Over the last few years, hordes of reports have emerged illuminating the sexual misconduct of some of the most celebrated male comedians and actors to date. Stories about Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Kevin Spacey, and many more stars have prompted movements such as the #MeToo movement, creating new spaces for women to showcase brilliant comedy, writing, and production. These women aren’t just claiming spaces in the big leagues, though, as the effects of whistleblowing have trickled all the way down into the amateur comedy circuit. In an interview with Reach Houston, Houston’s own Julia Serrano gave us an inside look into the city’s amateur comedy scene as she recounts how she got started performing and what the business looks like for women in 2020.
Madison: Where are you from?
Julia: I was born and raised in Houston, specifically in Alief. A lot of my family members immigrated from El Salvador to get away from the civil war that was going on. We’d spend our vacations flying there or road tripping to California to visit family.
Madison: When did you know you wanted to start doing comedy?
Julia: It was 2014 while I was living in Austin. I was 19 years old and working as a server assistant. I bamboozled myself and fell off of my bike. My front tooth was completely knocked out. It was a nightmare, I had no dental insurance, and I was broke. I had to walk around without a replacement for months. I managed to get through an embarrassingly long and trying time because I used humor to avoid crying all the time. I can’t specifically pinpoint an “a-ha!” moment, but this accident is ultimately what led me to write material to prepare for an open mic.
Madison: When and where was your first set?
Julia: After I moved back to Houston that same year. I came running back once my lease was up. I was looking for open mics online and ended up at Saint Dane’s. I went to scope it out and the following week I signed up and bombed so hard. It was awful.
Madison: You bombed?! How?
Julia: I didn’t know how to write jokes yet. I was nervous, so I spoke for five minutes straight. Saint Danes is a bar and grill type of place with a lot of flip flops and khaki shorts going on. The people that went there ignored the comedy.
Madison: So what made you decide to keep doing comedy after that?
Julia: Before I actually went up that night, I went to three or four open mics, which eventually gave me the confidence to go up. But part of why I kept going back was because I wanted to get better. I saw comics bomb time and time again, but still end up on showcases, so I figured I could do it. I was working as a prep cook at the time, so I was constantly surrounded by foul-mouthed, disrespectful men. I figured I could handle comics, since I had dealt with worse.
Madison: Tell me about your best and worst sets.
Julia: The best set I’ve had is when I featured for Rhea Butcher. I had taken a three-week break from drinking, I put my jokes under a microscope and really focused on doing my best. It was in the Main Room at The Secret Group and my first feature set, so I didn’t want to ruin it. I remember hearing one of my friends “cacklish” laughter from the back of the room and it felt really good, but none of that matters when later you’re eating shit at the bottom of a movie theater and there’s a woman gnawing on a pickle three rows in front of you, which was the worst set I’ve had. I did a five-minute set and introduced a movie for an early screening at a MOVIE THEATER. It was awkward to stand at the bottom of this dimly-lit, huge room. The worst part is that I didn’t discuss my rate, so I didn’t get paid for that. That was definitely a lesson learned.
Madison: Where do you frequently perform?
Julia: The Secret Group is where I mainly perform, as there’s a show going on almost every night of the week. I also perform at places like Avant Garden, Rudyard’s, Axelrad, and Liberty Station often.
Madison: Can you speak about your specific experience as a woman in the comedy scene? Have you noticed that male and female comedians are treated differently?
Julia: Working in standup means I’m usually on a lineup that consists of all men and maybe one other woman. I’ve had some hosts introduce me and mention my gender and/or appearance even though they’d never introduce John Doe as “one of the funniest boys in the scene.” I have noticed the way we’re treated differently, but I’m trying to use this to my advantage because I’m tired of being angry. I used to focus on the men that weren’t laughing at my jokes while I was on stage, but that’s changed. Now I look at the women cracking up instead and it’s rewarding.
Madison: Who are some of the major influences on your comedy?
Julia: For specifically standup comedians, it’s people like Morgan Murphy, Nate Bargatze, Tom Segura, and Sarah Silverman. However, my father is also someone who has influenced me. I grew up watching him tell stories that made people laugh, so I mimicked that behavior as a kid. I would reenact sketches from All That and do silly voices to make my friends laugh.
Madison: Who are some of the comedians you work with that have influenced or encouraged you? How?
Julia: Bryson Brown, Zahid Dewji, Andy Huggins, and Chase DuRousseau, to name a few. They’re all hard-working comedians that constantly work on their craft, they don’t gloat, and are just really funny people. My comedian friends have offered tons of encouragement. Some have helped me learn about the business side of standup, given me advice, called me out on my shenanigans, or just been there after a nasty bomb.
Madison: Who is your favorite local amateur comedian? Why?
Julia: Zahid Dewji is my favorite comedian in Houston. We started doing standup around the same time and over the years I’ve seen him produce and host many shows in the city, and he’s done graphic design for countless show posters. He genuinely cares about the scene in Houston getting better and he has been a part of the growth that has happened in the past four years. He’s also my favorite because he is one of the comedians that holds others to a higher standard.
Madison: What is expected of an audience during an amateur comedy set?
Julia: No heckling, give your undivided attention, and laugh! Don’t be a bitter ball of hatred. There are times where it seems like the audience has collectively agreed to not laugh at anything. Audible laughter is important.
Madison: Are you and your fellow comedians paid for your time or work? Do you think the pay is fair?
Julia: Sometimes we’re paid, sometimes we aren’t. It’s a case-by-case thing. I think for the most part, the pay is not fair. I’ve had to host a show where I don’t get paid while the comedians are paid $2 for their ten-minute sets. I can’t do math, but that’s around $0.20 per minute, which is degrading.
Madison: So, do you have to work other jobs in order to support your craft? How does this affect you and your craft?
Julia: Of course I do! There is no way I could survive off of $30 a week. Being a server isn’t ideal, so it is frustrating to have it get in the way of standup when it happens. But for the most part it makes it easier because of the flexibility, as I can usually swap shifts with a coworker if I need. Mentally, though, it’s exhausting.
Madison: What does comedy mean to you? How has it changed your life?
Julia: Comedy is the most cherished thing in my life. When I was a kid I dreamt of being an actor, but lost that dream when I was a teenager; I never thought it was an attainable goal. Even after starting comedy and getting into a groove, I’ve tried quitting a couple of times. But, I couldn’t stay away. For a long time, I thought my feelings, beliefs, and who I was didn’t matter. I felt like I was going through life living a meaningless existence. Then I learned that I had the ability and vulnerability to fail time and time again, turn nothing into something, and make people laugh. It’s taught me how to be myself, how to fail, and has allowed me to meet incredible people. Standup comedy changed me forever.
Madison: Is there anything else you want the readers of ReachHouston to know about you or the local comedy scene?
Julia: Yes! I’ve had conversations with people where they talk about how awful the comedy scene is, but I’ve noticed they’re usually talking about open mics. Which, yes, they can be brutal, but don’t let that skew your perception of the comedy scene. There are so many hilarious comedians in Houston. Come out to shows! Be aware of the differences between a “showcase” and an “open mic,” because that will usually determine the quality of the show.