Snap Judgment's James Judd on How to Overcome Stage Fright and What Makes a Good Story
James Judd performs as the closer for Snap Judgment, which comes to the Valley live this Sunday at Mesa Arts Center.
For six years, casual public radio listeners and die-hard Snappers alike have come to recognize Glynn Washington's comforting, yet compelling voice. As the host of NPR's Snap Judgment, Washington introduces audiences to stories both familiar and extraordinary on his weekly show of narrative non-fiction, with only a hint of dramatic flair.
James Judd might be the complete opposite of that.
Heard regularly on Snap episodes and, more frequently, as "The Closer" for Snap Judgment Live shows, Judd's style is both deeply theatrical and completely recognizable. At times his storytelling is reminiscent of everyone's outrageous friend, the one who gets himself into precarious situations — from an "accidental" run-in at a whorehouse in China to a true man-versus-shark battle in the open ocean — and can't wait to tell you all about it, capturing everyone's attention at a party. Other times you may find yourself wondering just how much community theater this guy did in college. And it may surprise you to learn that actually, he went to law school, and boy does he have some stories.
He'll be telling one this Sunday when Snap Judgment Live comes to Mesa Arts Center for a night of its signature "storytelling ... with a beat" on stage. And for a guy like Judd, who took an anecdote about a grade-school book report and turned it into a 30-minute long emotional journey, nothing is off limits and everybody has a story to share.
"I always tell people to get out there and tell a story," the humorist tells New Times during a phone interview. "You don't have to do it with the aim of doing it professionally or doing it on a big stage, but to get up and tell a story. It's enormously empowering and it's an experience that I wish everybody could do: Get up and tell a story about yourself in front of an audience."
New Times: Your career reminds me a little of a Venn Diagram: you've been described as a comedian, storyteller, monologist—
Judd: And a humorist. [laughs]
And a humorist. Which do you prefer?
The humorist one is kind of the latest one that I've heard. There's not one that really explains exactly what I do. Storyteller, actor, comedian, humorist — none of them are quite right. None of them really fit the storytelling movement either, because even the word "storytelling" isn't quite right. What we're really talking about is autobiographical, sort of confessional essays. So, am I a live, confessional essayist? [laughs] I don't know. The funny thing is [storytelling], it's such a huge movement now. They're everywhere: They're on every Monday night slow night at a bar.
If I have to pick one, humorist sounds good, but you still couldn't tell what it is that I'm doing just from hearing the word, right? It doesn't say whether you're funny in person or on stage or is it radio. Nothing really fits.
Actually, I like to refer to myself as an NPR superstar. I don't know how NPR feels about that, but it doesn't stop me from doing it. [laughs]
Yeah, you and like, Audie Cornish. You mention something that I want to talk about, which is that "storytelling" is everywhere. That's true in Phoenix. We get national acts like The Moth and Snap Judgment coming through, but we also have weekly and monthly open mics, readings, and rehearsed, themed events.
You know, I came there and I did a show in Scottsdale at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and it was packed. And it was really good. It was really, really well produced, but you're right, it's everywhere.
With all of these events you get a lot of like, your neighbors standing up and telling a story. And it makes me wonder, what separates a story that you tell at a party from one that you can tell on stage? Or is that how all of your stories start?
They do, but they start that way intentionally. They always start with one bit really. One little story, like I went to the North Pole to find polar bears — which I did — and then some little bit that you tell people once to see if you get a reaction, and then you tell another hundred times, and if there's sort of a consistent reaction then I start to see, "Well, is there a whole story there that I can tell?"
But then what really separates the people who do this professionally from the people who get up and tell a story at a party is decades of stagecraft and experience. I was an accidental stand-up comedian — but a pretty successful one — in my 20s, and all that stage time and rehearsals and horrible situations come into play in being able to pull off a good story.
Do you think that anything can be a story? Is a story its content or is it its presentation?
A story is its content, above all else. The elements of a good story have to be present [and] there's not just one set of elements, there's many. You have to have a good story, because the best presentation won't put over a bad story.
At the same time, without those presentation skills the story is not gonna fly in front of a large group of people. There's a big difference between telling the story at a party where you can do it casually and doing it in front of, you know, 2,000 people. The story is always first, but depending on where you're gonna tell it, the importance of the presentation skills come in.
What makes a good story in your opinion?
It's gotta have two main things I think. It's gotta be true; it's gotta be a true story about yourself. It's gotta be personal. I think that there's just a craving — I saw a story in the New York Times this week about how this is the age of kale. It was talking about our need for wellness activities and insight into ourselves and this movement that is very popular right now. I think storytelling goes along with that. So, not only does it have to be a true story about yourself, because people sort of crave that realness, but it has to be something at stake emotionally. There can't be a story about someone else's dog getting lost; it has to be a story about your dog and what that meant to you.
People want to hook into that emotional connection, and I think that that emotional arch of a story is more important, almost, than the words that are said. If you ask anybody who just came out of a comedy, a really funny movie, they say that movie was hilarious and I totally cried at the end. If you ask them to recite any of the lines from the movie, they probably wouldn't be able to do it — but they definitely can follow that emotional arch.
You mention that article, and that taps into something — I feel like we're sharing more now, as a society. And I don't know if that's because of some sort of movement or if that's something else we get to blame social media for.
We've learned to share via social media. We've learned to share a sentence a day or 10 times a day on Facebook. [laughs] We've learned to share in a way, throw something out into the public sphere. But it's a big jump to go from writing something on Facebook where you're not looking at people — and you also don't get an instant reaction — to standing on stage telling the same thing to people, and you get an instant reaction. I think one kind of leads to the other, you know? We're now more interested in the minutia of other people's daily lives, which we've gotten from Facebook. 'Oh look, my baby ate a whole piece of solid food today.' [laughs] Things you'd never be interested in seeing. Now we've sort of conditioned ourselves to hearing a whole story about somebody.
But at the same time, with live storytelling, the desire for that is also caused by the sort of over-dependence on technology. It's both, I think. I don't think without the social media thing that we've gone through, I don't think storytelling would be having this moment. But I also think it's a reaction to social media dependence. Addiction, really.
Do you think it makes audiences more receptive? What makes an ideal audience?
I never notice any sort of difference in audiences geographically around the country. When we played in LA I thought, 'Oh my god, these people are going to be really uptight and judgmental.' You know, people in LA don't like to laugh, they like to say, 'That's funny.' So I was all prepared for that. That turned out not to be true. In New York, I thought, 'Oh, these New York people are going to be a tough crowd.' They weren't. The experiences have kind of been the same everywhere we've gone with these big shows, so I think that it's a movement that's time has really come.
People are definitely hooked on getting too much information from people. We can share these horrible things like, 'I threw up in my meeting today at the office,' and it goes on Facebook and a hundred people "like" it. We've gotten used to people blurting out too much information, so now you want a little bit of a long-form [laughs] story. But I have to say, I'm always surprised at how much people enjoy it. I always think it's going to be a tougher sell than it is. These shows sell out really fast and the people there are pumped up to hear this. Sometimes, I'll be thinking, 'Oh my god, the show's going on too long, the audience is getting edgy.' It's never true. I don't know that I have the answer to that, except that all the concerns and the fears, the baggage I carried with me when I was a stand-up comic in my 20s, it's just never the case anymore. Nobody heckles. [laughs]
Snap Judgment is known for its use of music, and how they weave music into the stories. How important is the inclusion of music, and how does that change your approach on stage?
For me personally, I can't hear anything. I have like 30 percent of a normal person's hearing; I'm functionally deaf. And when I'm in the moment on stage I have almost no concept of the band being there with me or what they're playing or what they're doing. I just hope that it's going well, because I'm so focused on the audience and what I'm doing that it just vanishes. I'm somewhat aware it's there, but I block it out. I know that in rehearsals with the band I do sometimes start to speak in rhythm with the music of the band — but that never actually holds up in performance, and I try to break myself away from doing that. Because it's not my job to speak-sing along with the band, but it can be tempting to do that.
But it's back to that emotional arch thing: the music taps directly into your emotional core. If you hear a certain beat that energizes you, then you are instantly energized. If there is some sort of sound that makes you feel any sort of certain emotion, it does that. The purpose of the band isn’t necessarily to telegraph emotions, because that would be corny. But I think that it can really accentuate the emotional journey that you're taking with the storyteller. It's a benefit. Also it's just really cool. It sounds really cool, and now they've hired an actual pre-existing band to accompany us called Bells Atlas. They're a band with multiple albums and this is the first time it's not a band that was created for Snap, but a band that has come in to collaborate with Snap. So far the rehearsals are really cool, it's a really different experience. It's a bigger band and a very unique sound, I think it's going to be very exciting.
What other storytelling podcasts should Snap listeners be listening to?
There's a show called Risk out of New York City that is recorded in front of a live audience — and that's my sort of favorite recording. There's many, many good podcasts out there, but I like that Risk really is a place where you can do very edgy material that you couldn't do in front of anyone else.
There's some really good smaller podcasts that people should be listening to like, I Love A Good Story out of Los Angeles. I don't know the names, but there's a lot of stuff happening out of Chicago. Chicago's kind of an epicenter for the movement right now. Things are always happening there. So I would say anything out of Chicago, but even more importantly: find something local. Find where the local podcast is being done — and if it's being done in front of a live audience, go be a part of it, because that just makes the experience so much richer.
What advice do you have for those who have stage fright? Do you tell people to imagine the audience in their underwear, or do you have an actual tip?
No, my actual tip is to remember the audience is on your side. The audience wants you to do well, people aren't there to see you fail, they want to see you succeed. Take that nervous energy and use it to energize yourself. I think a lot of the times, if you get up during a meeting at your office, half the people there are really hoping that you're going to bomb, because there's office politics in play. And when you get up in front of your family, there's so much subtext going on that it sucks. But when you get up in front of a group of strangers, you've got to put it into your head that those people are there to see you. They want you to do well; they are supporting you. You shouldn't have that fear of an audience. It's easier to perform in public than it is to perform in front of a family member.
I've never really considered that, but I think that's probably true.
It's absolutely true. A very important rule for comedians is never, ever, ever try out material on your wife, your husband, your parents, your siblings. You never, ever share your material with your immediate family. You just don't do it, it never turns out well. And you really don't do it for your friends either. In reality, you're sort of assuming a different persona — more in stand-up comedy, where people just say anything. But anyway, it's easier to perform in front of a group of strangers than it is in front of your family. Just accept the fact that you're nervous, and get out there and do it. Just do it!
Snap Judgment Live comes to the Ikeda Theater at Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, this Sunday, September 18. Stories start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($32 to $47) for this one-night-only show have since sold out, but a waitlist option is available at boxoffice.mesaartscenter.com. For other details, call 480-644-6500 or visit mesaartscenter.com.
Snap Judgment airs Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m. on the Valley's NPR affiliate, KJZZ 91.5 FM. For more on the show and a full list of Snap episodes, head to snapjudgment.org. For information on James Judd's solo performances and tours, go to jamesbjudd.com.
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Sun., Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m.