• Dr. Karen Bartuch

Comedy is Work and Play: Discovering Your Weird with Jessica Antes

Jessica Antes is a “Jill of all trades,” but the roles that describe her best are comedian, writer, and teacher. Jessica started to “discover her weird” in first grade, getting out of trouble by mimicking her mom and making her laugh. As a co-creator of a comedy training program called S.H.E. Camp (Sisterhood Humor & Empowerment), Jessica leads young women through the process of discovering their own “weird” and empowers them to develop unique artistic voices.

When S.H.E. Camp is not in session, Jessica teaches at the Second City Training Center and various artist residencies at schools in the Chicagoland area. She also performs with her improv team, Daffodil, at iO Chicago and her sketch groups Just the Tip, The Comic Thread, and Half & Half. Even though Chicago is one of the biggest hubs for comedy in the country, finding work is a challenge for every aspiring comedian (and even seasoned ones).

Improv is for Everyone

Jessica insists that anybody can do improv—and she should know. She’s taught people of all ages, from children to 95-year-olds in workshops at the senior center. People come to improv classes for reasons as unique and diverse as they themselves are: a lawyer may want to improve her public speaking skills, or a doctor may want to cultivate a better bedside manner. Seniors use improv to keep their brains sharp (you would not believe the deep insights—and shocking sex jokes—they come up with). Of course, there is the early 20s crowd dead set on being the next Tina Fey or Kenan Thompson.

But what Jessica finds really valuable in each new performance is the specificity and unique brilliance each person brings to the table when they open up and try. One of her favorite parts of teaching is seeing that light come on when people go back to a childlike state of creativity; but different people find different value in improv. Even the corporate types in team-building workshops learn to slow down, really listen to each other, and meet on the same level to build morale and see their coworkers for more than their job function. Putting two people on the stage together with minds that work in very different ways is a recipe for magic.

Jessica created S.H.E. Camp with a pretty specific mission for young girls around age 9-12. She noticed that they seem to shrink into a shell and let the loud boys take over, even though they have smart, funny things to say. She aims to tackle that early and give them confidence. At S.H.E. Camp, girls learn to trust themselves and each other, be leaders, create a positive self-image, and reach out to other girls sitting on the sidelines. It just takes one leader to set the example and show others it’s a safe space to be wild and free.

What’s funny? What’s interesting?

Straightforward “jokes” aren’t the comedy Jessica teaches, though she does believe that “funny” can be taught. It’s about being in the moment and having honest, genuine reactions. “That’s the stuff that kills,” says Jessica. She observes that laughter comes from recognition, like when you know exactly what someone is going to say—and then they say it!

On comedians like Dave Chappelle, who was under fire recently for his jokes about the LGBT community, Jessica takes a balanced approach: comedy has an important function to push boundaries and make people think, but there’s an unspoken rule to never punch down on someone in a lower position. When people say off-color things in class, she talks about it as “tired” or “easy.” Young kids start out their improv classes going after things that are super easy (and apparently love to joke about Trump). Jessica pushes them to think about what else they can talk about. She’s more interested in oddball characters that aren’t so easy to pin down and exploring their points of view.

An especially interesting dynamic Jessica has noticed at S.H.E. Camp is what happens when she asks girls to roleplay a CEO and an employee: they automatically default to a “man-boss” and his (male) underling. She will tell them to do the scene again, but as women, and they have to think about those roles differently. Conversely, she often sees men putting women in girlfriend/mom/nurse roles and makes them flip it. In general, Jessica encourages her students to play characters they can lift up instead of punching down: play the lovable loser and make him win.

Try, Try Again

On the subject of failure, Jessica taps further into the nature of improv to say “yes, and…” and roll with it. Throughout our interview, she talked about being let go and re-hired at Second City in a different role, which turned out to be a nudge in the right direction. When she got cut from her agency’s roster, she decided to go take a class. Rejection didn’t stop her from doing the work and improving so she might feel better going through the door the next time.

“Everyone is terrified. Nobody walks in being the funniest person in the room.”

Her advice for aspiring creatives is to “try, try again.” Many times when you’re rejected, it’s not actually about you, and it doesn’t mean you’re a failure: it just means there’s something else for you. One must learn to say “today’s just not my day” and see where you can make your own opportunities. She urges people to find what gets you excited, what gets your synapses firing and ears tingling. Or do things that scare you, because “eventually, it isn’t as scary anymore.”

Jessica still babysits from time to time to make ends meet, and she loves it! She listens in to find out what lessons the kids are learning and applies them to the classes she’s teaching.

Doing the Work

One of the things that keeps Jessica going in the unpredictable world of comedy is that she knows deep down that she’s not a desk job person. After college, that meant working in a hair salon to make ends meet. She has, in fact, written a pilot about it, which has yet to see the light of day, but she has learned things about herself (or found some new material) in every odd job.

While she loves what she does, the prep work still feels like work. But Jessica cares deeply about delivering the best experience she can for her students. She says, “I’m prepared to be the best I can, but it is also a ton of fun. It is exhausting.” For instance, watching 18 students perform back-to-back scenes in pairs, Jessica has to hang on their every word for 9 straight scenes in order to give great feedback. It requires her to be fully present, entertaining, and engaging.

Yes, Jessica still gets stage fright for on-camera auditions, but not so much her improv shows. When this happens, she quietly says to herself, “Shut up, you’ve done this a million times.” She still has a goal of writing a TV show or working as a head writer. She has an accountability partner to help her with time management, which can be a big hurdle for someone who’s so busy! But even writing one sentence is progress. And she does some of her best thinking in the shower anyway.

Catch up with Jessica and find out about upcoming performances on her website. Be sure to check out the award-winning pilot for After 30, a Bitter Jester production that Jessica was especially proud to be a part of.

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© 2020 by Karen Bartuch