No matter how you cut it, stand-up comedy isn’t easy. That said, you’re unlikely to have a smoother entrance to this altogether difficult art form than Christian comedy. Just ask Milwaukee comic “Loveable Mr.” J.J. Harris, whose comedic outset found him performing at churches and birthday parties for lukewarm and polite audiences. Soon, Harris grew “tired of being scared” and shed his clean comedian tag in favor of more honest and slightly grittier material and took the leap to try stand-up in bars, clubs, and makeshift DIY venues throughout the city.
With a staunch belief that “funny is funny,” Harris’ first 15 months of true stand-up after a long-belated start found him employing his distinct and accessible stories on the Hotdogs And Hamburgers tour, at Gilda’s Laughfest in Michigan, as a regular in open mics, and in every conceivable Milwaukee showcase that would have him. Saturday, Harris will add actor to his quickly-growing entertainment résumé when Complete Me, a short film that features him prominently, screens at Milwaukee Art Museum. The night before, Harris will perform a set at Caste Of Killers’ comedy showcase. Before his busy weekend, Milwaukee Record asked Harris about the film, how he’s developed in his first year-plus of (unclean) stand-up, and whether he feels the city’s comedy scene has an unspoken racial divide.
Milwaukee Record: This weekend, you’ll be in a movie—Complete Me—that’s screening. Why did the woman who made this, Melina Neal, approach you? Did she watch you do stand-up, then think you’d be good for the part or have you acted in other things before?
J.J. Harris: I have acted. Me and…the other guy, my co-star…
MR: Yeah, the actual other guy in the movie.
JH: Yeah, we grew up together acting in an acting group that my uncle put together, so we started out together. Then he reached out to me and said he was putting out a movie and asked if I wanted to be in it.
MR: At least based on the art for it, I take it that you’re the husband who may or may not get fucked over at the end. Were there any ways that you used your experience in stand-up with the character? Like, did you try to inject any humor into the role?
JH: I do, kind of, but it’s not a humorous role for me because, as you just alluded to, I get kind of fucked over, depending on how you look at it, so it’s all serious for me.
MR: Was that a hard thing to do or did you just have to look into your own life as a married man and channel how bad the situation would suck?
JH: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been married for 12 years, so it’s not hard for me to put myself into that predicament and realize what I would do or how that would make me feel. That helped me with the role a lot. I’ve never been a movie before, so I’m excited for people to come watch it and hopefully enjoy it.
MR: And the night before that [premiere], you’ll be in the basement of a bar and grill performing stand-up. You’re a year and few months into comedy, right? What has the experience been like? Have you learned anything about yourself? In what ways have you developed over the course of tour time on stage?
JH: The year has been great. When I ended the scene, I never expected to do a lot of the things I’ve already done [since], and I attribute that to steady moving, steady open mics. That’s essentially what it is. Milwaukee has a great comedy scene. You got an open mic from Sunday to Thursday that you can go to and hone your craft. That’s what I did every night, getting stage time. I’m thankful to God, first of all, for the opportunity and for people to see me and think I have the talent to be put on shows and to think that I’m funny.
MR: I’ve seen you at an art gallery, I’ve seen you perform here at Frank’s [Power Plant], Karma, and you have a geek-themed show at 42 Lounge next month, but you’re also doing shows at places I’ve never heard of that are in—as Chastity [Washington] called it—“the urban scene.” You seem to be one of the few comics I know—along with Chastity, Jason Hillman, Matt Werner, Ton Johnson, and a couple others—who can bounce between those differing scenes. Why do you think there is that split between the rooms? Why don’t more comics try to work in both? Is it hard to bounce between two styles?
JH: It is hard, yes, because the cultures are different. For me as a black comic that does—I mean, let’s call it what it is—black and white rooms, I can appeal to a black audience in a different way than a white audience. I try to make my jokes appeal to everybody, but that doesn’t always hit. It doesn’t always cross over, but I just have to do what’s true to me.
MR: Do you adjust what material you use or how you tell a joke to appeal more to a black or white room?
JH: I try not to. I try to write a joke that will appeal to both rooms. Maybe that’s not always the case, but funny is funny. I want to appeal to everybody, not just black or white.
MR: And a lot of what you do is across the board stuff, like stories about marriage and family.
JH: Everybody knows marriage, relationships, and kids. Even if you don’t have kids, you’ve seen kids in action and you can identify.
MR: You started doing comedy a little later than most other comics who are one year in. What ultimately pushed you into finally doing it?
JH: I just got tired of being scared. That’s basically what it is. I started out as a Christian comic, and I was doing churches and birthday parties. Well, they don’t boo you at churches and birthday parties, and they don’t heckle you at churches and birthday parties. So it was a safe zone for me. I was clean, so I could do a joke and whether it was funny or not funny, people might laugh, but nobody would say bad things about me afterwards. I was doing clean comedy, but I wasn’t a clean comic. I thought dirty things; I thought natural things—masturbation! Sex! Dick jokes! Stuff with my wife and jokes about having kids. I got tired of [clean comedy] and I said, “Forget it. I’m just going to get out here and do it and whatever happens just happens.” And it’s been good. It’s been a hell of a ride.
J.J. Harris will perform Friday, July 17 as part of Caste Of Killers’ comedy showcase at Karma Bar And Grill. See him in a screening of Complete Me as part of a Saturday, July 18 double feature at Milwaukee Art Museum. Tickets to the screenings (6 p.m. or 8 p.m. showings) cost $20.