Jen Tam is a force for good in Portland’s comedy scene.
One of the things I like about her is that she is consistently trying to push comedy and comedy cultural to different places. It’s important to note this because in several cities—including Portland at times—things can revert to a steady state that’s just kinda boring culturally and comedically speaking. If you feel like that’s not the case then I encourage you to go to a showcase featuring six dudes with beards in flannel. They will all talk about Tinder, and you will be bored.
Jen is also a super nice fun person, but another one of my favorite things about her is how when it comes to certain things she just doesn’t give a fuck. Right before the interview started we were talking about t-shirt designs when she realized that a design she had made had probably just gotten delivered. It had, and to summarize it was a black t-shirt with the iconic 1960’s picture of a flying saucer with the phrase, “I want to cum so bad.” below in block text.
You don’t even have to like X-Files. That shit is funny. It was also a good jumping off point in the conversation.
Danny: It's a good shirt. It's a really good shirt.
Jen: Thank you. I appreciate your compliments.
Danny: How did you come up with the idea again?
Jen: Well, it was me and a friend just having a conversation. She hosts trivia over at The Waypost, and the night I was there the theme was "conspiracies" so we were just mixing dumb things together. That happens with the memes group. Always thinking about memes!
Danny: All day.
(Jen is a moderator for the popular Facebook group, Useless, Unsuccessful, or Unpopular Memes or UUUM. It's the most bizarre collection of purposefully terrible memes and you should check it out. Here's one for context)
Danny: Wait, so you became a moderator on it?
Jen: I've been a mod for a while now. I'm real deep in that weird world. And this roll call happened where they were asking us how old we are and I guess I'm the youngest fucking mod. I was like, "What! Everyone here is in their 30's and 40's and it's crazy.".
I mean, I knew everyone in charge had desk jobs which explains why they're so bored. They don't have stand up comedy as an outlet so they post these things. And they're more visual people. People in the comic book world who just have regular desk jobs. They're dads and stuff. It's weird, because I guess memes are just kinda dad humor or office humor.
Danny: 21st century dad humor
Jen: It's all these people that kinda grew up in alternative communities, but they're not professional humorists so they still need to get that stuff out there. There's a whole universe of it. Like there's another group which is similar that this person ******* ******* started, not ***** ******. Fuck that guy. You can write that.
Danny: Oh I will!
Jen: Sometimes in these groups you can tell there's people who are just mentally ill. That to me is so triggering. I just don't want to be around that kind of mental state. I see the neediness in it and I want to empathize, but then I have to stop myself.
Danny: It's a weird codependency universe.
Jen: Yeah. For a while I've been wondering if I should even quit UUUM. That whole universe is so dark. I barely moderate now because there's like 20,000 people in that group and ever since it hit 10,000 it's been getting more racist and more sexist. People who are off their shit.
Like, people will get their shit deleted and they flip out. I've gotten messages from complete strangers that are just like, "Butt hurt much, fag?".
Jen: And when a thing gets deleted it's not like it alerts every mod—there's like 15 of us—so when something gets deleted you don't know who has done it, but these people message EVERY mod. It's crazy and I've kind of distanced myself from it.
Danny: That's crazy, because I remember joining when there were maybe 3,000 people.
Jen: Ugh. That was PRIME UUUM. We actually started a new group called UUUM Platinum Club that's only good memes. It's funny, the original group has been left to the wolves and it's impossible to manage with all the shitty memes getting posted all the time. We all have regular lives and sleep regular hours and people will post means shitty things at night and we'll wake up and there's some shitbag meme that's not very original/funny with 700 likes.
That's the other thing: When there's 20,000 members there's such like inflation and it's hard to control the taste of the group at this point. It's just so weird how the quality has gone down as the membership has gone up. It's not as weird anymore. There were a lot of good absurdist memes for a while. Are you familiar with the "15 What Guy".
Danny: Nah. What's that?
Jen: Basically, he's just this old man that was taken from a Photobucket kinda thing. What do you call it?
Danny: A Getty Images situation?
Jen: Yeah, he's just an old man shrugging and at the beginning of the meme is the sentence, "Order 15 is ready.", and then he says, "15 what?", and that is such a weird absurdist, bizarro meme. He became the mascot for the group. Those are the beautiful memes. The ones that just make no sense but are still really funny. That is, to me, is the pinnacle of comedy.
Danny: That bridge of connection is so loose and rickety but once you get to the other side it's the best!
Jen: Shane Hosea is another good master of absurdist visual humor.
(Shane is another local illustrator/comic in town. He's real good for multiple reasons.)
Danny: Do you find yourself going absurdist more? I find myself feeling like I'd rather be too weird than not weird enough.
Jen: I don't know. It's really hard. I would like to be a more absurdist comic. I guess I feel bogged down. Well, let's start the story here actually:
So, W. Kamau Bell told me, to my face, "Wow. You're an Asian woman doing comedy in Portland, OR? That's like running through water with weights on.". And it's 100% true! It makes me bitter sometimes because it doesn't happen all the time, but often I have to explain myself. Like, I have to explain my physical existence on stage.
I think a lot of comedians who are plain white dudes can get away with that absurdist shit just because they look so ordinary. They have a place to jump off immediately.
Danny: That does feel right. I never thought of it that way, but the idea of being accepted initially allows you to break the rules easier. If people aren't used to any other type of person they're just like, "Woah woah! Why are YOU doing this joke?".
Jen: "What are YOU."
Danny: "What's going on!"
Jen: There's people I talk to in Oregon and you can feel it's the first time they've had a real interaction with a person of color. So when they do first talk to you they're like, "So how do I talk to you?". People still ask me where I'm from and we'll be in a radical liberal space. It's just like, "What world do you live in? Oh yeah, Oregon.".
Danny: I'm sure it gets tiresome after a while.
Jen: Do you know about the show Dis/orient/ed?
Danny: I feel like I've heard of that show before?
Jen: Dis/orient/ed is a comedy production that's run by Jenny Yang and Atsuko Okatsuka. It's also is partnered with D-Lo who is a trans man comedian, and it's an LA based crew where they do this show that's primarily Asian comedians. It comes from a social justice angle, and the audiences for these shows are also Asian. She taps into the social justice world of each city that she goes to and they reach out to their people so the crowds are always these college educated, Asian Americans which is such a specific kind of crowd.
Sometimes I don't know what kind of jokes to tell in front of a crowd like that because I'm so used to having a very white crowd where I have to explain myself. Jokes where I do mention my race or ethnicity hit very different there. I'm still learning how to navigate those kinds of spaces.
It's weird, the comedy scene in Portland in general is very very diverse, but it's more so than the actual diversity of the city. Like, in larger cities there's a black comedy scene and an alt comedy scene that's usually pretty white, and an Asian scene or a queer scene, and we kind of have that but not quite. I guess what I'm saying is it's so interesting to me how we don't get those different kind of rooms. We get them sometimes, but they're rarer.
Danny: Oh for sure. We're definitely way different than a city like Chicago, IL that has an entire club that's an "Urban Room".
(Side Note: "Urban Rooms" feature more POC comics and Portland probably has less of them than your typical comedy market.)
Jen: To have those kinds of rooms can be really beneficial to a scene. It can really help you grow as a performer. Going back to the Dis/orient/ed though, I got compliments after that show, and that was weird just because I've had a lot of self doubt.
Danny: Do you get a lot of self doubt when it comes to performing?
Jen: Oh yeah, I feel like people don't get me all the time. I just got to power through and find my audience. I had a REALLY good show when I opened for Hari Kondabolu at Lewis and Clark. It was really weird to do that well. I got two applause breaks and I never get applause breaks. I was just tripping out on how well everything went. But I realized, "Oh, it's because it's a bunch of college kids.". I had basically found my demographic. Something clicked. I have had that before, like when I do filthy shit at Helium. They love that filth.
Danny: What was the demographic at Lewis and Clark?
Jen: Just 19 year olds. Also, I've been being meaner in my sets. I straight up make fun of the audience.
Danny: Mean is fun.
Jen: It worked really well there but when I insulted the audience for Dis/orient/ed, I don't think it went over as well. They've worked their whole lives not to be bullied using their education as power and here I am just bullying them! I'm really into bully humor right now. I think it's just really funny to insult the people who are giving you validation. I think audience don't expect it.
Also some people can take a joke and some people can't. Helium people love it. Insult them!
Danny: I bet all those younger college kids were into it. I don't know if "infantilized" is the right word, but it seems like if you're going to a pretty nice private school like Lewis and Clark you may like that. There's some hand holding going on there were they may be like, "Oh yeah! We're getting made fun of!".
Jen: It's super weird! You know, more mainstream comics I think have the potential to do better in mixed rooms, but the college rooms definitely want alt-y stuff. Opening for Hari was definitely that way. Those audience want political humor that maybe can dip into absurdist stuff. They want to go there with your because they're "Avant-Garde" or whatever.
We should get more alt comics into colleges and you guys would make more money and get an audience that's young. And even though those audiences don't have a lot of money they're worth it in terms of validation and cool points. You need that shit if you want to be viable. As a comedian in 2015 you have to diversify, you can't just do straight up stand up. You gotta be on that Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter. And a lot of kids in college don't even use Twitter which is another thing to really think about.
I've had so many people come up to me and ask how to follow me, but I don't have a website just for comedy at this point. I just haven't put myself out there on the internet as a "comedian" in terms of my social presence. It seems too obvious to have a bunch of pictures where you're just holding a microphone in your Facebook photo. It seems really artless.
Danny: You sort of grow out of it after a while. I remember the days of having those pictures and at this point I just want a nice picture of myself instead.
Jen: My profile photo on everything is just this fake bust I Photoshopped together.
Jen: Because I have a BFA in ceramics I put in as the joke, "Oh I just made this today". One of my old professors actually hit me up and was like, "No ya didn't...". I really liked that element. That to me is much more satisfying than me with a microphone "proving how funny I am".
Danny: I'm curious and wanted to expound off the thing you were talking about earlier where people diversify into different focuses in comedy. You do a lot of different stuff in addition to comedy. When you think about all the production assistant stuff and design things you've done do you think it's helpful just because it's not a conventional job?
Jen: Yeah. I like that I make money off of my creativity although I don't make a ton of money off of it. I like how I can see the essence of a viable career. That is really satisfying to me.
I mean, I really liked working in social services and social justice stuff earlier in my life, but the pay is really low, and it's a lot of stress. You take it home with you and you can get emotionally fatigued from jobs like that.
Danny: I believe that. You're hearing horror stories every day.
Jen: The stories are really hard. You need a good therapist if you're working that stuff, but you don't get paid very well so it's this cyclical situation where you get overworked and you're tired and you get sick. It's burnout. It happens in social services ALL THE TIME.
For me I got fired from the city of Portland right before I qualified for FMLA.
Danny: What's that?
Jen: I think it's the Family Medical Leave Act, which basically means if you're sick than they can't fire you. But I got fired right before that kicked in for me just because I was getting really sick. It was also around this time that I dropped out of grad school and then afterwards started improv. I was an Econ grad and really wanted to get into public policy. That's where I was always gearing myself towards in my life, but I HATED everyone in the program, and I didn't identify with anyone or any of the values in Economics.
Basically, Economics teaches you to use every resource available because that's the maximum efficiency which I find problematic. A lot of what maximum efficiency is determined by is what we think we'll be able to produce due to technological invention in the future. So "as long as we keep inventing things" we'll be fine but there's something odd about that.
Danny: Well, it's definitely taking out all the emotional content from it. Nobody is asking the question, "Is this a good idea?". When people don't ask that question that's weird to me.
Jen: It takes at face value that there's always going to be more.
So I dropped out of school and kept thinking, "Ugh, what am I doing with my life!", and I was still working at social services at that point. But then I got real deep into "Kids In The Hall". It's very absurdist but they play very real characters. Like to me, their women characters are real women. They're so authentically these weird old ladies and that's fun. It's really goofy and I think it holds up and it doesn't feel dated.
So I started improv then went through a breakup. I was engaged to this dude who I had been dating for like 5 years and he said comedy changed me. So I was like, "Fuck you! You don't want anything good for me.". He really wanted to get married and have kids right away. We've only been broken up for 3 years and he is already married and has a kid.
Danny: You can definitely tell when that's people's emphasis.
Jen: And then I got really sick for a while because an ex was stalking me so I was getting panic attacks and it broke down my system and I actually got fired when I was in the hospital. That's how I started comedy AND that's how I got unemployment which also helped me out.
Danny: Sounds like it siphoned you into good creative shit.
Jen: Man, I never thought I would do stand up comedy. There's a performative change where you're not you when you're up there. You're just monologuing. I never thought in a million years that I'd do it and now it's just a larger part of what I do as an "artist". You can put artist in big bunnies there. I also thing being an artist is wack.
That comes back to the idea of people with microphones. It took me a while to realize this but in order to be considered real art you kinda have to have a lot of money backing you and I fucking hate that. I don't know, I still come from this weird social justice universe where I'm trying to dismantle the patriarchy and capitalism but "through art" which is sponsored by those two things. Can you do that?
Danny: I think you can! I also think it's cool to be self aware enough to be like, "Man, I really like my art but this is kinda dumb, so whatever". It's a feedback loop that doesn't make you pretentious.
Jen: It's crazy how much my life has changed in the last couple years. A few years ago I was working at the city and was a total slave to the man. Even then I can remember thinking, "Yup, I'm a slave to the man!". I knew it and I hated it then, I just didn't know my life would go this way. It's been a really cool ride. There's so many different types of people who are really beautiful. It's special because when you're a good comedian it is an art. It's like a true expression of you.
You can't emulate anyone in order to be the best you. People will know you're a fucking poser. They see that shit. That's why a bunch of pop artists who are boring just disappear. They never made their own thing.
Danny: The didn't actualize themselves.
Jen: Good comedians are best known for being that. Aisha Tyler's got a great thing about it. There's a witchcraft to it.