Mary Jane French Has Nothing To Prove

August 15, 2021

Photo Credit

Noah Eberhart

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Sara Cline

Listen
2021 Summer Vacation Series

Destination - Richmond, Virginia

The world is in the midst of a host of debuts, including the blinding sight of faces that haven’t seen true sunlight for many months, poking out of doors and taking the cautious first steps back into the great outside.
It’s only fitting that we debut something of our own for the podcast: the 2021 Summer Vacation Series. While we’re in no way on vacation, the theme speaks more to that most summer-y of concepts, traveling to new places near and far. Many of our guests are local to Austin, but during the pandemic we had the honor of “hosting” comics from around the world on our Isolation Comedy series, and the Vacation Series is our way of bringing them back for the full Comedy Wham interview treatment.

I’m going to start this arti­cle in a sim­i­lar fash­ion to how Mary Jane French has had to start her stand-up sets for years: Mary Jane is a com­ic; she’s fun­ny; and she’s trans.

Now, let’s start from the begin­ning, shall we? French was the youngest in her fam­i­ly. (Are you sur­prised? You shouldn’t be. It’s pret­ty com­mon among come­di­ans.) As such, she wasn’t allowed to watch the more mature com­e­dy stuff that her old­er sibs were watch­ing. So, her pur­suit of stand up came from a place of hav­ing some­thing to prove — or being a try­hard,” as she puts it. Plus, she did some the­ater in high school and was a self-pro­fessed Simp­sons stan, so the come­di­an ele­ments are all adding up here. Through­out high school, when I start­ed get­ting into stand up, I would repeat any bit that I could,” she recalls, which helped her real­ly get the mouth­feel for joke-telling. By her senior year of high school, she start­ed hit­ting the stage. Well, just one stage, once a week, every week. She’d dri­ve thir­ty min­utes from her home in North­ern Vir­ginia, to a mic on the out­skirts of the DC scene. Look­ing back, she admits that she was a bit self-shel­tered” even then, not yet com­fort­able with dri­ving too far out, but that mic was her com­fort­able perch to even­tu­al­ly jump from.

Real­ly, French has been doing stand up her entire adult life, though her com­e­dy has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the years. “[S]tandup was … how I learned how to inter­act with the world around me in a lot of ways,” she con­cludes. Ear­ly on … I was very angry and dys­phor­ic at the time and very yell‑y,” she states before adding wry­ly, I’m still yel­ly, but now I’m like hap­py yell‑y.” For con­text, it wasn’t until after her sec­ond year of com­e­dy that French acknowl­edged her gen­der (after years of repres­sion and dis­so­ci­a­tion) and began her tran­si­tion. She’s thank­ful for that pro­gres­sion, though: With two years of com­e­dy already under her belt to bol­ster her, she sud­den­ly went from doing like sil­ly, absur­dist bits, pure­ly by virtue of the fact that I did­n’t have life to draw from, real­ly. And then sud­den­ly, I had this real­ly impor­tant thing to talk about,” she mus­es. She was ready and rar­ing to talk about iden­ti­ty, and she was pre­pared to be fun­ny doing it.

...I didn't have life to draw from, really. And then suddenly, I had this really important thing to talk about...
Mary Jane French

In hind­sight, French is grate­ful not only for the sup­port sys­tem and resources she had, but also for hav­ing standup as a cop­ing out­let dur­ing the ear­ly tran­si­tion process. That’s a peri­od of hav­ing to accept a lot of things that you’ve spent your whole life try­ing not to accept, and hav­ing to reverse some of the pro­gram­ming that you’ve inter­nal­ized. And I think com­e­dy def­i­nite­ly helped me process a lot of those feel­ings,” French reflects. In fact, she views her two self-released albums as scrap­book diary pieces,” from very spe­cif­ic points in her tran­si­tion. Indeed, the first album, Beard­ed Woman — which French fond­ly describes as just like thir­ty min­utes of me scream­ing” — was record­ed two weeks before French began tak­ing hor­mones. Her sec­ond album, Live at Gallery Five, was record­ed two weeks before she under­went bot­tom surgery. Of course, she did not record these albums so ear­ly in her com­e­dy career for any sort of pride­ful rea­son. Rather, the albums were a way of doc­u­ment­ing mate­r­i­al that was about to lose its rel­e­vance to her; even today, she’s grate­ful for those keep­sakes of jokes that got her through tough times. They are real­ly like per­son­al scrap­books for me in a lot of ways,” she says.

French came out in 2014 — before Cait­lyn Jen­ner had come out, but right around the time that peo­ple were becom­ing acquaint­ed with Lav­erne Cox. In some respects, French con­sid­ers this tim­ing pret­ty for­tu­nate: “[Being trans­gen­der] was like an inter­est­ing thing, and so I got a lot of atten­tion for it,” she states. That being said, she great­ly prefers the greater aware­ness that audi­ences have today. For years, I had to be like, I am trans­gen­der. Let me explain what that is to you because oth­er­wise you’re gonna keep look­ing at me cock­eyed and I can’t talk about any­thing else,” French recalls. In fact, when she first start­ed tran­si­tion­ing, she plain­ly noticed how pre­vi­ous­ly sol­id open­ing bits stopped work­ing because peo­ple would sort of just be like look­ing at me side­ways … like, Is this a char­ac­ter? What’s going on here?’” Now, she appre­ci­ates being able to men­tion that she’s trans with­out the grandiose expla­na­tion. (You can imag­ine how much mic time that eats up.)

(to audiences) Let me explain what [transgender] is to you because otherwise you’re gonna keep looking at me cockeyed and I can’t talk about anything else
Mary Jane French

After liv­ing in Rich­mond for five years (for col­lege … but also for com­e­dy), French made the cross-coun­try move to Los Ange­les. Hav­ing only ever lived in Vir­ginia, she want­ed to try her hand at liv­ing some­where else; more sub­con­scious­ly, she need­ed to prove to her­self that she could. Tru­ly, one of the curs­es of being a come­di­an is that there’s a con­stant expec­ta­tion for you to make the big move to one of the two com­e­dy mec­cas — New York or LA. What French soon dis­cov­ered was that, once you get to LA, peo­ple make a lot of assump­tions about your goals as a com­ic. They assume that you want to break into the club scene, or impress X, Y, or Z enti­ty.” But French knew she wasn’t inter­est­ed in those things; she wasn’t even inter­est­ing in mak­ing her liv­ing from com­e­dy. It’s hard not to inter­nal­ize that [sen­ti­ment of need­ing to make a liv­ing from com­e­dy] … [but] I am way more inter­est­ed in hav­ing my moti­va­tion for all of this be a weird com­pul­sion and a labor of love, as opposed to the very nor­mal com­pul­sion of I got­ta eat,’” she says.

Instead, French found that she’s way more inter­est­ed in the DIY, indie breed of shows than the club scene. Slow­ly, she real­ized that here she was pay­ing for the exor­bi­tant cost of liv­ing near LA (not even in LA prop­er), when she wasn’t even inter­est­ed in the max­i­mum grind that so many come to LA for (which we see here in Austin too, as comics hus­tle to hit four or five mics per night). Final­ly, when the lock­down slowed every­thing to a halt, the true epiphany hit: French need­ed bal­ance; she want­ed to have and keep friends that weren’t all comics; she want­ed the time and ener­gy for activ­i­ties oth­er than work and com­e­dy; she want­ed the mon­ey to do fes­ti­vals — her favorite thing in com­e­dy. Real­iz­ing that she had spent her two and a half years in LA day­dream­ing about build­ing up the Rich­mond com­e­dy scene, she made the deci­sion to return. After see­ing comics con­tin­u­al­ly skip over Rich­mond for shows, even when it’s on their route from North Car­oli­na to DC or Bal­ti­more, she felt deter­mined to weave the city into the nation­al com­e­dy scene. It’s a real­ly great city that is worth stop­ping over,” she affirms.

Apart from get­ting comics to see Richmond’s mer­it, French doesn’t feel as though she has some­thing to prove any­more. Instead, her pas­sion lies in pro­duc­ing her own shows. I just make things hap­pen on my own because I have a less-than-great rela­tion­ship with try­ing to seek approval that nev­er makes me feel good about myself,” she says. Hav­ing gone to LA and learned the lessons it had to offer, French knows exact­ly what she wants — to start per­form­ing reg­u­lar­ly (when it’s safe to do so), to dust off the cob­webs on her mate­r­i­al, and to record her first album-album, as opposed to [an] I‑want-to-doc­u­ment-some­thing album,” as she earnest­ly put it.

Back in the city she loves, French feels per­fect­ly poised to go after her goals. That is proof enough for her, so it’s proof enough for us; stick it in the pudding.

Want to know more about com­e­dy in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia? Mary Jane’s rec­om­men­da­tions for comics to check out from Rich­mond include: Francesca Lyn, Patrick Buhse, Tom Hall, Ran­dolph Wash­ing­ton, Jr., Jacob McFad­den, Amber Hen­drix, Lucy Boni­no, Bran­don Beswick, Tyler Bow­er, and Mon­ty Giles.

If you’re in Rich­mond, Mary Jane rec­om­mends check­ing out the small scene which she’s hop­ing to help build up. The Rich­mond scene, while small brings out lots of tough audi­ences, which she’s found makes comics stronger per­form­ers when they per­form at fes­ti­vals or tour­ing in oth­er big com­e­dy scenes.

Fol­low Mary Jane

Mary Jane can be seen and heard:

  • Top Down Com­e­dy Show­case — August 30th at Bot­toms Up Pizza
  • Femmes the Rules podcast/​live show 
  • Impor­tant Con­ver­sa­tions Over Fruit Chews (Sea­son 1) podcast/​live show
  • Spe­cials — Beard­ed Woman and Live at Gallery 5 avail­able now
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Mary Jane French