Jessica Leigh Gonzales’ Super Serious Guide to Working in the Arts and Actually Surviving

Best piece of advice the comedian gave us? "Always remember how dumb it all is."

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This week, we were thankful for National Coming Out Day. Mostly because of the opportunity to celebrate self-acceptance worldwide, but also because we spent part of the occasion swooning over the kickass Coming Out Day #pingame on Instagram. One of our favorites of these artistically rendered social commentaries, cheekily expressed in tip-top pin-form above, came from the witty mind of comedy extraordinaire Jessica Leigh Gonzales.

Jessica is one of those multi-talented and impressively productive people who haemorrhage creativity and zeal. An actor by trade, she’s worked in classical theatre, commercials, sketch comedy and television. Acting can be a challenging path to forge for oneself, and though Jessica has actually succeeded in doing so, she’s an example of not having to pick a lane and stay within it. On top of everything else Jessica is also a writer, enamel pin witch and improv theater pro, altogether making a solid case for being able to pursue anything you want to as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously.

Like many of those with multiple interests and potentials, Jessica’s career path is windy, random and free-flowing. “I started with classical theatre, and kind of accidentally fell into comedy through commercials (which I kind of fell into in 2008),” she explains. “I got involved with The Upright Citizens Brigade comedy theatre in 2010, and comedy really became my focus. It also helped me explore writing my own material. So I’ve written a number of sketches for myself, and for the sketch team I was on at UCB. I started doing TV in 2012, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” Breaking into telly doesn’t mean she’s just resting on her laurels and cooling her heels, however; when she’s not doing mainstream comedy, she’s pursuing her other passions, such as experimental comedy or enamel pin-making. “I got to take a free graphic design course at USC a couple years ago so I knew how to design the pins and I just said ‘I wanna do this’ and I went for it!

Making a living from artistic passions in particular, whether it be from acting, writing or designing (or all of the above at the same time) can be grueling and uncertain–especially in Los Angeles, which Jessica calls home. We asked Jessica to spill some of her secrets for taking it all in stride and avoiding getting swallowed up by the hustle when you’re getting out there and doing what you like.

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Jess making a mess, photographed by Ana Coto

GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Jess. Can you explain a bit about experimental comedy for those (like me) who don’t really have any idea what it is and are struggling to picture what it looks like?

Jess: I’m part of an experimental comedy collective called Wet the Hippo. Our shows are largely improvised, very physical and committed, and there is no fourth wall between us and the audience, so it’s also very real. Our form is somewhat of a non-form; we’re encouraged to find a “state of play” and beyond that, we can take it wherever we want. So since we don’t really have hard guidelines to stick to, we surprise ourselves and the audience all the time, which is a lot of fun. The work is absurd, funny, even poignant sometimes–and it’s always incredibly dumb.

The Upright Citizens Brigade is pretty well known. In bigger comedy theatres like that, is it like a huge crew there—like a comedy university with big freshman classes—or does it become like a family?

Honestly, it’s a little of both. I can’t speak for every big comedy theatre, but I think UCB really is what you make it. There are the people who go to class but don’t hang out or produce their own work there, and then there are people who eat, sleep, and breathe UCB (and of course, everything in between). For me, it’s totally been like a family; I’ve met so many amazing people through the theatre. In fact, I’m getting brunch with some of my UCB teammates this weekend (that’s what families do, right?)

Kind of relatedly, given how out of one’s comfort zone or “embarrassing” it can be doing improv and comedy, does it create a closer bond with those you do it with?

Oh, absolutely. At Wet The Hippo, we actually had a prompt one day that was literally just “embarrass yourself”. I don’t get embarrassed too easily, so I got up on stage, pulled my pants down just under my butt, bent over a block, sang a song that was out of my range, all while someone spanked my bare butt with a shoe. It was scary and great! When you’re doing that kind of work, as dumb as it is, it’s very intimate because it’s so vulnerable. Watching other people do it, you know what it’s like to be in their shoes up there, so you automatically have a ton of respect for them. We’re all putting ourselves on the line every time we perform. UCB is the same way; we say “got your back” and tap each other’s backs before every show. Also, I’m lucky to get to work with some damn talented and funny people. You want to be close to them because they’re cool!

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A few of the pins made by Jessica – Girl Power Pack sold on her Etsy store

What’s the most noteworthy acting or film experience you’ve had?

Well, that “embarrass yourself” exercise is up there. I studied acting in London in college and got to work with the great Fiona Shaw, which was incredible. She had us blindfolded and we worked with the sounds within the text. I chose to work on this heart-wrenching scene from Snakebit, a play I love by David Marshall Grant. It was a very moving exercise. Fast-forward to earlier this year: I worked on the show Code Black. And the first episode I did was written and produced by none other than David Marshall Grant. That was a pretty cool twist-of-fate, to be able to loop back around and work with someone who helped inspire and shape my work.

Are commercials and TV-work mostly “work”-work to pay the bills, or can they be just as fulfilling as unpaid work? How do you strike a balance between paid-work versus fun-work, like live comedy, pin designing, etc?

I love it all. I mean, would I do commercials if they weren’t paying me? Probably not. But, they’re light and fun, I’ve gotten to do some real cool stuff because of them, and doing commercials affords me the opportunity to do stuff I’m really passionate about. As for TV, I was always a live theatre person, so falling into TV work was actually kind of a surprise for me. The more scripts I read, the more I loved it. I mean, have you seen what’s on TV these days?! It’s incredible!! I am super stoked on TV right now. At the same time, I have an immersive, experimental comedy show in a horror-themed pop-up gallery coming up on the 21st and I’m pumped for that too! Sometimes it can be hard to shift gears between more mainstream on-camera work, and the crazy live shows, but you figure it out, y’know? I think as long as I’m happy and I can afford food and rent, I’ve struck a balance.

You seem really self-motivated, putting yourself out there with comedy and acting, and deciding to just go for it with pin designing. Despite their creative aspects they’re also industries and areas that can be pretty discouraging. And when you’re doing it all yourself, it can all be on your shoulders to handle. Do you have any advice for staying tough through it all?

Always remember how dumb it is. Yes, this work is important. Art is important. But one role isn’t gonna save anyone’s life; it’s not gonna make or break your career. I think once you decide to do what you can, and accept that a lot of it is out of your hands, it’s a lot easier to fail. You can’t get mad at yourself if you tried your hardest. And there are so many opportunities out there, both to collaborate and to just do things on your own. One thing doesn’t work out? On to the m-f- next!

Words to live by. Thanks, Jess!

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Jess doing some live comedy, photographed by Kevin Krieger

Next up for Jess is a one-of-a-kind immersive comedy performance in a horror-themed pop-up gallery. It’s coming up on October 21st at Think Tank in Downtown LA, so if you’re in SoCal, drive on over to catch some halloweenie hilarity – tickets are available here.