We first saw comedian, writer, and director Jana Schmieding perform as one part of the comedic trio 20/400 in their hilarious theatrical sketch comedy show “Sketchy as F*ck” at the 2014 Fringe Festival. Jana is back on the New York comedy scene with a new solo show called “Classic Singles: Ballads of Loneliness” at the Magnet Theater this month. Reflecting back on the trials and tribulations of her love life in the most romantic month of the year, Jana’s sketches portray her adventures, imagined and autobiographical, on the NYC dating scene, including begging for phone numbers on the subway, crooning popular love songs with some desperate lyric changes, and investigating the causes of her lonely death Law & Order style. Jana’s cynical search for love is fresh, earnest, and full of wonderfully exact comedic moments. Tickets and Info here!
Sara interviewed Jana about her work in education and comedy, her experience developing her show, how things have improved/worsened in her love life, and the phenomenon of “chuckle-fuckers” in the sketch comedy community, in the end leaving them both wiser, classier, and still single.
LMezz: So you’re a public school teacher by day and an actor/writer/director by night. That sounds like some kind of superheroic craziness. What has your teaching experience been like and how do you balance everything?
Jana: My teaching experience has been really intense. This is my eighth year teaching in a public school in the Bronx. I came from a family of teachers, first of all.
LM: Me too.
J:I dont know if you experienced this but it was always in my mind “I don’t want to be a teacher ever.” But I always knew I could. I was always good at tutoring or coaching or working with kids or communicating an idea to a group of people. So when I originally moved to New York City, I wanted to perform but I didn’t like the structure of working in a restaurant and being broke all the time.
LM: (Laughs) Yea, that’s some structure.
J: Yea, and there’s a pretty strong social justice core of me that I needed to feed. So teaching fulfilled that for me. And for the first year, I basically fell off the face of the earth and didn’t do any comedy, or anything. Then the first two to three years I was just trying to do comedy and I was basically just taking classes at the Magnet, which is a wonderful, wonderful place to take classes. It’s so welcoming and the instructors were amazing. I think that over the course of time, teaching has just become more manageable. I’ve just gotten into the rhythm of it. I’ve somehow created a system for myself where I can comfortably leave at 3pm and have an entire day to spend doing whatever I need to do.
LM: When did that happen?
J: It really took a long time. I want to say, like, year five. So three years ago. I feel like three years ago was when the shift between teaching and comedy became more comedy than teaching. It just came with time– time, and opportunities in comedy: making opportunities for myself, collaborating with the right people and the community and all those things coming together. Now teaching feels more like a job whereas in the beginning it didn’t feel like a job. It felt like a life. I couldn’t leave it at work. I would come home and be– like, I think teachers should get counseling. They should get therapy for like the first three years of teaching, especially if you’re working in an urban school because it’s just so hard and you’re dealing with a population that is so in need, at least I was and have been, and it’s hard to carry those weights home.
LM: So do you see teaching and comedy as strictly outside each other or do you feel like they inform each other?
J: I think I have learned so much from my years of working with students, and also with adults, that I think that all of my directorial skills at this point come from my years of teaching in public school. My ability to organize things, to see the forest for the trees… I wouldn’t say that I’m the kind of person who writes a bunch of comedy about public schools. That’s not where I come at it from. But I definitely created an intense enough situation that I needed the comedy to survive this (teaching). In order to be able to get through some of the hardships of teaching, I had to create something else, something very light and freeing and liberating, and I wouldn’t share it with that world. I needed the separation. So now I’m really selective about the bleed-over. I try to keep the worlds separate for myself for like my own sanity. I mean, I have a lot of friends on my teaching staff that I want to come see my shows, but I don’t want my students to know. (laughs)
LM: They don’t google you ever?
J: I have no idea. I hope they don’t. I pretend they don’t.
LM: I’m sure. They have to…
J: I think at one point one of the teachers showed them one of our videos. I mean, I have a web series. If you just google my name (I’m not saying I’ve googled my name, but I have) there’s some weird shit. They would think it was funny though. My students are really cool, good people. But I’m still kind of like, “Err.. I don’t want you to know this side of me yet.”
LM: Do you do any theater with them?
J: No. I don’t know, I’ve just never been into teaching theater. I would maybe be into teaching improv or something easy or manageable, but teaching theater is like coaching basketball. You commit so many hours a week, like two hours after school every day. I’ve always just wanted to do my own thing. Like, this is mine.
LM: I think about how my sister was a Pre-K teacher and her classroom always felt so theatrical.
J: I’m a true believer that every teacher should take improv and acting classes. I firmly believe in that. I work with teachers who really are very thoughtful and extremely intelligent about their curriculum and their content, but their delivery is just… dull. You’re gonna bore the kids to death! They don’t care about anything unless you show some amount of passion or energy toward it. It’s just like performing everyday.
LM: How do your social justice inclinations manifest themselves?
J: My mother’s side of the family is Native American and I grew up in a pretty traditional Native household with my grandparents and my parents. Throughout college, I used to organize a lot with the ethnic and cultural student unions and I developed a community around that. I just see so many correlations between social justice and theater that it’s hard for me to ignore them. I just truly believe that there are so many underrepresented people in any community, and in New York City, and I feel like public education is like the last bastion of civil rights. Public education is the only institution that still provides everything for a person free of charge. With my co-workers we always have the understanding that we are actively and daily working toward preventing an increase in the prison rates. My work here is bigger than just presenting a decent curriculum to a group of 14 year olds. It’s more like, “I need you to succeed because our entire world and economy and everything is grounded in the fact that you don’t go to prison. Because then we’re all fucked.”
LM: We reviewed your Fringe show “20/400: Sketchy as Fuck” this summer. What was that experience like?
J: It was a huge experience. It had its pros and cons.
LM: Yea, I’ve heard that from other Fringe people.
J: It’s just so expensive to be in the Fringe. But, you know… We (Jana, Lauren Olson, Christian Paluck) still do tons of live shows and we’re working on season 2 of our web series and we do everything independently. We have a budget of zero dollars, or whatever we have to spare among the three of us and any of our collaborators. But the Fringe felt so, like, grassroots, in a way that was just like, “Okay, we’re gonna figure it out and put up the money and we’re gonna put on a really good, weird, funny, theatrical sketch show.” We wanted to do something bigger. I’ve seen so many sketch shows around the city that are just kind of like low-tech, easy, quick bits. Those exist all over the place. But we wanted to make something challenging artistically and in the voice we want to do. That’s part of the loveliness of being independent– we don’t censor ourselves at all.
Yea, so it was a lot of money to just put the show up. We spent a lot of money on press. That was an interesting experience figuring out how to truly be on top of it. Lauren has done the Fringe before so she kind of knew the ins and outs. I can’t imagine going into the Fringe not knowing what to do. I feel like there were so many things piling up over time. Like, “hey did you guys spend this much money to buy all these press kits and get postcards printed?” and then we’d be like “oh yea, we should probably do that I guess. Let’s come up with $300 and get a bunch of postcards.” “Did you guys go to the little tent and hand out postcards?” and do all those things that I wouldn’t have known to do…
LM: Yea, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of centralized information for the performers.
J: Yea and it’s not like we’re ingrained in the New York theater community. We’re in the comedy community certainly. But that was also a benefit, that we were bringing those two worlds together. We were able to appeal to a theater community, and like an avant-garde theater community, which for me is very fulfilling. I’m obsessed with theater. But we also brought our comedy friends. It created a lot of momentum for us.
LM: Yea, I remember every time I had to go to that theater (Celebration of Whimsy) I was always really late and I was always running.
J: Oh my god, I hope they didn’t turn you away!
LM: No, no, they didn’t turn me away but I would manage to get there right on time and I remember the audience having a really cool energy. Everyone there was young and excited and it felt like everyone maybe knew who you were already? I don’t know, but the audience was like buzzing.
J: The audience for sketch comedy is there because they want to laugh. I feel like after having done it for a long time, you understand how to ignite that fire. It’s not so hard. It’s not like, “Oh god, I hope they laugh…” No, we’re confident that we’re gonna go out and we’ll make them laugh and we even know how to hear for when people are waiting to laugh, the timing of it. It’s a craft. Being able to instigate laughter has been easier for us. So playing for a comedy audience, in sketch comedy, is wonderful. Unlike stand-up which, I don’t do stand-up, thank god, but I hear it’s just awful.
LM: You’re being judged.
J: Yea and people will purposefully hold back laughter. With improv and sketch, you’re either seeing the shows because you’re supporting your friends or because you’re going to have a good time to have a beer and laugh at jokes. So we were really excited about combining theater and jokes. We’re gonna push a lot of buttons. And it’s a different venue than the usual 2 or 3 comedy venues we usually do. We could tell our friends, “Hey, come see us in an actual theater.”
LM: Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet was also there with you guys.
J: Oh my god, David Carl. I really really fell in love with him after seeing that show.
LM: Yea, I got to interview him.
J: You did? He’s really cool. He’s a friend of ours. Lauren knew him before but after the Fringe we were like, “You and us! We’re gonna be friends!”
LM: My favorite sketch from the “Sketchy as Fuck” was the one with the crutches.
J: Oh, “Crutch on Over?”
LM: Yes! That one was the best. I don’t know when I’m gonna forget that. I don’t think I ever will. It was just masterful.
J: Lauren wrote that sketch years ago.
LM: Every second of it counted, even though it was just one long bit (about a woman on crutches making her way through a snowstorm for a booty call). And then your sketches for your new show, “Classic Singles” are more autobiographical, right?
LM: So you do use like OkCupid and stuff?
J: I do!
LM: What do you do, or what have you done, when you really like someone and you want to message them? How do you start a conversation?
J: I’m actually really bad at it. I just got this advice from a guy yesterday. I went to brunch with Lauren and her boyfriend and they met on OkCupid. And I don’t know (eyes recorder) actually, she won’t give a shit. And he was asking the same question. And I was like, “I usually play it safe and I’m like ‘Hi. What’s up? I’m wondering if you’d like to go out.'” I try to get to the date ASAP because I have had experiences, many, almost all, where a conversation either lingers too long and it doesn’t manifest in a date, or the conversation is really cool and we go on a date and I meet him face-to-face and I’m like (covering face) “Oh my god! You’re not at all like you are in text conversation.” So I try to jump to the date.
But he (Lauren’s boyfriend) was saying “You know what you should do is just be your fucking self. Just say whatever the hell you want and start a conversation that way. Get their attention and don’t hold back. Don’t be polite, because that’s what everybody does.”
LM: Does there have to be something related to their profile?
J: He said to find something in their profile and make a joke about that. So I tried it while we were at brunch. I found a guy that I thought was cute and I sent him a message that was kind of joke-y… and he didn’t write back. This was yesterday.
J: You know how on OkCupid, the app knows when you’ve logged on? I will not go on for months and it will stop sending me emails? But then as soon as I get on the app again, it’s like “Look at all these matches you have!” And yesterday I got this match–oh man, I got a match– I got a message from a guy who’s like 57. He looks like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons. And my confidence and self-esteem just dropped back down…
LM: Aw, I kind of like perpetually back out of OkCupid. I’ll disable my account and then I’ll have to make a new username the next time. I have like three usernames floating around.
J: (laughs) Yea, I think I’m just burnt out. I’m trying to embrace that I won’t be burnt out forever. I hopefully will not be so bitter. But I’ve been in some fucked up situations.
LM: Yea? What’s one of the crazier ones?
J: I fucking got catfished. I hope he reads this. He was talking to me on OkCupid. He was super nice. His pictures were of like an attractive, probably 30-ish, my age, maybe biracial like Puerto Rican, and he was really smiley and had a cute picture. He wasn’t like super hot but that’s not one of my qualifications. If you are a good conversationalist and you’re funny then I feel like my brain is engaged faster than my eyes. Anyhow, so we take it from OkCupid to like flirtatious text messaging. “Hey I’m out drinking. Whats going on? Take a picture of yourself…” things like that. And then I had to re-focus and be like, don’t let it get to just texts because I’ve been in that situation before where it becomes a three week long text message. I ended up meeting up with him at Jacob’s Pickles on the Upper West Side. And I couldn’t find him… I walked in and I couldn’t see him and I knew what he looked like. And I hear this “Jana?” and I look over and there is a extremely obese… man… who was perhaps, and I say this with no hint of sarcasm because I worked with students with disabilities for eight years, perhaps on the autism spectrum. He had a really difficult time maintaining eye contact with me. He had a tic where he kept clearing his throat while he was talking. He was drinking incessantly. And our conversation was awful; at one time he was like, (speaks in dull, aloof manner) “So you’re Native American… You ever go on one of those Indian retreats where you know, they go out and sleep in a teepee and they dig for roots and they eat off the land and do drum circles and stuff?” And I was like, “That sounds like something a lot of white people would do. No I have never gone on and Indian retreat. I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Oh, when I first walked in and he saw me, I was wearing this black outfit and he goes, “Who died?” (laughs) He was just awful. Actually, I think I paid for some of his drinks! The bill was like $60 and I had ONE drink and he had like three beers and he left a twenty. I walked away laughing down the street like “dude, I fully just got catfished.”
And then there’s the story (told in “Classic Singles”) of the guy who told me he had sex with a goat.
LM: That was real?
J: That was a real fucking thing.
LM: That’s great. You wouldn’t think so. But it happened.
J: It happened. Can’t believe it.
LM: What about the guy you got the phone number from at Thursday’s show? Was that real? (Jana asked a single male audience member for his phone number during the performance, then called him during the show to make sure it would ring.)
J: I’m so glad you saw that. It was totally improvised. That guy had no idea I was going to do that.
LM: Did you know him?
J: No. No. Actually that was not in the original version of the show but I was talking with my friends and I was like, “God, man, the reason I wanted to do this show was so that people would be attracted to me and want to date me but nobody has!”
LM: (Laughs) Is that really the mission of the show?
J: I mean no. But yea, well kind of. I would love it if that happened.
LM: You kind of already answered it, but one of my questions was about whether romance has picked up at all since the start of the show.
J: Nope, not at all.
So my friends were saying, well, you should build a bit into your show where you actually get a phone number from a guy. And I was telling my friends that I feel so sensitive about it. In every other aspect of my life, I really confident. When it comes to teaching and work and acting and directing, I’m like rock solid. I’m fine, in fact, great, excelling constantly. But when it comes to romance, I’m just stunted. And I feel so sensitive about it. I feel like if I just get one rejection from a man, I’m gonna just…die. I’m just gonna crumble and feel like I’m never going to be able to do it again. So I’m afraid to tell people who I like that I like them. I’m petrified. And my friends were saying, “Well you should put a bit into the show about asking a guy for their number and saying, if you don’t say yes, I’m just gonna crumble into a million pieces.” So instead I wrote the bit around the idea that maybe I should just take a chance and ask someone out on the day of the show. I didn’t really know what was gonna happen and every time I do it, I won’t know what’s gonna happen, and that’s fun. I wanted to have the part where I called him and I wanted his phone to ring out loud. And it did! It went swimmingly. I texted him later though because I had his number on my phone and I was like, “Hey Paul, Thank you so much for being a good sport. You were great.” and he actually responded saying, “I’m actually a big fan of you and Lauren and ‘Jana and Lauren Presents’ and it was so mortifying but I’m glad I got to do it!” He was just awesome about it… Didn’t ask me out on a date, but that’s FINE…
LM: Aw well, he was pretty cute so…
J: He was…
LM: So if he wants to contact either of us…
J: Right. Note it Paul! Two single ladies! But then he friended me on Facebook and I confirmed it. And there’s this Facebook page for the Magnet community for performers and teachers and whatever and he got a whole thread dedicated to him.
LM: Aw, well I hope he reads this. This is great.
J: We’ll see. That’s why when I post about my show on Facebook I’m like, “Guys, I could meet the man of my dreams tonight. This could be it. And you could all be witness to it!”
LM: It’s better than going around the improv scene.
J: Having unrequited crushes on the men of the improv comedy scene?
LM: Have you heard the term ‘chuckle fucker‘?
J: Oh, HAVE I? I am a HUGE fan of that word and the whole idea is HILARIOUS. Lauren and I did a whole show about chuckle fucking once. About how much we want to get chuckle fucked.
LM: I know someone who got called a chuckle-fucker by this an improv guy she was dating.
J: An improv guy? Ugh, what an asshole.
LM: You might know him. (says name)
J: Yes! Oh my god. This is so funny! HE called her a chuckle fucker? That guy is such a little (makes a pig snout). I already know she’s like way better than him… but yea, like there’s a running bit in the show Lauren and I host that is all about how we really want comedy guys to love us so much but they never do because they always want young, thin, chuckle-fuckers. They don’t want a woman who can match their comedy prowess. They want a stupider person. They want to be the funny one. And we’re like, come on! Why would you want that? You should want someone at your pace, at your speed. And that’s why…
LM: Your network is exhausted?
J: Yea and if I have a crush on a guy in the comedy community, they’ll be like, “Hey you mind directing this thing or coaching our improv group?” And I’m like, Yeah fine… That’s that.
LM: Just to continue a running theme in your show, where should I go when I visit Oregon?
J: (laughs) I guess Mt. Hood? Portland?
Jana ‘s ongoing projects include ‘Jana and Lauren Presents’ at the Magnet Theater and season two of the webseries, 20/400. “Classic Singles: Ballads of Loneliness” runs at the Magnet every Thursday in February.