Jessie Johnson has been a restaurant manager for an Australian eatery, she’s been Tinker Bell, and she’s even been a little boy — all as part of local sketch comedy troupe Bully Mammoth, in which she’s the only female member. The 23-year-old Phoenix resident is a comedy veteran despite her young age, having gotten her sketch start performing with a troupe since back in high school. She’s also been performing stand-up comedy for the past two years and is gearing up to write for a new sitcom called The Palace, which she’s working on with her Scottsdale Community College peers.
Her love for mixing film with comedy is evident tonight, as she hosts a stand-up show and premiere of the six-minute short film she wrote and directed, called Charlie, at the Ice House Tavern in Phoenix. Head to the free show at 8:30 p.m., where you’re encouraged to dress up fancily, since it’s a Hollywood premiere theme. The show is part of the series of comedy shows she hosts there every first Monday. Catch her perform with Bully Mammoth Saturday, June 28, at Tempe Center for the Arts.
Read on for what inspires her comedy and to hear her talk about her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
Well, when a man meets a woman…(laughs) No, I was born here, so I’ve lived here my whole life. I went to Dobson High School and am now at Scottsdale Community College. I graduate next semester with an Associate’s (degree) in film.
Next semester, I’m working on a sitcom at the school, which will be produced by the film and theater department. There are three of us working on it right now in the writer’s room — Hunter M. Lewis, Steve Pursell and myself.
When did you first get interested in sketch comedy?
At Dobson, we had a sketch comedy troupe called Friday Night Live. I auditioned for that and got in, which was really cool. It was just a bunch of our friends, and we’d go in and make these short little comedic acts – sketches, are what they’re called. We’d produce two shows throughout the year, and it started really small and underground and then got really big to where we were selling out shows and turning people away. By my senior year, I was directing it. It was the most fun I’d ever had at that point, and that was how I met Ryan Gaumont, who founded Bully Mammoth. He was also in Friday Night Live.
After high school, I got in contact with him again, and he was auditioning people for his group, Bully Mammoth. I auditioned and got into that and have been writing for them since 2011. It’s been a blast. I love it. That’s the closest I’ve been in a writers’ room kind of thing. We all write our own stuff, we sit down and talk about it, and start acting. We are constantly adding on jokes until the second we’re out on stage.
What made you want to get your start in comedy?
I had always liked Saturday Night Live and had always watched it with my family growing up. I didn’t think I’d make it into Friday Night Live, because I was always such a quiet person, but I got in as a writer and eventually was acting in it. Mr. Show, Kids in the Hall, and Human Giant are other influences on me.
How would you describe yourself as a comedic writer?
Really funny, good jokes. (laughs) I don’t really know how to describe my style. I think the beauty of sketch comedy is every scene is completely different because they’re little sketches of life. I’ve written a lot of things that take place in the future or are parodies of the past, or are in different worlds. I can’t define my style, but I try to write what I’d like to read. If I think it’s funny for myself, those are the types of people I’m writing for.
What’s your writing process like, and where does your inspiration come from?
Inspiration can hit anywhere, and it doesn’t come when you want it to come. There have been a lot of times I’ve sat down and wanted to write and came up with nothing, and then when I’m in the middle of something, like a class or on a film set, I get an idea. It’s something that can’t be forced. You go about your day and get a hit of an idea and just develop it that way.
Do you ever experience writer’s block, and how do you get over it?
Oh, yeah, all the time – crying, ice cream help. Writer’s block is something every writer goes through. Music helps a lot.
Sometimes, you just have to relax and move onto something else and come back to writing, because sometimes it’s just not there.
What’s your favorite type of music to listen to when you have writer’s block?
It depends on what I’m writing. I love all types of music, so if I’m writing a noir/detective type of thing, I’ll listen to jazz. Sometimes, if I just need background noise, I like classical music because it’s very moving, and there are lots of different emotions to it. All types of music help. It just depends on what type of mood you’re going for.
How would you describe your approach to writing stand-up?
With stand-up, it’s different because it’s just yourself. You write something out, and you can read it out loud, but you don’t have anybody to go off of. I go to a lot of open mics, read my new stuff, see if it hits, see if it doesn’t. Same with anything I write, I write what I’d want to read and what I think is funny. Sometimes, if a joke doesn’t hit, I’ll keep trying to work on it if I think there’s something there, but most of the time, you can tell right away what works and what doesn’t.
As far as the process, I just try to find something funny, even if it’s something small that makes you laugh. If it’s an absurd situation, I’ll write it down later and develop the joke. A lot of my material is personal. I try to talk about things that are going on in my life and make that funny.
I do go through shifts, and I think all comedians do with what they talk about. You start telling the same jokes for so long, they get old to you, so you want to try something new.
How did you get involved with performing stand-up?
Stand-up was something I’ve always been interested in. I watched a lot of George Carlin growing up, and he’s a very inspirational stand-up comedian. He rewired a lot about how I think about things, and he made it funny. Ultimately, I want to keep pursuing comedy in all forms, but with stand-up, at some point in my life, I do want to get to a level where I inspire through comedy. Right now, I’m only two years into it, so I’m just learning to walk and have a ways to go, but that’s my goal with stand-up comedy. I’d really like to give back with the things I’ve learned in life and do it in a way I think is funny and entertaining.
I started performing stand-up in March 2012, at the Ice House Tavern, this little bar attached to an ice rink behind a Walmart. The venue is great. I met stand-up comedian Sean McCarthy there, who ran the show at the time and gave me time to perform. The place is really novel to me because we’re in the middle of the desert, performing stand-up next to a hockey rink. I really like it, and it’s something I know when I look back at my life I’ll really appreciate. Now I run the comedy show there the first Monday of every month.
Why is comedy important?
Comedy is important because there are so many different ways to look at anything in life. There’s no real wrong way or right way, just infinite possibilities of ways. Comedy is a way to talk about issues people don’t agree on and make them funny.
Another big thing is, people have such complicated lives and so much struggle to deal with internally, if you can break away and watch something for five minutes or an hour and just laugh, that’s something in life I would never want to get rid of. Everyone needs that in their lives.
How does Bully Mammoth contribute to the Phoenix comedy scene?
With Bully Mammoth, we do everything for our audience. We don’t sell anything except our comedy. Everything we’re doing is to put on a good show for our audience.
One thing I think is cool is we have a stand-up comedian open for us. I really like that because it mixes the worlds of stand-up and sketch and gives the comedian a featured spot on the show for them to shine.
Every Bully Mammoth show is completely new. We have all been working in comedy for at least five years across the board, and all been actively writing for comedy for many years. I see a lot of sketch online, and I think we have a really good product. It’s funny, it’s original, and it’s timeless. We don’t do a lot of topical humor – we do timeless humor you could watch five years from now, and it’s still funny.
We have a good system of checks and balances as far as challenging each other to make sure we’re doing the best we can. We’ve got our own little style, which I can’t really describe. You just have to experience it for yourself.
What can people expect from your show tonight at the Ice House Tavern?
Everyone is dressing up fancy, and we’re going Hollywood, doing it big in a small place. We’re going to be rolling out the red carpet, and there’s going to be a projector and a big screen. We’re going to have stand-up comedians, and at the end, we’re going to play my short film Charlie, a six-and-a-half-minute video.Two of the actors in it are stand-up comedians in the show.
I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be a fun night, and I haven’t seen anything else like it. I’ll also be raffling off swag bags like a real Hollywood party.
What can people expect from Charlie?
Charlie is a very unique comedy. I’m excited to play it. I think it’s really funny, but I’m biased. It was a movie idea my friends and I would joke about for a long time, because they have this cat named Charlie who would just be hanging out and would do something silly. We would say, “How crazy would it be if he were human, sitting on that table, all sprawled out?” We’d always joke about how funny it would be if he was human, and what that’d be like. The movie is about a girl who wishes her cat human for a day, and shenanigans ensue.
How do you think you contribute to the comedy community as a stand-up comedian?
One thing I think is cool is I’m trying to bring the film world to stand-up comedy. The first show I had at the Ice House, about 30 people from my film school came out, which was really cool. Tonight will be the first time it’s really integrated, because Charlie had a crew of about 15 people, so all those people are technically on the show.
Over time, I’d like to keep developing combining film with comedy, and maybe do a comedy/film festival. We live in a digital world, and people don’t go out as much. The first thing people want to do before they go out to your show is preview it online. It sucks you can’t just do the live stuff anymore, but I totally get it. If someone said, “Come see this band play,” I’d probably want to hear it first. That’s something I want to bring to the table, and Bully Mammoth is working on getting stuff filmed, too.
What are your goals?
I’d love to write for TV, but who knows where it’s going to go, with web series and online media. I really like sitcoms, and it would be so cool if Bully Mammoth got picked up. If someone invested in us and got us a show, it’d be so cool, because we are the writers’ team.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to get involved in comedy?
My biggest advice would be to just go out and do it. A lot of people ask me how to do it, and you’ve got to go to a show, introduce yourself to the host, and ask for time. Once you do that, you go to the shows and meet the people and make friends and find out where all the shows happen.
You also have to write, but I think most people getting into comedy already have the jokes, they just don’t know where to go. There are tons of places to go – there are probably 20 shows happening a week in Phoenix. A lot of people who have been doing this awhile in Phoenix say there is a comedy boom going on now, where four years ago, there were only three shows total. There are lots of opportunities in Phoenix.
For someone who hasn’t written jokes yet, how should they get involved in the writing process?
Watch a bunch of comedy and go to a lot of local shows. See what else is out there. Try to figure out where you fit in, and think about what’s funny to you. I’ve read some books about stand-up comedy, and a lot of them say comedy comes from a dark place. Figure out what makes you sad, and flip it to make it funny – that’s really powerful.