Jen Wilkinson is a comedian living in orange County. She has been performing stand-up comedy for more than a year since leaving her sales job at a major corporation. At Ocean Avenue Brewery in Laguna Beach, she spoke openly in a sort of stream of consciousness about making that enormous leap.
You quit corporate America for stand-up comedy. What made you decide to take that jump?
I was burned out. I was successful, but I felt like I was married to my work. I wasn’t having a life. I was traveling sometimes two weeks a month. That was at GE. I just felt like I was sacrificing my soul for something that was meaningless at the end of the day. I admire business people. My dad is a very successful businessman. I thought I was good at it. Sales and marketing, that’s my thing. But I just felt something was missing in my life.
From age five, I was supposed to be in a McDonald’s commercial. My two front teeth fell out so I didn’t get it. They called me until I was eighteen and my mom didn’t want to do the traveling from Orange County to Beverly Hills. When I was in college, I was approached by this casting director. I started to get a lot of attention. I was approached by Bo (the casting director), and my date almost knocked his glasses off, thought he was using casting director as a line. From that, I did some movie work, extra work. On Nash Bridges, I played someone running away. The Rock, Michael Bay’s movie, I played a hostage. I just love entertainment. I love the people. Since a little girl, I was always performing. Doing puppet shows at Knott’s Berry Farm, I would get a crowd. I have that in me. When I was a little girl, I would be in the bathtub with shampoo in my hair, practicing shampoo commercials. I have this feeling that I’m destined to be in the public eye somehow, to make people laugh.
To answer your question, I was driving by Irvine Improv, and saw that they were doing a comedy class to learn the basics of stand-up. I always admired stand-up comedians. My idol is Richard Jeni, who I met three months prior to his passing. And I saw him ten years prior to that when he was breaking out. I knew stand-up would be a way for me to get in, being a little older now. I’m not in my twenties. I kind of stumbled on it, but I always admired it, and I want to perform.
It’s awesome that you knew from such a young age that you wanted to perform.
I got into sales primarily for the money. I was a psych major in college and I knew I’d have to go on to get my PhD to make money. Everyone in my family is in sales. That’s what I did, but it was definitely the wrong choice. I felt like I wasn’t following my calling, what’s in my heart.
They say you never forget your first time. What was your first time on stage like?
Very nervous. I had eight people there to watch me. They were very supportive. I had some liquid courage, if you will, and took the mic. I just shared some things I wanted to talk about, some funny things. At that point, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was really good my first time. Some people saw me a month later and said that I was starting to get too much into the mechanics of it. What I am onstage is electric. I just show my nervous, neurotic kinda Jen. It’s another person than I am in real life, but it’s me, just exaggerated. I was nervous, shaking. I still shake a little bit when I hold the mic. I have to fight my stage fright.
How would you describe your comedy style?
Likable. That’s one of my jokes. Who can’t like me, Jen Wilkinson? Try not to. I dare you. I like to mock myself. It’s self-deprecating humor. I’m trying to do other topical humor. I’m not political. I tried it a little bit, but I like not to talk about typical female-type humor. I don’t go there except for dating. I like to make fun that women are now like guys. We also can be “men,” if you will. We can be aggressive and assertive too, and have the same needs men do. But men sometimes have kind of given women a bad rap. I try to flip it a little bit without making anyone feel bad. If I put down guys, I like to put down women too. There’s equality in making fun of both. Someone described me as kick-butt on stage. I come up there and I own it. I have a lot to say.
You mention on your blog that you’ve learned a lot in your first year as a comedian. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned?
How to survive poverty. When you have money, you have a lot more flexibility to meet friends for dinner. Your social life goes away when you don’t have as much money. More importantly, how strong I am. I always knew I was a strong person. Now I see I’m taking on one of people’s fears, next to death. Holding a mic and having people from all walks of life laugh at your humor. There’s so much more.
How much good is still out there. Putting myself in a public format and getting such energy and love back has been amazing to me. I can’t believe how people are following me. I’m not a known comedian. I’m a no-name, but I have people that root for me and daily encourage me. There’s a lot of good out there.
It’s easy to lose sight of that.
Being in corporate America, I saw the other side. The cut-throat.
Anything for a dollar.
Yeah, and cut corners, and don’t always tell the truth. In everything, you’ve got image. I had this banner with my name flashing and people put that on their pages. And they know my story, that I left corporate America, and I’m pursuing my dream. I’ve had four people tell me that they’ve left their jobs to follow their dream. I don’t want to be an advocate for this because I’ve had some really hard times financially. From my car being towed to eviction for not paying the rent, all these things. I think inherently, everyone wants to do what they really love. People in the mainstream are doing what they think they have to do to get by.
I found myself again. Not knowing myself when I got burned out, I was just being kind of robotic, going through the motions of life. I’m re-discovering myself, growing up all over again. Purification too. When you’re so true to yourself and you put yourself out there, you’re more real than if you’re doing something you don’t like to do for the money of it. Now I’m seeing my weaknesses more and where I want to go as a person. Stretch myself further. That’s more apparent now than just hiding behind paychecks.
What would you be doing if you weren’t performing stand-up?
Ultimately, I really want to work with youth, talk at high schools. I’m a psych major, but I don’t want to do traditional psychology. Address people doing this, being real to themselves and knowing why it’s important to follow the rules of society but also to be creative and go outside the lines a little bit. Be a moral person. Getting back to manners. Having a conscience, thinking about things like the planet. Let’s get back to community. Writing a book. Traveling all over the world. There’s some places I haven’t seen that I would love: Asia, Australia, Greece, Paris. Exploring, meeting people, learning and growing more. At the same time, writing and getting a chance to speak in front of the public eye.
For more about Jen, visit http://www.myspace.com/standupjen.