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Jo Firestone’s Cure for the Common Comedy Special

Jo Firestone Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by NBC

What even is a comedy special? Somebody complaining about the complaints they received about their last hour of stand-up? (Sometimes.) To comedian Jo Firestone — who made a name for herself by putting on the weirdest, most chaotic (some might say whimsical) comedy shows New York has ever seen — it means teaching a class of senior citizens how to do comedy and filming them as they perform in front of an audience for the first time. Called Good Timing, Firestone’s new special debuts on Peacock on October 15, and it is a tribute to comedy’s power to create community and simply bring people joy.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Firestone discusses teaching comedy to seniors, what it’s like to be be called “quirky,” and how the pandemic and the class she taught changed her relationship to comedy. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Her Senior Comedy Students

I tell them about my life in comedy. Like, I told them about how I got graded at UCB, and I keep threatening that I’m going to grade them. So there’s this one woman that started dyeing her hair blue over the course of the pandemic. A lot of people stopped getting their hair dyed, so she decided to start dyeing it blue because it was easier to do at home. And it looks very cool. So I was like, “Okay, you all get extra credit if next week you come in with blue hair, like Tequila.” And then I forgot that I said that. When I came back the next Monday morning and I opened the Zoom, one guy had dyed his beard blue, and then another guy had went out and bought a blue wig. It was so beautiful. It was very exciting.

If you met all these people individually, you wouldn’t necessarily think that all of them are friends. They’re not very similar at all, except for their age group. It is very sweet to see them bonding and doing things for each other, like buying each other socks that are an inside joke or dressing up like each other. It’s very sweet to see, and it’s very funny. It does feel like it is a comedy scene.

On What the Pandemic Taught Her About Comedy

I learned a lot during this pandemic. I don’t really love to be onstage by myself. I don’t really like to talk for an hour. It’s easier for me to talk with other people and bounce off other people. If you were like, “Do you want to put together a show of 70 people and they all have to do different Liza Minnelli impressions, or do you want to do an hour of stand-up?” I’d be like, “Liza Minnelli.” There’s something that gets me jazzed about getting people onboard and showcasing people. And yeah, maybe I should work for Just for Laughs. I’m not sure.

On Being Called “Quirky” and “Whimsical”

I mean, those are the top two words that they put to me, and that’s okay. One time I went to a general at IFC, and they were like, “We do not do quirky!” And I was like, “Well, me neither!” If you want to call it whimsical and quirky, then that’s okay by me. That’s not what I’m trying to do, but I understand it comes off as Zooey Deschanel kind of style vibes. I understand why it happens. All I can do is keep making the stuff that’s true to me. And you just hope that people stop using those words. There is nothing I can do about it. Maybe next time I’ll go for “wicked” and “satirical.”

On How What She Gets Out of Comedy Has Evolved

When I was younger, I had the standard D’s: the depression, the delights. When I was younger, I would watch comedy or make jokes with people, and it felt like a reprieve from that — medicine. I kind of thought, Oh, if I can do comedy, then maybe I won’t feel as sad and other people won’t feel as sad. Very altruistic. Really good.

And I didn’t really even understand the industry. There’s no one in my life who did it. There was no connection. The first stand-up comedians I saw in person were Stone and Stone; they came to my school and did stand-up, and I was like, I guess all comedians are twins. And they were like, “The scene is tough, but there’s a few different scenes. You can choose your scene.” And I remember just being like, This is it! These are the people.

So I just started doing these shows and doing what I thought was funny and doing other people’s shows. Then I learned about the industry, and it definitely made me more suspicious of myself. I lost sight of a lot of why I was doing it. Because you do the same set and you are like, Why am I hustling? What’s the point of this?

Then over the pandemic, I didn’t really do a lot of Zoom shows or anything. I didn’t do any shows — and any live shows at all. I didn’t really miss it. The thing that was scratching that itch — sorry for that expression — was being with these people that really were excited to do comedy and really loved comedy and really loved laughing at each other. It did make me feel like it’s still an enjoyable thing. There’s a big thing in comedy about, like, [doing a tough voice] “speaking the truth,” and it’s like, yes, that’s true, and some people do that well. But there are a lot of different kinds of comedy these days, and they’re very different camps. This class and the people in the class made me realize you can just do comedy and it’ll be fun, and it can be fun — that accolades are cool and it’s cool to get paid, but it’s not necessarily the thing that’s going to make you feel okay going to bed at night.

With COVID and everything, it just feels good to get out of the house, and it’s good to see people. That’s the best part of these shows these days, at least for me — to see people and see people that are excited about comedy. It’s made me appreciate more the community of people that do it and appreciate it. It’s shifting what I really like to get out of it. It feels better to laugh and make someone else laugh mutually than to just stand there and make someone else laugh.

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Jo Firestone’s Cure for the Common Comedy Special