Meet Jennifer Rawlings: An award winning writer and performer from Salina, Kansas USA who studied biology – but then decided to become a stand-up comedian instead. Jennifer is the proud mother of five children and lives with her family in Los Angeles but often leaves her teenage brood to entertain the troops. Starting with a multi-city gig in Iraq over fifteen years ago, she has since performed over 300 military shows in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, UAE, Djibouti, Bahrain, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Korea, Kwajelean, Guam, Japan, Iceland and dozens of other countries. These visits prompted her documentary directorial debut: “Forgotten Voices: Women in Bosnia” received critical acclaim, was screened at film festivals worldwide and has now become part of the curriculum for Harvard, UCLA and others.
You may have seen Jennifer on Comedy Central, CMT, PBS, FOX, VH-1, A&E, Joy Behar and more – she has shared the stage with everyone from Faith Hill and the late George Carlin to the Vice-President of the United States. Jennifer is a favourite key-note speaker at events across the United States, has written television specials and after dinner speeches for prominent world leaders, a children’s book, numerous magazine articles for national publications including Reader’s Digest, Change.org and also pens a popular weekly blog for Hybrid Mom magazine.
Following on from her experiences, Jennifer has created a unique solo show I only smoke in war zones – a collection of true stories from the battlefield (both at home and abroad), which will have its UK premiere at the St. James Theatre in June (see below for special ticket offer).
Joining me for a cappuccino, Jennifer eludes on making people laugh as a career and how she realised that war continues to destroy people’s lives long after it is officially over…
1. You studied biology – but then ended up as a stand-up comic. What prompted you to take this journey? What is it about stand-up comedy that made it irresistible to pursue?
My father was a lawyer but invested in the local community theatre, which became my start in the performing arts. I first saw stand-up comedy in New York City and thought – wow this is a job?
This is a career? I can do that! For me, stand-up comedy became another way of telling stories because I think there is nothing better than making people laugh. It is also a great foundation to then shift into something else – if people laugh, they listen. Stand-up comedy is great because I can determine exactly what I am going to write, say, perform. Now I use it to start a conversation about other topics.
2. The line between comedy and tragedy has always been a fine one – how would you sum up the difference? How do you incorporate this in your show I only smoke in war zones?
The human mind goes through peaks and valleys – it’s not as simple as just dividing it into comedy and tragedy or comedy and drama. We are much more complex than that. In my show I mix entertaining personal family stories with war zone experiences and jump between comedy and drama constantly covering a whole bandwidth of human emotions.
3. You speak of blurring the line between “us” and “them” through your stories – do you find your role to be a bridge builder between two entities that are actually not that far removed from each other? How do you know when you have built a bridge?
I would love to be a bridge builder! I am not sure if I am but I always personalise my stories, that’s very important. So it’s not just about “the girl in a town who was shot”. I always give people names, identities, a place, a background, detail. It makes the audience realise that this could be them and stops them buying into their usual formula of what they are used to believing about war.
People usually have strong rather than subtle reactions to my material. I remember doing a show in New York where I was telling a particularly harrowing war story. A guy walked in to join a table just at that moment and suddenly loudly said F********! Not an uncommon audience reaction to my show.
4. Forgotten voices – women in Bosnia: What was your biggest challenge creating this documentary? Did the women want to talk about their experiences and if not, what methods did you use to connect and get the insight you were hoping for?
The biggest challenge about creating this film was – me. I had no experience, no technical skills, and no money. I was very lucky to receive financial input and support from friends (who incidentally made all their money back!). I am generally not a planner so I literally bought a train ticket and a camera and headed to Bosnia. Once I arrived, I decided to spend some time in a bar as it seemed a good place to meet different types of people. Everyone was very welcoming and I had no trouble talking to different people about their thoughts and experiences – they wanted their stories to be heard and validated. Through the bar I ended up being introduced to many more women and travelling all over Bosnia to interview from all backgrounds. Again, my main challenge was me – trying to figure out all the buttons on the camera! I learnt how to broach delicate subjects carefully and would usually start by asking women to tell me about their happiest moment.
The main through line that kept repeating itself was: Why did I suddenly have to hate my neighbour? Yesterday we were friends and now I am supposed to hate you? Why?
5. When writing your shows, book and articles, do you ever ask for input from others?
I basically “throw up” on the page and then run stories by my family. With me, it’s a case of asking for forgiveness rather than permission from my children for including them in my material!
I read a lot for inspiration and if I am stuck I go swimming or do needle work to formulate my ideas. With I don’t smoke in warzones I was very lucky to start at the Cornelius Street Café in New York City, where The Vagina Monologues was also originated. The owner first heard me tell my war stories and encouraged me to turn them into a solo show.
6. Though no doubt audiences connect universally on the same emotional levels to your stories, do you ever find that some cultures react differently to varying styles of humour?
I have to say that usually my audience reacts very similarly with emotions ranging from horror to empathy. The American approach tends to be more casual but all in all, audiences have been very similar across the globe. Most tend to have some sort of “aha” moment. Mine was when I arrived in Sarajevo having just come from Baghdad and realised that both were in exactly the same destroyed state even though the Bosnian war had finished ten years ago. I suddenly realised that war continues to destroy people’s lives long after it is officially over.
7. How has performing in war zones affected your family and personal life? How would you feel if your children joined the army or navy?
I would always want to support my children to pursue their dreams. I am very proud that they all show a great deal of empathy – I believe this is down to the fact that I have always involved them in the stories related to my various trips and experiences. They have also always encouraged me to “do something” – that I have an obligation to others to share what I have witnessed.
8. What was your most inspirational military travel experience and why?
I would say probably my first ever trip to Iraq where I performed 26 shows in 24 locations in 12 days. One night I was so physically and emotionally exhausted that when a bomb went off I ignored the evacuation advice, rolled over thinking “f*** it” and just went back to sleep! There was also an incident in Iraq in 2004 where I was being shot at while running to be rescued by a Black Hawk helicopter, when my mobile phone rang. It was my son back home complaining that his brother had eaten all the snacks and that I should go and buy some more!
9. What are your future ambitions, career and personal?
A big glass of wine!
10. Who is your inspiration? What do you think makes an inspirational woman?
My inspirations are the people I come across in every-day life. An inspirational woman is someone who paves the way for other women and helps them conquer their goals. It’s all about actually actively living the sisterhood that we claim to be.
I believe that the world would be a better place if we truly lived how strangers perceive us to be.
Jennifer will be appearing at the St. James Theatre with I only smoke in war zones – a collection of true stories from the battlefield (both at home and abroad) on Monday, 1 June at 8pm.
SPECIAL OFFER! RECEIVE £5 OFF ANY PRICE BAND! TICKETS FOR £12.50 (WAS £17.50) AND £15 (WAS £20) – excludes standing tickets
To claim this offer, please use the promo code ‘warzones’ and book through the box office on 0844 264 2140 or online here
For further information about Jennifer, please also see www.jenniferrawlings.com