Vulnerability, Navigating the Digital Landscape, and Seeing Comedy as a Two-Way Street

By The Seventh Wave

An Interview with Comedian James Tison
May 9, 2021

Interview by Ella Shapiro, TSW staff

James Tison is one of 2021’s most outspoken comics and has been lauded by the New York Times for paving the way for nonbinary representation in the stand-up scene. Not one to shy away from uncomfortable topics, James has spoken openly about being HIV-positive, queer, and sober, both in their stand-up and, recently, on their social media platforms. To their own disbelief, James now has 48.7k followers on TikTok, where their personal commentary about all things ranging from the trans community to pandemic etiquette has created space for candid conversations to take place online. I spoke with James over Zoom about the ever-changing New York comedy scene, and how they find a place within it.

Ella Shapiro: The first stand-up of yours I saw was about HIV and being HIV-positive. I’m curious about how you feel about touching on things that are so publicly stigmatized. How do you talk about those things?

James Tison: Honestly, I was really inspired by Hannah Gadsby and Nannette. By the time that I talked about HIV in my stand-up, I had had it for about two or three years, and had gone through this peak of having been steeped in stigma when I first got it.

The first thing my mom said to me when I came out to her was, “Don’t ever get sick.” I knew nothing of undetectable, so when I tested positive I was coming at HIV from such an ignorant place. It took me two years to clear out that stigma within myself. So, when I say I was inspired by Hannah Gadsby — if you’re familiar with her special Nanette — it’s her talking about trauma. I wanted to bring a level of vulnerability to stand-up and my work, but it was also the “comedian trickster” in me, knowing just how fucking nervous it makes audiences and people in general. If you just blurt it out, it sort of discombobulates people. Gadsby talks so much about making audiences nervous and making them tense, and you kind of play with that. I genuinely empathize with audiences’ ignorance around it because I was so ignorant about it. I had come from so much stigma and had worked through it. It was funny for me to then play with it. So, it wasn’t as noble as like, “I want to destigmatize,” because I had to do so much destigmatizing within myself.

It wasn’t as noble as, “I want to destigmatize,” because I had to do so much destigmatizing within myself.

Ella: Do you have to deal with that in other things you talk about in your stand-up, or is that more exclusive to HIV?

James: Depends on the audience. It depends on what’s trending on Twitter. I also have some material about being nonbinary and being part of the trans community. Two years ago, that wasn’t such a tense issue. I don’t think the rage around trans issues — the bile that people have around it — was quite as palpable as it was in the past year. I’ve noticed that when talking about trans issues, you can feel an audience start to get nervous, or excited, or whatever it is. That to me is a version of stigma, whereas when I talk about my nieces and how annoying they are, that’s not so stigma-related. Although, there should be more stigma around having kids, in my opinion.

I’ve noticed that when talking about trans issues, you can feel an audience start to get nervous, or excited, or whatever it is. That to me is a version of stigma.

Ella: A lot of what you’re talking about is your relationship with an audience, and right now, with the pandemic, we’re not having those in-person relationships with people. Have you been able to mimic that online, or found any ways of interacting with people in this new digital landscape?

James: Yes and no. I mean, you’re talking to me because of TikTok. This conversation that we’re having is an absolute “yes.” I have more fully embraced that side of things, meaning social media, digital content, and especially TikTok. I feel like I got lucky in the timing of when I joined TikTok in March/April 2020, when we were all truly trapped and didn’t know when we were getting out. I was doing some Zoom shows as well for the first six months of the pandemic. The Zoom shows are frankly terrible. They’re such a poor substitute, but especially in those first three months, you could genuinely feel how hungry audiences were for just anything.

There was, I think, an element of “Okay, there is some connection happening here.” Then, I was sitting on all of these stand-up clips that I hadn’t shown, which is when I started sharing them on TikTok. That’s where I say I feel like I got lucky. I had this little trove of maybe 10 minutes total of jokes that I had happened to film or had gone well right at a time where everyone was like “Please, give me something!” So, “yes” is the answer overall, but “no” in the sense that it’s not the same thing. When it comes to stand-up, there’s just no real replacement. I’m fully-vaccinated and clubs in New York have opened up a little. Just last night, there was a COVID-safe mic that opened up, and it’s a gay mic, and I haven’t been in nine months. I was like “Oh shit! It’s time!” Even for a mic where there were 15 or 20 people and we’re all spread out and we’re all very nervous about COVID, that was so much more connected than anything that social media of the past 14 months has brought.

Ella: It’s so interesting to think about how these things will feel as we kind of reintegrate into society. How was it doing that for the first time in so long?

James: Really good. First of all, the New York comedy scene feels like it’s chilled out. It feels like the peaks and valleys of people, the “anti-PC” versus the woke, versus I don’t know, we’ve all lost a lot. There are still assholes, I’m sure, but it feels like everyone’s grateful to be here and taking it less for granted. It felt nice to connect. I think I knew 20% of the people there, so there was a whole new batch of people that had started doing comedy in the past year. It was great.

Ella: I’d love for you to tell me a little more about is the Snowflake Mic. To my understanding, you’ve been a creator and/or host of that.

James: That mic was born out of a couple experiences that I had when I first started wearing women’s clothing and going to mics. It happened several times where I was visibly trans and where I’d walk into a room and in 30 seconds, someone is saying some shit to me about how I’m dressed, sometimes with a fucking microphone in their hand. It’s just a level of, frankly, bullying that is not the same thing as what you do actually have to experience as a comic, which is bombing and having everyone in the audience hate you because your material is bad. It was a level of aggression, and transphobia, and biphobia, and homophobia, and all the things, that was totally separate from the “I’m here to enrich myself as a professional and a creative you can all go fuck yourself.” So there’s a bunch of mics in New York that, for all those reasons, either have rules where they’ll say “Don’t bring your hate speech onstage. Don’t attack people. Establish a code of manners.”

And then there’s queer, femme mics. Riffing on that element, I had an in at Club Cumming in the East Village, which historically is a very gay neighborhood. It’s where Rent is set. But the Village, for the comedy scene, has some of the most bullying environments. None of those queer mics had really set up shop in that neighborhood, so that was kind of the impetus for it. Dylan Adler and Gus Constantellis, who are fellow queer comics in the scene, helped me produce it. We actively tried to prioritize signups for BIPOC, trans, and LGBT individuals. I feel like I’ve gotten some criticism from some of the “anti-PC,” Trump-loving comedians. Those types of mics get criticism from those types of people as being anti-free speech, that they’re not real comedy, and that part of doing comedy is that you have to get bullied, which I don’t really agree with. The whole point of that mic was that free speech is just a complete two-way street. You’re actually welcome to come to that mic. If you want to tell your hate-speech joke, I dare you. The audience also has free speech and it’s a very honest room. It’s a very supportive room and it’s a very loving room, but they don’t want that bullshit. They’re not interested.

I don’t think all mics should be run like my mic. I think the terrible rooms are great. They actually made me a better comic along the way. The thing that I love about Snowflake Mic is that the audience is very reflective of a growing type of stand-up audience. When I think of the ’90s, honestly even the 2010s, stand-up audiences, especially in New York, you had to be tending more libertarian or looking for the bullies. There’s a newer type of audience the past 10–15 years that have no interest in that type of comedy that is rooted in bullying. I love that room for that.

There’s a newer type of audience the past 10–15 years that have no interest in that type of comedy that is rooted in bullying. I love that room for that.

Ella: I love thinking about comedy as a two-way street, as a dialogue, because I think it’s not usually presented that way. 

James: I just think that there’s space for everybody. There’s actually a lot of roast comics that I love. It’s not like I’m like, “Don’t tell jokes that insult each other.” I love roasting each other, but it’s the bullying. It’s the professional bullying out of the art form. There are so many people that say, “Oh, I don’t really like standup,” which makes no sense to me. That, to me, is the disconnect. That’s like saying you don’t like music. I think what you don’t like is bullying.

The Snowflake Mic to me kind of feels like church. It’s like what I wanted church to be when I was growing up. It’s just very celebratory. It’s very positive. A lot of audiences and a lot of people get into standup comedy because they want to punch on the little guy and that’s fine. I think there are actually funny ways to do that, but by and large lately it’s just fucking vicious. We see the real-life consequences after the Trump administration of the statistics of trans suicide rates and hate crimes. To say that there’s no connection is sort of ignorant.

Ella: If we’ve learned anything from the past four years, it’s that rhetoric leads to action. 

James: I very much agree with that. I’m 34, and I was in high school in Texas during the George W. Bush years. I was very face-to-face with conservative viewpoints. Then, I went to NYU during the Obama years. I think it’s like what you’re saying, where a lot of people told a lot of jokes they would not tell today. I think the difference is when the person who has the biggest microphone in the world is like Trump, and is using that microphone to say the most vile, vicious stuff. It’s like, oh wait, that affects how I think about what I say into my microphone as a person who says things into a microphone for a living. It’s not rocket science. That’s what actually pisses me off, too. It’s after the four years of Trump to still dig your heels in and say there is no connection between me making fun of every Japanese person in the room and every trans person in the room and the violence that then happens to those people on the street. I could scream about that for hours.

Ella: I think a lot of what you’re doing ― taking up comedy spaces to talk about all of these things like being sober, HIV-positive, nonbinary, and talking about health care ― is in many ways, an act of rebellious joy, which is the theme for our current issue at the magazine. I’m curious about what you think of that concept and if you can relate to it at all.

James: In so many ways, rebellion is such a personal thing. I’m in trauma therapy right now. In fact, the past four months, I have not really been performing at all. While we were all still trapped inside, I decided, “Okay, there’s no hustle around, just deal with your bullshit.” So I started going to trauma therapy. I come from a family that’s very, very insistent that you leave that shit in the past and that to deal with it now is just, well, bringing up the past. The connection for me between basically telling these secrets onstage — things that in my own family I’m not really supposed to bring up — is the very thing that they all need, which is to deal with their own bullshit. That is kind of an act of rebellion. That is bringing me so much joy. I think my version of Rebellious Joy this year is dealing with my own shit and not working my bullshit out on other people and finding the joy in that. I spent so much time working my bullshit out on other people with such diminishing returns. It brought nobody any joy.

The connection for me between basically telling these secrets onstage — things that in my own family I’m not really supposed to bring up — is the very thing that they all need, which is to deal with their own bullshit. That is kind of an act of rebellion.

Headshot of James Tison

James Tison is a gender non-binary stand-up comedian, actor, writer, and producer. He's been featured in the New York Times, Out Magazine, and Broadway World, who called him "Blisteringly Funny." He's appeared off-Broadway and on network television, and his mom thinks he's great. James spent several years working as a freelance production coordinator on narrative documentary podcasts, including NARAL's The Lie that Binds. I've also co-hosted several small-audience comedy podcasts, and guested on several more prominent talk-comedy podcasts in the past year. His most recent production work was with Rebellion PAC producing political ads for the 2020 presidential and senate elections.

James also hosts a monthly stand-up show at Club Cumming called Snowflake Mic that features the best and brightest of NYC's up-and-coming queer comedians. The show strives to create a safe space for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and femme/female-identifying comedians. As a performer, James can be seen all over New York's comedy scene, which has recently included Caroline's, Stand Up NY, Broadway Comedy Club, Green Room 42 and pretty much every Brooklyn gay bar with a stage and a microphone.

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