CHICAGONOW.COM/COMEDIANS DEFYING GRAVITY by Teme Ring. Published May, 2018
Jan Slavin is a rising, ageism-fighting comedy star, but you’ll never guess how she got here
I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Jan Slavin’s comedy and music career spanned her entire professional life. A triple threat, she is a singer, comedian and writer. She most recently appeared at the Improv with the Kates and is a hit at clubs and showcases around Chicago. Jan is also one half of the acclaimed musical comedy duo The Boomer Babes with Pam Peterson.
I’ve been a fan since I first saw the Boomer Babes years ago. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Jan’s lovely voice, charisma, wit, comedic timing and smart, hilarious material came from thousands of appearances.
So I was surprised to learn that Jan’s comedy career is the result of an unexpected chapter that began when she was in her fifties. The goal of making it in show business – well, that began early in life. But then her path veered sharply in an unconventional way, resulting in detours and dreams deferred but never forgotten.
Jan’s most recent creation is High Fiber Comedy which features comedians in their sixties and over. Since its debut two years ago, High Fiber has sold out shows at the Skokie Comedy Festival and The Comedy Shrine in Aurora. You can see High Fiber next at the Comedy Shrine on June 16 and at the Skokie Theatre on August 12. The Boomer Babes’ much anticipated new show premieres at the Skokie Theatre on June 9.
When I asked Jan for an interview, I expected to hear about a long-established career. Instead, Jan told me her even more remarkable story.
AN UNEXPECTED DETOUR
Jan: I moved to New York after college to be a Broadway star. I really took that Maria thing seriously. The minute I got to New York, I did do one professional thing. I toured with the musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona.
But it was the ‘70s and I got involved with a cult and that kept me from going further with my career. They told us what to do, who to marry. That’s how I ended up with my husband. We would have at least dated, but I don’t know if we would have married. It took about four or five years to really extricate myself. At night, I still have dreams about it, still have dreams about seeing these people and telling them off, and then in other dreams I feel guilty that I left and I try to get back into it.
My husband and I divorced. We had two kids and I became a single mom. I really had no support system in New York. I worked in sales and marketing for twenty-five years. We had to survive, so I wasn’t able to go further with a music career, but I always kept singing. My parents sent me fifty dollars a month to keep taking voice lessons.
Not only did theater fall by the wayside, but it was so painful for me to even think about that I hardly ever went to a show. I couldn't bear thinking about what I had given up. But of course my children and my family were my focus and still are, so I can't regret it. I would never have dreamt during those years of traveling as a sales rep that I was going to be pursuing comedy full-time in my lifetime.
CABARET MEETS COMEDY
Teme: How did your comedy career start?
Jan: It started after I began singing cabaret. Even more than singing, I loved the patter that linked the songs together. It came a lot easier to me than singing. A lot of people obsess about what to say about each song, but I loved doing patter. Sometimes I would do a lot of patter and just sing a little. I got huge laughs during the patter. I thought I was doing cabaret, but I was really doing stand-up with a little music thrown in.
Teme: I thought you must have always had a career in stand-up!
Jan: No, I did not. I was doing stand-up, but I didn't know I was doing it. Then I took Kelsie Huff’s class, Feminine Comique. I wanted to understand what I was doing and do it better. I started going to open mics. Here I was well into my sixties going to open mics at ten o'clock at night with twenty year-old boys telling dick jokes.
It was so hard. By the time I got up [on stage] I was a wreck. Then when I got up I felt pretty good. Here were these young guys and they were laughing!
But the torture. I would text my kids because I felt so alone. "Help! I'm at an open mic! What the fuck am I doing here? I could be these comedians’ grandmother!" I just felt awful about myself. Then I would get up and I felt like, "Wow. I can even make these little pissers laugh."
Teme: That's not easy to do. Comedians are known for not laughing at open mics!
Jan: Well, let me phrase it differently. I mean the ones who were left by the time I got up there. I was very unnoticeable. I didn’t blend in, but I would hide. I didn't talk to anybody. I tried to be a little friendly, but I was really an afterthought. They'd be, "Oh, let's bring up ... who is this?! Oh, Jan Schlavin!" They would always say my name wrong. [Note: it’s Slavin as in “slaving away.”] There would be only three or four people left by the time I got up. They probably were drunk by then so maybe that's why they laughed.
But then I started doing more comedy with other women. That's where I really felt the most comfortable. I stopped doing open mics and started doing showcases and just kept doing them.
HOW TO CONNECT WITH AN AUDIENCE
Teme: One of the reasons I thought you were a lifelong comedian is your connection with the audience. What is the key to establishing that connection?
Jan: I don't think you can make that happen. You either connect with people or you don't. I have a real love for schmoozing and connecting with people. When I’m on stage, it's like a heightened schmoozing. It's a little bit me and a little bit the performer-me. When I put those two things together it heightens my ability to tune in to a group of people. That's one of the reasons I love small clubs and cabaret. I get to see the people, even if it's only the first few rows. I am not comfortable unless I can see some of the people or at the very least, feel their presence. When I’m on stage I’m in a tunnel, in a heightened state of energy and connection that only happens when I'm on stage. I'm really not even that great in a group. I'm not that great at a party.
Teme: Same here!
Jan: Part of that on-stage comfort is getting older and feeling, "Look, if I fuck this up, that’s bad, but it’s alright. I'm almost dead anyway so does it really matter?" Gosh, that sounds awful! But it's not going to make or break my life because I've already lived most of my life. By no means am I saying it's over. There's so much more to come and hopefully so much more entertaining to do. I think that I can out-energy a lot of people my age. I have that going for me. Maybe if I felt that I had been successful at something else in my life, I wouldn't even be doing this.
But I feel like I’ve just got to go forward with it and if I make it, fantastic. If I don't, alright, I'll live. I'll live out my life in some other way. But yeah, that comfort level. People do seem to sense that from me.
HE BENEFITS OF HIGH FIBER
Teme: How did you create High Fiber Comedy?
Jan: Two years ago, Wendy Kaplan at the Skokie Theater asked me to help put together a comedy competition. They wanted to bring more comedy to the theater and make August a comedy month.
I said, "Why don't you let me do an older version of it?" I brainstormed with a friend of mine, Carla Gordon, who is a singer-songwriter and a very clever wordsmith. She came up with “High Fiber.” So we held our own comedy competition. Michelle Krajecki won and she's now in my High Fibershow.
The following year, Wendy asked me to put the whole Skokie comedy month together. I did a show of all women and I kept High Fiber going. People came to see the older people. We filled the place. They didn't come to see the younger people.
After that, I was having brunch with Michelle and I said, "What if we make this High Fiber thing a thing? Would you be in it?" And she said, "Yeah!" Then I knew right away who else I would ask to be in it - Bill Gorgo.
Teme: Oh, yeah! He’s great!
Jan: He's so easy to work with and his comedy is fabulous. He also teaches comedy. John Petlicki and his wife Myrna [a journalist], are good friends of mine. John is a little older, so I feel he adds something to the show that we need. He's there to really represent! I called [Comedy Shrine owner] Dave Sinker. He booked us and we packed the joint.
High Fiber is for people like me, who want to be out laughing with their contemporaries and get away from CNN or Fox News and get out of the house and see comedy where they're not going to get offended and they're just going to have a great time. We also had lots of younger people come to our show and they were like, "Hey! Those old people are funny!"
Teme: How would you describe the show?
Jan: We don't only do stuff about aches and pains and pills, even though that is part of it. Our focus is “we're all in this together. Let's talk about the indignity of it all. I can't believe the things that are happening to me.” But that could get tiresome and depressing even though it's funny as hell.
We also have insights on other topics and material that is much more universal. But I think everybody can relate. If the younger people aren’t relating themselves, maybe they're thinking about their parents or even their grandparents and having a good laugh. I don't think they realize that they're going to be as old as we are one day!
But they're welcome to come and if they want to just laugh at the funny old people, that's okay – and they will laugh! I think everybody needs a little break from the dick jokes. I've actually gone all the way over to that side at times. I kind of overstepped my boundaries at the Comedy Shrine and sang my vagina song. I was pretty sorry once I started it. My urine song would have been a lot funnier.
You know what else people like about this show? They get to go to a fabulous comedy club on a Saturday night and it just belongs to them. People my age don't really get to do that often. Maybe the theater. But not a comedy club. They can drink and laugh and they don’t have to listen to anything objectionable or to a bunch of kids.
Teme: As an audience member, you feel like you belong when you relate to comedians at the same life stage.
CALLING OUT AGEISM
Jan: My goal is to bring that atmosphere wherever we go because we're so marginalized. There's so much ageism. I also teach music classes. I co-teach with a guy who's twenty-four and here I am, way up in my sixties. This past Election Day, he had his "I voted" button on. I said, "As soon as we get out of here, I have to get over to the polls." And he looks at me and goes, "That is so great." I said, "What's so great?" He goes, "It's so great that you get out there and you vote." I said, “What do you mean?!” But I knew exactly what he meant!
Teme: Why was he surprised?!
Jan: He sucked! People always ask me, "Are you still working?" Hell, yeah! I can't stop. I used to work for my retirement. Now I'm just hoping I can pay for my funeral. There are things we say to older people that we would think carefully about before saying to anyone else. People feel it's perfectly okay to say some of the stupidest things. I'm very sensitive to it now; like, hypersensitive.
Jan: Oh! Fuck that!
Jan: If I joke about it, that's different. It's all in the intent. I once heard someone say "maybe there should be a cut-off age for voting because people who vote should live long enough to see the result." I cannot tell you how angry that makes me.
Teme: Me, too! No one is guaranteed any years.
Jan: What about unfit middle-aged people who are one pork chop away from death?
It's really important for people as they hit their fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, to keep that edge. You don't want to become what “they” say. I just can't let that happen. Although I must say, if I’m not successful with High Fiber Comedy, I might pack it up. It might be my last harebrained scheme.
Teme: I don't think it's a harebrained scheme. It's brilliant. There is nothing else like it. The Chicago comedy scene which has almost everything, does not have that.
Jan: It doesn't have that. I don't know that any comedy scene has it. We’re also planning High Fiber Comedy classes at the Skokie Theatre. It's going to be for people who are sixty and up. But you can come if you’re fifty-five if you have a note from your kids.
WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT AGING?
Teme: Aging scares me and I forget to look for what's funny. What is your advice for finding what's funny?
Jan: Well, it is horribly scary. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, it's all leading you in one direction. I think when comedians talk about it, we're all scared. Laughter puts you at ease because you realize other people are experiencing it. So it diffuses the terror a little bit.
A lot of humor is related to what we're scared of. I'm sure that doctors and nurses coming out of brain surgery say crazy things to each other. You say dark things to get out of the darkness.
Saying it out loud is a great way to put it in perspective and laugh at ourselves. There is nothing pretty about aging, but there are a lot of fabulous things about it. For me, in a way, the best thing is the anonymity that you feel. It’s freedom from being judged.
Although while people may not be judging you personally, it's more like they're judging you as an old person. But I like where I am in my life. I would like to have more money. Way more money. I wish that I had a partner in life. I never remarried. There are things that are seriously lacking. But I try and make that into something funny, too. I don't think my life would be as funny if everything was going that well.
Teme: How do you figure out what’s funny?
Jan: You have to share. I don't think you can be by yourself and think, "Oh, this is really funny. I forgot where I put my glasses."
Teme: Sharing to hear different perspectives?
Jan: Yes, but also the sameness of it. That we're all going through it. Sometimes at a comedy show you see people that are inexperienced and they're just talking about themselves. It’s not funny. It's only funny when you share it and somebody else laughs and says “that is so true.” Everybody's looking for validation or confirmation and they don't even always realize it. It's that thing that you've left unsaid and then somebody else says it. That's what's funny.
That's the other thing about getting older. The four of us in the show are not looking to become stars on our own at this point. We want to connect with an audience. It goes beyond getting up there and being “discovered.” This is sincere sharing. I don't want to trash younger people, but so much of the time it's just about them or they’re like, “This is my therapy.” I do not want to go to somebody’s therapy session. That will change over time if they're good comics.
WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT BEING JEWISH?
Teme: How does being Jewish influence your comedy?
Jan: It's a strong force in my comedy and probably in every Jew's comedy. I remember seeing myself on tape in acting school. I was in my early twenties. I remember looking at myself and thinking, "Who is that Jewish girl?" So Jewish! I had no idea that I came off that way. I honestly thought that because I could sing soprano and I played Maria in high school, that that's how people saw me. When I saw that videotape I was horrified. Because I was just Jewish, Jewish, Jewish.
Teme: How so?
Jan: I can't even describe it. I guess my mannerisms and my inflection. It was like a stereotype come to life.
Teme: I understand. I feel the same way!
Jan: I didn't like it at all. Now I like it. I have had situations where I say something like, "Oh, pass the salt” and a gentile will think that I just said the funniest thing in the world. They'll say, "You are so funny!" I'm like, "I just asked you to pass the salt." I don't know what's funny about it except that it is, even though its basis is probably racist as shit. But that's okay because I'm going with it.
Teme: I love how Jewish humor makes me feel at home.
Jan: It's an automatic rapport. There's no doubt about it. It’s not being afraid of anything. We all get each other. We have the same mother. We maybe had the same experiences of discrimination. There are certain cultures that have that innate darkness. Being Jewish makes me a funnier person on levels that I don't even know about. When the audience sees me, they definitely see an older Jewish woman and I'm okay with that. I probably wouldn't have liked it when I was younger. But I like it now.
Teme: What are your favorite things to do when you're not on stage?
Jan: I love to be with my grandchildren. My two granddaughters are seven and nine. I would say I like that more than absolutely anything in the world. Everything about them. Just experiencing their day-to-day lives. Nothing I love more than going to pick them up from school and seeing those little faces and hearing their perspectives on life.
I like to read about terrible dark things like deaths on cruise lines and getting out of cults.
I love to travel. Every couple of years I take a major trip with my sister. If I could travel all the time, I would give up everything. Not my grandchildren, but I would give up comedy and show business.
Teme: When High Fiber Comedy becomes a big hit!
Jan: That’s right. Then I'll be like, "Okay! Goodbye, old people! I'm traveling now. See you around!"