Stand-up comic Janelle James credits one thing above all else for the start of her comedy career: classic Midwestern boredom.
Although she’s now based in New York and known for touring the country with comedy icons, James first took to the stage at an open mic in Illinois just over eight years ago.
“(Living in the Midwest) was wholly responsible for me getting my start,” James said. “I never thought about doing comedy before I lived there.”
Back in 2011, while working in the fashion industry James had just moved from New York to Champaign. The shift of scene left her feeling more than a little out of place and restless.
“I was just super bored and depressed,” she said. “I was told about an open mic, and went to check it out. I watched it, and I was like, ‘Well, I could do better than these people,’ which is basically what every comedian does. You go, ‘Well, I’m funnier than that,’ and you try it.”
Never intending to make comedy a legitimate career, James earned the praise of audiences and colleagues alike, working her way from open mics to opening slots and comedy festival appearances.
“I didn’t think, ‘Well, now I’m going to be a comedian,’” James said of starting her comedy career. “I was just looking for something to do. I had never even figured out — and maybe I still don’t know — how you become a comedian. That idea never crossed my mind. It’s never been a dream of mine. I just kept doing it.”
Constantly working on the road, but now holding a New York address, James has been featured by The New York Times, named one of the 50 Most Funny People in Brooklyn, and most recently, hosted the inaugural Janelle James Comedy Festival this past December.
“New York is a comedy town,” she said. “I would live here if I wasn’t doing comedy, but it’s beneficial to comedy. It’s kind of funny because now I live in New York, but I’m never here. I moved back, but I’m probably in the Midwest more than I am here.”
Returning to the Midwest, James recorded her first live comedy album, 2017’s Black and Mild, in Minneapolis. Since then, she’s had a half-hour special on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup, and has been seen on shows like HBO’s Crashing, Comedy Central’s @midnight and NBC’s Late Night with Seth Myers.
Tackling everything from politics and racial tension to mental health, fame and family life, James has developed her own unique style onstage, and earned the respect of superstars like Chris Rock and Amy Schumer, who both hand-picked her to open up their respective tours.
“People see you go on tour with some big person and they wonder if you’re rich now, and I’m like, ‘No,’” James said, explaining why she’s so candid onstage about her recent brushes with mega-stardom. “I’m still me, a middle comedian. It’s like coming out with an extra eyeball and not commenting on it. I know people are wondering, so I might as well say.”
Admitting that having the respect of someone like Chris Rock lends her some cachet, James said she’s just as comfortable in front of crowds of thousands as she is in a comedy club.
The only place she’s not scoring all the laughs right now is back home, where life as a mom serves as a limitless source for new material.
“It’s a shift of mood and perspective,” she said of coming back home to her sons after chilling in a chateau with Amy Schumer and slaying a sold-out theater. “Nobody’s applauding my grilled cheese sandwiches, so I just take it as I have two jobs.”
Dr. Grins Comedy Club
20 Monroe Ave. NW,
Feb. 21-23, $5-15