Jamie Lee Respects Ali's Hustle

By Allie Waxman


Powerhouse comedian Jamie Lee reflects on her commonalities with her character Ali, the challenges of dating a fellow comic and dealing with the industry’s intense competition.

HBO: Do you relate to Ali’s storyline?

Jamie Lee: I relate to her hustle—needing to do as much stand-up as possible to never feel like she’s atrophying. When you’re starting out in stand-up, you have this anxiety, fear and drive that are tangled together and make you perform as much as possible. Even if your brain is saying, “Take a night off; you need the rest! You’re tired.” You’re like, “No, if I don’t show up and try to get better, then I’m falling behind.”

When you’re coming up and don’t have actual comedy jobs to validate your comedic existence, you’re trying to build your status. You’re doing these shows that don’t pay any money, but people start talking when you get booked. They’re like, “Oh, this person is at a level where they can get booked on that show.” That to me is the most relatable part of where Ali is coming from.

HBO: Does Ali find Pete funny?

Jamie Lee: I think Ali finds Pete funny, but she also thinks he has a ways to go before he’s at her level. There’s also a little bit of a defensive element; she’s worked really hard to get where she is and doesn’t want Pete to feel like success is just going to be handed to him. I think that’s very true for everybody in stand-up. Anytime someone gets something really quickly, you always feel like, “I put in all this time, why did that person get further than me when I was doing all the work?” You almost want it to work like college does. It’s like, “I did four years here. Why is the freshman getting booked on Conan?”

HBO: What’s the most challenging part of dating a comedian for Ali?

Jamie Lee: The hardest part for Ali is that comedy is such a solo pursuit, and she really likes the independence of bouncing around to different shows and having her own thing. As soon as she starts to feel defined by her relationship, she feels like a little bit of her independence is getting chipped away, and it makes her uncomfortable. Especially when you’re coming up, you’re trying to define yourself. Any time your personal life starts to infiltrate your work life, you’re like, “But I worked so hard to have my work life be its own entity.”

HBO: Ali guides Pete through his early career. Can you talk about that?

Jamie Lee: I actually think that is why [her relationship with Pete] works for Ali; she feels like she’s still the top dog. As soon as there’s any kind of role reversal, it makes her really uncomfortable. I don’t even think she recognizes that it doesn’t work for her ego. That sounds monstrous. But she’s not a monster; she’s having these feelings and doesn’t know how to deal with them.

HBO: In this episode, Pete and Ali go to NACA [The National Association for Campus Activities]. Have you participated?

Jamie Lee: I’ve done a lot of colleges and I've done three NACAs. I had a lot of weird, traumatic flashbacks doing that episode. It was really cathartic to go through it, and know that it was a special piece of my stand-up journey—and that I’ll never do another NACA again. It’s nice to know that I don’t have the same feelings I had when I was at NACA, where I felt out of place, intimidated and nervous.

HBO: Ali is competitive with Melissa Villaseñor in this episode. Why?

Jamie Lee: I think that everybody is competitive. That’s what’s weird about comedy; sometimes you’re competitive with people who truly are not a threat to you. The competition is with how long you have both been doing [comedy] and less, “Oh it’s another woman; they might pick her over me.” With “NACA,” it’s funny how we dial up Melissa being more of a caricature of herself when she’s not on stage. That part really grates on Ali because Ali really believes in realism and not being “on,” unless you’re performing. So Ali’s perception of Melissa at the beginning of the episode is like, “This girl needs to relax.”

HBO: What would you like to see Ali accomplish in the show that she doesn’t this season?

Jamie Lee: I would love to see Ali do a late-night set or get her own special. That’s a really big milestone for comedians.