is because they shouldn’t be worth my time, you know what I mean? But they were also kind of the only guys I knew—the crowd I grew up in. When I got to New York obviously I got away from that and people began to appreciate me without having to work so hard for it. But that’s definitely part of where it came from, to be treated as an equal I had to make them laugh.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I never really had a plan in my life, which I guess is why I’m 33 and just now figuring out what I want to do [laughs]. I mean, my parents and my aunt and uncle always wanted me to be a lawyer and they kind of said it so frequently that I guess I considered it.
What did you study in college?
I was a Religious Studies major. I knew I wasn’t going to use a Liberal Arts education in any truly applicable way so I just chose the one that I thought was most interesting.
Who inspired you to go into comedy as a career?
I went to see an improv comedy show at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre when it was on 22nd street. It was probably ASSSSCAT or it may have been Harold Night—this was probably 1999—and I just couldn’t believe it. Watching improv was like the most fun thing I’d ever done in my life. I just wanted to sign up for classes. I had never performed, I had never wanted to be a humor writer or an actor any of that. I just started taking improv classes and it grew from there. A) I loved it and B) I was like OK I’m kinda good at this—I wonder… would someone pay me to be funny?
What was your first improv or sketch group and what did you take away from that experience?
My first improv group was called Magic Susie and it was a group that I put together from people I liked who were all taking Level 3 at the time. We got our own run of shows at that place Freaks Local 413. What did I learn from it? I guess not to be so scared. God, I used to be so nervous that I couldn’t even think straight and you have to be able to think, you know, with improv.
Was it the trust in other people or the constant performing that helped nip the nerves?
Constantly performing, I think. Also being with people that I trusted, because I chose the team myself I felt comfortable with them. We had a blast.
Have your parents ever seen you perform in NY and what was their reaction?
[laughs] Well they’ve seen it a couple of times and [the shows] were all right at the beginning and I was just terrible. I hated it because I didn’t know how to say to them “This isn’t how it always is!” And of course they came to a show once at the old UCB Theatre space. It was just a sea of 24-year-olds wearing corduroys and Chucks and my parents came in silk and tweed and the host was like, “Ok… who ARE you?” So that was a little embarrassing.
You’ve covered everything from spas to stand up for Time Out New York, how did that start?
First I got on the freelancer list for Saturday Night Live. That was exciting. I decided I wanted to start writing and a friend of a friend was starting up The L Magazine. I thought, well they’re not going to have any money so they can’t pay which means they can’t afford to have anyone qualified so maybe they’ll hire me… and I got a column! The magazine came out every two weeks and I had a column in it for more than a year about the culture of food in NY. It was a food column but it wasn’t about restaurants; it was a humorous column. They gave me free reign to do what I wanted. I really developed my voice there because I’d been writing sketches or monologues or stand up jokes but I hadn’t really written humor in a narrative kind of way. Those clips and the fact that I was so deeply entrenched in the comedy scene got me the job at Time Out.
What was the best piece of career advice you ever received?
Two things: don’t be afraid to work for free because you can really get a leg up that way, and go to every show, party, event and stay at the bar late. It’s all who you know. You’re not going to get anything just out of knowing someone, but if you have the talent and the drive and then also you have someone who’s going to open a door for you, you’re set.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to write a book?
Make sure you really have something to say. I knew that a book was… BIG. [laughs] And long. But I still wasn’t prepared for exactly how much work it would be and how many pages I had to fill. It’s a lot! I had a decade of time to mine stories and I still had a hard time finding enough to say. I mean, it comes. For example: people are asking me a lot right now, “what’s next? What’s the next book?” and I’m like, I don’t know and don’t expect it any time soon because I will be so wary of signing on to do something until I really have something to say. That’s kind of a general piece of advice. Nuts and bolts: write a proposal. If you’re writing a novel you have to write the whole thing. For a narrative, non-fiction you only have to write one-third of the book–you can find advice on how to do that anywhere on the internet—once you have a proposal you can start trying to get an agent. The book world is much more standardized than TV and film, which is a relief. I always feel like with TV and film it’s like I might as well just make a wish on a star [laughs]… you know? How does anything happen? The book world is easier to navigate.
Did you do any readings of your book on stage while you were writing it?
I did and I found that very helpful. There was one show in particular that Jen Nails used to do with David Silverman called Writers Working. They would have four or five writers come and you would read a piece and then the audience would give you notes. They would tell you what they loved or if they had an idea or a suggestion and then the hosts would collect them and send them to you in the mail. It was unreal; I just can’t even believe it existed. They’re not doing it anymore, but if someone else wants to start up something like that it’s a great thing to have in the community. So a lot of the stories in the book I workshopped there and then I would also tell stories at The Moth. That helped, too.
Jane works her book out on stage. Photo: Eric Michael Pearson
What do you hope people take away from this book?
That it takes a really long time to grow up. [laughs] I’ve been saying that contextually the book is about culture, class and being a fish out of water, but the root story of the book is about that decade after you get out of college and you run away from home. Then once you get away you kind of look back and understand and see home for the first time. That was a challenge for me—to find out what home meant—and that’s a lot of what this book was for me. The process of writing the book was an opportunity for me to understand home and to see and appreciate it in a new way. That was a wisdom that only comes with age and you’re really only granted that opportunity if you do leave home. I guess the take away is do leave home, but don’t forget where you come from.
What was your ultimate “New York” moment?
I say in the book that my quintessential New York moment was this one night that my friend Sean and I were by Port Authority in the middle of the night, because of course we’d been in an improv show or something. We were listening to my iPod and singing at the top of our lungs and it was this feeling of, “It’s 4 in the morning and I’m screaming and no one cares! We’re not disturbing anyone!” Isn’t this amazing you can do that in this city that just never stops? It’s kind of like everyone in NY is screaming at the same time [laughs], but it’s kind of fun to be a part of that. Immediately after I saw the reverse of it which was kind of gross and scary. I had this feeling of, “No one can hear me scream, isn’t that great?” and then I went “Oh my god—no one can hear me scream. That’s terrifying.” [laughs]
You’ve seen a lot of comedy, reviewed a lot of show, what women lately have caught your attention?
I love Morgan Murphy, I think she’s really fantastic. Kristen Schaal, obviously, is great. I like Sara Schaefer. I just think it’s so great right now that women who are doing comedy right now are being honest, or being themselves. They’re not trying to be something that they think will be marketable. They’re not being forced to consider that because they’re women they have to overcome some hump. They don’t feel as if they can’t talk about their specifically feminine experiences and that’s really an amazing thing because, specifically feminine experiences, are funny. We’re seeing that it’s not only women who are laughing at them, everyone is laughing at them.
Do you feel like there needs to be a shift on a larger scale in what people find funny in order for women to become more of a staple in the comedy system?
I don’t know. I think we’re heading in that direction generally speaking. The great thing about comedy is that it’s a meritocracy. People either laugh or they don’t and one of the “rules” of comedy, one of the ways that you can try to be funny or try to gauge whether or not something will be funny is whether or not it’s honest and specific. Right? Comedy is about specifics. The specifics of your life, of any situation and so the more that people are themselves on stage the better their humor is. When you say does there have to be a shift in what people laugh at, you know, what people laugh at is truth and originality and specifics of human experience. And so what we’re seeing is that holds true regardless of gender. So I mean the answer is for people to just continue being themselves do what they think is funny.
What would you like to see from the future of women in comedy?
More! More in positions of power because any time that a woman is in a position of power more women will join underneath her. That’s just how it works. That’s just how the world works and when a woman is calling the shots she’s choosing things she thinks are funny. And when a woman is doing the writing then the product will naturally attract more women in the audience and that will breed a feminine sense of humor and that will prove that the feminine sense of humor is funny. I think also the more women that are there the more diversity there will be among us and we’ll no longer be considered “female” comedians we will be considered, like, the “hipster” comedian or the “pixie” comedian or the “type A, Manhattan” comedian, you know what I mean? We’ll get designations that men have always had. When we’re categorized as “women” instead of by the nature of our personality, I don’t think it’s always because people are trying to hold us down—I don’t think it’s always sexist—I think it just has to do with numbers. That is the most defining characteristic for a lot of us and once there are more and more of us we’ll get to have those same specifics.
Jane, thank you for taking the time to speak with me! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m really honored that you asked me to be a part of this. I think this is super exciting! I’m so glad G.L.O.C. is happening and that it exists. I think there was a time when women were reluctant to be associated with groups that were specifically “female comedian” groups precisely because of what we were just talking about or [laughs] what I was just talking at you about. Women don’t want to be considered a “female” comedian they just want to be a comedian and because of that they shied away from building communities of women and I think that was the wrong way. I think that’s changing which is good because those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
You can catch Jane reading an excerpt from her book at the G.L.O.C. Launch Party on Thursday, March 31st. Pick up a copy of Jane’s book, I Totally Meant To Do That, at a local book store or on Amazon.com and find out more about Jane at Janeborden.com.