Justin James Thrives In All Types of Comedy Environments. Dallas Needs to Pay Closer Attention.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Justin James has been performing for almost five years, and he’s phenomenal at finding truly novel ways to make audiences laugh.
Versatility is his biggest strength.
Sketch comedy? He can nail it. Musical comedy? He’s one of the few people in DFW who can pull it off. Conventional stand-up? In this format, he’s singular and elite and sharp enough to come up with a killer line on the fly while in the middle of a performance.
Now he’s spearheading and performing as part of an ambitious new comedy program at the Vetted Well, the upstairs bar at Alamo Drafthouse’s Dallas location. The kickoff lineup for this new series also includes Tim Edwards, Saffron Herndon (who was recently featured on The Today Show), and Paul Varghese. It’s about as strong as a local comedy show lineup can be. And with James helping organize, you should expect subsequent Vetted Well shows to sustain a remarkable degree of quality.
Here, we talk to him about the new series and how he got to this point.
You’re putting together a new show at the Vetted Well, the bar connected to the Alamo Drafthouse’s location in The Cedars. Can you tell us what to expect from the show?
It’s gonna be your more classic-style show, with an MC – me – and an opener, a feature, as well as a headliner at the end. It should be about an hour and a half. It’ll be a really fun time. We’ve been trying to get different programming out here [on the patio] instead of the same old karaoke and pub quizzes they have everywhere. We’re doing something new. I’m excited. I’ve been trying to get a comedy show at the Alamo for two years now.
Yeah, ever since I started working here. Before I started working here, Andrew Woods and myself did a show at the Richardson location for a charity. It was before The Jerk — we did stand-up before The Jerk, and it was one of the most fun times we ever had. I was like, “Man, I really love this theater. How do I get involved in other things here? Can we do more comedy shows here?” And they were like, “Well, do you want a job?” I was like, “Well, I’ve been cooking for a long time, so yeah that might work out!” [Laughs.] I thought it would take off easier to get a comedy show as soon as I started working here — but it didn’t, really.
So what would they say when you suggested it?
When I suggested a comedy show?
Oh, man. It was, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” [Laughs.] It wasn’t a yes or no. It was a neutral answer, for sure. But it’s something I pushed at for a while. The programmer at Richardson and I couldn’t get the details worked out,, but now we’re in Dallas and we have these patios with so much space, and we’re trying to fill it up and fill this whole building up with people. This building can hold an insane amount of people — around 1,200 people can be serviced at this place at one time.
So will this be a monthly thing? What are you shooting for?
To start, I’d like for it to be monthly. Eventually, bi-weekly is what I’d like. Every week seems a bit much just to have the small shows, I don’t want to overstep our pool of talent. I’d like to have solid lineups from the first to the last show that we ever do here.
It’s you on the show with Tim Edwards, Saffy Herndon and Paul Varghese. That’s about as big of a lineup as you can get to start a show. It’s hard to go bigger than Paul as your first headliner.
Yeah, that’s a big one. And to have Saffy feature is huge, too.
That’s another big one.
I want to get butts in seats, and I want the first show to be a success so we can keep doing these, and I can have more of my funny friends on the show endlessly. And it’s a cool spot. That’s my favorite part about it. I can’t wait to perform there. Eventually, I’d like to get it to where we could do maybe a three-comic showcase and show Dave Chappelle’s Killin’ Them Softly on the screen afterward, and everybody stays and watches that and enjoys food and drinks that way.
So mix comedy and film?
Yeah. But have it still carry over and do a stand-up film. Show old [George] Carlin specials, or Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip. I’d like to do Dave Chappelle first because that was the first hour special I saw, and I was like, “Oh, this is something else…” [Laughs.]
That kind of leads me to my next question – what got you into comedy?
[Laughs] A breakup. It was a big breakup. I was seeing a girl for a long time, and it finally broke up, and I needed a change of pace. It was something I always wanted to do. I listened to podcasts so much, and thinking, “Listen to all these funny people, I want to be funny too.” I tried it in… 2007, 2008? When Hyena’s Arlington was still a thing. I tried one open mic night, and I was not… I was green, I was young. I was… let’s see, 22? I wasn’t ready. I stepped away, and started working full-time, just being a busy body, career-oriented, and dating. Then things with that one girl ended and… well, I had all this free time, and I started doing comedy to help get over it, and to chase my dream of doing it. I’ve always wanted to do comedy. Mitch Hedberg and Dave Chappelle, those are the two guys I saw early on and thought, “Oh yeah, that’s the good shit right there.”
I’ve known you for two-plus years now.
Yeah, man! I was one of the first people you met around here.
You were! You were one of the first people I met that was actually doing this.
I was one of the first people who was nice to you.
This is true. Because, usually when you start, it’s just you and the other people who just started, and most of them are going to leave. So when you start talking with people who’ve been doing it at least a year, and you start to feel like you have a foothold. It’s a big deal.
I’m coming up on five years in January.
Yeah. [Laughs.] It goes by fast, it waxes and wanes. I feel like I was real good to start, and I kept climbing and climbing, and plateaued. I’ve transitioned into this new, less-structured comedian these days. Now I’m doing more weird, alternative, oddball stuff and riffing more.
You take more chances than most people I know. Not just in stand-up, but in anything you do. I’ve seen you do sketch. You bring music into your comedy. When did you start branching out in what you were doing?
It was early on. I’ve always liked writing jokes, and short jokes at that. [Anthony] Jeselnik was — I was a big fan of him when I first started. I liked the darkness of it, but I also liked the structure. It was just real quick and poignant. I still kind of write jokes that way still. But other weird, goofy things that make me laugh, like singing the ABCs to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” a capella, with a country twang — it’s fun to me. It’s just ridiculous. The other songs, I just… I wanted to learn to play piano, and as I was learning to play piano, I was just starting to write these stupid little songs, and it was easier to transfer to the stage than my previous guitar work. With a guitar, I feel clunky. It’s just so big, and I’m hiding behind it. Whereas with a piano, I’m sitting behind it, and I can lean into a microphone, and it’s a little easier for me.
When did you first bring the keyboard onstage?
It was probably about a year and a half, maybe a year in.
How did it feel going up there for the first time?
Terrifying, man. Honestly, I’m not a musician, I play music in my room alone, quietly, with no one listening to it, so I can listen to it and say, “Oh, that’s good,” with no judgment from professionals. But I had this one song written down, and I just said, “I think this is funny.” It’s a commitment when you do a song, too, because you can’t just quit halfway through. People get pissed, first of all. But, second, you commit to the bit, you finish it no matter what. Songs are the devil. Because if it doesn’t go well, you’re just sitting there at the end of four minutes, like, “Yeah, that’s it. If you didn’t enjoy it, that sucks.” [Laughs.]
Do you have plans going forward to expand the music?
Yeah, I’m always writing new songs. I’m currently writing a duet, and other things. I always want to have music involved. Don’t Stop or We’ll Die, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but that was Harris Wittels’ band before he passed. It was all three comedians in that band, and they just wrote goofy comedy songs that didn’t make any sense. I’m just dying to get Andrew Woods to learn the drums so we can be James Woods onstage: “Now introducing James Woods onstage,” and us two walk onstage. Oh, did you think it was that actor? No, it’s just us.
If I’m not mistaken, a couple of years ago you ended up accompanying Rory Scovel onstage at the Dallas Comedy Festival.
That is kinda correct… no, that’s absolutely correct, that’s a thing that happened. A part of his act, he has a keyboard onstage that he doesn’t know how to play. He has a joke where he uses it, but other than that, he doesn’t know how to use it. So he invites someone to come up and play the keyboard while he told jokes about 9/11, which was perfect. It was a mostly comedian audience, so all fingers went right to Justin.
So this wasn’t a planned thing, they called you onstage.
It was, “Does anyone know how to play piano?” and literally Barry [Whitewater], Adrian [Lara], maybe Brad LaCour were all around me and they just pointed me out. Yeah, so I raised my hand. And man, I couldn’t quit laughing the entire time. It was so surreal to me. He’s great. But I was not a piano player, I was maybe a year and a half into my actual piano playing. I was like, “Guys, I can play the piano, but barely.” I get by.
In terms of shows, do you feel like you have to adjust what you do in a club versus in a bar?
[Laughs.] Yeah. Every single time. Literally every single time.
What’s that like for you?
It’s an adjustment for me. I can’t do some jokes some places. My alternative stuff is even left of alternative, it seems like. When I try to do it at Hyena’s it doesn’t go over, whereas at Dallas Comedy House that weird will go over. Bar shows, if I’m just loud and yelling, that’s kinda what works. I just adjust to the venue. Wherever I’m at, I try to adjust to the place. If I’m opening at Hyena’s, it’s jokes — joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. If I do a weekend On Point show at Dallas Comedy House, that’s fun. I can bring my piano, have a good time, dick around. I might even jump and dance or something, I dunno. It’s fun, I like it, it’s fun doing those shows.
What are your thoughts on the DFW comedy scene on the whole?
[Pause.] You should note my laughter and pause. [Laughs.] It’s a scene, for sure. There’s some real characters out here. It’s interesting, man, there’s… brass tacks, there’s nobody watching comedy. There’s nobody watching the comics to see who’s coming up, who’s putting in time, and just grinding and getting out there and being funny. There’s a lot of new guys who’re funny, but they may not have the chops yet to get through that two-person bar show, or a Thursday night at Hyena’s where it’s a little rowdy, and it’s just something you have to break through or find a way to make ’em laugh. It’s also about professionalism, and remembering things like that. I dunno, this is a weird thing for me to talk about. We both put in time at Backdoor.
That’s something you can mention for sure. We put in the time, I did two years of setting up that room. That’s how you put in some time. And we both drove from Denton to start. I like to see the dedication out of people, but it’s also, like, “You just started, you shouldn’t be complaining about not getting spots.” Like, that’s one thing. Oh, you’ve been doing it a year and a half and you’re pissed you’re not opening [at Hyena’s]? I’m sorry, dude. It took me fucking four years. And that was even with my opening at the Improv a year in. It doesn’t matter what you do around these parts, you’ve just got to keep grinding, and do your best to be nice to everybody. That’s what I do, try to be a friendly face. Shows around here are weird these days.
This might be a weird question, but I’ve noticed in doing these interviews that people are doing shows in DFW, but not Dallas. Have you noticed that?
What are your examples?
The first few people I talked to all had their shows in Denton or Arlington. I know there are shows in Lewisville. It just seems like it’s easier to find a show around Dallas than in Dallas sometimes.
I think there’s two things about that, honestly. That’s a good question, too. You don’t really want to compete with clubs. Dallas has three clubs. One of them’s more of an improv club, but Hyena’s, Backdoor and the Improv all have Friday night shows they put comics on and make people pay. You don’t want to compete and step on toes by creating your own shows. That’s why I only want to do [the Alamo Drafthouse show] once a month, on Fridays. And it’s far enough from the three locations that I think it’d bring in more of an Uptown crowd instead of your Backdoors, your Mockingbird Stations, your Deep Ellums. It’s hard to get a show in Dallas. It’s a nightlife city that’s founded upon drinking and games around that — there’s sporting events, there’s water balloon fights in Deep Ellum, and there’s random events throughout Uptown. Having comedy be a thing people want to go to is difficult.
Aside from the Vetted Well, do you have any projects or shows you want to talk about?
I’m in the Denton Comedy Festival, if you want to mention that.
Hey, so am I! What night are you on?
I requested the Shane Mauss show, and [the organizer] said he couldn’t do it, but he put me on the 8:30 show. I don’t know which one [Mauss] is, I assume later.
So you’re Saturday?
I think so.
I’m on Friday.
I like Shane Mauss, I’ve seen him three or four times now; he does Hyena’s. When I first met, I smoked with him, he was just hanging out at the open mic. He’s such a cool guy, he hangs out at the open mic and stuff.
He brings games.
Just a nice, awesome dude. This was before the foot injury, too, so he was still mobile. [Laughs.] I love watching him; it’s very ethereal with him. You don’t need to laugh every minute. That’s something I can’t get over. I need those JPMs, bro. Jokes per minute. But, other than that, I’ll be in Tyler in August. Nothing else on the books. I’m writing a sketch show with Katy [Evans], but that’s very preliminary. I like doing sketch, it’s fun. Not improv. Improv’s a little… you have to read people, you have to be prepared to go to the next level. I can riff and improvise onstage when it’s just me and the audience not knowing what to say.
I get the same way.
Oh, you’re tremendous at crowd work.
No, no, absolutely. You are… I remember it was, I want to say a year ago now, and you were onstage, and I was like, “Damn, Alex is…” and Jeremy [Schmidt, a DFW comic who now lives in LA] was like, “Yeah, I know, right?” We were just so smitten with how fucking good your crowd work is. It’s more you. It feels more natural for you to do that crowd work. It’s such a neat thing to see when you do it. Me, I just fuck around. I don’t go long with it; you’ll dive into it with them, like, “Oh, look at you, you’re wearing a hat. That’s a bummer.” [Laughs.]
So you were the first guy actually in comedy I started talking to, who helped me start feeling like I belonged at the open mics. That’s a weird hurdle. As much as open mics are a show-up-and-go-up thing, there’s a point where you kind of have to feel like you belong there, and aren’t just trying a new hobby.
I think I was just like, “You just gotta keep coming, you just gotta keep showing up.” Especially at Backdoor, it was like, “Please just show up and set this room up so I don’t have to anymore.” [Laughs.]
And I did.
And you did. And you took over for a good long while. I was free!
So let’s say you’re talking to a brand new comic, or a could-be comic, what do you say to them?
Quit now. I don’t need any more competition. [Laughs.] That’s what I always say. No, typically when you start, I won’t say much unless you come up and talk to me. We had a special situation where we were setting up that room [Backdoor] together, and you came on early as a comic, and you just wanted to dive in. You just don’t see that with a lot of people. A lot of people just want to do one open mic here and there, and that’s fine. I can’t consider you a comic, and it’s hard for me to have a conversation with you about comedy when you do it so sporadically. It’s something that’s very confusing to me. It’s something I don’t know how to quit now. There’s times where I’m super upset and just like, “Things are not funny right now!” and it’s not coming up daisies, but I just keep showing up, man. And you’ll hit that one night, or that one joke and it makes it all worthwhile. You’ll record your set like, “I’m just listening for this one part where I make this one noise, and everybody loses their shit. What the fuck was that noise?” [Laughs.]