Jay Jurden: "Saying ‘I’m Bi’ Is So Cool, And So Freeing”

By Jennie Roberson

March 10, 2020

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Sometimes my interview subjects come from the most relatable of places. A few months ago a viral tweet about showy, emotional, climactic scenes from movies had me roaring with laughter— and I later learned the author was an up-and-coming bi stand-up comedian. I knew I had to go find the man behind the tweet— the hilarious and brilliant Jay Jurden.

During our delightful conversation, Jay and I not only geeked out about our common backgrounds in theatre training, but discussed how Shakespeare helped him discover his own queerness, his slam dunk of a set on Jimmy Fallon, and how filming sex scenes for shows are actually not that awkward for him. And that’s just a taster. Read on for more.

photo by Corey Rives

How did you come to identify as bi or queer?

JAY JURDEN: Well, the reason I even say it outright is because I’m a huge nerd. And so the idea of being able to articulate on something as either gay or straight was always how I grew up.

When I went to college, I took a queer literature class, a Shakespeare class focused on investigating Shakespearean works through a very modern lens; figuring out why Twelfth Night is such a bisexual story, [and] why Horatio loves Hamlet so much. You know, things that poke out to anyone who wants to look at it with a queer lens. And what I realized is the way we articulate “gay” and “straight”, “homosexual”— those terms didn’t really exist until the late Victorian era. So for anyone to say, “Oh, Shakespeare was gay,” or “Shakespeare had homosexual and homosocial bonds with people,” it was just one of those things that they didn’t have words for it [yet.] So I was like, “Oh, okay.”

And at the same time, I was dating and hooking up with girls but then started hooking up with guys in college; I didn’t know how to articulate my feelings towards guys at all. I didn’t have any sort of interaction with a same-gendered partner until college.

So I did not want to erase my history, and I also didn’t think it was super-helpful to say, “Oh, no— I was straight, now I’m gay.” I wish more people would give themselves that flexibility and understand it’s a gradient; it’s a really cool spectrum. It’s definitely a knob, not a switch. It’s a dial.

So that’s when I started [identifying as bi] in 2010. I came out [as] bi to my mom. I have never come out as gay. Some people will, like, shorthand and culturally say “gay”, and if I feel like having a conversation and correcting them, I will. But usually, I talk about it in my set enough that people can kind of be like, “Oh. Okay.”

Right. I love that. It’s nice to hear. You don’t think you need to see it until it’s actually up there, and you say to yourself, “Oh, yeah, guess what— not everyone up on the damn stand-up stage is one or the other.”

JJ: Yeah. A lot of people are in-between. I mean, you look back— this is a bit posthumous— but Richard Pryor was a legend who had queer experiences with people. Queer people have been around for a long time. Nothing is ever as black and white as we like to think it is.

How do you see yourself as a comedian and artist, and how does being bi fold into that?

JJ: I always want to find the humor in uncomfortable subject matter, and also want to please a lot of people— that’s both sexually, but also on stage. I’m very happy making different groups of people happy. Adaptability, and an openness and willingness to perform in different spaces— both comedically and romantically— is something I pride myself on.

Jenny Walkowiak

Honestly, that’s one of the most succinct answers anyone has ever given to me for that question.

JJ: Well, because I have to answer them [these types of queer questions] all the time! People will be like, “Oh, you’re gay,” and I’m like, “Well, I’m in a gay relationship, but if you’re in an ice cream shop it doesn’t make you a person who only eats ice cream.” I love this ice cream shop, though.

I’m working on a few jokes about it. I have a joke I’m currently working on about when people who just don’t necessarily know that they’re committing a bit of bi erasure, whenever they just go, “Oh, you’re gay.” I go, “Well, I do a bunch of gay stuff, but so do you, and you have a girlfriend.”

Right. Although that binary thinking, man— it’s a killer! What has your experience been like being out as a bi comedian and artist?

JJ: Overall, really good. People seem to appreciate honesty, and being forthright and transparent, especially in this industry. Because if you’re trying to lie and/or hide something onstage, a lot of times there are secret little tells an audience can figure out where they feel more guarded. By talking about my experiences with both men and women on stage, it informs people so much more of my story.

And I don’t like it when gay comedy is misogynistic. That’s another thing I always try to avoid because that’s an overcorrection.

Yeah. I’ve had so many conversations with newly-out gay men who think the funniest, quickest thing they can do to reassert their identity is talk about how disgusting vaginas are. And I’m like, “Y’all, first of all, you need to take several seats.”

JJ: [Laughs] Yeah! Well, I’ve also brought up things like… you can joke about anything, but I feel the need to be grossed out by female genitalia is sort of low-hanging fruit if you’re a queer man.

So if you have dated and/or had physical attractions to both men and women, then say that onstage. Because I guarantee you there’s a guy who wants to tell you that, but he can’t. There’s a girl who wants to tell you that who can’t. There’s a non-gender-conforming person who wants to tell you that, but they can’t, and they never get the opportunity to because they never see a [bi] comedy set.

Yeah, it’s all about visibility.

JJ: Yeah. And then even making a joke about that. There’s a joke on my album where I say… I was recording on September 24th and September 23rd was Bi Visibility Day, so I asked if there were any bi people at the show, and no one said anything. I wish it would have worked.

It’s so much easier to tell all of my story than select parts of it, because I feel like me exclusively presenting as gay— even though some people might go there because it’s easier for their minds to compute it— it’s still hiding. I don’t think it’s [as] bad as me lying and presenting myself as a straight person doing comedy, but I like all of the elements to be there.

Yeah, absolutely! You’re an intersectional person; you want to have that represented in your art, too. That shouldn’t be hard for people to understand.

JJ: You know, I intentionally say “queer” because some people go, “Oh, but where do you skew?” And I go, “Well, let’s say ‘queer’ so you don’t have to think I literally have to sleep with a guy and a girl every other occasion to maintain a bi stasis.”

I feel like because we have better vocabulary now I’m allowed to do it, and I’m very happy I’m allowed to do it. I wish more people— particularly more cisgender men— would say it, but… what can you do.

Yeah, well, they have their own journeys to go through.

JJ: And boy, do they.

Is there anything about yourself you would like people to know that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?

JJ: I’m a big nerd. You can find that on Twitter. I love comic books. I still really like sports, I do a lot of sports analogies. Even when I’m writing material in regards to sexuality, masculinity, femininity, gender performance, bias, stuff like that.

I’m a comedy nerd. I like constructing jokes. I like to figure out the puzzle pieces of a joke. Also— because of my English and theatre [degrees] background— I 100% believe everyone falls somewhere on the [sexuality] spectrum. I don’t think it has to be a hard-set Kinsey scale, but there is something about a number of people you are attracted to. And the easier it is for me to say it, hopefully, the easier it is for people after [seeing] a show to say it. ‘Cause when you connect with me as an audience member and you enjoy my material, you don’t get to say, “Oh no, I can’t like that guy’s material because he likes guys and girls.” You just go, “Oh, I like this.”

You recently went viral for a tweet joking about how common the confrontation scene from Marriage Story (2019) was in acting schools (and ho boy, as a former theatre student, I can attest to how true that is.)

JJ: Yeah! I think the “scream scene” is like a hurdle every performer in American acting schools— particularly undergraduate studies, like the BFAs and BAs [can relate to]. There’s always a scene where you get a dramatic thing— it’s a man and a woman, and they’re screaming about something.

Yeah. I do a “tree rings” thing by asking other actors what their “scream scene” was during school. When I was in school, most of us did Closer (2004). For older actors, it’s something from Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), etc.

JJ: The [one scene] with the Fallout Boy lyrics?

The one where Clive Owens yells, “Because I’m a f***ing caveman, that’s why.” I heard that line so many times.

With that in mind: What’s it like being on the other side of having gone viral? Have ScarJo and Adam called to explain how different their scene is from that one in Closer?

JJ: [Laughs] No, they’re too famous, they don’t have time.

I’m not attacking their story. I was attacking the repetitive and sometimes monotonous nature of American storytelling— in particular the way fifty-and forty-year-old professors give eighteen-year-olds scenes about how they’ve been married for years, and expect them to emote on a level even close to what’s actual [and needed for those scenes].

I thought it was cool that everyone connected. It made me feel really good about [how] at least there’s a self-awareness present in the young, American thespians on Twitter. I like silly jokes that are universal enough to make a lot of people laugh, but specific enough to ring true.

Oh man, I went down that tweet’s whole thread and I was just laughing my ass off that afternoon.

JJ: Well, because so many people were like, “Oh, this is spot on,” and some people were like, “Doesn’t that mean they did a good job?” Once again, not attacking! Did we or did we not all get the scene from Closer or [Neil laBute’s] Reasons To Be Pretty, [or] from fucking Angels In America? It’s [been] done! We know what this is! He’s loud and she’s … wrong? I don’t know. Come on!

And there’s always a point where the guy has an excuse to punch a wall.

JJ: Oh God, yeah. Those poor rehearsal hall walls.

What is it about the medium of stand-up comedy that excites you the most?

JJ: The purity of it. I’m so not conservative in so many instances, but I’m gonna be conservative when it comes to stand-up. I don’t have to necessarily want my stand-up to be a multimedia presentation; I usually just want my stand-up to just be a joke I wrote, I say it into a mic, and people laugh. And I love the one-man show feel of that, but with an intense laser-beam focus on comedy. I think stand-up also gives you the chance to present an argument and almost trick an audience into thinking it’s a dialogue… and then you get to talk again. You get to present an argument, that’s so much fun.

I love execution, which is not just writing and not just whatever your physical makeup is when you perform the joke. It’s the ability to execute your material at the highest level possible. That’s really cool. That feels really good— to know it’s ephemeral and it’s fleeting.

To know when you go on Fallon, you’re gonna be in front of a bunch of people who came from the middle of the country to see Jimmy Fallon and to see you. They don’t know your stand-up comedy. And if you do well, they will be so happy. But you have to do it right the first time. It was scary but also really invigorating and inspiring… I was making straight couples from wherever, quote-unquote “flyover states” [like one] that I’m from, come up to me after the show going, “Oh my God, I loved your set.” That’s my favorite thing in the world! When people were so visually, culturally, different from what they assume this queer, New York stand-up artist is, and they say, “Oh, I really liked your set.” Or they ask, “What part of Mississippi are you from?” And I say “Jackson,” and they go, “Oh, OK.” That connection feels so good after stand-up.

How would you like to see things change for the better for queer comedians on the stand-up scene?

JJ: I want male queerness to be accepted and celebrated. It has been very recently with Jaboukie Young-White, with Joel Kim Booster, with Solomon Georgio, with Matteo Lane being celebrated. And then on the other hand, I also think a focus on male comedians is a bit backward-facing because we want to make sure we have femme, femme-presenting, and female voices in comedy.

So my big quandary was like, “Wow; if gay men have been actors, writers, directors, producers, then what has been stopping gay men from connecting on a national level comedically?” And I think what you find is: masculinity is seen as something men are gifted. So for you to give that up in any way, shape, or form is scary to every other man around you. Whereas if a woman attempts to assert and “take” masculinity, it’s [seen as] sort of scary, but it’s also funny to those men. So masculine energy coming from a female performer was often more accepted than feminine quote-unquote “energy” coming from a male performer unless it was in a very specific space, i.e. drag. And even in that case, it’s a pastiche and a precarity of what men want a woman to be— which is just a man’s idea of a woman.

So queer comedians who happen to be male have this very tricky balancing act where you have to make sure straight guys laugh, straight women laugh, gay women laugh, [and] gay men laugh. As a queer man, it’s a fun challenge, but it’s also extremely intentional, a lot of my material. I go, “I wanna hit this, I wanna hit this, I wanna hit this.” Because a lot of queer guys who couldn’t necessarily pass as straight use humor as a shield and a sword. So there’s [an attitude of], “Oh, every gay guy’s funny” cavalier and casual attitude about any queer man doing comedy, and you go, “No, but I’m good. Just let me do my job.”

Right. Back to that adaptability quality you were talking about.

You recently crushed it with your set on Jimmy Fallon— loved seeing you rep the bi colors in your outfit, by the way! That did not go unnoticed. 

JJ: Yeah! Well, ‘cause someone was like, “Oh, you say ‘gay?’” Just from a stand-up practice standpoint: I have a Comedy Central set that came out in February where literally some of the first words I say are, “I’m queer.” I say that intentionally and explicitly because I want people to know. And I have a joke where I say, “I’m queer which is the ‘I’m-hungry-but-I-don’t-know-for-what’ of sexuality.”

I never wanted anyone to think I was coming in [with] sort of bi erasure, because if you look on my Twitter, [or] if you talk to me for more than five minutes, you’ll see me say: “Ooh, did you see that person? Ooh, did you see that person?”

So yes, that [outfit] was a soft little nod, so I’m glad people saw it.

What is it like for you to have broken through to the late-night circuit?

JJ: I feel validated. I feel like there is at least one stamp of approval from a major network, and from a person who definitely influenced my comedic view and changed the arc of my comedic trajectory in Jimmy Fallon.

People grow up with certain SNL classes, and Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Dratch, Horatio Sanz, Tim Meadows, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Tracy Morgan… those were the people I grew up [with] when I first started watching SNL. So it felt like a huge honor to even get the opportunity to stand up in front of him, and I knew I wanted it to be very solid.

So it felt amazing. Every comic wants a good late-night tape and a good late-night credit— and you want to do really well. It’s not just enough to do it. I mean, they’re out there— people are harsh, or people will bomb their late-night set— and I just wanted to do very, very well. And it felt really good.

You also just featured on HBO’s High Maintenance this last February. What was that experience like for you? Was it fun to show off to folks back home that getting an MFA in Acting can actually pay off?

JJ: Yeah! I think the best part— I have tweets I wanna say from 2017— where I was like: “I just really wanna show my butt on HBO.” [Laughs] And lo and behold! I don’t think manifesting things always works, but it was a fun shoot.

Without giving too much away: It’s a same-sex interaction between a sex worker and a client. The episode is called, I think, “The Trick.” So part of it you get from the title. But I loved it. It was a really cool experience. It’s done really tastefully, it was beautiful, [and] it was really fun to shoot. HBO is one of those networks where you’re so happy you get to work with them because you know it’s gonna be movie-level quality, but also really fun storytelling. And [series creator] Katja [Blichfeld] and the entire HBO staff, our writer Isaac [Oliver]… they all did an amazing job of making me feel so comfortable, but also making it such a funny interaction. It felt really good. 

The character’s name is Travis. Every character, I feel, is part of you, but just highlighted versions of you. If you look at the entire speaker system, you turn up certain levels and certain characteristics, and I definitely turned up my dumb little sub/bottom energy for Travis. It was so much fun, and so freeing. I had the best screen partner I could ask for in Calvin [Leon Smith], so I felt very comfortable.

And yeah, I want everyone to see getting a BFA [and] MFA pays off.

Speaking of manifesting: Maybe there’s something to it. Demi Lovato tweeted ten years ago she was gonna sing the National Anthem at the SuperBowl and then she did this year.

JJ: Ooh! Another bi girl, right? 

Goddamn right. Got some #BiMagic going on there.

Anyway. Was filming your scene awkward with the sexual situations? The finished product can be fun to watch, but filming sex scenes themselves can be a strange beast.

JJ: We shot our sex scene on the final day of shooting for me, and we shot it first [on the shooting schedule]. There was an intimacy coach on hand for everything from beginning to end to help draw up the rider, the level of nudity, and we discussed what was comfortable. And then from a physical choreographer standpoint, she really helped make sure my scene partner and I felt authentic but also covered up enough.

I’d gotten to know him [my scene partner] for two days or one day before, and we joked and had a lot of fun. I’ve done enough theatre that if someone tells me, “Jay, get down to your underwear,” I’m always like, “Okay. Tell me where.” [Laughs]

Yup. Going through theatre training, I’m used to everyone seeing kibbles and bits in quick costume changes, so I don’t care.

JJ: Oh, 100%. I’m like, “Okay, is it for this part, this scene? Sure.”

Yeah, it wasn’t awkward at all. The set was so respectful that there were times where I was like, “I don’t care. You don’t have to worry for me to get dressed to come in and do some stuff.” Come in and do a fitting if it’s gonna help us get the shot you guys want. So I’m actually really happy with how it turned out.

Sex scenes can be awkward if you’re meeting that day [of filming]. But we had met and hung out the whole day before, and the entire night. So there was no real reason for me to have any sort of hesitance or trepidations about “gettin’ nekkid.” It was fun! I’d do it again.

Yeah, I have no problem doing those scenes myself, so I get it. But for some other people— usually the straights— they’re a little awkward about it. I’m like, “Okay, you’ve clearly not been in queer hookup culture.”

JJ: Yeah, it’s that puritanical, cishet energy they’ve gotta get rid of!

You’re also known for your writing, penning for publications as varied as The New Yorker to McSweeney’s to Teen Vogue.

JJ: Yeah! And Scruff at one point! [Laughs]

Nice! So, is there anything that surprised you about writing for such varied publications?

JJ: I was just very happy McSweeney’s led to an opportunity with The New Yorker, and The New Yorker led to an opportunity with Teen Vogue. It was very organic; they were all pieces I really cared about.

The interview with Vulture came about after I wrote a piece about a comic at Just For Laughs, the festival in Montreal. I wrote a piece for Vulture not condemning him, but saying it’s a bit ironic he is so against identity politics when his entire act is this chimera in an amalgam of a bunch of different black and queer women comedians’ acts. And he puts them together as this Southern white guy and says it’s his.

Yeah, that guy does not know the definition of “punching up” at all.

JJ: [Laughs] Exactly! Oh my God, yeah, sorry— hated “Southern Momma.”

I just tried to be authentically me and find my voice, but also follow my voice through the energy of the platform to make sure it sounded like a humor piece.

The context is hard for some people. I wrote an article [for The New Yorker] about Chicago, and people were like, “This isn’t funny.” I was like, “But it is! It’s a humorous piece.” I don’t know what you want me to say. Gun violence isn’t funny, yeah, it sucks, and I’m writing about what we should do about it. But this is the only way I know how to address it.

I saw on your Instagram you’re dropping a comedy album soon. Can you tell me more about that?

JJ: So my debut comedy album will come out through Comedy Dynamics, which is an amazing company. They just had an Emmy-nominated album with Jim Gaffigan. Maria Bamford had her latest album through them.

So yeah, my debut comedy album will be coming out in April. I’m very excited about that.

Finally: Do you have any advice for those newly identifying as bi?

JJ: The first thing I would say to anyone identifying as bi is, number one: Hello, and welcome to arguably the coolest club ever. I don’t know how many other clubs have David Bowie, but it’s a pretty cool club.

Number two: You are gonna have so much fun— not because there’s anything special about what you said; because you’ve just given yourself so much more room to operate. And that’s something I wish people would have the freedom to learn. Maybe it’s a little bit scary because of the way not only queer people but specifically bi people are demonized and maligned as these queer, sexual monsters that hop from bed to bed. And some of us do. But I think saying I’m bi is so cool, and so freeing.

Listen: It’s 2020, bi is the wave now. Everyone is bi.

*** This interview has been edited and truncated for brevity and clarity.

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