Jes Tom: Transcending Boundaries Through Comedy

Jes Tom (they/them) is an actor and weird queer stand-up comic. Born and raised in San Francisco and now based in New York, Jes Tom gleefully provides the non-binary queer Asian American radical cyborg perspective that everyone never knew they wanted. Jes tells jokes in venues all over the U.S., from dive bar basements to bookshops to historic venues like the Friar’s Club, Joe’s Pub, and the Atrium at Lincoln Center. They have shared stages with Awkwafina, Kate Bornstein, Aparna Nancherla, and Rosie O’Donnell. In collaboration with fellow comedian Chewy May, Jes Tom wrote, co-directed, and starred in the viral short “Ghost In The Shell”,PSA which has been featured by Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Perez Hilton. They are a graduate of Maggie Flanigan Studio and Smith College.

How did you fall into stand-up comedy?

I got into comedy as a performer and didn’t think that much about the writing aspect of it. I had a friend in college who was doing stand-up and she said, “I think you’d be really good at it.” When I moved to New York, I knew I wanted to pursue something in performance like acting, but stand-up is the form where you can do it that night if you wanted. Anybody can decide to try stand-up that day, and they can go and do it, so it’s very accessible.

How do you pull together a set? Do you jot things down as it comes to you, or do you set aside time specifically to write material?

There are theories to comedy writing as a form, and I didn’t start to learn some of that until I started doing it. I’d overhear people say, that’s a good premise but it needs a better punchline. It’s funny to admit that I’m not incredibly well-versed in the academic approach to comedy, but I feel like we’re all just pulling it together. I don’t feel a strict form is intensely adhered to in comedy. I’m naturally inclined towards it and specifically joke-writing, and it wasn’t until later that I became more intentional about it.

Stand-up, sketch, and improv comedy require you to be in the moment anyway. Writing something down doesn’t necessarily determine how funny it is.

So much of comedy also comes from watching comedy and learning from it. But when you deconstruct existing material, I do think it’s very mathematical. I think of it as algebra, actually.

Did you grow up seeing a lot of comedy? Were you encouraged to be artistic growing up?

My mom is a psychologist and my dad was a lawyer, so my home life wasn’t a career-like artistic environment. I think it was a cultural thing, but we didn’t really listen to music.

You’re from San Francisco?

Yeah. I’m a fifth-generation American.

Wow!

I’m Japanese and Chinese American, fifth-generation on my mom’s side and second-generation on my dad’s side. My dad is actually artistically inclined in many ways. He is a very talented visual artist and we used to draw together.

Was that a very formative experience?

We’d draw avatars of ourselves as Tamagachi characters. His looked like a penguin and mine looked like a bunny. We’d do short four-panel comics where these two were best friends, and they’d do something together. I do think that was a formative artistic experience for me.

Do you recall when you started questioning your gender identity?

It’s been a long, stretched out road of realizations upon realizations, and the same for our community as we identify and name things for ourselves. I’m very lucky to have been exposed to queer, gay, and trans people my entire life. In a lot of trans narratives, there’s that experience of, “I never knew why I felt different, and one day I learned about transgender people.” Growing up fifth-generation in San Francisco, it wasn’t like that for me at all.

Did that help your transition, or did it still feel incredibly challenging?

For me, it just meant that I started with a wider idea of the world and the people in it. I’ve been out as some type of queer person since I was 14. When I realized I was attracted to women and femmes, I didn’t have any resistance to that, but I was kind of resistant to wanting or needing to be part of a community. My thought was, I can be this and this and this, and still be normal. Looking back, all my friends were queer or eventually came out, so I was immersed in this community despite not wanting to be a part of it.

For a while, I had a really intense thing about being able to pass as a straight woman (as a lesbian-identified person at the time), and yet I’d bring in pictures of male K-pop idols to get my haircut. I was embodying one thing and resisting it at the same time. I have a memory of me and my best friend (who’s queer and Chinese American) going to a youth pride event. There was a booth related to LGBTQ Asian work, and someone there waved at us to introduce ourselves. I can only speak for myself, but I think we both balked at the idea of being included in that. I have some shame around this memory, but it’s funny, because now I think it’s our whole thing.

In my experience, working through my internalized bigotry is a much longer and more difficult process.

This is an ongoing thing. Everybody has their own shit that they have to work out in their lives. This is our shit.

It’s okay to stand on our beliefs and try to be our best selves, yet still have our internal struggles.

I went from going to public school, which was mostly Asian in San Francisco, to a very wealthy private high school. It was a very formative time in my life. I was coming into being attracted to women, and suddenly surrounded by these wealthy white girls. I started to craft my identity around this environment, but I still wasn’t thinking about my gender identity that much. Although, you don’t bring pictures of male K-pop idols to get your haircut and not have some clue. I had this fantasy that a girl would see me from afar and think that I was a boy. That’s a fucking trans fantasy. [Laughs] It didn’t matter what I was saying. That was happening in my heart.

Queer identity is very prevalent to your work. What has the general reaction been to that?

When I started doing stand-up, I had a different ideology. I thought I’d have to lie about who I was so people would get my jokes. When you say lesbian, people know what you mean. Now I’m more about, “Okay, you’ve never heard of this before. Let’s talk about it.” If it’s a queer audience, it’s more like, let’s talk about us. I thoughts it was important to make comedy for a straight audience, but I don’t think that anymore. In many ways, it’s more important to make queer people laugh, because we need it.

As far as reactions, I’ve never gotten a blatantly transphobic or homophobic response yet. It’s more people who come up to me and ask, “Is that they pronoun really for real?” Yes, that’s why I said it. I’m not desensitized to it per se, but it’s fine.

Since I began dating my partner when their gender identity was different, we definitely had an adjustment period. I think people’s guilt of being called out or chastised makes it a bigger issue than it really is.

It’s tough because that makes it harder to communicate on both sides. I try to operate from a place of, I know you’re going to fuck up, and that’s okay. I fucked up all the time in the beginning. One thing I had to remind people was that I wasn’t born doing this. I also had to learn.

What’s the hardest thing about doing stand-up? What’s your favorite thing about it?

Stand-up is full of highs and lows. My favorite part about stand-up is when I remember I actually like it. When you do a show that’s so good and the audience is there with you. What’s hard about stand-up is we’re not in the heyday of live stand-up comedy anymore. What that results in is a lot of shows where the audience doesn’t want to see stand-up. One of the biggest hurdles is to even get an audience to be willing to enjoy your jokes.

The more difficult hurdle is that many people who do stand-up aren’t good at it. I always thought stand-up was so thrilling because the people I was watching were so smart. As it turns out, most people are kind of dumb and not that funny. That was a huge bummer for me because I was so idealistic about that. Oh, five different guys and they all had the same fat chick joke. It’s mean and it isn’t funny. What is this for? It’s been hard to trying to navigate that realm and find where I fit. I’m not as willing to make compromises in order to be friends with someone anymore.

As your gender identity has changed, has it changed your expectations in the acting industry?

I completed a two-year acting program at the Maggie Flanigan’s studio. Going into that program, I would’ve told you I only wanted to play non-binary or male characters. Then I came out of conservatory and thought, I want a career playing mostly cis-women. With the way our culture has constructed gender, the emotional tasks female characters are given are much more vast and interesting than what men get. As far as my ideal progression, I would play roles that are for cis-women, cis-men, non-binary characters, and trans men. That’s sort of what I can get away with. With acting, people are afraid of offending me by sending me roles for women, but I understand. [Points to self] The world looks at this and sees a woman. That’s okay and I can play a role that’s a woman.

The way I prefer to think about my own gender is it’s not that I’m not this or this. I am those things. Speaking for myself, I don’t see how I couldn’t identify as being a woman when 99% of the world reads me as a woman. I was a little girl, and I identified with boyhood. I do think I have masculine privilege. People don’t harass me as much as femme presenting people. I understand toxic masculinity. I know what it’s like to objectify a woman or a femme. I have to work through it and unlearn it, but I know how it is.

What are some things you value as far as self-care?

I’ve become one of those annoying therapy people who is like, “Are you going to therapy?”

[Laughs] Do you find it helpful?

It’s good for me. It’s important for people to have an outlet to sort out their feelings, so they can make responsible decisions. That’s not always accessible for everyone, but it’s a great privilege to have, when you have it. This is mostly [my partner’s habits] rubbing off on me, but I’ve been trying to take better care of my skin. It’s just trying to do keep up with basic shit. I’m trying.

For others who are struggling with their gender identity, or any other obstacles you relate to, what would you impart onto them?

[Pause] Take your time. There’s pushback that’s often about something being a phase or not. I think everything is a phase all the time. I’ve identified with a lot of different aspects of being queer, and I think they were all legitimate at the time. When I identified as a lesbian, I was a lesbian. When I felt differently, I started identifying with different things.

You wouldn’t be here right now if you hadn’t experienced all these chapters.

Absolutely. There’s no be-all, end-all to identity. Some people might feel differently, and that’s okay. To me, the whole point of being trans is to say, these boundaries don’t exist. Anybody, if they truly want to, can be trans. We can be anything, and that’s more what I’m for.

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