Jes Tom is a comedian, writer, and actor based in New York City. They’re a queer nonbinary Asian American performer who’s set stages alight across the Northeast, including Caroline’s On Broadway and the legendary Friar’s Club. Born and raised in San Francisco, Jes is an alum of Smith College’s theatre program and studied the Meisner acting technique at Maggie Flanigan Studio. Jes debuted their first full length solo show Fresh Off The Banana Boat at Dixon Place’s HOT! Festival in 2014. Their first half hour comedy special, Cold Brew, was recorded in August 2016 at Astoria’s Q.E.D. – A Place to Show & Tell. Jes graciously answered our questions about stand up beginnings, navigating NYC’s vast comedy scene, and finding fellow “weirdos.”
WICF Daily: You graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts – there’s a little scene in Northampton, and in Western Mass. Did you know you wanted to write/perform comedy in college? How did you get your stage legs?
Jes Tom: I wasn’t involved in the comedy scene in Northampton, but I was on Smith’s improv team. I’ve always been a big diva, so that was how I got to perform regularly while not getting cast in plays. And it was a really great experience performing with and for women and queer people outside of the male gaze. I wasn’t an amazing improviser, my strength was coming up with one-liners – much more suited to stand up. I used to watch Margaret Cho clips on YouTube and dream about doing stand up. Eventually I did my first open mic while in my hometown, San Francisco, on summer break. It was the women’s open mic at BrainWash. I like to go places that feel familiar to me, so I would go to that mic every time I came to San Francisco. I even got a few offers to perform on shows, but I was never in town long enough to do them.
WICF: What is it like navigating the New York City comedy scene as an Asian American nonbinary queer person? Are some space/audiences more receptive of your perspective than others?
Jes: At first navigating comedy in New York was a challenge for me because I wasn’t familiar with the different types of venues and the different types people who frequented them, so I just got up anywhere I could. That was good, because I learned to perform for audiences that don’t share my life experiences or points of view. I also experienced some unfriendliness… not from audiences, but from other comics, usually white guys, who’d talk about me onstage after my set. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the total weirdo on a lineup. Thankfully I’ve fallen into my niche a bit more, and these days I usually perform with other weirdos for people who came out to see weirdos and are most likely weirdos themselves. But I try to have a set that’s accessible to a wide range of audiences.
WICF: What are some of the challenges and rewards of being so publicly vulnerable in your stand up and solo shows?
Jes: I’m naturally pretty open and vulnerable, so that part is easy for me. The challenge is how to present that vulnerability in the form of a show. There’s a thin line between comedy about your personal life and airing your dirty laundry. Oversharing doesn’t make for a good show; it unsettles the audience and can potentially come back to bite you in the ass. As I was preparing my half hour Cold Brew, which is about a breakup, I had to make sure my goal was to make art, and not to have revenge. If I had put on a comedy show to intentionally hurt an ex, that would have been terrible, and probably not very funny. I’ve been talking onstage about my current relationship and that’s also a balancing act of being real and respecting my partner’s privacy. The reward? Truthful comedy.
WICF: What advice would you give to female-identified and nonbinary performers pursuing comedy?
Jes: Clique up. It’s okay to develop your voice in places where you feel comfortable and supported. Surround yourself with people you admire, whose work you think is really cool. Having a supportive community of people who understand you is more fulfilling than trying to change or quiet yourself to fit into an existing scene.
WICF: How can people keep up with your work / find you online?
Jes: Follow me on Twitter @jestom and Instagram @jesthekid. I have a website, too, but don’t look at it; it’s woefully outdated.