James Judd, headliner of NPR‘s Snap Judgment, has often been compared to David Sedaris and Oscar Wilde—except on steroids.
As a monologuist and humorist, his style is theatrical, physical, fast, and completely recognizable. He’s reminiscent of everyone’s outrageous gay friend, the one who gets himself into precarious situations –– from an “accidental” run-in at a whorehouse in China to a true man-versus-shark battle in the open ocean — and he can’t wait to tell you all about it.
His hysterical one-man show comes to Zeiders American Dream Theater this Saturday night and is an OutWire757 OUTNIGHT. We had a few minutes with him this week to talk about his style, his process, and his colorful life.
The one thing that I’m amazed by is your abundance of rich life experiences that I’m sure informs your storytelling. How do you decide what becomes a story and what doesn’t?
Usually it starts with some sort of anecdote, some sort of strange thing that happens to you. And it doesn’t have to be really big, but it’s something that people respond to. And then you take that and fill out the details, and it goes from a three-minute story to a five-minute story. And when it becomes like a ten-minute story, you take it on stage to work in front of a live audience and develop it as a stage piece.
The fact is that everybody tells stories all day long just to survive. You don’t really think about it as storytelling, but it’s a very innate need woven into our culture. Over the course of any day, think about how many times you tell a story. We don’t even realize it, but we’re developing stories all the time. I think people like to hear stories because as we become more separated by technology, we miss that interaction and empathy.
It’s such an ancient tradition, our oral history, and it’s been lost to Facebook.
On the other hand, though, Facebook and social media is where we learn to really overshare. People get used to telling their secrets or saying something to someone on Twitter they wouldn’t dare say to their face. It has developed this need in us to hear more dramatic stories or get up on stage and confess these things to a wider audience.
I first encountered you on NPR, which was an aural experience. But now that I’ve seen your stage show, your physicality is a big part of its appeal.
I have a huge following of kids—an audience I never, ever wanted to develop—but on the NPR tour, people bring their kids, and I guess it’s like seeing a live cartoon for them.
You had a fairly lucrative career as a stand-up comedian in LA. How does your current gig as a storyteller compare to your time in stand-up?
The one thing about Los Angeles is you never really know who is in your audience. You could be in the most terrible production of the worst play in the world, but there will be an important casting agent in that audience. And it happens often enough that someone gets plucked out of that terrible show, and the next day they have a television commercial or a sitcom, and they become famous. So that makes everyone in comedy work at a very intense level.
When I as in The Groundlings, that was when Lisa Kudrow got hired for Friends. Julia Sweeny ended up on Saturday Night Live. That’s where Kathy Griffin got her start. She slept with everyone in Hollywood, and it didn’t get her anywhere. Then she came up with a show called Hot Cup of Talk, and she got her more famous friends to come on for eight minutes each week to tell true, funny stories about themselves. And it just launched her.
You’re a self-described nerd and outcast, gay, very tall, and hard of hearing. How do you go from that childhood to where you are today?
It was a confidence issue for me. But once I got to The Groundlings and then The Improv, I saw how I could turn all that to my advantage. Unfortunately, it was my hearing that became an issue. Comedy is all about timing, and if I missed one word or turned my head just a little bit, the whole thing just collapsed. So being a solo performer was a natural for me because I didn’t have to depend on anyone else being on the stage. It was also better for me because stand up is so aggressive, and you have to kill while you’re on stage. And if you don’t, you die. But storytelling is very different in that you are sharing a piece of yourself for the audience. And people have come for an empathetic experience, not necessarily a laugh. It can still be funny, funny, funny, but you’re doing it as a shared, bonding experience.
I would guess that it also helps to have a sense of the absurdities in life.
The whole world is just hanging by a thread right now. So there’s just no time for artifice. We need things that are real. We want to be more real, more revealing, more honest because there’s no time left for anything else. My father was a missionary from Utah and my mother was a cocktail waitress from Las Vegas. My father was also a ventriloquist, and he was sneaking over the border at night with his dummy to perform in a strip club called the Silver Slipper where my mother was a waitress. He was like the clean act between the strippers that helped keep the club open. Talk about absurdity!
We host an LGBTQ open mic night once a month, and most of the people who participate are there to work on some sort of personal process. What is the cathartic benefit of storytelling for you?
I came from a very abusive family background, and our family was all “cover it up, this is a secret.” So at a very young age, I was able to compartmentalize things and act like nothing was wrong. What I do now is like unlocking all those secret compartments in my head and speaking about them, which is very healing. I’m sure if I went to a mental health professional, they would be able to cure me of all these things. But I don’t want to pay for a mental health counselor. And besides that, where would I be without my thing? So my stories are my way of dealing with my thing, my personal issues. And after a while, all the pain completely goes away and it just becomes fun. There is great power in confessing.
WANT TO GO?
Funny Stories with James Judd
At Zeiders American Dream Theater
Saturday, March 23, 7:30 PM
OutWire757 readers, save 10% on tickets by using discount code outwirez