One Question Interview: Jessica Holmes
A semi-regular series, One Question Interview examines the nature of "good" things in fields as disparate as art, advertising, business, film, food, music, and prose, via one question answered by someone in the know.
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One Question Interview: Jessica Holmes
This week's One Question Interview features writer, storyteller, comedian, and wundernista Jessica Holmes. A lifelong word nerd with a wry/awkward sense of humor, Holmes is the co-founder and creative driving force behind Story Story Night. Also the owner and operator of Jessica Holmes Copywriting, she makes up marketing words in every medium for ad agencies and businesses in Idaho and beyond. She’s an Idaho Business Review Accomplished Under 40 (2011), won the inaugural Boise’s Funniest Person stand-up comedy contest, and was named the “Best Invitee To Your Next Cocktail Party” in Boise Weekly’s 2013 Best of Boise issue. She’s been profiled (but not for criminal reasons) in both the Idaho Statesman and Boise Weekly. Holmes sometimes posts about vintage fashion, old lady decor schemes, her cat, and cheap-wad pursuits on her blog Cheep.
Joel Wayne: What's good storytelling?
Jessica Holmes: I wanted to answer this question in the form of a brilliant story, but sometimes, for me, that’s just a way to bomb the original mission—and thus miss the target entirely. And I feel like I have PTSD-level experience with bombing, especially since I started doing standup comedy two years ago, spurred on by a month-long contest for amateurs called Boise’s Funniest Person. Because, as Steve Martin puts it, “doing comedy alone onstage is the ego’s last stand.” And bombing alone at comedy onstage is the ego’s ultimate burn. (But only if you’ve never experienced actual combat or explosive devices, I gather.)
At the finale show(down) of this comedy competition, only five people remained standing (up). We were all set to do 7 to 10 minutes of material. If we were under time, we would be eliminated. If we were over, the same doom. If two people tied, there would be a stand off of 2-minute sets.
I was picked to go first. In standup, that placement alone can kill you. People instinctively see the first person as the less-experienced opener. They aren’t warmed up yet. “The first person will never win,” I thought, head full of tragedy. And the winner would get $1,000 cash and the title of Boise’s Funniest Person. Which at the very least, would get me invited on more dates, maybe. Which I sort of needed, as I joined this contest at a personal rock bottom, still living with my happy-seeming, recently-minted ex, a boyfriend of seven years, as I made jokes about my insecurities and devastation the whole damned time.
My comedy coach could sense my nerves. “Have fun,” he advised, patting me on the back right before I stepped on stage. In the bright lights, only the first few rows of the crowd were visible, made up entirely of a deaf comedian’s friends and family, each wearing identical t-shirts screenprinted with his tagline: “I can’t hear you.”
I was too terrified to run through my material until right before the show in the greenroom, and realized I might end right at 6 minutes, 30 seconds. Right as I stepped up, I decided to do all of what I had. To burn off the 2 minute extra of semi-fluff at the start, because a tie would be so unlikely, and so I’d be sure I had enough material, and so that I could end on my best punchline, which was, at the time: “1970’s porn star-slash-YMCA lesbian bush,” as I waved my hand in front of my crotch like a fucking magician.
In the bright lights, only the first few rows of the crowd were visible, made up entirely of a deaf comedian’s friends and family, each wearing identical t-shirts screenprinted with his tagline: “I can’t hear you.”
When I stepped off the stage, I was bummed. It didn’t feel like a win to me. While the others stood their ground, I mentally tortured myself on everything I could have done better. I wished I had started, not with my fluff bonus material on the nature of my odd laugh, but by staring down the crowd, in complete silence, showing off my creepy method of hitting on people.
It came as a surprise to me when I heard murmurs that it would come down to a showdown, but it came as no surprise to me when they called my name, because what fucking luck. I had nothing. I had no time to think of anything. I just had to stand up there, stung with the exact feeling you get in that naked-in-your-junior-high-hallway dream, and bomb in front of hundreds of strangers.
I wished I had started, not with my fluff bonus material on the nature of my odd laugh, but by staring down the crowd, in complete silence, showing off my creepy method of hitting on people.
So I told the story of the most searing time I bombed at storytelling. It was a fancy, arty black-tie event, with men in tuxedos and babes in black cocktail dresses, and there I was, in an incongruous 1980’s polyester thrift store jumpsuit, telling a story about the wilderness that culminated in the phrase “A conflagration of poo!” and abject horror in the rest of the room. Midway through the original telling of the story, I realized that I didn’t really know where this story was going, but that it might involve fecal matter, and that was, to say the least, unfortunate, while holding all these fancy ears hostage. I’m not sure what my punchline to that story was, even then, the second time I walked off the stage, shell-shocked.
Needless to say, I won that comedy contest, or I probably wouldn’t be telling this to you right now, because what’s a story without a good ending? Soon after, in the “Best of Boise” issue, the Boise Weekly picked me as “The Best Invitee to Your Best Cocktail Party,” which so far has garnered me a sum total of zero hot dates (they might all know about that one cocktail party I totally took a shit on).
Midway through the original telling of the story, I realized that I didn’t really know where this story was going, but that it might involve fecal matter, and that was, to say the least, unfortunate, while holding all these fancy ears hostage.
So what I’ve realized about storytelling is this: A good story is about a building up to a turning point moment that took you (and will thereby take your listener/reader) by surprise. So when developing a story (or a joke, for that matter), zero in on this surprising turn of events or shift in perspective. These “what happened?!” moments are usually not wins, but failures. Whoever it was that said, “the only good characters are flawed characters,” probably had some kick ass stories.
Your bombings are your true becoming. Look inside, and examine your emotional “hot spots” as I call them. Like they say in the dark circles that surround humor: Time plus tragedy equals comedy. Often the best stories are about burns, mistakes, misfires, journeys into the unknown. These raw and revealing experiences make us human, and change our point of view. A good story ends by revealing what those surprising moments taught us. That’s our punchline: How we now approach life more fearlessly, with more empathy, with more strength in ourselves, and in the way we view the world.
And then you have an ending. And, believe me, you really need an ending.