2005_02_jessiklein_big.jpgVital Stats:

- Jessi Klein
- 29 years old
- Grew-up in the West Village; now lives in the West Village. "Weirdly enough in the same building I grew up in. I actually live next door to my parents. Seriously. I mean, I have my own apartment, but it’s next door to my parents."
- Stand-up comic and writer; Best Week Ever panelist on VH1; Development exec at Comedy Central

Jessi's World:

You co-host a weekly live comedy show, appear regularly as a talking head on VH-1 and other shows, and from time-to-time work on other projects like your CNN Election blog. PLUS, you have a full-time job at Comedy Central. Do you sleep?
I don't really sleep, but that's more because I'm a horribly anxious human being. I guess that's the same reason that I do comedy, so it all works out. I like being really busy, and I guess for me one of the main reasons I started doing any kind of stand-up was -- yes, I'd always wanted to do it -- but I really started to do it when me and my long-term boyfriend broke up, and I suddenly was living alone. I was really damaged by this breakup, and I literally needed something to do. It was either go do comedy or eat Ben & Jerry's in my house and become a Cathy cartoon. So I said, I think I'm going to go out and try to do standup. But now it's not just a solution to being lonely. I feel like I have a lot to say, and I'm trying to get it out there as much as I can.

I've had a weird double career the last few years. I’ve worked for the last seven years in development at Comedy Central, which has been amazing. I guess technically I’m a “d-girl,” but that always sounds incredibly awful. Four years ago I started doing stand-up and writing, and that’s gradually consumed more of my life. I’m finally at the point where I’m about to try to create my own TV show, which is basically the equivalent of charging at the world’s largest windmill.

How does a smart girl from Vassar end up at Comedy Central?
Why? Does it seem like BATTLEBOTS is not being developed by intelligent people? In fairness, I had nothing to do with (that) show. I was always a secret comedy whore, and I always really wanted to perform, but I also was kind of a nerd, and I was an art history major at Vassar . Essentially after I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided I would apply to graduate school for film. While I was waiting to hear back, I was unemployed and watching a lot of Comedy Central, as the unemployed are a huge part of our demographic I think. I ended up temping my way in to Comedy Central, and I temped my way in to the development department. I had no idea what development was, but they were really impressed by the fact that I had a pulse, and I got hired.

You said you always wanted to perform. Specifically comedy?
I was a shy kid, but in my head I was funny. I made myself laugh. I was funny with my friends, but the whole performing world seemed so completely unattainable. Both of my parents worked for the city. It's not like I had anyone in my family or even in my extended family who did anything entertainment related. So I just had no idea that it would ever be a possibility.

So did you start performing before going to work at Comedy Central?
My performance history pre-Comedy Central was pretty slight. I guess the main thing was that my sophomore year in college, I joined a campus sketch group which was hilariously entitled Laughingstocks. Although that is not as bad as our competitors who were called Happily Ever Laughter, and in our minds, they were the hacks, and we were the geniuses. We were the Lettermans to their Lenos. But, it was totally the gutsiest thing I'd ever done in my life. I auditioned, and I got in, and the first show -- we put on like three shows a year -- and the first one that we did, I'd never been on stage before. For a week before, I was so nervous that I developed just the most insane migraine headache of all time, and I started waking up in the middle of the night and puking. I almost did not do the show. I thought I had a brain tumor. But I guess I had the most subconscious case of stage fright of all time.

Has your stage fright gotten better?
It has gotten much better, although I still get very nervous, just not puking. Actually, it was like the best puke of my entire life. It was sophomore year, and I was taking this class on Nietzsche, and I had one of his books by my bed, and I fucking hated him. And I woke up and I projectiled all over the book. And I was like … fantastic! Somehow that's the most Nietzschian thing I've ever done.

And now you're Rolling Stone magazine's "Hot Funny Girl"! Is there really anything left for you to accomplish? Would you have preferred "Hot Funny Woman"?
Oh my god. You put "hot" and "funny" in front of any noun referring to me … I would take "hot funny donkey." It was the most validating thing that's ever happened to me in my entire life, and the sad thing is that I'm such a former ugly duckling, I cared almost more about the "hot" part than the "funny" part, although I don't know that they necessarily meant "hot" in the physical sense.

What I've realized is that any of the press stuff that I've gotten, and it's not that it's such an enormous list, but like the Rolling Stone thing and Interview and there's something coming out in Paper this month…. I am not famous at all. I mean no one knows who I am. I'm the biggest magazine consumer of all time. I read every single magazine everyday. But what I realized is these magazines desperately need to fill space. I mean, once I'm in them, I realized, they really are struggling to keep the pages filled with stuff.

You don't see it as any sort of meter of your own career?
I want to be able to see it that way, but I'm truly nobody. I have a web site. I'm the last person in the world that should have a web site. I don't know how to do one. I just needed it so people could contact me. I get a fair number of Best Week Ever fans who write in talking about me in the third person as if there's someone else running my web site. Like I have a staff. "I know Jessi will probably never see this." Meanwhile, I'm in my pajamas reading all these emails. I mean, do you think I'm that famous? I'm a fucking idiot on VH1!

Which is harder: Performing comedy for 30 people you can see or making sarcastic comments on TV for millions of people you can't see?
First of all, I find the way you phrase the question hilarious because you're being very flattering to the number of people in my stand-up audience as well as the number of people who watch VH1.

In a weird way, I think any live performance is always going to be more difficult. The rejection is more immediate. You have to make the people in the moment laugh at you, so even if you're on TV, and you get rejected, it's sort of after the fact. You'll read about it, but you don't have to feel the humiliation of it in the moment.

It's a trade-off because if you bomb in front of people live, obviously that feels terrible in the moment, and if you do it on TV, you don't necessarily know. Although the scary part of doing things on TV is now in the form of message boards. I had one of my worst experiences ever, right after Best Week Ever came on, I had a really bad makeup experience where I looked terrible. One day I discovered the message boards and was like, "Oh let's see if anyone has anything nice to say." There was a chain of comments about how ghastly I was. I literally was at my computer and started weeping. Although I realized that was probably the karmic payback for making snarky remarks about celebrities that I've never met. It's like, “Oh, that's how it feels."

That's an interesting situation that you describe though. Here's a show where a bunch of comedians who, rarely if ever is there someone who's as notable a celebrity – whatever that means – as the people you're snarking about, and then you have this internet web presence where everyone who is not as notable as you …
Yeah, it's definitely the snake eating the snake. I really do love Best Week Ever. I am a huge pop culture whore, and I would watch it if I wasn't on it. I think (the producers) make a really good effort to keep it not too mean. You know what I mean? I think with some other shows that I've seen, that is a problem. I mean calling people ugly, or calling someone fat -- that type of stuff I think is never funny, and is not really that useful to anything. If you want to take a jab at something that someone has created that's not very good, well that's part of being an artist and putting yourself out there. But I think the message board crowd tends to focus a lot on fat and ugly, and maybe that's why they don't have TV shows.

Do you think your job at Comedy Central has affected your personal comedy and vice-versa?
I think working at Comedy Central has been really positive in the sense that I've learned a lot. I've met some amazing people who are amazing comedians and writers and gotten a chance to hear them talk and see that process a little bit. You know, I got to meet Robert Smigel -- who's like one of the greatest comedy writers ever -- and watch him work a little bit; see behind the curtain of his process. So I think all of that stuff cumulatively has been really educational. I don't know that it has made me quantitatively funnier, but it is certainly food for thought as a comedian myself.

You co-host a weekly comedy show -- "Welcome to Our Week" -- with Nick Kroll. How do you two know each other?
Well, Nick and I briefly dated. We had the most meet-cute thing ever. I was going to an open mic in the middle of winter and walking along, and I kind of tripped over my own feet a little bit. You know when that happens you kind of look around to make sure nobody saw. So I trip, and then I hear someone go, "Nice work," and I look over and it's Nick, who I didn't know. So I was like, "OK, very funny. Ha ha ha," and I keep going. I get to the open mic, and like 10 minutes later Nick is there. “Ah ha ha, it's you.” It turned out he's a comedian as well.

We exchanged numbers, and he asked me out. I guess we dated for about two months, and then we realized, "Wait a minute. I want to make comedy with you maybe a little more than I want to make a family with you." Not that I don't love Nick. We just became really good friends.

Why did you decide to start the show?
You know the other struggle of being a comic anywhere is that you're always struggling to get stage time, and you always have to ask people, "Can I do your show? Can I do your show?" I guess for me I just wanted to have something once a week where I would definitely be on stage and have as much time as I want.

I guess it felt to me like starting my own room was kind of a scary idea, and I wanted to have the help of a co-host. And Nick and I as friends have always really been able to riff together well. We'd always really make each other laugh. I had never worked with anyone before, and just in general I don't think of myself as the world's greatest collaborator, but somehow it just kind of worked out.

How did you wind-up writing a debate blog for CNN?
Well this is how crazy the Best Week Ever thing has been. It's crazy to me how much stuff I've gotten through that. Part of the phenomenon is that suddenly every serious news outlet feels the need to do something pop culture related, and I guess they've been turning to Best Week Ever as a farm team. When they need someone to say something about pop culture, they go to that show and ask if they can use someone.

CNN went to Best Week Ever and said, "We're doing these live debate blogs, and we're going to have a conservative, a liberal, and we'd like to have a humorous person. Is there anyone you'd recommend?" The VH1 publicist came to me and asked me if I wanted to do it. At first I thought, "Why do I have any right to be writing on CNN?" But then if you read fucking Robert Novak's comments, you realize, what right does he have to be on CNN either? So, I felt OK about it at the end of the day. That guy is a douche.

You've called your onstage persona "this oversexed girl with glasses, which is something I feel compelled to do, even though it's not me." How important is that personality to your comedy? There seem to be several female comics who have gravitated towards this kind of persona -- Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo -- the pretty but not cheerleader-type who might have been a loner or outcast in high school who now says the kind of outlandish things that "polite society" would consider inappropriate. And they become comedy crushes. But it's a more recent trend. And idea why?
I love Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman, and to be mentioned in the same sentence with them is always odd and thrilling. I can't speak for them, but I guess for me … I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question. I think I genuinely am really geeky. That's what I'm saying. It's not like Michelle Pfeiffer with glasses on. I talked about this with Nick, cause early on in our friendship, Nick called me "the dirty nerdy," which I thought was kind of funny. But then he pointed out, "You know you have this nerdy persona where you think you're not attractive, but you realize you've outgrown that. That's not who you are anymore." But I guess for me, I kind of feel like it still is. I do a joke about how I hate confident people. I guess that's how I feel. I mean I don't ever think it's attractive to be so confident in yourself. I'd much rather try to remain as humble as possible

I think for me like as much as it's very validating to have guys sort of be crushing on you, to me in terms of what I care about as a comedian, I almost care more about women liking me because I think it's so easy for women to be threatened by other women. I think there are a lot of women who are threatened by Sarah Silverman, which is not necessarily Sarah Silverman's fault. But you know it is competitive with looks and stuff like that. For me, when women come up to me after a show and say, "Oh my god, watching you just now, I felt like I was listening to one of my best friends talk to me on the phone" -- that makes me the happiest of all because then it's like you're more than just smart. You're more than just funny. You're actually relatable and likable, and you're making people feel somehow less alone, which I guess is the goal of what I want to do, and is always what my favorite comedians made me feel. You know, someone is saying something, as cliché as it is, talking about an experience that I have that I would feel very lonely about having if I didn't know that someone else was having it to and is making me laugh about it.

So if you're not the oversexed girl with glasses, how is the talking head/stand-up Jessi different from the real Jessi, or can you not reveal your secret identity?
It's not like I'm Andy Kaufman where I'm this crazy character on stage and then this weird private person few people get to see. I think, obviously, I can be a bit braver on stage. You can say things in that forum you wouldn't ordinarily say. In a weird way I like to think that I'm not that different. What I think I'm good at -- what I like to do -- is just try to be myself as best I can, and I feel like when I am being myself is when I'm funniest.

Do you think you're more honest on stage than off?
I think I'm a pretty honest person so…. What if that was like the greatest lie of all time? Jessi is a renowned liar!

But I don't think I'm smart enough or a good enough writer to be anything other than what I truly am. Like I said, there's a bit of an exaggeration, and it can be heightened, but I'm really jealous of comics who do characters or who can write really amazing sketches, cause that's just a skill I don't think I have.

There are many more outlets for comedians these days rather than simply the club circuit and The Tonight Show, especially thanks to Comedy Central. What do you think of the influence of Comedy Central, and do all these forums make it easier for new comics to get noticed now?
I think Comedy Central is a completely unique place that basically was a destination for any comedic point-of-view outside of sitcom, wacky-neighbor, must-see TV. I think that was incredible for people. The fact that Dave Chappelle could do what he wants on the channel ,and Robert Smigel can do what he wants on the channel … I don't know that there are really that many other places that you can do that.

I think VH1 took a lot of shit for having all these people doing the talking head thing and talking about celebrities. There was a lot of criticism: "Who are these nobodies?" But at least in terms of the other people on Best Week Ever, and a lot of people on the other shows, yeah they're nobodies now, but trust me, these are hilarious standups. VH1 is giving exposure to people who are going to be big. Like Rob Riggle was a big nobody on, what was it called? A2Z? Now he's on Saturday Night Live. So people maybe should be a little less cynical because I think it's amazing thing.

Do you have your own little pantheon of comedy influences?
I always say that the first thing I ever loved as a little kid was the Marx Brothers. I was just obsessed with them and especially with Groucho. I don't know, there was just something -- it was kind of subversive and out there. But since then, I like all the people that everybody likes. I love Janeane Garofalo. I think Tina Fey is great.

Recently I would say the last few times I've seen Louis C.K. perform, that's been really inspiring. I guess, specifically because I'll see him, and he's so smart and so funny. He also will tell jokes where the premise is just something really dirty or really stupid, but because it's specific or true to him it never feels dirty or stupid. When I think about Louis, I always remember honesty is the most important thing. I think he's amazing.

Ten things to know about Jessi:

What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
Old school downtown New Yorkers may remember “the Duckman,” this very sweet soulful guy who pushed around this huge cart of bright yellow stuffed toy ducks. They were big, about two feet tall. He was a total NY staple, and he was featured in the opening montage of SNL for years. Anyway, the ducks were very distinctive. My family bought one, and it literally became a part of our family. We used to have it sit at the dinner table with us. My parents still have him.

Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
There’s a bar called the Ear that my friend Kate introduced me too. I’m a little ashamed of how much of my money goes to drinking there. I’m even more ashamed of how much of my money goes to eating pie there. And by ashamed, I mean immensely proud.

Gotham Mad Lib: When the _____ (noun) makes me feel _____ (adverb), I like to _____ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required.)
When the world makes me feel unimportant, I like to google myself.

Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I would say I’m more obsessive than hysterical, but the obsessiveness can lead to hysteria. Anyone reading this that I would be friends with will know exactly what I mean.

I’ve lived in NYC my whole life, so I’ve never undergone the culture shock of moving here. I sometimes almost wish I could have moved here from somewhere else just to be able to experience what it’s like to fall in love with this place as an adult. But the great thing about NYC is that it can change you every day, even after years of living here. That sounds so schmaltzy, but I can’t help but be really schmaltzy about NYC. Fuck off.

NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
My local guilty pleasure is now the Indian Bread Company on Bleecker Street. Specifically, their naanini sandwich, the one with tandoori chicken and spinach. I walked in one day and had one of these for lunch and decided it was the tastiest thing I’ve ever had in my life. It can’t be that healthy, but I don’t care. To fully understand my love of this sandwich though, you have to understand that I’m obsessed with nuclear terrorism, and I constantly worry that NYC is doomed. So basically after I had my first naanini I decided I would have as many of them as I can before I die. So I try to have one a day, as early as possible, just in case I happen to die that day. What I’m saying is I don’t want to die on a day that I haven’t had a naanini.

When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
Can we consider “slightly drunk” a place?

What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
Stand-up. I don’t know how people start doing it if they live in a town that has one terrible club with a name like “the Chuckle Patch” or “the Snicker Hole.” In some ways, it’s probably a great learning experience to have to do that, but “learning experience” is usually a euphemism for “awful, awful time.”

Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
Thousands of pairs of socks. Endless socks. Also, one of those large, super powerful vacuum cleaners. Growing up my mom had one of those ancient vacuums that was literally made of metal and it had zero suction. You could run it over the same piece of lint 80 times, and it wouldn’t pick it up. It was like a dying anteater. I’ve been obsessed ever since with getting a really efficient, WASPy, suburban vacuum cleaner.

311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
Here’s the thing that I think is fundamentally out of touch about 311. In NYC, anytime you personally have a problem, no matter how small, it’s gonna feel to you like a 911 problem. When you hear about other people having big problems, I think we tend to feel very 311 about them. I guess what I’m saying is, while I respect Bloomberg for coming up with the idea, I think that 311 is asking New Yorkers to try and put their problems in perspective, which is something I think we’re all really bad at doing. You try telling the person who’s listened to his neighbor’s pit bull bark for 5 hours that it’s not a real emergency. For that matter, try telling the pit bull to stop barking. He’s probably pissed about something else too.

There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
One of my happiest memories as a little kid was of waking up one morning and hearing what I thought was meowing coming from my window. This didn’t seem possible since we lived on the top floor of a six floor walk up. But when I investigated, there was a little cat that had crawled up the fire escape from our downstairs neighbor’s apartment. I loved animals so spending the morning playing with the cat felt incredibly magical.

A few weeks later I was looking out the back-alley window from my brother’s room and I thought I saw another cat on someone else’s fire escape. I ran to get my flashlight to investigate and started shining it all around the alley. Someone apparently thought a burglar was doing this and called the cops, who went up to the roof and saw me peeking through the curtains. They ended up banging on our door and I hid under the blankets having a heart attack that I was going to jail for the rest of my life. My dad had to come find me and get me to explain I was the one with the flashlight. The moral of this story is, don’t ever enjoy anything.

Jessi Klein is a regular panelist on VH1’s Best Week Ever. She also hosts a weekly show at 8:00 PM on Thursdays with comedian/former flame Nick Kroll: “Welcome to Our Week,” at Cinema Classics, 332 East 11th Street. For more info check out her web site, professionally run by a staff of thousands, at www.kleintastic.com.

-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei