Comedy Writer Jenny Jaffe on early success, overcoming struggles, and Project UROK.
February 23, 2015
Jenny Jaffe is someone who follows her passions, be it comedy writing, performing, or helping others. Never one to ask permission, Jenny saw an opportunity to share her struggles and successes with others and founded the non-profit — Project UROK. Jaffe hopes that her experiences, and those of her peers, will help struggling teens to know that they are not alone and that they are okay.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but made a beeline for New York as soon as I could. I was a TV writing major at NYU Tisch, where I was very involved in the comedy scene, especially through my college sketch group, Hammerkatz.
Senior year of college I was hired as a staff writer/cast member at CollegeHumor.
Since then I’ve written for MTV, VH1, Vulture, Bustle, xoJane, and a bunch of live sketch stuff. I’m part of this comedy collective (I know that sounds sort of douchey but it’s the only way to describe it), called Forever Dog.
I’m also in two movies that are coming out this year: SLC Punk 2: Punk’s Dead, and Jack of the Red Hearts.
When did you realize you wanted to write and perform?
I’ve always known I wanted to go into comedy and have always loved writing and performing.
I was one of those musical theater kids growing up, and my school wasn’t particularly arts-oriented, which made me kind of an outlier.
It’s always been very escapist for me — it still is.
It’s how I’ve dealt with my mental health struggles over the years.
What was your first professional comedy writing experience like?
The first time I was ever paid to write something I was 19, and it was a screenplay called Vampire Summer Camp I sold to a small production company. It was 2009 and Twilight was everywhere, so it was sort of a parody of the vampire craze.
The process of selling the screenplay was really kind of a nightmare.
That whole experience was baptism by fire, and the screenplay just sort of sat there at the company in development hell, but it led me to meet some really cool people, and it lent a lot of legitimacy to my dreams of writing professionally.
It was a way of saying, more to myself than to anyone else, “I know I’m going to do it, because I am doing it.”
My first actual comedy writing job I got right before my senior year of college, and that was as a staff writer at CollegeHumor.
That was an incredible entrée into the professionally comedy world that still feels surreal to me. It was an incredibly cool experience.
I was really young and I was still in school, so I was dividing my time in ways that put a strain on my personal and professional lives. I wish I could have worked harder at CollegeHumor.
I was too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate the chance I’d been given. But I’m grateful for it every day.
I really had to learn how to take rejection gracefully and to learn how to value myself for things other than my ability to be funny.
I was very insecure and felt like natural talent was the only thing I was bringing to the table, so when I would get rejected I’d think, “that’s it, I’m not having career success right now so I am a worthless person.”
I’m actually glad I started getting rejected as much as I did. I had a lot of professional success early on and that was very lucky, but I’m luckier still to have learned how to dust myself off when I get knocked down.
Rejection forced me to grow.
It also forced me to start sorting out my self-esteem issues, and it’s led me to have much healthier interpersonal relationships.
What was it like interning for The Colbert Report and the Onion News Network and how did that prepare you for your career?
I mean, it was incredible. Especially to be able to say that I was even a tiny part of The Colbert Report is something I’m going to be proud of for the rest of my life.
In college I got to watch Stephen Colbert do some of the smartest, funniest, and most important comedy in TV history live and up close, night after night.
I am a very lucky lady. Both at Colbert and at Onion News Network I got my first tastes of what it was like to be in a writers’ room and just how much tireless work goes in to putting together a TV show.
I worked long hours for no pay and I adored it — I think it showed me definitively that I was getting into comedy for the right reasons.
In addition to writing you also perform. If you could only do one, which would it be? Why?
Oh gosh. I’d be sad to give up performing, but I will always be a writer first and foremost.
It’s my first love.
Hammerkatz is NYU’s official sketch comedy group, which basically was my entire college experience.
It’s been around long enough that a lot of the alumni are now off doing really cool things. We’re a little mafia of sorts.
David Sidorov, who was director of the group before me, said, “I studied film but I majored in Hammerkatz.” That’s how I feel.
We were all working so hard to put together these free monthly shows that we performed in a crappy theater for drunk college kids in folding chairs, and it’s still some of the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done.
It was done so purely out of love.
It’s where I met some of my best friends. It’s a group passed down through generations, so it still exists today, with a new generation of NYU kids, and they are just killing it. I’m so proud of them.
Nikki & Sara Live
It was my first TV writing job, and I’m always going to be thankful for having been a part of it. I got to watch a brand new TV show grow from the inside. I got to work with some of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
And there is no better feeling in the world than watching your joke get a laugh on live TV.
For comedians, Twitter is like a running resume of jokes. It’s such good joke writing practice, since it forces you to write in a way that’s neat and concise. You get immediate feedback on what jokes work and what don’t.
I know a lot of people who have been hired for writing jobs based solely on the strength of their Twitter.
Plus, on a personal level, I’ve met a lot of friends through Twitter!
Could you be happy doing anything else? Really think about it. Don’t go into comedy unless the answer really, truly, is “no.”
It’s a brutal industry. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. And make your own work. Don’t wait around for someone else to give you a job.
Don’t ask permission to do comedy, just do comedy.
I wish I’d understood that much sooner.
I’m honestly not sure. I believe in going through the open doors, and right now the doors opening to me are in the nonprofit world. I will get back to comedy eventually, hopefully sooner rather than later.
But right now I’m happy working on my nonprofit during the day and performing at night. The eventual goal doesn’t feel as important right now as it used to.
I’m a big British comedy nerd: The Mighty Boosh, Fry & Laurie, Eddie Izzard, and Blackadder have all had a huge impact on my sensibilities.
And Amy Sedaris, Maria Bamford, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. I know I’m missing a ton of people and I’ll kick myself for forgetting them. Right now my biggest comedic influences are the people I’m lucky enough to be working with in Forever Dog.
Project UROK is the biggest thing I’m working on right now. Until it’s officially launched everything else is sort of on the backburner.
And Forever Dog does weekly shows at The PIT on Thursday nights. I also co-host a very, very silly podcast called “Talkin’ Henderson,” with my good friend Joe Cilio.
Project UROK is a forthcoming online network — very similar to CollegeHumor in format, actually — that makes content specifically geared towards teens struggling with mental illness.
I have OCD, Panic Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, all of which led to severe depression; and growing up, it was very isolating.
Project UROK combats that isolation by opening the conversation about mental health in a way that is accessible and relatable for teens.
It’s launching at www.projecturok.org on March 25th!
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for reaching out to me and for the insightful questions!