Janelle James on her breakout comedy and touring with Chris Rock

It’s a good time to be Janelle James.

For years the comedian has been beloved by her peers and standup comedy fans alike, but in the past 12 months she’s started to break into the mainstream with appearances on @Midnight, Fuse, and the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. She’s even been touring with Chris Rock on his Total Blackout tour.

She released her debut album Black and Mild last week, and it showcases everything that’s great about the comedian: the casual ease with which she talks about everything from President Donald Trump, to discovering masturbation, to the playful way she can tease an audience without ever coming across as mean. It’s joyful and hilarious.

James checked in with the Daily Dot via email, and explained why she chose to record her album in Minneapolis, what it’s like to tour with Rock, and much more.

Art via Frank William Miller Jr.

In the past year or so your career seems to have really taken off. Do you see it that way or does it feel like more of a steady progression to you? Any standout moments when you thought, “Holy shit, things are starting to get real?”

I feel like it’s definitely been a progression. There’s a point in standup where if you’re putting in a lot of work and things AREN’T “taking off,” you might start to contemplate your suicide options. Too dark? Ah well. Anyway, sometimes hard work pays off. A standout moment would be sitting on my bed in a onesie halfway through a bag of marshmallows and Chris Rock just calls me out of the blue. That’s truly a “Holy Shit” moment.

You’re touring with Rock on the Total Blackout tour this year. Have you done any shows yet? How did that come about? What’s it like performing with such a legendary comedian?

I have done some shows with him. Almost every “come up” in this business comes from being seen onstage or through a referral of another comedian who has seen you onstage. A comic named Chuck Sklar told Chris he should check me out, he did, then he called me up. Simple as that. Performing on the tour is surreal. I’ve been lucky enough to do large crowds before (touring with Hannibal Buress) so I’m not too over-whelmed on that front, but I’ll be damned if every time Chris even looks in my direction my brain goes THAT’S CHRIS ROCK!! HE KNOWS WHO I AM! HE’S RIGHT THERE!! AHHHHHHHH! It’s also been great to learn firsthand about the process and work it takes to become a standup of his level.

What do you do for fun when you’re not writing and performing?

I run around punching people at random in Grand theft Auto.

You recorded the album at ACME in Minneapolis. Any reason you chose that club?

I hadn’t performed there before and I wanted to do it in a new city so I could get those surprise laughs. I perform in [New York] so much I had nightmares of hearing someone say, “Oooo this is a good one,” before every joke on the album. I also didn’t want it full of friends and family. My favorite audiences are full of strangers. That’s how you know you’re getting genuine laughs. Acme is also one of the best clubs in the country and has a built-in audience, so it wasn’t a hard decision.

A lot of comedy albums are recorded on multiple nights at the same club and mixed together later, but it seems like there’s often one night when everything is working and that’s where 90 percent of album comes from. Was that the case with Black and Mild? Was there a show where you walked offstage and thought, “Oh man, that was it?”

Yeah, the majority (I’d say 98%) of the album came from the early [Saturday] show. All of the shows were good, but that one I got off stage, looked at the opener and said “That’s the one,” and he said, “That’s the one.” That audience was there to have a good time so I just knew.

Where did the name Black and Mild come from?

I’ve had the name in my head for years, just praying every year that some other comic wouldn’t take it. I consider it to have multiple meanings. I did smoke Black and Milds when I trying to be “wild” in high school… It’s a favorite of black people in general… I’m black… my personality is pretty chill (mild), but my material is not, yada yada you get it.

The art for the album is very striking. How did you get hooked up with artist Frank William Miller Jr. and how collaborative was the process that led to the cover?

This is one of those cases where the internet proves to be amazing. I was introduced to Frank about a year ago on Facebook through a network of people that all starts with my No. 1 fan, Ben Gran. I’m very particular so I had the whole concept thought out which I explained to my producer (Domenic Del Bene) using an elementary school level sketch, who then took it to Frank. Ultimately, I wanted it to look like a 1970’s funk album that you just came across in the thrift shop by accident. Frank knocked it out of the park on the first pass.

You don’t always hear comedians laughing while they’re onstage, but it seems like you’re cracking up the whole time. Did you have as much fun as it sounds like you’re having?

DUDE. I used to be kind of self-conscious about that because it’s supposed to be a comedian no-no, but I just laugh a lot in general, man. I feel like black people laugh at their own jokes all the time but I may be mistaken. I laugh at my jokes as I’m writing them. I do have the most fun. Standup when you’re having a good set is the best feeling.

What are some of the best and worst changes you’ve seen in standup since you’ve started?

Best changes: more “others.” Women. gays, minorities everything. It’s been great.

Worst: Comics complaining about their career online. I hate whiners in general and it certainly doesn’t make me interested in working with them.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

I didn’t know anything then and I don’t know anything now, I just keep it moving.

Black and Mild is available via Audible, iTunes, SiriusXM, Pandora, Spotify, and from Janelle James herself on tour.

David Britton

David Britton

David Britton is a writer and comedian based in Rhinebeck, New York who focuses on internet culture, memes, and viral news stories. He also writes for the Hard Times and is the creator of StoriesAboutWizards.com.