Jordan Wieleba runs a monthly standup-and-burlesque showcase, designs many of Denver comedy’s most eye-catching posters, and illustrates books and advocates for LGBTQ causes in between her own stage-crushing sets. While Wieleba has been performing standup since 2006, her life and career really took shape after 2011, when the Denver native came out as transgender. In the years since, both her sense of self-actualization and her comedy have blossomed, and Wieleba has emerged as one of the leaders of this city’s comedy scene. While Wieleba’s list of achievements is already impressive, including a 2013 Best of Denver award for Best Transgender Comedian and her recent participation in both the Women in Comedy Festival in Boston and SheDot in Toronto, this weekend she’ll tackle her greatest project yet: recording her first live album, Estrogentrification, which she'll be recording live at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret at 8 p.m. on June 21 —the closing day of Denver PrideFest.
Westword: You were on last month's Narrators show. How did that go?
Jordan Wieleba: Well, the theme was Nature vs. Nurture, so obviously, I talked about my transition. I had to go up after Anthony Crawford and Aaron Urist, and they were both so funny! I got nervous. I thought, “Oh, shit, was I supposed to be funny? This story isn't funny!”
I think you're just supposed to be honest.
Well, I definitely was.
Was the response good?
The podcast hasn't come out yet, but the audience was great that night — full house. It was a real fun show.
So you’re gearing up to record your album, Estrogentrification.
The title is a delightful bit of wordplay. Is that your creation?
I thought it was until I Googled it.
Yeah, that’s the story with every good pun.
It was part of a bit that I do, and I thought it would make an apt title.
It’s still a good name. You can probably crowd out those other search results.
It’s mine now.
Own it! Had you auditioned a few other venues, or was Lannie’s your first choice right away?
I thought about a few different venues. I actually had three in the running. I was going to do it at Blush & Blu because of my relationship with them, but the room really wasn’t set up for recording. I was going to do Club M, which is attached to Hamburger Mary’s. It’s a really cool spot, but, again, it wouldn’t have worked.
Other than the fact that a lot of new comics say awful, homophobic things, there could be more of a relationship between LGBTQ businesses and comedians, maybe vetted by someone like you, so that some of the grosser elements — I’m not naming names — don’t get mistakenly booked.
Yeah, that’s happened before, and it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But anyway, the Club M thing didn’t happen, and then one of my burlesque friends suggested Lannie’s, so I got ahold of them, and then Lannie herself said, “Yeah, absolutely. You can do the show here.” And I honestly think that it’s the perfect spot for it.
Sure. It’s so classy.
It’s intimate, which is perfect.
Cool historical building. So there’s a burlesque element to your show that night?
Yeah, I have my good friend Cherry Pop Pop Poppins, who’s also a co-producer on my show Something Fabulous.
When did you seize upon the opportunity to build a network between the standup and burlesque scenes here in Denver?
Well, from my understanding, burlesque and comedy go all the way back to vaudeville. There have been comedy-and-burlesque shows before mine, and they all went pretty well. I think it’s a good marriage of entertainments. There can be comedic elements in burlesque, though not all the time. It gives the audience some variety.
Do you think it’s part of the reason that Something Fabulous is so successful?
Oh, yeah. People love the burlesque.
They definitely stay in their seats for it the whole time.
They sure do.
I’m amazed by how inventive they are with their costumes and routines.
They are! They’re incredible! Oh, my God, if I could do burlesque, I totally would. But I do not have the dedication.
It seems frightening to me; it’s a much more vulnerable performance than standup.
It really is. But all the burlesque performers I’ve talked to say, “We could never do standup. That’s just crazy. No way.”
You’ve dabbled in all sorts of creative endeavors, but do you feel like comedy is your preferred mode of expression?
Oh, absolutely. Comedy is not only how I express myself; it’s how I give myself therapy, how I work through things, how I deal with anger issues and depression. It’s always been that way. Standup has become such a relieving outlet for me.
You were performing throughout your whole transition, right?
How have you been preparing to record? What is it, 45 minutes to an hour?
Yeah, I’m going to try and do 45 minutes to an hour. We’ll see. Last time I did that long, I had fifty minutes, and I’ve written a bunch since then. So I’m stringing together all the material I’ve been working on since my transition started. Just putting it all together and sorting it into a story format, like in chronological order.
Sort of like a one-woman show?
Yeah, it’s pretty much a one-woman show laced with comedy.
And it’s all themed around your experiences?
How has it felt to be sort of a public face of transgender issues in this comedy scene? Like after that Best of Denver award?
Yeah, the competition for that one wasn’t too steep, I think. When you’re doing standup, you’re kind of in the public already. And when the transgender issue sort of dominates your material, people are going to associate you with that.
It seems like a big story in the media in general.
Especially now. It’s a hot topic right now. It’s so bizarre to see that, especially after coming out. Now it’s like the quote-unquote tipping point.
I agree that it’s currently the frontier of civil rights. There’s still so much misunderstanding.
There absolutely is.
I remember that we were talking, and you said that you felt like you wouldn’t be able to go on a tour through like, Wyoming or the Midwest and the South, and I remember not being shocked, necessarily, but thinking that it was so unfair. That’s most of the country.
It’s hard enough to be a female comic; it’s even harder to be a female comic with a dick. I can’t just go on the road, go through the Midwest or the South. Colorado is surrounded by red states.
We’re an oasis.
Yeah, so it’s very intimidating. Even going to Colorado Springs is scary, because I haven’t had the greatest experiences down there.
I can only imagine: It’s difficult to find a place to work out headlining sets anywhere.
Are you daunted by that, or just excited?
Both. I’m terrified and I’m really excited. I know that I can do it. It’s just [that] now I have to do it. I think that I’m at a point where all the material I’ve written in the past four years — I think that it needs to be out there in a medium where people can access it. I can’t afford to be a road comic. I’m not a nationally renowned headliner; it’s difficult for me to get on the road. Aside from a few YouTube videos, I’m not easily accessible unless you’re reading my tweets, and let’s face it: Twitter is like the open mike of social media. That’s why I want to to put out an album that will not only speak to the transgender community, but also to the cisgender community.
Or just anybody who likes comedy.
Comedy is a universal language.
Laughter can disarm a lot of people’s preconceived ideas.
Absolutely. There are very few transgender comedians. There are a few people I know of in the States and abroad, and they’re starting to get more recognition. Not only because of everything that’s been in the media lately, but also because it’s become such a civil-rights movement. Voices are starting to be heard now more than ever, whether it be through comedy or music or news or gold medals.
Or Orange Is the New Black.
Laverne Cox is such a loud voice for us.
She’s also probably preferable to a reality-TV star. At least the media had an okay reaction to the whole Caitlyn Jenner story. At least it wasn’t as terrible as it might have been.
Not counting Fox News.
But everyone else was mostly good. It was a difficult week to be on social media, seeing the absolute ugliness of people. It was terrible: Social media was just blowing up with dumb jokes and hateful comments.
At least people were appropriately shamed. Maybe not the anonymous trolls, but anybody remotely in the public eye was disparaged for their transphobic comments. It’s a meek nod in the direction of progress.
It’s not a huge step, but it’s a step in the right direction.
For better or worse, the debate probably wouldn’t have existed before.
I think it was probably a good thing in the long run for someone with that sort of notoriety to come out so publicly without having transitioned before getting famous, like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock. People saw Bruce become Caitlyn, and, God bless her soul, that must have been so terrifying. Especially attached to a family as scrutinized as the Kardashians — it must have been nerve-racking. But the media embraced it, and I think they learned how to ask the right questions the right way, which is a good thing, not only for the transgender community, but for everyone else.
One does hope that better spokespeople will emerge in the future. Maybe that’s just a bias against reality TV.
Probably. There are so many people who thought that it was a publicity stunt for ratings, but who the hell would put themselves through that?
Maybe the producers were opportunistic, but I very much doubt that it was reverse-engineered somehow. No group of executives is cooking up that idea. “You know what? The kids love transgendering these days. How about living the next half as a woman, Bruce?” That never happened.
Segueing back to album questions, who else do you have on the lineup that night?
Chuck Roy is hosting, and Abby Alt is my opener.
How did you and Abby get to know each other? I just suddenly noticed her getting booked everywhere.
I met her at an open mike, and she was just so nice to me.
She’s the nicest. A real crusher, too.
Yeah, she is. And she didn’t give a fuck about my transgender status; she liked me as a person, and as a woman. Since then, we’ve just
become great friends. She’s probably one of the hardest-working comedians that I know of. She’s so nice, she gets booked all the time, everybody loves her. I hang out with her family pretty often; I love them to death, and they love me. She’s become such a close friend of mine and such an ally. I think she’ll be the perfect opener for me.
You recently performed at a pair of out-of-town comedy festivals. The Women in Comedy Festival in Boston, and another in Toronto?
It was in Toronto, at the SheDot Comedy Festival.
How were those experiences? What was it like to be in a sea of unfamiliar comedians?
It was so different and so scary. I’m used to Denver. If I do a show in Denver, I’ll know somebody else on the bill. I’m not afraid of what people might think. I don’t know anybody in Boston. I don’t know East Coast audiences, I don’t know Canadian audiences. I don’t know anybody there. It was so nerve-racking. The only saving grace was that I got accepted into back-to-back female-exclusive festivals, so that excitement kept me going. But the first set I did at the Women in Comedy festival, I was doing everything I could not to throw up on stage. I was the only transgender comic on the entire festival, and I didn’t know how the audience would react. Fortunately, the shows went pretty well. I got over my fear of audiences outside of my own state. I think that was a big step for me personally.
What did you think about the environment at those all-female comedy festivals?
It’s strange. It’s very welcoming. Everybody is very supportive of each other. There didn’t seem to be a lot of competition; everybody there had the same goal. There were some men on the bill at the Women in Comedy Festival. There were 100-plus comedians, so there were guys on the shows. SheDot was female-only. The audiences there just embraced it, maybe even more because it was exclusive to just one gender, but I think they’re both doing a good thing in recognizing female comics.
It does seem like those festivals are necessary right now. And honestly, the atmosphere at “coed” comedy festivals makes you feel like you’re clawing to the top of a pile of bodies to be noticed. That’s encouraging, because it really is so much harder for women who do comedy.
I agree. And I think festivals like that, to use your words, are very encouraging. If I had done some other festival, I don’t know if it would have gone as well as it did.
Did you submit for those? How did that whole process work?
Yeah, I submitted last year for Women in Comedy and didn’t get in! This year I did get accepted, and then the next day I got the acceptance
for SheDot, and they were a week apart, which was scary. I came home for three days to go back to work, but I probably should have stayed out east. It would have saved me some money. It was incredibly validating to be accepted, because I submitted to a bunch of different festivals, and the two that accepted me were exclusive to females. That was just so incredible.
Did it feel like sort of a statement in and of itself that you were accepted to those?
Yes. Absolutely. It validated my gender, not only to a comedy audience where nobody knew me, but also to myself. Honestly, it can be a struggle sometimes here in Denver, because there are comics who knew me pre-transition, and not everybody is as accepting of it as others have been — which is not always pleasant. But going across the country based on people who’ve seen my five-minute tape and said, “She’s a woman, bring her in!” is so reassuring.
It’s also a validation that you’re fucking funny. So we’ve covered a lot; is there something you want to make sure to mention before we start wrapping up?
I am donating all the proceeds from the show to LGBTQ youth programs.
What compelled you to donate the proceeds rather than pocketing them, like most comics — myself included — would have, and how did you decide which program to support?
The LGBTQ youth are very close to my heart. All the kids I’ve met through various programs are such amazing people. I didn’t have that opportunity when I was a kid. Had there been something like that, I might not have waited so long to come out. These kids are being brought up in an environment where they’re told it’s okay to be themselves. That’s such an incredible, amazing thing to me. I want to make sure that I help as much as I can to make sure those programs continue and get the recognition they deserve.
Celebrate Denver PrideFest with Jordan Wieleba, Chuck Roy, Abby Alt and Cherry Pop Pop Poppins, 8 p.m. Sunday, June 21, Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, 1601 Arapahoe Street, $15, lannies.com.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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