James Adomian is one of my favorite people in this whole wide world of ours. I never miss an opportunity to see him perform live because at each performance I ALWAYS find myself gasping for breath from laughter. Yes, James is a master of impressions and characters. However, the man is phenomenal at ALL forms of comedy. He has more talent in his little pinkie than 20 comics put together. He is otherworldly. He is a comic deity among men. For heaven’s sake he has become Marc Maron, literally. Open up another window in your browser right now and watch him in the IFC web series “Maron in Space.” He is sheer genius. Some of James’ other credits include Freak Dance, “Conan”, “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, and “Children’s Hospital.” If you are not yet convinced of his brilliance read on as your skeptic eyeballs are blown to smithereens.
Serial Optimist: I am so freaking excited to say HI to James Adomian. HI! HI! HI! HI! HI! James, what do you feel is the secret to pulling off skinny jeans? You do it well.
James Adomian: Hellooooooooo!!! Oh, I see you’re getting straight to the hostile questions. Fine! It’s well known that I like low-rises and boot-cuts! My only secret is that sometimes girl pants fit better than boy pants, so don’t be scared of bending your gendy. And try used clothing stores – I like Out of the Closet in California for bargains so insane they’re almost criminally dangerous.
SO: Springtime is upon us! What is your favorite season and why?
James: My favorite season is August, because the whole world seems to pause, go for a swim and take it easy on the phone calls. I never got to enjoy August when I was younger because I was always dreading the two-a-day practices for football. So now that I’m grownup and completely lazy that’s my jam. I think I’m gonna move my birthday to August.
SO: So what was life like in your formative years? I know a thing or two about being an Armenian-American (Is that Greek?) but I’m totally clueless about growing up a gay man.
James: I’m a quarter Armenian, so while I don’t really look Armenian to most people, the struggle of the Armenian people is very important to me, and I follow Armo news pretty closely. Some might think that it’s weird or crazy or offensive that I identify as both gay and Armenian, but I think most people’s identity comes from a rich, complex tapestry of influences. I’m very proud of my evolving life and where I’ve come from – I can’t stop being me, but I can jump into it and enjoy it as long as it lasts.
I think most of the country still has no clue what an Armenian is anyway. They’ve been pummeled to death with idea that we are all like the Kardashians. Help us!
Armenians get unfairly maligned by a lot of Americans. I grew up in Los Angeles, and it still bothers me that Armenians are frequently a very easy target – for some reason we’re on the OK list for hacky racist jokes. I’m closer with second- and third-generation Armenians than with more recent immigrants, but I really love hunkering down with my Armo friends for chess and coffee and talking politics. Armenians may like to argue, but we are a very intelligent, capable and talented people who have survived horrific tragedies in our recent history. When you try to explain the Armenian Genocide to some white Americans, how they choose to hear it is, “Yeah, yeah, some jackoffs from Jackoffistan had a little problem a million years ago back in Babylon or something. “The truth is that the Armenian people were targeted for extinction by Turks only about a hundred years ago, and the Turks were largely successful, so all the Armenians alive today, including part-Armenians like me, live with that post-apocalyptic trauma forever on their minds.
SO: How did you get your start in comedy? Were you a funny child? Did you always do voices? What’s the creation process like?
James: Yeah, some of my earliest memories are making people laugh. I used to imitate the voices of newscasters for being ridiculous – I never really stopped doing that I guess. I used to do impressions of all my teachers and coaches. That evolved over time after I fell into the theatre and started to work on new original material.
SO: My two favorite impressions of yours are Huell Howser and Vincent Price. Which voice do you get the most requests for usually?
James: Well, Huell was by far the most requested impression – at live shows or just hanging out even. But since his recent passing I have moved on to let him rest in peace. And Vincent Price? You must have seen Yacht Rock! (That was the first Internet video I was involved in.) Usually I perform a pastiche of Vincent Price characters that together I call Maximilian Blanc – which also has the added benefit of still being alive since he’s a fictional interpretation.
SO: What are the differences between New York and L.A. audiences, in your humble opinion?
James: L.A. loves and sometimes even expects TV and movie references. New York audiences are glad just to be alive after whatever stress almost killed them that day.
SO: What do you think is the most controversial subject you’ve breached doing stand-up?
James: Touchy subject! There are things you can say on stage or in character that are not otherwise allowed in our ever-worsening police state, and I have taken full advantage of that fool’s license on many occasions. I get away pretty easily with demolishing homophobic tropes, but it would be dishonest if I didn’t point out that there has been some unwanted attention from authorities when I talk about stuff like Occupy Wall Street, Wikileaks or police abuse to audiences that otherwise are mostly only hearing the other side. That said, I’ve noticed significantly more artistic leeway on a personal level when I’m in character, wearing a costume, than I am doing standup as myself, because I don’t have to waste time getting an audience to like me. Like when I used to do George W. Bush for example, I would take questions from the audience like it was a press conference, and if someone asked me about some news topic I would have Bush just blithely confess to horrific war crimes, smiling proudly the way he would. Everyone would go nuts for that, but if I said the exact same thing in my own voice on stage it would sound preachy. I’m constantly struggling with that.
SO: You’ve described some altercations you’ve had at comedy clubs in your act. As a comedian who happens to be gay do you encounter those situations a lot on tour?
James: “Those situations”- I take it that means gaybashing or nasty insults? Yeah, I piss off homophobic people, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to prevent them from coming to my shows on occasion. On one level I play a sort of ambassador, where I present a gay perspective to people who might not ever hear one otherwise. So I make fun of myself a little bit, but I really spend a lot of time making fun of homophobic cultural structures, and try to open up people’s perspectives to how they’re trained to think in ways that aren’t productive – and I think based on people’s reactions I’ve had a lot of success changing people’s minds in ways that are very encouraging. But on rare occasions when someone is loudly or angrily homophobic and not interested in even hearing an alternate viewpoint, I try to make their night so miserable they feel unwelcome coming out to live comedy shows in the future.
SO: What gigs/podcast do you think have helped the most increasing your popularity as a comedian?
James: Comedy Bang! Bang! and Sklarbro Country are the two podcasts I’ve been most involved with, and undoubtedly have caused people to go hmm, who’s this idiot? I also have incredible fun on The Todd Glass Show and Roundtable of Gentlemen, both looser and crazier than most podcasts I’ve done.
SO: Earwolf released your album Low Hangin Fruit last year, and it’s such a great listen!!!! It’s also made many “Best Of” (including our) lists. How exciting is this for you, and how rewarding is it on a personal level?
James: It was very nice to see it received so well. Nobody involved in making it had any idea what we were doing – least of all me – so it was a pleasant surprise that it worked out OK. From a creative place, it was also a relief to finally get some of the stuff that I’d been doing for a while and people liked hearing but could never get on TV, like the Gay Villains bit, which I’m very proud of.
SO: BTW, I love the cover art. Where did that design concept come from?
James: Aaron Nestor designed the album – he’s this awesome graphic designer who does all the Earwolf podcast logos. (I think he might still live in the Phoenix/Tempe area, which would make him one of the few positive marks I can give to the state of Arizona!) I wanted the image to be evocative of the archetypical Gay Villain that I get into– the thin mustache and all that – and Aaron busted that out like a champ.
SO: What makes you smile daily?
James: I only smile semiweekly, and it’s usually when something goes so wrong it seems comically deliberate.
SO: Gonna get serious for a moment. Do you have tragic events or things that have really messed you up a little in your childhood or teens, or really at any time in your life that you now use in your work?
James: Yes! Lotta scars! Some of it’s too embarrassing to get into, but the short of it is I went through an extremely negative saga coming out of the closet and coming to understand myself and love who I am, and I also came from a very poor family, both of which separately and together held me back. There was a time when I had been writing down a huge collection of my experiences as a destitute queer kid walking the streets of Southern California, but all those journals got stolen with a backpack when I was 23, so that story is fucking gone – yoinks!
SO: Esquire Magazine named you one of the Best New Stand Up Comedians of 2012. Does that kind notoriety give you a sense of vindication over the naysayers you may have encountered over the years?
James: That’s an interesting way to look at it, but I don’t think most naysayers stick around to reconsider whatever they’ve naysaid. That’s just the terrain you encounter doing anything creative. I think what’s really cool with something like that Esquire piece that people who’ve never heard of me might make an effort to check out my album or a live show. I’m far more interested in reaching new people than in changing the minds of whatever bozos already don’t like me.
SO: You’ve had a busy year. What does James do to relax?
James: Good God, just that question makes me feel tired! I need to take some time off. If I do, I try to listen to music, either a live band or vinyl records. I’ve also been getting into comic books over the last couple of years. Plus I keep up a heavy party regimen, I guess.
SO: You had a cameo appearance in my favorite musical comedy of last year in Freakdance. Did you have a blast hanging out with your UCB pals?
James: Oh, god yes! I saw the Freakdance show as a live musical at UCB a couple of times, and got to watch it evolve into its cinema form. Drew Droege is a national treasure.
SO: Everyone really, really needs to check out your Tumblr “High Noon in the Garden of Good & Evil.” It’s filled with awesome photos, videos, news stories and fun nonsense. Do you find self-promotion a simple task?
James: No, I hate self-promotion, in me and in other people. I can really only force myself to do it when it’s kind of too late, or deliberately in hindsight, or when it’s like, “Oh fuck, nobody’s going to come to this show if I don’t say something.”
SO: This might sound like a generic question, but our readers, and myself, find it super interesting the process and amount of time and work it really is to be a stand up. Can you tell us the process of when a joke/premise/idea comes to mind, putting it on paper, and then putting in your act? What do you think is the best way to test new material?
James: First of all, I am the worst person to ask for advice on the procedural mechanics of doing comedy. That was a question I asked of a lot of mentors and guru figures when I was younger: how do you do it? I never really got a good answer from anyone that I could work with, so I just charged off and did everything wrong. My path has been chaos, and I see no motivation to change that at this point.
Second, if you really want to know what particular chaos I settled on, here goes! I write on stage. I’ll get ideas all the time and write them in my little book or the back of my hand, and then before I go on at a show I compare the new things with the bits I’ve been doing, and make a series of last-minute triage decisions. I probably lose a lot of good ideas but I also circle back on stuff, sometimes years later, and go, hmmm, what about that idea, that could work again. A lot of the stuff I bring to the stage I’ve been thinking about for years before I had a way to put it into words.
SO: Can you talk about some of your upcoming projects?
James: Well, I’ve done a few small guest appearances on TV shows that should air within the next six months or so. I’ve also done a few voiceovers for animated projects, but cartoons take centuries between recording and release so I have no idea when you could see those. I’m also pitching a couple of TV projects, one live-action and one animated, which may or may not make it through the gauntlet. Live on stage I’m doing Sasquatch and Bonnaroo festivals for the first time this year, and playing Austin, Denver and DC in the near future.
SO: Thanks James!
James: The thanks are all mine!