Comedian Janelle James knows what it’s like to be catcalled. Men have shouted just about everything a person could shout at her, from the rude to the accidentally hilarious, from the profane to the bizarre. And, one particularly memorable time, a guy yelled at her, “Smile, bitch!”
James started telling the story during her stand up act, and then she realized the anecdote had the potential to be a full-fledged video. She wrote a script, posted on her Facebook page that she was looking for a cast and crew, and shot the now-viral “Smile Bitch Training Camp.” The short asks, “The demands of life in New York City making it hard to smile all day, every day, like a lady should?” Well, don’t fret; just sign up for Smile Bitch Training Camp, where you’ll learn to smile no matter how dire the real circumstances of your real life may be. Never let your downer expression ruin some random dude’s day again!
I spoke with James by phone today. Read on for her thoughts on comedy, street harassment, and why all the harassers in the video are played by black men. (“I even had a separate section of the sketch that was specifically for a white guy who was going to be the biggest douchebag ever, but he pulled out.”)
What’s your comedy background?
I’m a stand up, and I’m trying to get a writing job — a comedy writing job. I just wanted to show that I can do more than stand up exclusively.
How long have you been doing stand up?
Four years, one here in New York.
So you live in what a person could consider the catcalling capital of America.
Yeah! I guess so. About two years ago, somebody said “smile, bitch” at me on the street, and I thought it was hilarious. It’s always been in the back of my mind… I wanted to do this one and turn it into a sketch. When it happened, I used to talk about it in my stand up. And people say that to me all the time! I have a serious face, I guess. Well, maybe I don’t want to talk to you!
What was the joke like when it was part of your stand up act?
The “smile bitch” wasn’t even the basis of the joke. It was: I hear crazy things from men on the street. That was just one of the examples, and it got a pretty big laugh. But the joke was, someone told me once that I looked like I had a juicy pussy.
“Smile, bitch” was just a build up to that! But I didn’t want to do a sketch about “juicy pussy.” I didn’t think that would go over. And then, I just think that statement, “smile, bitch,” is so absurd. That’s why it turned into this camp, because it’s just an absurd thing that would exist. What was said is absurd, a camp that exists is absurd, and I wanted it to be silly. I really just wanted to make a funny video.
There is this moment in the video, though, when you break in and are really serious.
That’s less of a message than me showcasing my personality. That’s ME. I’m not speaking for anyone else except me in it. I don’t want to be told that. I don’t like to be told what to do for anything. That’s just my personality.
Where did you get the ideas for the specific tropes in this video? Like using the pencils as smile-training tools?
What I wanted to do, I was originally going to have the guys put their fingers in the [girls’] mouths and stretch their faces, but that’s gross. So what can you put in their mouth that’s uniform and cheap? I did [the video] on a thousand dollar budget. And then I saw an internet video that said it’s impolite to smile with teeth in Japan, and so when this company moved their employees to the U.S., they sent employees to this smile training place in order to smile in an American way. So that kind of validated that the idea was a good idea. There are also these Japanese “Happy Smile Trainers” to put in your mouth and force your muscles in that way.
Are you surprised by the response to “Smile Bitch Training Camp” so far? People seem to really be connecting with it.
Again, the video was about me. And now that it’s taken off, I’ve seen, oh! Everybody gets this. The women that are in the sketch were like, “Oh yeah, we want to do that! We hate it too. We don’t like street harassment.” The main girl, Anna Drezen, she was catcalled and followed TO THE SHOOT, at 7 a.m. I had to send one of the guys that was in the sketch to meet her and walk her to the shoot, because she was being followed. And the director, Laura, the same day after we broke, she texted me an hour later to say, “Somebody just said to me, smile.” It’s not something we made up.
What did the guys think?
They didn’t really have a response to the subject matter. We were all just like, this is funny. We’re all comedians. That was it.
Why do you think that this is such a common thing for men to yell at women on the street?
I think that they think it’s a gentler way to harass us, basically. “I’m not yelling at you.” And that’s also why I had the guys in the video, they were so, not soft-spoken, but not aggressive. Obviously I experience that too, but I didn’t want it to be a scary thing. I wanted to show that you don’t have to be in my face or throwing something at me to be annoying or harassing me. Just leave me alone. I think they think they’re being nice. And they have expectations of what women should look like. Or maybe they think they’re cheering us up by saying that. I don’t know. It’s weird.
I also think it’s sometimes hard to explain why it’s so irritating to be told to smile, even though, to women who have experienced that kind of catcalling, it’s so obvious that it’s annoying as hell.
Again, it’s also a build-up. Maybe the first person that told me to smile that day, I’m not pissed. By the fourth it’s like, don’t tell me what to do! It’s less what you’re saying to me and more, don’t tell me what to do. You don’t know me, you’re a stranger, it’s new York, I’ve got things to do.
When did you realize that the video had gone viral? Talk me through the timeline.
I posted it on August 5th, at 11:00 a.m., because we were trying to — there are certain times supposedly it’s best to post to YouTube. And right away, RIGHT away, we had I think 30,000 views in the first 24 hours, 70,000 in two days, and now it’s at 168,000.
And the video has been posted on a ton of other sites.
The Hairpin, Feministing, Jezebel, HuffPo, Gothamist was the first, Refinery29, Clutch. It’s everywhere! And I heard the — I haven’t looked yet but I’ve heard the logo has been co-opted by a porn site.
That’s how you know it’s a big deal! Rule 34.
I’ve made it!
What’s your next project? When can people expect another video?
We’re shooting our next one in a week, and it takes about a week and a half to edit. It’ll be up in about three and a half weeks. And my goal is funny. Even if sends a message and people connect with it, that’s great. But I really just want people to laugh or commiserate… If you make people laugh first, they don’t feel like you’re preaching to them. If you’re telling me something and making me laugh, I’ll be open to it. But I hope the message everyone gets from this is, don’t tell ME what to do.
Is there anything else about the video that you want people to know?
I’ve been seeing on the YouTube comments, the racial aspect, that all the harassers are black. That was something that I super considered when I was casting it, I had a wide array of men that were supposed to be in it, but unfortunately when you’re working on a super-tight budget and you’re not paying people, you don’t always get what you want. Not because I thought the sketch needed it but because I knew this would happen, because of the racial times that we’re in, and how race is treated in this country, I knew that would happen. I even had a separate section of the sketch that was specifically for a white guy who was going to be the biggest douchebag ever, but he pulled out. I had a Hispanic guy who didn’t show up. Now it’s less about the “smile, bitch” and it’s turning into a thing about black men, and that was never my intention. But I wasn’t gonna not do my sketch, because the people who did show up are awesome and hilarious and my friends.
So the cast was unpaid, but you could pay the crew?
I paid the crew: the sound man, editor, director. We had really professional equipment, and I had that for the day. I couldn’t be like, “We don’t have the broad spectrum of people that I wanted, let’s reschedule!” And I feel like now it’s not being shared among black people because they don’t want to deal with that issue.
It’s a balance, right? Because it’s good that people are so vigilant about diversity and inclusivity. And at the same time it’s like, you have to cut people a break and not be so obsessed with filling quotas that no one’s art will ever satisfy you.
The women were such a broad spectrum, and the whole video was supposed to be like that! In the beginning I had a lot of black women and men, and I thought, I can’t do that. It’ll be an “urban’ video. So I had to work with what I had. It’s really upsetting that this part of it comes in. My end goal was funny.
And you’re happy with how it turned out?
I wanted it to be boot camp-style; that’s where the sit-ups came in. the on the street. The psychological intimidation part didn’t come out exactly like I wanted, of [women] just having to be physically intimidated and have to smile through that. [But other than that], the video looks exactly like how I saw it in my head.