Comedian Jason James Talks Choosing To Live In His Van, Keeping Up Relationships with Dallas Comics And The Realization That You Don’t Have To Starve To Be An Artist.
Welcome to Humor Us, a column in which local comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other local comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Jason James throws himself into his performances with a vigor that few people can ever hope to match. He can pull audiences in on a tirade that can be deeply felt, downright silly or sometimes both at once. As his passion ramps up during a bit, he carries the crowd from frequent to absolutely debilitating fits of laughter.
It didn’t take long for James to realize he wanted to make stand-up his career. He was barely out of Dean Lewis’ workshop before he started working on a plan to support himself through comedy. He’s since shaped his life around his career in ways that can intimidate many seasoned comics.
During my interview with him, James mentions being effectively homeless for the last five years of his career. for the last year, he’s traveled and lived in a 1992 Aerostar van with a faithful canine companion (both pictured with him above). In our talk, we discuss his adjustment to van living, how his relationship with other Dallas comics has helped him continue to write and grow as a performer, and how he’s come to realize his “death pact” with comedy doesn’t mean he has to suffer for his art.
You started in Dallas, and you left for Los Angeles, but now you pretty much stay on the road permanently – do I have that sequence of events correct?
I started in Dallas 14 years [ago] in September – that was the showcase at the Improv after the Dean Lewis workshop. I was in Dallas for about two years, then I went to New York for a little bit, went to LA – struggled in L.A., and lived in the YMCA in Glendale – it was rough. I loved it, still thankful that I did it. I came back to Dallas and got a job working on the production of training programs for the American Arts Association, which was an incredible opportunity. I moved back to L.A. – I went from the American Arts Association and went to Eye Opener. We’d done lots of short films, 24- and 48-hour film competitions. One of them won best film for the 48 here, and screened in L.A. I was on my way to the airport and I was like, “I’m gonna stay.” That was last year. A little over a year-and-a-half ago my dad’s health went bad, and he passed away a year ago January. So, for the last year I’ve been either on the road, or when I can, [I go back home to Minnesota] so my mom isn’t alone. My two brothers have been really supportive, but she’s 71 and can’t shovel snow off the roof in northern Minnesota. I was really happy to be in a position where I could go back and do that. With a traditional job, how do you do that with two weeks’ vacation? So we’ve kind of turned a corner, we’re gonna list the house. I’m thinking about moving to Austin, that’s, I think, the game plan. I’m kind of setting up base there.
So what’s the experience like being totally on the road doing comedy?
I’ve been homeless for five years at the end of March. For a little over five years I haven’t had an apartment. [I’ve] either been in a club, or I’ve done a lot of dog and house sitting. It kind of grew by word of mouth. For $25 a day, which is half in some places of what it costs to kennel a dog, I’d be with the dog in its environment, take the homeowners to the airport, drop ’em off, pick ’em up when they come back. If I wasn’t working a club or in a condo or hotel, then I would be pet sitting. About…I guess it was a year ago – April 15th – I did a private event in Montana for a 50th birthday party. They paid me and flew me out there and stuff, and then they gave me a 1992 Aerostar van with 126,000 miles on it. I had to fly out to do shows, but then a month later, mid-May, I took Amtrak from Minneapolis out there, picked up the van, and the puppy. For the last year we [James, and the puppy] have been living in the ’92 Aerostar, put a little over 30,000 miles on it – I don’t think it was ever expected to do that – but it’s still rockin’ and rollin’ man, I love it.
It’s always a risk to go out and say, “I’m doing comedy full time,” but taking it to the level you did, you were really out there…
Sleeping in wayside rests, or finding quiet side streets to park in between, or just taking a break. I can’t do 20 hours – it used to be I would get a rental car, and I could drive from Dallas to northern Minnesota in 18 to 22 hours, depending on road conditions, and just cannonball it. But the dog’s gotta get out, the van has to take a breath every two and a half hours, I’ve gotta pull over and let it cool off and check fluids, because it bleeds every possible fluid you can imagine. It’s changed the way in which I travel, and I like it a lot. There’s an entire movement of people…there’s the tiny house movement, but then there’s a whole van living society of people – it’s a show I’ve been trying to pitch, called “Gallivanting,” to show that side of it. There’s families of four, or more, that are living in a Sprinter van. The parents work remotely as long as they’ve got a hot spot, mobile Wi-Fi deal, they can work. And the kids are home-schooled. It’s a real thing. I love it.
How do you connect with a community like that when all of you are transient? How did you find out about this culture?
I started researching van living — how you go to the bathroom, how you maintain personal hygiene, like the basic hierarchy of needs, what do you have to account for. I think through that you start seeing things on Twitter and Instagram, where I see a lot of it, Pinterest, stuff like that. Ideas for a shower, ideas for storage, all different things. Then you find chat rooms, and Reddit, and you start going down the rabbit hole and learning more and more about it. It’s a different way of living, but it’s American Dream 2.0 or something like that. I can’t imagine ever owning a lawnmower. I have no interest in that whatsoever. I love getting to just travel, and go and see…home is where you park it, is the hashtag you’ll see a lot. “Home is where you park it.” There’s a professional baseball player, Daniel Norris, he plays for the Detroit Tigers, he lives in a Volkswagen bus, goes to spring training and pulls out the little camping stone and makes his oatmeal and stuff while the other millionaires are staying in dorms or whatever, with their high end vehicles, thinking, “What are you doing?” There’s just really interesting, wonderful stories out there. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t paint a picture of it being a breeze. But I love it, man.
So “Gallivanting” would be profiling different people out traveling?
Interviewing, and seeing their story, and how they get from point A to point B, and are they working, or are they trust fund babies. There are people who live in their vehicle out of necessity, and there are people that live in it by choice. You can live in a ’92 Aerostar, or you can live in a $120,000 Mercedes Sprinter van with all the bells and whistles. It’s kind of like comics, where if you’re a comedian, it doesn’t matter. You can be in the room with other comics, because they’ve all gone through bombing, and they’ve all gone through open mics, and they’ve all gone through the process. You’re just part of that community. Then there are cities like Los Angeles where they’ve made it illegal to sleep in your car overnight for like 75-80 percent of the city. I understand to a certain degree, some of it, but it’s not some altruistic deal, they’re worried about tax revenue. They’re not worried about whether or not people are being taken care of. The average age of a homeless person in Los Angeles is 13. There are things that need to be addressed, but then there’s starving artists that are pursuing a craft, or working freelance, graphic designers, or whatever. To get a one-bedroom place in Santa Monica you’ve got to come up with $9,000 between the first [month], last, and the damage deposit. It’s prohibitive, to be able to do it. And I can’t drive that apartment in Santa Monica to do a gig in Colorado Springs. I’d rather be paying $1,000 a month towards a nice, solid, dependable vehicle, I don’t want to be a nuisance, I don’t want to be an eyesore, I don’t want it parked falling apart in one spot on the 405, or the I-10 in Houston, or anywhere. But I would like to be able to make the choice to live in the van, and make it work without it being an issue or problem. Because I’m not interfering with anyone else’s stuff. Anyway, that’s a lot about van life.
You mentioned starting comedy in Dean Lewis’ class – what motivated you to sign up and give it a shot?
It was kind of reaching a nervous breakdown point. I had moved to Russia when I was 20 to study, and stayed for six-and-a-half years. I came back to the U.S. after my appendix ruptured in ’98, and I was bored out of my skull in the United States. It was just frustration, working in commercial real estate and property management, and just not happy. And we went to the Improv in Addison and saw Dave Attell and Dave Little, who’s a friend to this day, and a very important part of the artist community as a whole in Dallas and Fort Worth. After the show I talked to him, and afterwards I saw a flier. I picked up the flier, signed up for the class, and did the workshop. Then two or three weeks later, I got asked if I would be interested in opening for Ron White. I thought, “I can do this as a business.” This could be…this is what I want to do. This is terrifying and exciting. So I put together a business plan, and raised some money to be a stand-up comic.
So you committed pretty much immediately to be a stand-up comic.
And my girlfriend of two years was delighted-
-that I quit my job of two paychecks on a consistent basis, and security, and we had bought a condo in the Oak Lawn area, little studio condo that we both loved. She stuck with it for three years – and still, to this day, very supportive and wonderful about it – but it wasn’t the life that she had envisioned. And deservedly so, that wasn’t the game plan when we met. It’s not easy. People with families still being able to pursue it, and to do it, it’s a huge risk. It’s tough on family. Parents that…all they want is for kids to be safe and well-fed, and in bed at 10 o’clock. Healthy and stuff. If my parents had ever known the stuff I was really going through, it would have been even harder on them. It doesn’t make sense to them. I can’t say I’m homeless – I’m hybrid-homeless, I’m homeless by choice, to an extent. But at 44, I’m…Mark Agee, who’s a terrific writer, started doing comedy in Dallas as well, always commented on a death pact I seem to have with comedy. I can’t envision switching gears at this point.
How has your approach to writing and performing changed over time?
When you’re first struggling, it takes a year to come up with a decent five minute set. The goal is, eventually, to be able to write an hour of material in a year’s time. Which is really aggressive, which is Louis CK, Bill Burr, guys like that, who’re so in tune and honed to their voice, and what they do. I was lucky to have started with a lot of guys who are still doing it this far removed. Our graduating class, if you will, have stuck together. A writing session with us is more about a giving session, because we know each other, like family. We know what bits you’re working on, and it’s, “Try this.” Or, “Having grown up in the woods, I don’t understand that reference.” Or somebody else can be, “Having grown up in the city, I don’t understand that reference you’re making about growing up in the woods of northern Minnesota.” To help clarify, and to have a core group of people you’re writing with makes all the difference in the world. And then I did improv early on, which made a huge difference. I know that people don’t laugh at what I’m saying as much as how I’m saying it. If I were to type up the transcript and hand it to someone else, I don’t know if they’d be able to sell it, because they’re not passionate about it. But with improv – don’t tell me, show me. And listening made a huge difference with my performance and writing as a whole. I would be in a lot of trouble if I had to stand in one spot and slay with just words. There are people who are brilliant at that, and I’m a huge fan of all sorts of comedy, but that’s not me. It gets easier after years and years of doing it to write stuff, but if you’re lucky, you’ve got people that help you, and you can help them. That’s the thing. A lot of comics can ask if you want to get together and write, and you’re kind of, inside, thinking, “You want me to give you a punchline.” It’s not how that works. If you want a writing group, it’s more of a giving group, not a taking group. If you go, and you might not necessarily get anything out of that group, but the satisfaction of seeing somebody go up and do something incredible, while that is theirs, but you’ve helped to add a tag, or whatever, that laughter is just as infectious as when you’re onstage. I’ve been lucky with the guys I’ve started with that are still doing it, Aaron Aryanpur, Paul Varghese, Mark Agee – we don’t get to do it as much now, going and day drinking at the Old Monk, or whatever, sitting and doing it, but when we do, it’s really productive.
I was curious about the scene, hearing you talk about those daytime writing sessions – was that group the group of comics in the area, or was it just that you guys in particular clicked?
That was who…we were at the same level. Water finds its own level. We would drive to Houston, to the Laugh Stop, to do the open mic. There would be four or five of us loaded up in the car, split gas, and drive all the way to Houston to sign up, and to go up and do a few minutes. And the connections we made, and the friendships with the guys in the Houston scene, are still strong today because of that. It’s an important part of it, to go out and put yourself out there. The day drinking and some of that stuff was a big part of it, but after seeing my dad die, and I’d quit drinking — not immediately after, but I’ve made a bunch of changes in the last little over a year. It’s been almost six months now since I quit drinking. That has changed. I feel like my performance is sharper. I feel bad knowing that there’s been times…but I didn’t want to be the fat, drunk, sad clown.
That’s a big change pretty far into your career.
Yeah. I’ve lost 63 pounds so far.
I mean, as a guy who’s more of a physical performer, that’s almost an automatic change you have to work around. How has the adjustment been?
It’s strange, because there’s almost an hour-and-a-half of material that I’m not passionate about doing, but also I can’t do stuff about being too fat to do yoga when I’m doing yoga. You have to find other problems and things to discuss. It’s forced…it’s not a “forced” thing, but it’s opened up other areas of discussion. That was an area of concern. Another concern was, “Would you be funny if you were successful?” If you got a development deal, and you just killed it. All of a sudden you’ve got a bank account with commas – not a comma, which would be nice, but commas. And we’ve been really lucky – I know the guys who’ve started here and gone on to do amazing things. From Tone Bell, to Cristela Alonzo, and Dustin Ybarra, Nick Guerra – just some really talented people being successful. It’s possible to be a successful artist. You don’t have to be starving to be an artist, you don’t have to be struggling. I think coming to that realization has helped out tremendously as well. And I’m still living in a van. I’m not worried about, “Do you have to be defective? Do you have to be damaged, do you have to be broken?” No. I don’t believe that anymore. And I think I’m on a better path towards making that transition. Hopefully.