by Ryan Meehan
Comedian Jennifer Bartels is an actress and funny lady who resides in Los Angeles and NYC. A graduate of East Carolina University, she packed up her B.F.A. in Theater and headed to NYC where she studied and performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on numerous improv and sketch teams. Jen was cast in the FOX Reboot of IN LIVING COLOR, appeared in MEN IN BLACK 3, and was featured as NY Daily News Top Five Funniest women. Jen was also selected as one of the “New Faces of Comedy” for the 2013 Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. She can be seen on the web series, EXES which she co-created with UCB star Mike Still and on commercials and other things you would like or judge. She is currently filming the second season of truTV’s sketch show, FRIENDS OF THE PEOPLE where she serves as writer, performer and executive producer. She loves foods, and she’s also my guest today in 10 questions.
RM: What does comedy give you as an art form that no other kind of entertainment can provide? Before you became really good at doing it, what drew you into the medium and how did you become so enamored with the world of humor?
JB: I think comedy allows people to observe and escape what shitty or stressful things they may be dealing with. Without realizing it, (because as a performer we have our own crazy shit running through our heads) I think we also teach and support from the stage and screen. As an art, comedy has just always resonated with me since I was little. I wanted to be a dancer, but I enjoyed making people laugh and making fun of the actual seriousness of it all even more. I would watch SNL and Carol Burnett as a kid and just knew I connected with it and that I was determined to get into that world I loved so much somehow. (Jen then peers off outside a rainy window)
RM: Who were some of the people that you worked with at UCB that actually changed the way you looked at comedic performance?
JB: After moving back to NYC, I remember telling my family that I had found this awesome theatre in the city called UCB and was taking classes, hoping to perform one day. I brought them to Harold night and we just watched and watched. This was a big time because I realized this is what made me happy. I realized I was in love with comedy and performing. (Ask any man I have been with, they will sadly agree this is true) I was able to show them what I had fallen in love with. I would just study folks like Ellie Kemper and Ben Schwartz, Gil Ozeri and Jon Daly. They had such trust when they played and were so sharp. They would paint scenes and fill them out with such discovery and confidence, it was like “Holy shit!”.
RM: For those who might not be familiar with the show, what do we need to know about “Friends of the People”? Who are some of the comedians that you’ve been able to get to participate in the shoots; and what is it like being the only show of your kind on that network?
JB: Friends of the People is a show based on a collective of great, talented people who came together to work on ideas that excited them. We have a unique set of voices so it helps flesh out the show in general. We are all very different and it works to our advantage, because I feel like the show has something for everyone. I have learned so much from these guys and it’s been real rewarding and challenging. I have gotten into wrestlers from the guys and we have some great guests in that realm. I also loved working with Rachel Dratch and our guest director Bobcat Goldthwait. He was amazing and so kind. truTV has been really going through this tunnel of change and I am excited to be a part of it. Their overall vision towards entertainment is moving and they have been supportive of this sketch show, standing behind it, which is great. It comes down to ensuring people are able to discover these cool changes on the network and I believe that is happening.
RM: How did your expectations for the responsibilities associated with being an executive producer line up with the actual demands of that position? On a scale of one to ten, how confident were you in your abilities to take on a role of that magnitude?
JB: This was my first time having that title and it’s been interesting. I think that role holds an array of responsibility and with all seven of us producing, we have learned a lot about working together. The biggest thing is that we are seen as leaders of the show, and I was always trying to make sure I was professional and on point. It also gives you more creative freedom and power to get a point across when you love or hate something. It gives you more of a voice. I think there were two specific times I felt like a 10, then at times, it was all of us working together, learning what this all means in the first place. I hope that makes sense, if not, that is still my best answer.
RM: Outside of meeting Conan O’ Brien, what was the most surreal part about getting to meet some of the industry people you had a chance to talk with at the Turner UpFronts back in early May?
JB: Ummmmm, definitely Jennifer Beals! I would watch Flashdance when I was very little, and wanted to be a “dancer”, but then later found out her dancing was really “stripping”. I saw her, and she was so pretty and I was two mimosas in, and weirdly went over to say hi. Then I just stood there and she was in deep conversation with Matthew Modine, and I was in too deep, so I awkwardly just waited to interrupt. I asked for a picture and said I was a big fan, then my eyes got teary and I was like “do not cry in front of Jennifer Beals”, so I composed myself and Rel took the most uncomfortable picture of the day. Also Sharon Stone was stunning to look at.
RM: What are some of the biggest advantages and disadvantages of doing stand-up in a place like New York City? What are your three favorite venues to get on stage; and what makes each location so great to pound out a set?
JB: I come from a theatre background and have always performed more sketch and improv in the city. I recently started doing more stand up since the guys of FOTP primarily do that, and it seems challenging and fun and vomit inducing. I would say performing at UCB in NY is always fun. Cipha Sounds has a hip hop show and he would let me guest on it when I was around and that was always a blast. Christina Gausas also let me guest and that was such a great, supportive time. I think the biggest thing about any live performance is the freedom to see where it goes and just have fun. Its less pressure then shooting at times and the reward of happy people is right in front of you.
RM: As a writer, how do you go about avoiding premises and ideas for bits or sketches that have already been done several hundred times over? In other words, how do you balance the concept of thinking outside of the box with ensuring that the subject matter carries a certain amount of relatability?
JB: Research and crazy ass discussions in a locked room. We want to have ideas and explore issues that have relevance but also can carry a bit through time, especially because we shoot and air with a gap. We want to be original and if anything in the writers’ room seems like a bit we have seen, we investigate. It’s very important to the group to set ourselves apart while ensuring people see where we went with a concept.
RM: What is the most important piece of advice that you could give to someone who is writing comedy in a group setting for the first time?
JB: Be patient and let it go. A zillion ideas pass through the room, with several different loud, creative voices chiming in, interrupting, supporting and changing an idea at any given moment. Be strong and align with folks who you work well with, some will work better than others, and just keep at it. Also, when you leave, have wine and bitch it out.
RM: Which portion of the comedic writing process do you absolutely loathe the most and why? Is that something that has remained constant over the years, or has it changed as you’ve had the opportunity to work on different projects?
JB: I tend to have strong character based ideas and rich set-ups, but the follow through and fleshing it out has always been a challenge. I try to really study other writers and learn from the choices they make or roads they travel as they build a script. I could pitch and riff and perform off the cuff all day long and be in paradise, but writing requires documentation and commitment which can be scary.
RM: What is the one job within the entertainment industry that you haven’t had a chance to try your hand at yet but would really like to explore? Ten years from now, do you think that you’ll have the chance to say that you’ve done it?
JB: Directing my own project. I hope so. I think to get behind the lens and bookend a passion project under your control is exhilarating. And beautifully insane.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
JB: I head to LA for the “LA” things you do like meetings and promoting the show and hiking and juicing. I am working on two projects with my writing partner and as my Sittu would say, “Just taking one day at a time.”
Official Website: http://jenniferbartels.com/
Jennifer on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JENBGIGGLES
Jennifer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jenbgiggles
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