NEW YORK — “I feel like I’m barely a human, and unworthy of being interviewed for any publication,” says Jessi Klein with a laugh. A professional comedian, Klein is the head writer of Comedy Central’s enormously successful sketch comedy show, “Inside Amy Schumer.”
Klein, a double threat as both a stand-up comedian and a writer, is at the forefront of an ever-expanding community of women in the comedy industry, one notoriously dominated by men — an inequity perhaps best exemplified by the 2007 tone deaf essay “Why women aren’t funny” by the late Christopher Hitchens.
The plain truth is that women are funny today, just as they were funny in 2007 and long before that. But thanks in part to trailblazers like Gilda Radner, Janeane Garofalo, and Paula Poundstone — all huge comedic influences for Klein — women now have more opportunities to thrive in the comedy scene, both onstage and in the writers’ room.
I first met Klein in 2009 on the short-lived Comedy Central series “Michael and Michael Have Issues.” She was a staff writer and performer, and I was the writer’s assistant. I was immediately taken by Klein’s generosity, and ability to laugh avidly.
Encouragement, Klein acknowledges today, means everything.
“It’s nice to know you’re not just talking into the void,” she says.
Klein (39) is a self-described lifetime comedy nerd. Raised in Greenwich Village by a probation officer father and public schoolteacher mother, Klein discovered comedy early on. Her father introduced her to Lenny Bruce, and nurtured her fascination with the Marx Brothers.
“I did dress up as Groucho more than one year for Halloween,” says Klein.
She attended New York’s storied Stuyvesant High School, an audition-only, academically rigorous and tuition-free liberal arts school, and graduated from Vassar College.
A year out of school saw the beginnings of Klein’s comedy career take shape — but not in any expected way for most performers. She started out as a temp at Comedy Central, what was then a teenaged cable channel just beginning to ramp up its original programming slate. Over time, she worked her way up the corporate ladder until becoming a development executive. She oversaw production on cult-favorites like “Stella,” and the groundbreaking “Chappelle’s Show,” whose second season was the highest-rated program in its time slot on any network among the coveted men 18 to 34 demographic.
‘I was a very blocked artist’
Klein worked at Comedy Central for seven years. But four of those years, she says, were spent living a “double life,” working in the office by day, and performing standup at open mics by night.
“I was a very blocked artist,” says Klein, explaining that she knew she wanted to write and perform comedy long before venturing onstage. Once she did make it onstage, the career leap from developing talent to being the talent didn’t seem like a viable option, not at first. Just as she was petrified to bare her soul for the first time, she was horrified by the reality of leaving behind a safe job with a reliable paycheck for an uncertain future.
Past president of Comedy Central and current president of Viacom Entertainment Group Doug Herzog got wind of Klein’s sideline foray into stand-up comedy, and sat her down for a heart-to-heart disguised as an ultimatum: choose one or the other, and commit wholeheartedly to it.
Klein made the jump in 2005, taking a writing gig on “The Showbiz Show with David Spade.”
The life of a comedy writer is far from stable; still, Klein has worked consistently since making the transition nine years ago. Following three seasons on “The Showbiz Show,” Klein wrote for ABC’s “Samantha Who?,” Comedy Central’s “Michael and Michael Have Issues” and “Kroll Show,” and NBC’s iconic mainstay “Saturday Night Live.” “Inside Amy Schumer” began its ascendancy to critical acclaim in 2013, garnering Emmy nominations in 2014.
Klein’s Comedy Central own stand-up special aired in March 2011, and the comic is a frequent guest on NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
‘Now I just have small, contained nervous breakdowns about not getting a paycheck every week’
“Now I just have small, contained nervous breakdowns about not getting a paycheck every week,” jokes Klein.
Klein has a reputation for her own brand of raw humor. Comedian Nick Kroll adoringly dubbed Klein, “the dirty nerdy,” and it stuck. Louis C.K. later gifted Klein a more nuanced description. “He said, ‘Sarah Silverman, her shtick is talking about how people wanna f*ck her. Your thing is talking about how much you wanna f*ck everybody else.”
“Sex stuff,” as Klein puts it, tends to draw an easy label of raunch when women are on the mic. It’s an unfair, negative judgment. For her, sex — whether a woman discusses it, or a man — is relatable and real.
Klein cites TV critic Emily Nussbaum’s postmortem defense of “Sex and the City” for The New Yorker as an apt comparison.
“There’s kind of a bias against straight, narrative, personal, confessional storytelling because it’s so often used to tell quote-unquote ‘women’s stories.’”
Klein says she’s never felt uncomfortable getting personal with her material, but did worry, “Is this not smart enough? Is talking about sex too easy for comedy?” Here she again references beloved comedy guru C.K.: “’If you’re telling the truth, that’s kind of all that counts. If it’s true.’ I heard that, and I was like, ‘Oh. Well, I believe that.’”
Much of Klein’s material stems from what it’s like to be a woman — a real woman — whether it be a stand-up bit about Jessi Klein reluctantly engaging in phone sex while wearing an XXL cat shirt or a true story for The Moth about Jessi Klein slow dancing with Dale (of Disney’s “Chip ‘n’ Dale”) at her sister’s Disney World wedding, but that hardly means her comedy is specifically for women alone. If anything, the humiliations are universal.
The demographics for “Inside Amy Schumer,” for instance, are evenly split males to females. For a network that once conceived itself as primarily targeting men 18 to 34 years old, this is a monumental leap forward.
The drive for equality doesn’t end there. “Inside Amy Schumer” received a flurry of press recently over surmounting a major censorship hurdle.
“We got pussy on TV!” laughs Klein. “Comedy Central had this precedent. They were in a place where you were allowed to say ‘dick’ anatomically, but not ‘pussy.’ But they’re pretty much equivalent words, and the idea that pussy is somehow too filthy to be heard or spoken bothered us.”
Klein and executive producer Dan Powell brought their case to Comedy Central’s Standards and Practices board in an email that quickly yielded a phone call.
‘We were like all geared up. We wore riot gear. We were ready for the fight of our lives. And then we got on the phone and they were like, “Okay”‘
“We were like all geared up,” says Klein. “We wore riot gear. We were ready for the fight of our lives. And then we got on the phone and they were like, ‘Okay.’” Klein laughs. “It’s like it says on the side of your Starbucks cup: ‘Be the type of change you want to see in the world.’ That’s the only change any of us wanted to see, or hear. So there you go. Enjoy your Chrismukkah gift, world. Pussy it is.”
Klein jokes, but this seemingly small linguistic victory is, on a macro scale, a much bigger deal. The un-bleeping de-stigmatizes a “naughty” word, giving the power back to women to define their own anatomy, and removing shame from the equation.
“I think people like watching someone talk about their truth,” says Klein. “That’s very Oprah to say, ‘Their truth.’ But, look at the obvious parallels: ‘Chappelle’s Show,’ ‘Key and Peele,’ talking about the black experience. I’m not black, neither are many of the people who rabidly watch these shows, but someone is telling a truth in a way that is incredibly compelling and funny — and true — and that’s all that matters.”
There’s a deep tradition in Judaism of speaking truth to comedic effect, from Klein’s comedy forefathers Lenny Bruce and Groucho Marx, to her high school idol Gilda Radner, to Jessi Klein.
That ability to turn tragedy into comedy is, of course, not uniquely Jewish. But Klein ventures that there’s a common pattern.
“I think any time where you feel like you are more of an observer than a participant of the culture you are in, that tends to be a real petri dish for comedy. You’re seeing things that other people aren’t necessarily seeing, and you might be experiencing some degree of pain from your lack of participation. Pain is great for comedy.”