Dream big and then do it.
I met Jet at her apartment where she lives with her improviser beau, Brett Elam and his sister Erica. We chatted about where her name came from, some of life’s big questions, drinking sake before bed to live longer and then she told me the details of the secret she’s been keeping from everyone for the last two years…
Alright Jet, the first thing I would like to know is the story behind your name. Your real name is Jessica, where did Jet come from?
When I was born, my sister was only two and she called me Jet Jet. So it stuck forever.
That was it?
Yup, I was called Jet my whole life. I thought my name was Jet. When I went to school, I even wrote “Jet” on my papers.
That’s adorable. That gave you a pretty sweet stage name.
Yeah, it’s a weird name, but it’s all I know. I love the idea that some people think it’s a stage name. But I’m not that kind of person that came to Chicago and said, “Start calling me Jet.”
That’s the thing, people get so close, but still so far away from people in this community and they start asking questions and that’s how rumors get started, so I figured I’d just ask you.
Haha, yeah, why not ask? I don’t even have a real headshot, so I can’t imagine having a stage name.
You don’t have a real headshot?
No, a friend took mine with her camera. It was even hard for me to get a Facebook page, so I can’t imagine creating a stage name.
Really? Wow, crazy. Ok, so sans a real headshot, you’ve managed to become one of the best, if not the best, female improvisers in Chicago. Can you give me a brief rundown of your improv journey?
I read the book “Truth and Comedy.”
Yup. A friend of mine told me about it, because I did some sketch and short form in college. I went to University of Massachusetts Amherst, just outside of Boston, where I was studying film and acting.
So, I did comedy in college and a bunch of my friends decided they wanted to move to Chicago, so we all moved. They’re the ones that gave me that book- “Truth and Comedy” and I moved out to Chicago to join them in 2000. Those guys I played with in college actually now own Mission IMPROVable, an improv theatre in Santa Monica.
I saw a show at iO the first night I moved here. I moved never having been to Chicago before, I just moved on trust. I remember the first time I saw people who blew my mind, like John Lutz, TJ Jagodowski, Stephnie Weir and Jack McBrayer. Those were those “aha” moments. It didn’t take too long after seeing Stephanie and Lutz do a source scene for an Armando, where I realized I wanted to be able to do that. It was so beautiful and funny and touching and real. I walked up to Stephnie after and asked if she taught and she said “no” because she had just gotten hired for MadTV. But watching her work really set me on my path.
I took classes and back then, you got put on teams while you were in class. Isn’t that crazy?
Yeah, now it’s like the Hunger Games now to get put on a Harold team.
Haha. Yeah, we didn’t have to kill anyone to get on a team.
What was your first Harold team?
It was called Giant Monster Attack, but I wasn’t on it very long before I got moved to a new team but the new team I got put on was The Reckoning.
Ahhhh. So how long have you been on The Reckoning?
Maybe 11 years?
Holy crap. Wow, I can’t think of anything I’ve done for 11 years.
I know. It’s been fun. I started branching off and had always had a dream to do two-person shows and I ended up working with so many people in two-person shows and had so much fun and learned so much from all of them. I also love touring, because you get to do this fun thing you love so much and bring it to people.
Where all have you toured?
I toured with a scripted show I did with Holly [Laurent] called “I Live Next Door to Horses.” We took it to LA and Charleston, Boston and a few other places. I took a show with Paul Brittain to Toronto and Charleston. I’m going to Charleston again this year with Scott Adsit. There’s nothing more fun than going to a beautiful city and doing the thing you love.
So you toured for a little bit and then what?
I basically just did improv real hard for the last few years. I hit the stage as much as I could at iO and The Playground. I worked with Second City for a little bit and learned a lot from that. I did a ship with them and I also taught for the conservatory program. I just tried to take advantage of any opportunity I could in Chicago.
What are some of the biggest differences improvising in an ensemble and performing as a solo show?I love working with people and having a family on stage, but then there’s the reality that you have to find your own unique voice and go out into the worldand give it away. I feel that it’s probably a natural progression for a lot of people. I really love two-person projects so you can work off the energy of someone else. When I do solo shows, I try to play off the energy of the audience so it doesn’t feel as lonely on stage.
Was there ever the element of being afraid to be up on stage on your own?
I think it was more about loneliness than being afraid. But then again, every time you get on stage, it should be scary, because there’s the pressure to do good work.
Ok, you’ve been doing clowning. How and why did you get into it?
I think when I came to Chicago I had a very open goal, which was to do this work and find my voice in it and figure out what I truly love in comedy. I knew I loved long form, so I thought about maybe expanding into other genres of comedy and about seven or eight years ago a friend of mine had recommended clown so I started taking classes. There are a lot of similar elements of both clown and improv because it has a similar lineage of entertaining people without a script and trying to make them laugh. I fell in love with that, in order for clown to work, you have to be really present, available and receptive. And I thought, “Well, that would be really helpful in improv.”
Yeah or in life, in general. Who are your greatest comedic influences?
In the improv world, it was those four I had mentioned. John Lutz and Stephanie Weir are these amazing character actors. TJ is the most sincere performer and Jack McBrayer is so ignited and present. They all have these amazing gifts and they are all the funniest versions of themselves. Whenever you see somebody who’s the best at what they do, you just have to come back night after night and watch them. I always tell people to find their heroes and “research” them.
As a woman, have you ever felt a particular struggle in this career path of comedy?
I feel like we can’t really separate our gender from this art. Gender is such a huge part of our identity that we can’t really separate it out from anything. I am a woman in comedy and that’s all I know. I think sometimes there are perks to being a woman, because there are so many men who do comedy, it gives you a unique voice and sometimes it gives you an advantage because people are looking for a fresh perspective. So, in some ways I think it opens doors.
But of course, there will away be people who, for some reason, think women aren’t as funny. Recently, I was in Tucson at an open mic where I was told women rarely perform. So I signed up for a 10 minute slot, but the guy looked at me and said I could have five minutes, but all the men got 10. I honestly thought it was pretty funny.
I can’t separate my experience out because they all come together in the end and there’s also a chance that tomorrow I will get a call asking me to be a writer on a show because they really need a woman. Life’s too short to complain so I just move on.
In your opinion, what are the most important things to keep in mind or maintain while improvising?
The thing I always come back to is to remember to always have fun. If you believe that any sort of hierarchy, it’s easy to get swept up in that and then you’re not on stage to have fun, you’re on stage for some futuristic reason and not for right now. I try to remind myself that this is as good as it gets right now and at every show I’m in.
Another thing I’d say is always try to respond to the very last thing that happened. Then when you see people who really do play to the very last thing that happened like TJ or Tim Robinson, it looks like magic. They must have a deep trust that it is always the better way to play.
What is a lesson you wish someone had informed you of early on that took you a while to figure out?
I think I probably did hear really great stuff but I didn’t internalize it as fast as I wish I would have. I don’t think there are any secrets to improv. But one of the biggest lessons is to let go. I wish I could have let go earlier and just play to the moment.
What scares you the most about comedy and this career path?
I think the only thing that scares me about comedy is the potential of being great at it.
That’s what scares you?
Because wouldn’t that be so scary to be really wonderful at something?
Why? Because then the only place to go is down? Pressure?
No. I think it’s scary because it’s exposing and vulnerable to really dive into something and be great at it. I think as human beings, we are all afraid of our genius. We are all afraid of our genius because that’s where our soul lives and to get in touch with it is the most terrifying thing in the world. You have a very short life and in that life you can get to know yourself or not. I think when you do something really well, it draws you closer to yourself and I think we are all our worst enemies.
…That’s probably true. Wow, that is scary.
Comedy offers the chance to know yourself and that’s scary.
It’s like they say, keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. You are your own worst enemy. Geez, think about that one.
Meaning that we keep ourselves from ourselves as well. Perhaps all of our deepest fear is to know ourselves.
Because then you don’t have excuses.
Yes. Any artist has to reach in really deep. We could call that anything: self-love or self-actualization or the soul, but I think we’re all just trying to survive. And anytime we do an art form, we switch out of survival mode because art is for art’s sake, it doesn’t help us survive. So what’s the opposite of surviving? Living. It’s really wild so that’s what scares me. The only thing scary about comedy is its relationship to us having to go inside ourselves. Just like time, it doesn’t exist without us.
[Mind blown and long pause to comprehend what just happened.] I feel like you must think about this a lot, because there’s no way this is just coming out for the first time right now.
I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud. But I guess being asked the question just really made me determine what it is that I think.
Well that’s good. That’s a good question then. Ok, transitioning to experiences, which are a bit more grounded, which experiences or successes would you say you’re most proud of?
I’m really proud of The Reckoning. I’m really proud of this team that does beautiful improv and pushes boundaries.
Has it been the same cast the whole time?
Yeah. It’s been nice. We’re really lucky.
Wow, that’s crazy. Are you all just best friends?
Yeah, it’s more like family. That’s the relationship we have. We really, truly know each other and after that, we still love each other. We’ve all kind of lived with each other in different capacities. They all feel like brothers and sisters. I’m really proud of the shows I’ve done that really push what the work can look like. I’m really proud of the clown work I do with my friend Chad. It’s called The Shakespeare Players and we’re these two clowns that do Shakespeare pieces, but of course it always goes wrong because we’re two clowns. I’m also proud of the solo work I’ve done where I’ve been able to find my voice and feel true to myself. I like to play a lot of different characters. I like the challenge of switching from one energy to another. Sometimes I have to remind myself how lucky I am with the projects I do, because they’re all really exciting to me.
I hear that. Okay switching gears a little bit, as a hopeless romantic I am curious as to how you and Brett [Elam] met? And I’m really hoping there is a cute story behind it.
About six years ago, his sister, Erica Elam, who was doing improv up here suggested he come up and do a weekend workshop. He’s from Nashville and was still living in there at the time. I wasn’t scheduled to teach this workshop but someone got sick or something and I ended up teaching this weekend workshop that Brett came to. I remember him but I just remember him being really excited, like a really excited human being.
Then I didn’t see him for a long time but he did start coming up and taking classes. He was commuting from Nashville for level one and two. He ended up moving to Chicago about four months later and I saw him around iO a little bit and I guess he came to see The Reckoning a few times. Well actually, I came to find out later that he came to see it a lot. He says he thinks he might have seen close to about 80 Reckoning shows.
Haha, oh boy. Man on a mission.
Yup, so he went to see a lot of Reckoning shows. Then he helped put together this really great improv group called Michael Pizza and they were very successful and ended up performing in the Chicago Improv Festival. I wrote up this little blurb about their show, because at the time I was the Artistic Director of the festival, and I guess it really meant a lot to him and he invited me to play with them one night. So it took almost four years just become friends.
Then one night we were just talking and I had just gotten out of a relationship and he said “I know this is early, but whenever you want to start going out I would love to take you out sometime.” And it kind of just hit me like a ton of bricks because I knew we’d never date. I knew we’d never date, because he was the guy was going to marry. But you can’t just say that to someone who just asked you out on a date. Then I realized I didn’t care and I had nothing to lose, so I said, “Well, we can go on a date, but it’s not going to matter because we’re going to get married.” He said, “I’ve always known that, I was just waiting for you to know.”
[Insert Kiley’s frantic girly schreeching excitement] Oh my god. I love that.
How does your hopeless romantic feel?
Great, so great! Oh my gosh, that’s adorable. Oh, I just wanna to hug him!
I know, isn’t that the cutest! We were both just being incredibly honest and brave with what we felt in the moment. I ended up going out of town for a few weeks for work and when I got back we went on a date. He took me to this fancy restaurant and he had even brought in his own steaks, because I try to only eat free range meat, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is really nice…” But I still didn’t know what going to happen and then we went for a walk along the lake and he proposed and I said “yes.”
On your first date!?
Yes, is that romantic or what?
That is unheard of!
I know. I just knew that it was right. And then we got married a few weeks later.
At a courthouse.
Wait, what? You’re married?
We’ve been married for two years, we just never told anyone. We just went ahead and got married. We figured we’d just plan a wedding and then tell people at the wedding we were already technically married.
What? [I am baffled at this moment.] But you talk about him as your fiancé?
I know but now that we’re moving to LA we just told our families. We just started telling people. There won’t be time for wedding anytime soon because were both so busy.
Okay, wait, so when you had the original conversation saying that you knew you were just going to get married, when was that?
When did you get engaged?
When did you get married?
February . So in February , we’ll be married for two years. We just knew.
So two or three weeks after the original conversation, there was the first date and proposal and then a few weeks after that you went to the courthouse and got married?
That is officially the shortest courtship I’ve ever heard of in my life.
Well, yeah. I mean, you never dated.
That’s true, we never dated. But I knew we weren’t going to date.
It’s been an amazing two years. It’s wild. We went straight into marriage. It’s a testament to the fact that marriage is just work and compromise. So we both knew going into this that we just needed to be as honest and brave and to always hold each other accountable.
Okay, so you married an improviser but he also has a number of siblings who are also improvisers and a lot of people say when you get married you marry the family as well. How has that been?
They’re the best. Just the nicest people.
So do you plan on changing your last name?
Yes, I think I’m hyphenating, Eveleth-Elam. I’ll also just cut down to Jet when I do it. My legal name is Jessica, so I’ll just cut it down to Jet Eveleth-Elam. It just feels so natural. Even from the beginning, hearing that as my name, I just felt like that’s who I was. Isn’t it nice to know that exists?
Yes, I want that!
My life is very romantic, but I also know that once you meet that person you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, you don’t get that romantic experience again. You only get it once. So I’m glad mine was such a romantic experience. No one else could have given me that. So now I get to go make other exciting things happen in my life because that’s done. I get to go make great work and start a family someday because I got to check that off my list of romantic experiences. I never dreamed of a wedding but I always knew I wanted to get married.
So you do want to have a family someday. Is that anywhere in the near future?
Probably not, because we’re so busy. I just worked on this project called, “You Should Be Famous,” that I really love. It’s a mockumentary piece with a lot of character work. I’m also writing a movie, so those are really my babies right now. I would love a pet, just something to nurture and cuddle.
Ok, so you’re moving to LA in a few weeks (December 20th). What are your plans?
Just to challenge myself in new mediums. I’ll always be an improviser in my heart and there’s a Reckoning West, so I’ll be able to improvise once a week with them. I’m writing a movie and working on that pilot and I want to make those things a reality. I’m always trying to work on multiple projects at once. I’m also working on a play, plays don’t take as long to get going as a movie or a pilot.
Tell me more about the pilot.
So it’s a mockumentary where I’d play multiple characters, all contestants on the same show called, “You Should be Famous,” which would be like America’s Got Talent.
So you would pretty much be competing with yourself with all these characters?
Yup and what could be more true to life? Always competing with ourselves.
We’re all our worst enemies, right?
But in a healthy way too, because that’s the only person you can compete with – yourself. What I love about the pilot is it has elements of all the things I love: documentary style with elements of clown, it’s character driven and has moments of improv because we can go off script a little.
What about the movie you’re working on?
I’m writing a film right now, it’s like a bio pic of Lucille Ball.
You’d be the best Lucille Ball. Has moving to LA been a dream of yours since you were little or is this just something that happened?
Even when I was really little I always knew I’d be a performer and that I wanted to perform. I also knew that I wanted to do it every day of my life and I would do it until the day I die. I associated it with make-believe and I never with career or money.
Was there ever a moment when you were little where you knew this was it?
I always liked the thought of every profession, but I only ever wanted to “play” someone with that career. And I remember one time my mom said to me, “Well what would happen if you don’t make it?” I didn’t know what she meant. How can someone not “make it” at make believe? I thought, “Well, I’ll stop make believing when I die.” It was never a journey to be famous, just to perform and create work. It felt like it just chose me. I think everybody has something that has chosen them, it’s just deciding whether you want to tap into it or not.
I just read this book recommended to me by a friend called, “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead,” and it’s this autobiography of Jerry Weintraub and it has rocked my world. It was so inspiring.
I think it’s really good to read autobiographies because it teaches you about people’s pasts and anytime you hear about all the things people have done it makes everything seem more doable. You have to surround yourself with people who have those big dreams because then everything feels so doable. Dream big and then do it.
It’s just a matter of figuring out what you want.
That’s the more important question than figuring out how to get there, figuring out what you want.
Absolutely, I’m not worried about how to get there, I’m worried about figuring out where I want to go. Do you travel at all?
I’ve traveled a bunch, I feel very lucky. My whole childhood I dreamed about traveling. I always wanted to travel so bad and through doing this work I’ve gotten to travel so much. I got to tour with Second City for a little bit. I got to go to Napa, Alaska, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda on the Second City boats. I got to go to Laffia and Norway through the American Embassy. They brought us over there to teach physical improv and Second City style sketch.
That’s the dream.
I feel very lucky. I’m so blessed, but now I feel like, “Well, I did that.” So my next big adventure is to live a good life in LA with my husband and maybe have a few big dogs. I want to create really cool television shows and film and bring the spirit of this city and everything I’ve learned out to LA.
Any hidden fact not many people know about you that you’d like to share?
Just that, when I moved to Chicago I needed a stage name and I picked Jet. No, just kidding. I don’t really have any secrets.
What will you miss the most about Chicago?
Well, with The Reckoning out in LA and so many of my best friends already living out there and more planning to move out there…I think iO will be the thing I’ll miss the most, because I can’t bring that building and all those people and the spirit of the place with me. The way it smells…
It smells musty. I tell my friends that it’s my home away from home, which is gross, because it smells funny and it’s kind of dirty and grungy, but I love it.
Totally. I love it. It’s like my musty summer camp. It’s the best. It’s one of the few places you get to do whatever you want without being…
Yeah. When in your life is there a place where everything you do is entirely supported? Where you can be whatever you want to be? I think that’s pretty amazing and that’s why I always use the analogy that Charna owns beachfront property and we’re all surfers. She lets us grab a board and go out and surf. She knows that we need to go out and hit those waves to be who we are. She also knows one day we will get sponsorship and eventually will leave to go be sponsored surfers, but until then, this beach is ours and we can use it to find ourselves and our style of surfing.
iO is so special. Do you have plans to come back to Chicago and visit?
Totally. This really feels like my home more than anywhere. It will be weird to come back for the opening of the new space, but it’ll be good. I’ll be back before then too, but I’ll definitely be back for that opening.
What’s the greatest insight you’ve discovered about life and comedy?
I can’t separate the two anymore. Just laugh more. As comedians, we’re so eager to make other people laugh, but that’s often the hardest thing for ourselves once we do this work for a while. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what brought you to this work in the first place. Laugh even when you want to criticize and laugh even when you want to worry. Try to witness life a little bit more instead of trying to fix everything. Realize that life is funny.
Any final comments?
I think as we get older we end up just trying to survive, but if we’re just trying to survive, what’s the point?
Jet is a member of The Reckoning and performs in the show Adsit and Eveleth, The Shakespeare Players, and Ted and Melanie. She recently development a television pilot titled You Should Be Famous. She was listed as New City magazine’s “Top 50 Players” in Chicago for 2010 and 2012 and is the former artistic director of the Chicago Improv Festival. She is a former teacher at The Second City Conservatory, the iO Theater, and for Columbia College’s Comedy Studies Program. Jet will also be continuing the comedy intensive program from Los Angeles with private coaching/directing sessions by using Skype/phone/video links. The goal of these sessions is to assist individuals in exploring his/her creative path and setting an immediate game plan to grow his/her work. It also serves as a method to hold the artist accountable for accomplishing his/her set goals. For more information contact: email@example.com.
Interview conducted on November 30, 2012.