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Jo Kimbrell

Stand-up Mom, Stay at Home Comic

25

April, 2017

Interview: Julie Benoit
Photo: Mat Bobby

I walked into Finkel and Garf brewery in Gunbarrel on a Wednesday night not really knowing what to expect from the monthly comedy night that Jo Kimbrell produces and hosts. Jo is entertaining and clever, she comes across as a quirky 80’s television game show host.  She has a big and vibrant personality, she knows how to play the room and work a crowd. The taproom was filled with tables and chairs that were all occupied with people. I did not expect to see so many people in the crowd and was happy to see a full house.

I was a little intimidated by the idea of sitting through five emerging stand-up comics, as my attention span is pretty short these days. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by every one of them and loved how they each stood a little bit awkwardly in front of the crowd reciting jokes and bits from scraps of paper, spiral notebooks and even the palms of their hands. I found this to be quite endearing and it allowed me to connect with the honesty and authenticity of each comic.

Most of the time the crowd was receptive and responsive to the material, but occasionally there was that uncomfortable silence and, surprisingly, the comics handled it perfectly and in their own funny ways.

Seeing this genuine and raw side of comedy gave me a new understanding as to how comics get to where they are. I have realized the comedy that I am familiar with is pretty mainstream and the comedians are completely comfortable and confident in what they are doing. Being someone who is coming from a small tight-knit punk community in Baltimore, it was refreshing to see this new, underground, and unpretentious side of comedy, and to get a little insight into the learning process and to get in a bunch of laughs.

JB: You are new-ish to town? How did you end up in Longmont? Where were you guys before this? What were you guys doing?

JK: My husband, Pete, is from Colorado and his family lives all over the state.  Before moving to Longmont we were living in Raleigh, NC where we met 8 years ago. We loved Raleigh, Pete was bar tending at one of the best restaurants in the city and I was staying at home with our daughter.  I had been loosely self-employed since becoming a mom, I did some freelance live music photography, sewing for hire, and I was a yoga teacher for a little while, then right before we left I started getting into stand-up. Pete wanted to be closer to his family and we wanted our daughter to have access to better public schools so we planned to come out here for a couple of years and finally made the move last March. Pete has a job bar tending in Boulder and I have started to find my place in the local comedy scene. Our daughter, Lynagh has been loving preschool and we get out into nature so much more than we did back in Raleigh.  We are really happy here.

I said “$1500 to dig a hole?” and she said “Well, they don’t charge you for digging it, just for filling it in.”

JB: How long have you been doing comedy? How long have you been interested in pursuing it? Did you have any reservations when getting started?

JK: I have only been doing stand-up comedy for a little over a year. I have always been a writer and interested in performing, I used to dance and was involved in theater as a teenager. Comedy came into my life around 2003 when I started taking classes and performing with DSI (Dirty South Improv) in Chapel Hill, NC. I learned about comedy from some really talented people, but the sense of community there had the biggest impact on me and how I carry myself as a comedian today. After a while, life took over and I walked away from improv without any plans to return to comedy. Then a couple of years ago I started writing jokes and eventually realized I wanted to try stand-up. It takes many years and a lot of work to find your voice in comedy, it’s hard to understand the energy commitment until you just dive in. Any successful comic will tell you, there are no shortcuts, you have to be willing to put in the time and be very comfortable being honest with yourself.

JB: Tell us a bit about comedy nights at Finkel and Garf? Where/how do you find the comedians that you are showcasing? Where are they mostly coming from?

JK: I host a free stand-up showcase at Finkel and Garf Brewery on the third Wednesday of every month. The brewery is in the Gunbarrel area between Longmont and downtown Boulder. A lot of people like to see stand-up comedy but not everyone wants to go to Denver. We have a lot of small, local comedy scenes in the area that are doing some really cool stuff, and I wanted to bring comedy closer to where I live. Producing takes a different kind of energy than just performing stand-up. It’s not in every comic’s interest to run a show but I know how to network and I’m organized and I have a sense for hospitality and I have a great time doing it so it’s a good fit for me. A handful of comics live in Longmont and the ladies in town who run Bub Comedy bring in comics from all over for their open mic nights and showcases. I meet so many funny local comics at open mics up and down the front range and I am fortunate that so many of them are willing to be on my show. There are five spots on every show and I like to book local comics but I usually get a couple of emails each month from touring comics who are trying to pick up gigs when they come through town, and I am glad to be able to feature them as well.  I try to put comics into lineups that showcase a variety of styles so that they can play to their strengths and there’s something for everybody to enjoy. There is a lot to enjoy, we bring in really funny people, plus Finkel and Garf makes tasty beer and we give away some six-packs and branded merch throughout the show. That taproom is a magical space, you can’t help but have fun there and it’s a great room for a comedy show.

JB: Who are your favorite comedians? Do you have a favorite joke?

JK: There are a lot of comedians I admire, but I can’t answer this question without saying Joan Rivers. She was so brilliant and hilarious and was such a force in comedy for women. We might not be yelling and cursing into microphones today had she not been fearless enough to do it in the 1960’s. As for a favorite joke, the one I always think of was not even intended to be a joke, and I’m not sure what it says about my sense of humor. I was talking to a good friend, her mother had just passed away.  Losing a parent is painful and we talked about a lot, the emotional stuff as well as the practical stuff that comes with organizing a funeral. She was telling me about the burial plans and mentioned that the hole in the ground cost $1500. I said “$1500 to dig a hole?” and she said “Well, they don’t charge you for digging it, just for filling it in.” It’s hard to explain why that’s funny, but I still laugh when I think about it. Maybe it was just the right kind of relief from a very serious conversation. When you have good people around you, the funniest things can come out of the most serious moments.

JB: What is it like being a female comedian?

JK: I think the “female comic experience” is different for all of us. Misogyny exists in comedy, but no more than anywhere else in the world. The scene here is pretty accepting of women from my view, though I was once on the receiving end of unwanted physical contact from a male comic at an open mic.  I felt safe enough to come forward about it immediately, and the host and other comics I shared the details with were compassionate and supported me in the way I chose to handle the situation. Most women are taught not to “make a big deal” over that kind of thing, but when it happens we need to call it out and treat it as unacceptable. I think as women are gaining ground in comedy scenes all over the country, it’s becoming less acceptable to exclude or mistreat us. Sometimes I’m the only female comic in a room, but I’m usually comfortable with that, especially when there are women in the crowd. I walk on stage and I can see them sit up straight and smile like, “thank god, finally!” Once in a while a woman will approach me after a set and tell me that she wants to try comedy, and that makes me happy, that they see me do it and they can see themselves doing it, too. I don’t believe that being female or being a mom makes my goals less achievable, and I have never been afraid to take risks. Some people might point out that female comics get booked less often or taken less seriously, and maybe that’s true but we can’t fix that problem by complaining about it, so I choose to work around it. I would rather get ahead because I’m funny and easy to work with than because someone thinks I deserve a break for being a woman. Every comic has their own set of personal circumstances to overcome in order to do the work. You are not in control of how you are perceived on stage, so you just have to own who you are and build trust with your audience. If you can make that connection you can win anyone over, no matter who you are. You also need to be funny, of course.

JB: How do you balance family life and comic/night life? Do they ever intersect? Does your husband ever get to come see you perform?

JK: Since my husband is a bartender and we don’t have regular babysitting help, usually I’m home with our daughter while he’s working and he’s home with her while I’m out doing comedy. Pete rarely gets to see me perform but he is so supportive of what I do. We have always been equal partners as parents, so I don’t have to worry that I’m being selfish by pursuing my own interests.  He isn’t a comic but he is one of the funniest people I know so I run all of my jokes by him, which probably sounds like fun, but he has to hear the worst of it, repeated over and over.  Sometimes I drive myself crazy doing it, but he can always listen. The biggest challenge is getting out to shows to improve and be seen. I try to use free time wisely, I do as many open mic nights as I can and I meet up for lunch or coffee with a few other comics each week to catch up and work on jokes and vent about personal stuff. Some of them know my daughter, and it’s always cool to see your kid having fun with your friends, but she especially likes comics and I love that. She’s only five, but she helps me put up posters around town for shows, I’ll involve her in any way that I can as she gets older. There are a handful of other comics in the scene who have kids, our bonds are special as comics and as parents. Most other comics can’t relate to the stuff we deal with day to day, and most other parents think we are strange, so we accept and support each other completely, sometimes all it takes is a hug.

JB: What is your own joke writing process like? What is your favorite kind of material to cover?

JK: With stand-up you are constantly repeating and renewing your material to make it better and keep it polished. I write a lot and my writing process isn’t very structured but I do follow some basic rules in the way I structure jokes. I keep notebooks around my house and on me all the time, I can’t use my phone for notes, it feels so unnatural to me. Sometimes ideas come as entire jokes, sometimes I think of a premise that I can build punchlines around. Some ideas live in my notebook indefinitely because I can’t figure out how to translate them into jokes. Those are like little puzzles, I have to stare at them for a long time to put them together. People seem to be respond best to my material about motherhood. I’m not sure I have a favorite topic to joke about, I just like to have a clear point to whatever I’m saying.

JB: Do you remember the first joke you wrote? What got you on stage the first time? What was that experience like?

JK: I do remember my first joke, I won’t share it since it wouldn’t deliver well in print, but I actually still use it!  It has changed quite a bit since my first open mic set. I had been writing for a few months and the push I needed came when I watched “Call Me Lucky,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary about comedian and political satirist, Barry Crimmins. Barry has been in the business for decades and was significant in shaping Boston’s comedy scene in the 1980’s. He is an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual assault and a defender of children and adults against cultural shame and secrecy around sexual abuse and exploitation. I was working on some material about my own experience as a rape survivor and I was so unsure of myself and how to present it without bumming everybody out. I was inspired by Barry’s story and his unapologetic approach to telling the truth about something no one wants to address, so the next week I got up on my first open mic stage at Kings in Raleigh with too many notes, and my voice shook and I could barely touch the microphone. But I just looked past the spotlight and told the jokes and the world didn’t end and people laughed and I knew immediately it was something I wanted to keep doing.

JB: What kind of role do you see comedy having in this political hell we are currently living in? Do you have any political material? Do you ever get nervous to put it out there?

JK: Political humor is tough right now- we need to protect free speech and we need relief from how scary everything is, but I think people are a little tired of thinking about it. Even during the election I was getting the sense that people would rather hear jokes about anything but politics. I have some Trump jokes, but even if they work they aren’t very satisfying, because behind the joke there’s the reality that this guy is an unfit leader and we are in a dangerous situation as a nation. As a writer I don’t shy away from social taboos or topics that might make people uncomfortable, but as a comic the main goal is to make people laugh and feel good, so sometimes that means holding back on certain sensitive material, even if it feels important for me to put it out there.

JB: I don’t know how you do what you do. I could never do it. Way too much pressure for me. I would be so afraid of an audience not laughing or not getting it. Do you ever have this fear? What is the worst thing that has happened to you as a performer? How did you deal with it?

JK: Not only is it a fear that they won’t laugh, it happens all the time! Jokes don’t always work, sometimes a crowd doesn’t get you, and sometimes they’re just not listening to you for any number of reasons outside of your control. Bombing is a function of comedy and when it happens, all you can do is shake it off and get back on stage as soon as possible. I’ve been ignored, heckled, interrupted by sirens, interrupted by drag queens, forgotten punchlines, delivered jokes to empty chairs, spilled wine on my shirt…that’s all in the last 2 months. You can’t beat yourself up about that stuff, it’s part of live stand-up shows. And it’s not all bad, when a comic has the right response to those unexpected moments, it can be funnier than any of the jokes they wanted to tell. We hate when that happens, but we also kind of love it.

JB: Is there anything you want your audience to walk away with?

JK: It’s so important to me that our communities have supportive places for local people to share their talent and grow as artists. I always end my show by asking the audience to support local comedy and to hold onto the good feelings that we create when we laugh together and be kind to everyone they meet. It might be cheesy, but I’m not too cool to care about the world around me, and comedy really does have the power to heal us. Telling the truth and sharing laughter with a room full of strangers is meaningful to me, it lets us cut through the differences and social divisions that keep people from accepting one another. Plus it feels good to laugh, and we all want to feel good.

JB: What kind of vision do you have for Longmont?

JK: I am a Longmont super-fan. I think it’s a beautiful place, we have our own vibe here that’s different from the larger cities nearby. There are a lot of people moving here and starting businesses and I think all that energy pouring in is making it a more exciting place to live.  Longmont has a lot of potential for economic growth and as the landscape of the city changes, I hope we embrace a culture of openness to progress and diversity in our communities. We all have to work together to make sure that everyone feels welcome here and that our neighbors who are marginalized or in need are supported.

JB: What is next for you?

JK: Pete and I would like to open our own bar in Longmont, so what’s next for our family is buying a house and establishing our roots so we can start a business. As for myself, I am building a circle of collaborators in comedy and working on all kinds of things from developing short film projects to getting more live shows going. I also intend to produce comedy and music events and festivals that can benefit charitable causes and organizations. I am enjoying meeting people and finding opportunities in local comedy, so I plan to keep at it and see where it takes me.