|Photo: Phil Provencio|
Years ago, New York–based comedian Shalewa Sharpe worked at a 24-hour porn store in her native Atlanta. Living in a very car-centric society, Sharpe walked home after her shifts at an hour much closer to sunrise than sunset, frequently dropping into a grocery store to pick up frozen pizza, cookies, and ice cream. After seeing Sharpe there night after night, an older woman who worked at the store asked her if there was something wrong. “Nothing is wrong; I’m just getting some dinner,” Sharpe responded. To that the woman said, “So, you just out here?”
Sharpe adopted the open-ended question — which really resounded as more of a judgment on Sharpe’s station in life — into something of an ethos, telling friends and colleagues who’d ask about her, “I’m just out here.”
After coming to comedy much later than your average performer, Sharpe is still very much out here. A fixture in the New York comedy scene, namely in alt rooms, Sharpe has a new album out August 19 on Little Lamb Recordings, appropriately titled So, You Just Out Here?
Vulture recently chatted with Sharpe — while she sat behind her desk at her day job as an office manager — about finding her way onstage for the first time in her late 30s and how she’s been able to prioritize stand-up ever since.
Congratulations on the album! It seems like, during this past year especially, things in your comedy career are really starting to come together.
Yeah, 2019 has been a little nuts for me, but in a good way. In addition to the album coming out, my appearances on The New Negroes and 2 Dope Queens aired too, so it’s been a lot!
With all this going on, it must be particularly special for you because you’ve taken such a unique road to get to this point in stand-up comedy. Tell me about it.
I started in my late 30s, about ten years ago. It was kind of like getting started on my bucket list early. I had always wanted to try stand-up since I was about 15. When I gave it a shot, halfway through my first set I thought, Oh, I have to do this for the rest of my life, and just made the necessary adjustments in order to do so.
I started in Atlanta at an open-mic night at a dive bar called Star Community Bar. It’s still going; it’s one of the best shows in Atlanta, in my opinion, because it’s an actual show. It’s not what you may think of when you picture an open mic where there’s a lot of floundering. There’s an actual audience. It fell on a Monday night, so there was a lot of service-industry people there who were very honest in their reactions. It was kind of the beginning of what seemed to be a comedy boom in Atlanta, so people were just throwing up shows wherever they could, and I would go to those as well.
I came into the game with a lot of people who were young and had energy, and I had to drink a lot of caffeine to try and keep up with them. My day job was with Big Champagne, which was like a media-measurement company that came up with data for record labels, charts, and radio stations so they would know how to program plays or market artists. We just kind of kept track of how popular musicians were online. It was kind of a dream job for me, actually, because I came from music retail, a real High Fidelity background of sitting amongst the vinyl and judging people. That position marked the first time in a long time where I didn’t have to work two jobs, and so I had weekends free. I just thought I’d give comedy a try and see what happened, and then, ultimately, that became my second job.
Then I moved to New York in 2013. After I came here, my main concern was to find an open mic that I liked. I was taking a very slow track. I was like, Well, they say it’s gonna take, like, 20 years before anyone shows interest in you, so I’ll spend the first two years looking for an open mic. I was really budgeting my time that way. [Laughs.]
How long did it take?
It took maybe a month. It was a mic at a bar called Freddy’s in Park Slope, run by Christian Polanco. He’s just the sweetest guy and I was instantly comfortable, so I felt fine saying things I’d said before. One thing I was also shooting for at open mics was I didn’t want the comics I thought were funny to leave when they announced that I was coming up next. If you’re new and no one knows you, it takes them a while to sit through your two or three minutes. It was very notable when, one time at a mic, a couple comics I liked got up to leave, but when the host announced my name, they sat back down. That was all I needed to keep going.
I put as much of my energy as I could into comedy because I had uprooted a pretty good life in Atlanta to move, so I figured I might as well make it worth my time and do it while my knees could still handle it. I know that what you should do when you move to a new place to do comedy is hit the mics you can get to where you feel comfortable and do your A material for a few months, just to show everyone you seem to know what you’re doing. And then from there, maybe you’ll befriend someone and then someone else, and you’ll all lament about how you’re not getting up enough, and you start your own show. That’s how it starts.
There must have been a lot of moments of self-doubt, though.
The second day I was in New York I texted a close friend of mine and said, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Any other time I wasn’t doing comedy I felt miserable. It took me a few months to find work, too, so I had to sit with the emotional ramifications of what I had done. That feeling of What have I done? continued for about a year and a half.
I got a job at the clinic of an acupuncture college, and it’s not like bad things stopped happening — I just was able to navigate better, dealing with things better within the confines of New York City.
You still have a full-time job, so how are you able to manage your time and stay devoted to your comedy career?
I’m not sure. [Laughs.] This job that I have, they understand what I do, that comedy is serious for me. In fact, in both of the jobs I’ve had since moving to New York, I went into the interview and said, “I do comedy,” which is something everyone tells you not to do. But I’m like, Why would I do that? Then I look a little nuts when I move to New York at 40 for no reason. So they’ve been very accepting.
I don’t take vacation time to sit on a beach, I take vacation time to tape a spot for something. I just kind of budget things that way. The insurance is nice, so I take advantage of that, and yeah, it’s just a lot of marking things down on a calendar. It’s a lot of Post-its stuck on my phone — I need to write it down to remember. There’s a lot of Google Maps, just trying to figure out how I can get to places on time, and being open with everyone about my availabilities. Comedy, for me, is really a lot more scheduling than it is pure art. [Laughs.]
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.