Shalewa Sharpe has a new album out TODAY (it’s also her birthday!!!) called So You Just Out Here? on Little Lamb Recordings, and it’s pretty much the funniest. I was lucky enough to catch up with her for a half hour over the phone last week to talk about developing this set, which beautifully tackles some tougher topics while staying universally relatable. She also gets into her former life in Atlanta, where she got her start in comedy, and also worked at a porn video shop. (Clearly I asked her to elaborate on that experience.) You should DEFINITELY internet-eavesdrop on our full conversation below (which, if I’m being honest, is 100% in my top ten favorite interviews I’ve done in the past decade at BYT // no word of a lie), obviously grab a copy of the album for 1. more context, and 2. all of the LOLs, and catch her tonight at Union Hall, as well as in DC at DC Improv for Somm Like It Hot September 26th:
So major congrats on this album coming out! How long was the set in development before you recorded it?
Oh, it happened…let’s see…to me it felt fairly quick to put together this album. It’s on a label called Little Lamb Recordings, which is a tiny little indie label that’s run by two people – Shonali Bhowmik and Jason Lam, and they have a rock band together called Tigers and Monkeys. So this is a label they started to put out their songs, and Shonali was in a comedy group maybe ten years ago called Variety Shac with Chelsea Peretti and Andrea Rosen, and so she’s always had one foot in comedy. So she decided, “Well, we’ve got this label, and I know a lot of comedians who haven’t put anything out, or are just great and I love them,” and so she started working with New York comedians. And I’d known Shonali for a very long time, we knew each other in Atlanta, and so she just approached me and said, “Hey, I want to put out an album of your jokes,” and having no foresight, I said, “Yeah, sure! Good idea! Let’s do that!” [Laughs]
Yeah, so we got it together fairly quickly once we decided to do it; it was just a matter of finding a venue and setting a date. We decided which jokes I’d tell, which is helpful, because I’m kind of on the tail end of telling these jokes, where if I told them any longer I’d be very bored with them. And I think that’s probably the perfect time to get that – before you get bored – on wax, when you’re still enjoying the jokes.
Absolutely. So what’s that timeline like for you in terms of working out a joke? How much room do you typically give it to either fly or be put away, or get bored? Because I see you’re out there doing shows all the time, so you’ve definitely got the opportunities to test things out.
That’s true, I am out there a lot, and lately (over the past two years) I’ve been doing most of my writing on stage. So I’ll maybe come up with an idea and jot it down on a post it, and stick that on my phone, and then I’ll just kind of talk it out on stage. Or, the first run-through is in the shower, and then I take that to the stage and give it a shot. I’ll give jokes a try…I’ll usually give them about four or five tries, and if the reaction is good most of those times I’ll keep at it and keep working on it. If it’s like, “No…” then I’ll pull it and put it aside, because there’s still something in whatever I thought of that I’m trying to say, and whatever it is I’m trying to say, I’m not saying it correctly. So I just try to rethink it and then maybe pull it out again after a few weeks, like, “Alright, let’s see if I say it with this kind of energy…” or “If I talk it out this way, maybe that will work.”
I just recently came up with a framing device that kind of encompasses a few tiny things that I’ve been saying that seem to have a home, and just yesterday I came up with a framing device and gave it a try last night. I’m kind of happy with that, so now I’ll work with it, that framing device, to hone all the little things I’ve been saying towards that big narrative that I came up with for it. So that’s kind of how I work. I think of my sets like essays, so I’m thinking, “Okay, I want to start here and end here. How do I get there with the jokes that I have right now?” Or with the jokes that I have right now, what’s the story that I’m trying to tell? What’s the overview of what I’m trying to express? It can just be one theme, like, you know, the kid in high school – here’s your five paragraph essay, your theme, each paragraph is for a thing, and that’s just kind of how I take it.
Totally. And so with this particular album (I love the whole thing, by the way), it’s interesting (and obviously people sometimes do this), but you get into some heavier stuff, talking about death, and that can be such a fine line to walk – I think sometimes the audience doesn’t know how to react, but the way you deliver it is amazing, you nail it. How did that go for you in terms of developing that aspect of the set?
Right. Well, it was tough. I was just coming off kind of a rough few years, because I lost both parents within a year’s time. So that’s been very delicate. How much of that do I even want to discuss, and how much of that is universally funny, and how much of that is just me trying to laugh through tears, that somebody may look at me and go, “Oooh, baby. You need therapy.” So I had to figure out what I could say that was a little deeper than just surface, but still feels somewhat universal.
And it’s also a little odd, because I tend to be in front of younger audiences; I’m a middle-aged lady, and I perform in Brooklyn a lot, so the audiences are usually younger. So when you talk about the death of your parents, I can see that they’re like, “Well, parents don’t die…” [Laughs] You know? It’s a thing that they haven’t gotten to yet, so then I’m trying to think of, “How do I explain…how do I make them see the humor in this?” And they do, we all know they do, but it seems inconceivable right now – here’s a thing you won’t realize you have to worry about when it happens. And that’s usually my take, is that there are all the basic things about something horrible that you know you’ll have to worry about, but then there’s something that comes out of left field that you didn’t even know you needed to be concerned with, and that’s usually where I can get going with it. There’s just humor in that – “Oh, I didn’t even know that that would be a problem…” It is, here’s how it presented itself to me. And the shock of it just makes you laugh. That was how I decided to take on my parents’ deaths, was the unexpected things. The humor is just in the “Oh, really?” part of it.
Well I’m sure at least some of the people in the audience went home that night being like, “Okay, you guys. We gotta make a plan for what our afterlife messaging system is gonna be.”
Right, exactly! I hope so!
My dad passed away a couple of years ago, but before he died he was like, “If you ever see a bird outside your window, that’s me, and you can just let me sit on your shoulder and tell me your problems.” Like, super out of it, and did not specify which kind of bird, so now I’M that weird bird person, too! Like, “Oh, a pigeon? A sparrow? Any bird on the street?” That part of the set weirdly hit very close to home for me. [Laughs]
Right! Yeah, how do you even know? I only gravitate to the birds because that’s something my mother was doing, so I’m even still just like, “Is it going to be that?” [Laughs] But I was just so sure from Hollywood and everything, like, they’re gonna contact you, that’s what ghosts do. There are gonna be ghosts, and they’re going to contact you. So I’m just sitting here waiting, like, “Gotta be coming at some point,” and I didn’t know that’d be such a major concern of mine. [Laughs]
Yeah, nobody tells you!
Right! That’s the thing that I was like, “Oh…okay.” Like, is it gonna be in dreams? Am I looking for birds now? How does this work? I said that once…when I was working through that joke, I said it once at a show, and another comic on that lineup came up to me, because his mother was in the audience, and he said his mother leaned over to him and said, “That’s real.” I was like, that’s the biggest compliment I could get – an older woman being like, “Yep, that is a problem. That needs to be addressed today.”
It is!!! Alright, so you got your start doing comedy in Atlanta, and I love the bit about the nickel socks, where the woman basically told you the best form of self-defense was putting nickels into a sock and clocking anybody who tried to give you trouble. Like, that’s gotta be added to your merch now, right?
[Laughs] That might be, that actually might be. That’s not a bad idea.
And you touch on the fact that you were working in a porn video store, which I love, because you just say it so briefly, but THAT is what I want to hear more about. Like, what is that experience like? What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened in that shop?
Oh, goodness. What is the weirdest thing? There’s just a completely different mindset when dealing in that environment that, in order to work there as long as I did, like seven years, you just kind of internalize things. Like, “Oh, sure, absolutely. This is why.” But you know, there are things like…what would be considered weird? Probably just the environment itself. The clientele is mostly male, like, 98% male at the time, and it’s very quiet, like a library. I’d say that a porn video store is like a library. In the porn store, it’s very studious – people come in with lists and notebooks and names, and references, and they’re looking for very particular things. So that’s odd, when you’re having a very serious conversation and you’re looking for this very particular volume of like, “Fuck My Wife”, or whatever it is. [Laughs] So you’re looking all over, like, “Oh, we have to backorder that,” and all of this kind of thing, and then you sit down and it’s like, “Oh, this is what we’re spending all of our time on right now.” So it’s things like that that are just very strange. Also, what I really enjoyed about the job is that a lot of my coworkers were women, so it was just a lot of very quiet, meek men having to ask women for help, and how much they did not want to. [Laughs] But we had some regulars, a guy that’d come in maybe every three or four months, and he’d buy a 64oz bottle of lube that came with a pump, and we’d just, “Yes, sir. Here you go.” He’d buy two of those every couple of months, and maybe a magazine, and the ratio on that seemed off to us there, but okay. So you keep it moving, but yeah, we befriended a few of the customers. There was a lot of bartering, like, “I work at this cake bakery, I’ll give you some free cakes if you give me a free rental every once in a while.” You know, we were up to our elbows in cakes, CDs…actual DVDs that were movies released in theaters…for real movies. Yeah, just all kinds of weird bartering situations. It’s wild. It’s the wild west out there.
That’s so fascinating to me! Now, let’s talk about how you got into comedy in the first place down in Atlanta. Do you remember the first gig you did? What was that like? Like, what was the feeling like going into it, and was it an open mic type vibe?
Yeah, it was an open mic. There’s an open mic show in Atlanta at a dive bar called The Star Community Bar that happens every Monday. It’s still going on, and it’s one of the best shows in the city. And that’s where I started. To even get booked on it, it’s not like a normal open mic night where you go and sign up the night of and they pick your name out of a bucket or whatever – you have to call the guy that runs the show like five days before, like the Thursday before or something, and you have to call him at a very specific time, not a second before. And you leave him a message saying your name and all that, and when I started, if he called you back it meant that there wasn’t room for you. So you’d call in hopes that you wouldn’t get a phone call from him, because that meant you weren’t picked. It was very confusing, and at some point he realized that it’d make sense to call the people that did have a spot. It was mayhem. So I didn’t realize that going in, and I thought I could just call the guy saying, “Oh, I wanna go up tonight.” So I did that, and he was like, “No, there’s a whole process.” But he wrote down my name and said, “Come back Monday.”
So I said, “Alright, I’ll give that a shot,” and I went and had my little five minutes of jokes, which probably only lasted about three minutes, because you always think you wrote a thirty minute special. And I started, and I think a lot of comics say that the first time they went up they “killed”, and then for the following year they bomb. I can’t bring myself to say that I killed on the first time, but it did go well, and I got about two jokes in, and people were laughing, and then I thought to myself, “Great, now I have to do this for the rest of my life?” Like it was just an immediate, “Yup, this is it. Everything has changed now, this is what I’m doing.” And a friend of mine was supposed to record it on his phone or something, and he didn’t. I was on stage and noticed he wasn’t recording it, and that was another thing that went through my head, like, “Oh, man…he’s not recording this!” And when I asked him about it, he was just like, “Well, you were really good up there and I feel like you’re going to do it again. You won’t need this one-time recording.” And I did, like three weeks later, did well then, and then started to bomb. [Laughs]
So was your move to NYC influenced by comedy, then?
It was, yeah. I thought I’d give it a shot, which was probably the only thing that I started to do in my life that I seemed serious about. Like, when I told my parents that I started doing standup comedy, they were just like, “Oh, sure. Of course. Yeah, okay.” Because I’d had plenty of capers where they were just like, “Okay, this is what you’re doing now? Great.” [Laughs] Like, “You’re painting now? Whatever.” So when I said I started doing comedy, they were like, “Fine.” But when they saw I was doing it fairly regularly, at some point my dad said, “What’s your endgame in this?” Which was notable, because they never asked what I planned to do with any of the other things I was doing. They were like, “You seem to be serious, what’s your endgame?” I was like, “I don’t know, I think I may want to move up to New York to see what that brings.” And they were like, “Okay, that’s cool.” I guess I’d been doing it about three and a half years in Atlanta, which is just about the time where your delusion is at its greatest, and you’re like, “Absolutely I can move to New York and do comedy. They’ll love me immediately.” But that was also tempered with being an old lady; I was like, “I’ll go up there, and if my knees hold out we’ll see what happens.” So yeah, I moved up here when I was forty, like, “Let’s see what happens in a couple years and we’ll just go from there.” So I’ve been here about six years now.
And you do so many shows here, which is (I’m sure) driven by the fact that you love it, but there are probably difficult days where I’d assume you might sign up for something, realize you’re having a tough week, and not want to do that show. In those situations, what’s the best part about the hustle, and the worst part about it? (I’m sure we can guess, but in your own words?)
Yeah, I think about that a lot, too – just the fact that some people are going up there and performing for thousands, and they are not in the mood. It’s just a matter of…I think what ends up happening, if you’re lucky, is that if you love what you’re getting ready to do, that will supercede how lousy you feel. There’ll be days where I just feel terrible all the way through, and then I hit the stage and I feel good. Because I can either voice whatever I’m annoyed about and hopefully couch it in a way that’s funny, and people will either laugh about the fact that I’m annoyed, or they relate to that particular annoyance, and they can agree and get on board that way. I think as you get better at it, you figure out how to maybe work the bad day-ness into your set, as long as your persona isn’t that you’re just the nicest all the time. And luckily, I did not choose that as a persona. [Laughs] I’m glad I didn’t go Pollyanna with it, so there’s no problem if I’m a little annoyed. Like, it’s in keeping.
But sometimes it’s very tough, and I’ve definitely had sets where I’ve gotten on stage and thought, “Oh, I should not be here. I will say this as best I can, but I really should be under my bed right now.” And, you know, it’s just very rough, and you’re just making eye contact with people who are like, “Is she going to be okay?” Or they’re not paying attention at all. [Laughs] And I’m not sure which is worse, really. But yeah, you just try not to let it really get to you and yell at people. That’s what I try not to do, is yell at folks. Because they don’t have to be there at all, this is all optional. So as long as I don’t harass the audience, I think I’ll be alright. [Laughs] We’ll see, but that’s a constant…you know, and I also just try to be honest about, “Should I be up here?” on whatever day it is, and is it something I can maybe reschedule, you know? I hate to do that, and I try not to; if I don’t go to a show it’s usually because I’m stuck underground on the train, or something came up, and occasionally I have to call it a mental health day. I can tell that if I go on stage I won’t just be “mildly funny”, I’ll be extremely unfunny. [Laughs] So it might not be productive. Mildly funny can be okay – there are plenty of folks who are mildly funny and think they killed it, but really angry probably going to be a problem. But more often than not, the second I hit the stage I’m personally fine and thrilled to be talking.
Well, and that’s something, too, where I’m sitting and writing up the BYT events, and sometimes I’ll notice that certain comedians are on like three or four different lineups in a night. And that, to me, is just bonkers! I get that it’s necessary, but I just cannot imagine how hectic it must be.
Yeah, it’s a lot of frantic running around. Actually, that’s the most movie moment – you know when you’re having a movie moment and you think, “Oh, this is how you’d look in a movie,”? Like, I’d be played by so and so, and I’m running frantically for a Lyft, and I literally slip on a banana peel or something like that. Those are the times, when I’m running for a train or something, that I feel like, “Oh, this is a Hollywood moment.”
Who would play you in a movie?
I honestly have no idea. I remember playing this game with some coworkers once, and the best they could do was “Maybe a cartoon?” [Laughs] Like, no one could think of anyone. And I still don’t know.
Open casting call.
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like there’s someone out in the world, we just haven’t found her yet. There’s someone who can definitely do it. There’s always that jarring moment of when you meet a version of yourself that is notable, you know, when you think you’re the only one that looks or dresses or feels this way, and then you get a job at a bookstore and meet like three other versions of you. And you’re like, “Oh, okay. Got it.” So I figure we just gotta find those other versions of me who are definitely floating around.