Featured Interview: Jenn Welch
Brooklyn based comedic powerhouse Jenn Welch has founded a national festival, hosted comedy shows, and performed improv, sketch, and stand-up across New York City. BanterGirl was thrilled to talk with the ridiculously talented Jenn about her experience producing What a Joke, how she realizes her creative visions, and comedy’s role in helping her recent grief.
You just organized the What a Joke: A National Comedy Festival. How hard was that process? What were some of your most important takeaway lessons?
It was insane. Emily Winter and I came up with the idea of doing a fundraiser as the results were coming in on election night, and by that Thursday, we’d decided that we wanted to do a coordinated fundraiser with other cities across the country on Inauguration Day Weekend. We ended up with 88 shows going up in 34 cities, including Oxford, England, over three days and we raised over 50k for the ACLU. Planning this festival was the most intense 73 days of my life. I feel bad for anybody who talked to me during that time-span because it was the only thing my brain could think about. I was not a fun person to be around. We had amazing, wonderful producers on the ground in each city, but Emily and I managed the entire festival at the national level, so that there was continuity of message, branding, and quality. Then, we also produced the three NYC shows, including a silent auction before our kickoff show at The Stand. The number of spreadsheets involved...so many spreadsheets. My god, the spreadsheets. I built the website from scratch and managed the ordering and shipping of the merch we sold: red baseball caps that read “What a joke.” Emily was a queen in regard to making sure all of our producers and volunteers were on track. Her emails were amazing little novellas full of all the details that needed to be managed. The only reason it worked so well is because Emily and I quickly realized that any aspect of producing that made me want to curl up in the fetal position, she enthusiastically took on, and vice versa. We’d never worked together before, and over those 73 days we kind of discovered that we were the left hand and the right hand of the same body. It was like, “Oh, she’s my soulmate.”
In terms of takeaway lessons, I don’t know. I honestly haven’t had time to process everything. My dad’s lung cancer was progressing as the festival approached; he’d just been diagnosed in August. It was all happening very quickly, and a week after the festival, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and signed a DNR, and a week after that, he passed away. So, I guess my takeaway right now is to do the damn thing. Whatever it is that’s inside you. Just do it. You have an insane idea that’s coming from your gut? Do it. You won’t be able to do it alone? Find your people and do it. Ask for help. Get it done. This might not be practical advice along the lines of “get funding” or “make sure you eat food,” but honestly, working with Emily—I pitched her the idea of the multi-city fundraiser, and she caught that ball and fucking ran with it. I know I just mixed my sports metaphors. Get over it. I’m a creative person with ADD, so that means a lot of the time I feel like a failure because I just don’t have the tools or capabilities to actually carry out the big ideas or weird projects that pop up in my brain. People say “no” to you a lot because they can’t see your vision, and then you get to the point where you just start saying “no” to yourself before ever starting anything because it’s easier than dealing with the feelings of failure. To see an idea actually come to life like this—it was incredibly humbling to see how big this festival became, the amount of money we brought in for the ACLU, and the enthusiastic response it received across the country. So, I think my takeaway from this whole experience is to a) trust my gut more and b) work with the people who enthusiastically say yes to my insane ideas and help make them a reality rather than trying to please the people who tell me my ideas are too much. I’m so grateful for Emily. I’m so grateful my dad got to see his daughter kick ass before he passed away. I’m so grateful I was able to send him a link to our interview with the Village Voice and hear how proud he was of this really meaningful thing we were able to accomplish.
What is the place of comedy in politics in your mind?
I don’t write a lot of political jokes, but I do think comedy is important in changing the way we view the world. Just being a woman in comedy, or a poc in comedy, or an LGBTQ person in comedy, or anything other than a straight white man in comedy is still a political act. You’re giving a voice to an experience that’s outside the “mainstream,” as dictated by those who decide what the mainstream is. It’s not my job to be all women, but I am a woman and the more honest I am on stage about my experience, the more political I become.
You recently started talking to men on tinder about your father's recent death. What have been some of your favorite interactions? Has this helped your grieving process?
Oh man. Yes. This is one of those “follow your gut” moments that I mentioned above. It’s the dumbest idea, but it came from a really honest place of accepting that none of my ex-boyfriends are going to ride in on a white stallion to save me from feeling my grief right now, and that I’m not going to be dating anybody new any time soon because nobody should get into a brand new relationship after something like this happens, and “My dad just died” is a terrible pick-up line. I just had this vision of going on Tinder and saying that my dad just died and it was so fucking funny to me. It was the only thing making me laugh the first few weeks after my dad’s death. I ran the idea past my therapist and a few friends I trust, and when I explained what I wanted to do they all laughed that good “Oh shit” laugh—that’s my favorite kind of laugh to get. Kind of, like, shock and delight. So, yeah, I started @DeadDadTinder on Instagram and Tumblr. I wrote on my Tinder bio that I’m a comedian and my dad just died, and then I responded to every message with something along the lines of “My dad just died!” The account had only been up for a day before it was written up in Elite Daily, and within a week it was covered in Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and newspapers in the UK and Australia. It was very surreal. The interactions with the guys are whatever. A few of them have been sweet, but I unmatch everybody as quickly as possible because the whole point of this project is that I can’t date right now. My situation is the butt of the joke. But I think what makes the project really meaningful for me are emails and messages I’ve received from women who were also single when they lost a parent who love the account. The guys that I message, they’re not my audience, they’re never going to be my audience. But the messages I’ve gotten from people who get it have really helped me feel less alone as I go through this.
What were your father's most incredible attributes? What are three gifts of wisdom that he gave to you that will stick with you forever?
I think my sense of humor definitely came from my dad. Laughing through the pain, laughing at the absurdity—that’s my dad. I stayed in his hospital room with him for four nights before he passed away, and there was so much pain, but there were also so many laughs. And he wanted to be strong for everybody; he didn’t want to complain. Like, he’s four days away from dying, and he doesn’t want to be a bother. My dad and I had a difficult relationship since he left my mom when I was 22, but I have so much compassion for him and the decisions he made in his life, and I’m incredibly grateful for the time we spent together before he passed away. My dad was always my person. That’s all I can really say at this point.
You've been married before. Do you ever think you'll do it again?
Haha. I was just going to bed the other night listening to a podcast, and an advertisement came on for headphones that are designed for sleeping, and I suddenly felt so grateful to be alone in my bed listening to a podcast about the Boston Strangler through a speaker while I fell asleep without worrying about waking somebody up. I just remembered that awful feeling of not wanting to bother somebody while they fell asleep, while not being able to do a thing that I needed to do to fall asleep myself. Or, like, trying to fall asleep with one headphone in and not being able to roll over without switching my headphones to my other ear. I guess what I’m saying is, if I’m ever going to get married again, that person has to be so fucking amazing that I’m able to fall asleep next to them every night for the rest of my life without listening to a podcast.
What makes you the most happy in life?
Hugs from people I want to be hugging. Tap dancing. Writing a joke that works.
What does your perfect day look like?
Every day is exactly what it’s supposed to be. The perfect one also has brownie bites.
If you could accomplish one major thing within the next five years—both for your life and your career—what would they be?
The older I get, the more I’ve come to accept that I don’t make plans, I take actions. I’m a responder. Every big thing that I’ve accomplished life-wise and career-wise has been due to a positive action I’ve taken in response to something painful. Plans, for me, are just future failures. Actions are how I move forward. But I still rent out the bedroom and sleep in the living room of the apartment I got divorced in five years ago, so let’s say that in five years I hope to have a bedroom with a door.