Meet Janice, and Get to Know Lesbian Comedic Talent Mollie Merkel

IFC just rolled out the hilarious new web series Janice and Jeffrey starring Mollie Merkel, who also created the series, which she recently sold to the online platform. The comedy is about a motivational speaker/recovered lesbian who undergoes therapy to try to address her intimacy issues with her husband. It’s super gay, witty, and fun, and if you’re a lesbian of a certain age and place, highly relatable. But even if you’re not, you’re going to love Janice.

Meet Janice and Jeffrey, your average definitely-not-denying-their-sexuality couple. Their relationship needs a spark, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to find it.

The first 6 episodes are now available to stream, and if you love them as much as we did, then you’ll definitely appreciate Mollie Merkel’s other comedic work, like this L.L Bean commercial that satirizes being a closeted lesbian. In fact, it is in this commercial that you should meet Janice, because you’ll quickly come to understand how she might be a tad frustrated by her marriage to Jeffrey. Haven’t we all known a Janice?

We love that Mollie invents lesbian characters to play, because we at AfterEllen are always discussing the lack of lesbian and bi characters on TV and in movies. One topic of conversation around here recently has been how emerging lesbian actors can find lesbian roles. Obviously, actors are actors and can play a character regardless of sexual orientation, but many young actresses we’ve spoken to have expressed an interest in finding lesbian specific roles, and it’s a struggle. That’s why it’s so great to see an actor like Merkel take matters into her own hands as both an actor and writer. Our staff wanted to know more, so we sat down with Merkel to ask about her process, her career, and how being a gay woman has influenced the characters she plays. Do you ever feel that as a lesbian comedian, you need to tailor your characters and humor towards a straight male audience in order to be seen/heard?

Mollie Merkel: I don’t feel I have to, no, not at all. If anything I’m trying to impress women. Specifically Julianne Moore, Helen Hunt, and any supermodel. Just kidding. I just try to have fun and create what feels authentic and what I find funniest. If anything I use comedy to cheer people up or connect.

AE: How did you get your start? Were you open about your sexuality from the beginning of your career?

MM: I was kind of a late bloomer in comedy as far as seeking it out as a profession, as I spent most of my life in high competition level athletics. I always did characters for close friends and family but other than that I was pretty shy. I played Division 1 soccer at a very high level and by my senior year, all I wanted to do was watch Brokeback Mountain, paint, and research comedians. I noticed a trend. That all the good ones were going to Chicago –  so I moved there that summer without any second thoughts. I got an apartment around the corner from the famous Annoyance Theatre where the legendary Mick Napier taught and ran the theatre.  I didn’t even plan that location but it must have been a synchronicity. He directed Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, and Paul Dinello in Exit 57. I signed up for the class at the theatre and then Mick asked me to be in a Burlesque show he was directing. My first teacher asked me to be in her show she was directing and we all just started practicing and trying things out. At that point, I didn’t have a strong sense of my sexuality as it mainly belonged to my soccer ball, Ms. Nike. I met a girl in improv level 1 that was an older business woman but doing improv for fun.  She was the first lesbian I’d met that was actually out and I was also for the first time in a sense more “free” to explore. I invited her home for Christmas as a friend and I kissed her under my brother Jude’s Michael Jordan and Larry Bird Posters. I also brought my parents Boss CD player in and played David Gray because I’m a romantic. So, I guess she instigated me diving into my sexuality again post sports. But the Annoyance Theatre made it easier to be who you were sexually because that’s what Mick was all about. I find it easy to be out if you are in love. It’s just easy.  And that could even be as simple as loving yourself enough to say, “this is who I am.” If you have not met that special someone. I hope this answers the question.

Mollie Merkel

AE: Do you ever “play straight”? Why/why not?

MM: I’d love to play straight. Anything where I’m a vessel and telling a story and trying to be vulnerable.  It’s fun to become someone else and feel what they feel. It broadens your perspective. I’d love to play a girl that was just totally free spirited and open.  That’s what I’m putting out there in 2018. Trying to do something closer to myself with no masks. But I love the masks too. That’s a part of me. Just trying to embrace it all and not take myself so seriously.

AE: What is the biggest struggle for you in being in such a male-dominated industry? Do you ever feel that because there is such little room for women in the comedy world, there’s even less room for lesbians?

MM: I try not to think like that.

Thinking there is not enough is thinking in a scarcity mindset. I feel if you tap into your source and do your thing, you realize there is enough to go around for everybody.  It may not be in a Kevin Hart movie, but then again is that what you really want?

AE: Are there comedy clubs/groups for lesbians? If not, do the lesbians in the comedy industry still tend to stick together?

MM: There is a gay kickball team I’m on with lesbian comedians and gay comedians.  And we all support and love each other. Everyone is very talented and I draw a lot of inspiration from being around both parties. So it doesn’t have to be gay or straight.  As long as you feel like you belong with people and you can be yourself, that’s the healthiest way for me to enter groups and hangout sessions. I try to surround myself with funny, open, and kind people.  However they identify sexually it does not matter to me.

AE: Who are some of your favorite characters you’ve invented? And how do you think your life experiences as a gay woman have influenced the invention of those characters?

MM: Whatever is exciting me at the time I explore. My characters tend to razz their husbands a lot because I imagine their husbands are never tuned into the characters sexual or emotional needs –  a theme I see in the world thatIi try to explore. I generally generate characters like this:  If I encounter someone that I find endearing, or they make me laugh, or they are so dynamic I kind of just can’t get enough of them, I decide to fully embody them.  Then I take a topic that I want to satirize and add that to the character. Then I add something funny physically like a mannerism or an outfit that is very specific to them.  An example would be Janice. I heard her voice on and she was just so… herself. At the time I was coming out of the closet and my parents rejected me pretty hard.  So, I went into the mirror in my studio apartment and started practicing her voice and then added her addiction to women. I made myself laugh at my lowest point so I thought I could give that to others who also felt down and out and ashamed at something they were going through.  Then I decided she would wear corduroy head to toe, because I have an absurd brain and that’s just fun for me to get outside of myself. When I discovered the holiday, National Corduroy appreciation day, which is coincidently my mothers birthday, 1/11, I merged the two. I try to always make my comedy inclusive or teach lessons.  So everyone I’ve met connects with Janice. Lesbians, Gay Men go nuts for her, straight men love her (not romantically) and straight gals also get a kick out of Janice. I think there is a little Janice in everyone because we all experience shame and that is the root of why I created her. To overcome my own and help others with theirs.  I think growing up with 3 older brothers I just sort of was on level playing field. I think in anything if you can master a craft you will not be discriminated against. Like Ray Charles was blind but became so good at piano and writing songs no one could deny his greatness. So I try to stay craft oriented and get lost in the love of creating something I find joy in. That’s when the magic happens. To be seen and heard I think you have to be yourself.  That’s what people connect to.

AE: Do you have any famous lesbian role models that you particularly look up to?

MM: Yes! This question is easy for me.

Tig Notaro – I adore her comedy and looseness.  I also love that she overcame cancer and the grief of her mother’s death and was brave enough to share her story. She is one of my favorite live performers and I try to see her once a month at the Largo.  She always speaks so highly of her wife and encourages her career, which I love in any relationship.

Ellen DeGeneres – She inspires me to not take myself so seriously.  She’s probably one of the greatest standups ever and she’s generous.  She’s a great interviewer and makes others look good. She also seemingly seems devoted to her wife and has always pursued her love of comedy.  We also share a love of characters and get a kick out of people. I love Ellen.

Elizabeth Gilbert – She’s unconventional and spiritual and I love her writing.  She entered a relationship with her best friend while she was dying of cancer and that is pretty darn inspiring to me. Most people are too scared to go there.

More about Mollie Merkel including her entire character reel can be found on her website: