Fun fact: The first time I saw comedian Janelle James perform, while sitting in the audience of a 2015 taping of Wyatt Cenac’s comedy showcase, “Night Train,” I knew she was someone I wanted to know. The woman was strumming my pain and singing my life, hilariously lamenting the state of once-epic breasts and proposing a “support group for the formerly hot.” This was obviously my ministry.
Funnier fact: I spotted myself—laughing, of course—in a split screen of the recording of her performance that night (you can play the “Hi, Mai!” game around 0:19).
While James is still arguably hot—and hasn’t quite reached the “bestie in my mind” status I’d aspired to when I first saw her set (or in the years since that I’ve low-key stalked her; all “single black female” weirdness aside)—she has continued to make me laugh, most memorably on her cleverly named 2017 debut comedy album, Black and Mild.
So, when I heard James had been chosen as one of a crew of fellow established but still relatively underground comics to be granted a quarter-hour comedy special as part of Netflix’s new series The Comedy Lineup, premiering Friday, Aug. 31 (James is Pt. 2, Ep. 1), I knew I had to hear more—because I already know what this woman can do in 15 minutes of standup.
When I catch up with her, the New York City-based comic is having a decidedly black girl moment, getting her hair done at the home of a friend who also happens to be a fellow comedian—a situation ripe for comedy itself. Accordingly, we have a charming built-in laugh-track throughout our fairly irreverent and completely uncensored conversation (consider this your parental advisory).
James, who spent her early career years working in “every aspect of fashion,” among other creative gigs, tells me her comedy career began in “the most boring way,” when she attended an open mic while living in Champaign, Ill.,—and decided to try it herself the following week.
“I didn’t know I could do it, but I wanted to try,” she laughs. “And then, I just kept doing it.”
And she’s done pretty well at it. In the years since, James—whom fans and followers of Chris Rock may remember as the opening act on his 2017 Total Blackout tour, has become a regular and respected fixture on the comedy circuit—a circuit that still includes relatively few black women.
“Every man who’s making money has let me open for them,” she jokes. “I’d like to be that man, at some point.”
But if comedy remains a white male-dominated field, James hasn’t let it phase her. On the contrary, she’s encouraged by the fact that it’s actually a good time to be an “other” in entertainment, as currently, creatives across demographics are doing well.
“I don’t think about it, because then that slows you down, but I don’t enter spaces like, ‘As a black woman ...’ That’s not my deal,” she says. “I’m just trying to get in where I fit in, basically. ... Shit, I think I lose more things because I’m over 35 than [because I’m] black.”
It’s a sentiment pretty much any woman in entertainment over the age of 35 can relate to; the still pervasive idea that there’s a shelf-life on talent. It’s a trope as tired as the idea that women can’t be funny—let alone, attractive women. When I ask James how she navigates a business in which she’s sometimes been told she’s “too pretty to be funny” or that her rising success may be more due to her looks than her talent, she scoffs.
“First of all, I’m not that pretty—I’m just comedian pretty, which is basic. I’m just not ugly. So, that’s bullshit. Now that I’m in the ‘entertainment business,’ I know what the fuck pretty is, and that’s not me. I don’t put in that much work. ... [It’s] just another way of diminishing your accomplishments. ‘Sorry, I don’t want to fuck you, dude’—that’s pretty much all it comes down to.”
Because all jokes about depreciating tits aside, what James isn’t going to do is devalue herself—or apologize for her age or appearance.
“A lot of comedy is self-deprecating, but I always say, ‘That’s white shit,’” she says. “There’s more black comedians now that are doing self-deprecating humor, but that’s never been my thing. And I always feel like black people, we’re boastful. Like, we’re not humble ...
“I’m also grown. So I don’t have the same self-esteem issues I would’ve had when I was younger—and prettier! See, that’s how it happens. That’s what it is: When you’re really fine, you feel bad about yourself. Then you get older and get a gut, and you’re like, ‘Man, fuck this’ ...
“I don’t have the energy to pretend that I’m younger. I feel like once you hear my material, you know I’m grown, so what’s the point? And I like adult shit, ‘cause that’s what I am. * laughs* But I just did a college and killed it, so it’s whatever.”
So, if not self-deprecating, how would James describe her comedy? She pauses to ask her friend/hairstylist, who offers “witty.” James considers the question for a moment before conceding she doesn’t really fit a “category.”
“I’m just being myself,” she says simply. “I’m just talking shit. But I always feel like all black women are funny, so I’m just doing it onstage.”
She’s also doing it offstage, recently wrapping a stint as a staff writer on BET’s The Rundown with Robin Thede and aiming to do more development, TV, and, of course, stand-up. “Basically, get my Issa Rae on,” she quips.
Personally, I’d love to see even more comedic black female narratives onscreen—especially from women over 35—since, as James noted, we’re a naturally funny bunch. And why does she think that is, I ask?
“Because we’re in a lot of pain,” she laughs. “That’s how the fuck we get through life.”