Jessimae Peluso’s ability to make the split-second switch from funny to heartfelt and back made our Wednesday evening interview just right.
Peluso, a stand-up comedian who is performing at Goodnight’s Comedy Club in Raleigh this week, dived deep into why making her family laugh is still important and how great comedy can elicit more than just laughter.
We also talked about her lack of Syracuse basketball knowledge, even though she’s from Syracuse, and Gallagher so, go ahead. Try to touch on a wider range of topics than Peluso and I did in 21 minutes. Good luck. If you can work ‘Cuse hoops, a comic sledgehammering fruit and me admitting I cried at a Tig Notaro show into the same interview, I’ll eat your hat. I’ll also read that interview, probably before I eat the hat.
Just before we hung up, Peluso told me she smoked a joint before the interview and felt she “got a little too chatty” but she’s wrong. She was the perfect amount of chatty and my pledge to edit her answers in order to make her seem “a little less stoned” proved to be unnecessary. Like I said, it’s just right. You’ll see.
Tony Castleberry: Have you been following Syracuse’s run to the Final Four?
Jessimae Peluso: I’m a terrible Syracusan. I don’t follow sports. My sister, my mom and my dad, they all watch it. They’re all looking at the TV and I’m the one in the corner busy writing jokes about them.
TC: Well, that’s working out for you then.
JP: Yeah, I’m too busy writing jokes about people who watch sports than to watch them.
TC: Syracuse has both the men and the women in the Final Four though. That’s something that doesn’t…
JP: That happened?
TC: Yeah, they’ve got both of them in there.
JP: [laughs] Do you like that I’m getting my local sporting news from somebody who doesn’t even live in my hometown?
TC: Somebody that lives in North Carolina for crying out loud.
JP: Somebody in North Carolina goes, “Hey, this is going on in your hometown” and I’m like, “Cool.” [laughs]
TC: You were one of the many funny people on MTV’s “Girl Code.” You and Annie Lederman and Jamie Lee and others. What did you like most about doing that show?
JP: I love the fact that we were able to talk about things that girls really experience because I feel like those things are sort of glorified in TV and film and they don’t really touch on the real experiences that girls have. I think they’re just sort of sugar-coated. I think it’s pretty cool to be able to talk about those things in a funny way so that it is digestible for young girls. They don’t feel alone going through these awkward stages.
We were able to do these field pieces where, depending on whatever the episode was about, we could go out and do all these different things. One of the pieces I was able to do was demolition. I was able to take all these different tools and just smash shit, and that felt really great. I don’t know if that was an indicator of anger management issues but I just want to say that smashing things is an amazing way to deal with hatred toward your parents. [interviewer laughs]
TC: You sure it wasn’t you paying homage to Gallagher? He was a guy who smashed things.
JP: Yeah, but he was smashing fruits. I was smashing walls.
TC: Where was your first stand-up set?
JP: In 2003, I believe, it was at a place called the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge (Mass.) and they had a bar downstairs, this performance space call the Third Rail. I love the names of performance spaces. It’s always like Yuk Yuk’s or Chuckle Hut. The Silly Kitty. It’s always these ridiculous names so the Third Rail which, you know, on the train system, you can get electrocuted from it. That was the zany name but yeah, it was down there and it was five minutes. It took me six months to manufacture five minutes of material and I invited all my friends. This is when I was living in Boston. My dad came down from Syracuse, and I have it on tape actually. I have my first comedy set on tape and it’s pretty bad. I’ve got an airplane joke. I’ve got a joke that’s borderline racist, if not full-blown racist. I had a joke about selling weed. I never sold weed. I just was talking about shit that I thought was funny but didn’t necessarily have anything to do with what was going on in my life.
TC: I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to invite a bunch of people to your first show because it’s probably not going to be great. Did you just feel like you wanted the support?
JP: I felt like I just wanted there to be witnesses in case magic happened, and let me tell you Tony, the magic happened, followed by seven years of failure. [interviewer laughs] It was just blind ambition, blind confidence. I was like, “Yeah yeah, it’s my first-ever stand-up show. It’ll be great.” The first stand-up show usually is great. It’s the following seven to eight years that are painful. It’s like that first hit of heroin — “Oh God, this feels good.” Then you hit all these lows and you’re like, “Shit, this is so painful, but I need it.”
TC: Your dad called while you were recording a recent podcast and you put him on and you made him laugh. It was beautiful. Does making him laugh feel different from getting laughs from a crowd?
JP: Oh yeah. When I make my dad laugh, that’s pure, an emotional narcotic. My dad doesn’t really fake laugh. Neither of my parents do so if they’re laughing, it’s a genuine thing. To make my dad laugh just makes me happy. … It’s so special to connect with them on that level and when they don’t laugh? It hurts just as bad as when an audience doesn’t laugh. I’m like, “Shit, that joke didn’t hit the room, at home, on the couch. Tough room, at my mom’s house, in the kitchen.” So then I’m like, “Where are you guys from?”
TC: You have to start doing crowd work in your parents’ living room.
JP: Crowd work at mom’s house. “So where are you from lady? Are you married?”
TC: That reminds me of Maria Bamford and the special she did in her parents’ living room.
JP: How genius was that? How ballsy and genius was that? I was thinking about that the other day. It was just so innovative and risky and very humble. It’s a very humble approach to a comedy special because so many comedians…I always call comedians insecure narcissists. It takes both of those traits in different doses to make it work. With comedy specials, I feel like comedians need to show they can sell out a huge theater and that has to be a part of it. I never understood that. Even though I’m a big fan of the old school specials like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin doing these arenas, not special-wise but just being a comedian being able to sell that size venue out. As far as putting it in a special, that just sort of feels self-indulgent.
When you look at the core of comedy and why people become comedians, it’s created at a very young age and usually is surrounded by the parental situation, whatever was going on in the home. I think it was a beautiful full circle thing for her to do a special for the two people who probably were the most influential, if not the pure reason, she became a comedian in the first place.
TC: Yeah, and if you remember, I’m sure you do, she talked about some really dark shit, telling jokes about her mental issues, suicidal thoughts and all those things. It wasn’t just a barrel of laughs the entire time but she found a way to really pull that off. The way she did it was beautiful.
JP: The way she did that and also the way Tig Notaro handled her special after losing her mom, having to go through a double mastectomy because of breast cancer and breaking up with her ex-girlfriend, all those things happening consecutively within two weeks and then doing a comedy special in that time frame. Obviously she’s not going to do the jokes she had prepared because she’s facing all these terrible things. She basically just opened her veins to the audience and was like, “This is what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s funny. I’m just going to bleed it out and see if it connects with somebody in this room.” She turned it into this experience.
TC: I saw Tig in Denver and I cried at the end. It was honest to God one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. People wouldn’t think you can get that from stand-up but that’s the beauty of it. It can bring those emotions out, you know?
JP: Yeah, it’s not just yuks. It’s not just set-up, punch, set-up, punch. That’s one of the things that kind of frustrates me as well, more from comedians than from the audience. I think there’s this arrogance that sort of lies amongst some of them where they think their type of comedy is the right type of comedy. Comedy is a widespread art form. It appeals to all sorts of different people. One of my favorite quotes that sort of sums up how I feel about it is something that Tina Fey said in an interview. She said “Just because you decide you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s empirically not good.” I think that sort of sums up comedy. It made me realize that just because I’m not for somebody or somebody’s not for me, that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It’s good for somebody else.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes:
I'll vote for anyone who can pronounce the letter H.
— John Hodgman (@hodgman) March 31, 2016