Talking Standup, Acting, and Creative Control with Jenny Zigrino

I met Jenny Zigrino at New Orleans’ Civic Theater the day before her Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents (her half hour premieres tonight at 12:30) taping. We were sitting on a couch in the green room having a casual chat when her phone rang. “Do you mind if I take this?” she asked. I said, “Go for it.” Zigrino was on the phone working out the details of an upcoming college gig. Listening to her end of the call, I quickly realized that she is very serious about her business. In a crowded, competitive industry like comedy, sometimes talent isn’t quite enough. So many good comics get buried on the business end of entertainment. Through that brief phone call I got a sense of why she’s where she’s at in her career: she’s funny and fierce. We talked about her early foray into standup, her burgeoning acting career, and the challenges of changing gears and changing cities.

Did you start out doing improv?

No. Never.

You never did improv?

I took one class. There’s some weird rumor that I was an improviser, but I never was. But I did standup when I was 16.

Doing standup at 16 seems harder to believe than you never doing improv. How did you get your start

I was watching Dane Cook’s half hour with my friends. I was like, “Oh, I could do that.” I had found a card somewhere for standup classes, so I asked my dad, “Can I have these?” He said, “Sure.” So I took some standup classes in Minnesota. It was a place called Stevie Ray’s. They were like, “Maria Bamford went to school here.” I was like, “I like her!” I took the class and ended up headlining my class…because I was that great. I did it for a few years, then stopped, because it was hard to be that young and doing it. When I was 21 in Boston I picked it up again.

What made you want to pick up standup again after taking time off?

I was set on being a filmmaker and screenwriter. Before that I was going to be a comic book artist and write comic books. I say this because everything I’ve done has always kind of been in line with storytelling, which is the kind of standup I do. Someone in the dorms in London – this was in 2008 – said, “Have you heard of this comic Russell Brand?” He showed me his special from before he fully hit. I was like, “I remember doing this. I should try it again when I get back home.” Between that time I had always been writing jokes but hadn’t really done anything with them. I came back early from studying abroad and everyone was still in school, so I tried it a few times and thought, “Maybe I could do this.”

Did you ever get into the comic book or filmmaking stuff?

I still like doing sketches and videos. I like the writing aspect of it, but I’m not good about the discipline part. Eventually I want to write movies and television shows and be the main person in them.

You want the control.

Complete and utter control. Take over the world.

You eventually left Boston for NYC.

For a year. I had assumed I was going to be there much longer than I was. I wanted to get really good at standup. I was kind of at the top of my game in Boston and was like, “Time to go.” I lived there for a year and ended up getting this TV show in LA. My manager at the time was like, “You need to move out here so that people see you.” I moved out and it was really hard to go from starting over in a new city where I was just starting to get a grip on it and then having to go start over again, especially in LA. It’s tough starting over there.

I have friends who have made the move to LA and the most common thing I hear is how hard it is to get up there. These are good comics with credits, but it seems like everyone has credits there and good comics get passed for some dude who was on Wild ‘N Out once who has a persuasive manager who gets them booked.

It’s so much more based on influencers, where it feels like in New York it’s more based on how funny you are. There’s a good camaraderie of comics too, where in LA it’s so much more business-focused. As a comic you don’t hang. It feels like you’re just there to be there. There’s a community, but it’s not like in New York. New York feels like a big community where we’re all looking out for each other. But you find your people.

You did New Faces last year. How was your experience with that?

It was great. I was drunk for all of it. I love parties and social stuff. I’m not that kind of quiet, antisocial comic. I love parties, people, talking, getting drunk, and when parties pay for my drinks. So I had a great time.

You had big parts in Bad Santa 2 and 50 Shades of Black. Do you enjoy acting?

I like acting. I like acting in my own stuff more. But I hate auditioning. I’m very bad at it. 50 Shades of Black was super fun to make because Marlon (Wayans) let me go: “Just do a line and go off.” My margins were full of notes. With Bad Santa I had to keep asking the director, “Are you going to let me improvise a little bit here?” It was very by-the-book. You had to say what the writer wrote. That’s why I want to be the writer, because I said some dumb stuff. As a comedian I was thinking, “I could punch this up so well.” I get really in my head when I act and then I’m like, “Can they tell I’m in my head?” That’s what I’m thinking when I’m saying my lines.

You’re going two layers deep in your own head.

When you’re onstage as a comic you’re riffing, you’re thinking of crowd control, you’re thinking of the joke that’s coming up next. You’re never really fully present when you’re doing standup, because you’re thinking of a million other things that you might have to do, say, react to, whatever. To turn on the actor brain to be very present in the moment is very difficult. It’s like switching from writing scripts to doing standup. When you’re writing scripts and auditioning it’s a completely different brain than your standup brain. I take acting classes to try to get better. I’m already on that road. It’s also weird that I’m on that road. I forget that I’ve been in movies.

Because you think of yourself as comic first?

Yeah. This is important. Montreal was important. And you’re like, “You were in 50 Shades of Black.” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, but I’m doing a half hour.” It’s a different feeling.

Talking Standup, Acting, and Creative Control with […]