By Amari D. Pollard :: Photography by Rebecca Perry
With her long blonde hair and small frame, Jessimae Peluso definitely has the classic “girl next door” vibe when you first see her. But then she opens her mouth, and you start to realize she doesn’t quite fit into that box. Don’t let her sweet smile fool you, the no bull comedian and Syracuse native is not afraid to speak her mind which often seems like it belongs to a man.
“I’m like somebody’s fun uncle. I’m not afraid to cut through the bull. I’m a no s**t hillbilly that’s what I’m like. I’m like a hillbilly gangster. The hillbilly gangster of comedy,” said Jessimae.
Most kids not all, but most growing up in a small town such as Syracuse view graduation as their ticket to freedom. It’s their first real opportunity to go some place where they have more than 26 square miles to explore, and can go grocery shopping in old baggy sweats without having to worry about running into 10 people they know. So, when given the choice to stay or leave like all the other high school graduates before her, Jessimae rode her ticket to freedom straight to Boston.
“I got the heck out. I was like, ‘Bye, love everybody.’”
Finally on her own and away from home, Jessimae began her comedy career. For three years in Bean Town she did standup while bartending to support herself before moving onto a bigger city, the city. New York proved to be just as hard as Boston: days spent auditioning, bartending and driving six hours to perform at awful gigs for sad looking paychecks that only read 50 dollars.
For a while it felt as though the rejections would never stop. That was until Jessimae made her television debut as a panelist on the MTV comedy series Failosophy. And then there came Girl Code.
What first began as a comedy show where a group of female comedians talk about their perspectives on the many struggles of girlhood, quickly gave way to one of MTV’s biggest hit series.
During her time on the show Jessimae delivered sarcastic and witty advice to audiences, such as how to deal with men staring at your chest instead of your eyes when they speak to you (cross your eyes and talk to them in a southern accent until they look up) and what people really mean when they say you’re photogenic (that your face actually just looks worse in real life).
“They just threw topics at me and I pulled the jokes out of myself,” explained Jessimae. “That was the one great thing about Girl Code; that I was able to speak my mind keep it real and not be censored.”
While Jessimae found her niche on the show, she never expected it to take off the way it did so she still kept her job bartending. She had been bartending for around seven years when a couple of girls came into the restaurant she was working at one night and recognized her from Girl Code. At that moment Jessimae looked over at her friend Charlie, who owned the restaurant, and said, “I think it’s time I leave.”
Girl Code really helped to solidify Jessimae’s confidence as a comedian. After her gig with Failosophy proved she was moving in the right direction she put all her eggs in one basket, so Girl Code was definitely the indicator that let her know she could continue to move forward in her career. Her name and personality were finally getting recognition, and with that came people and networks that knew she would be able to deliver a good show.
Jessimae’s decision to pursue a career in comedy came as a surprise to no one seeing that she was the family’s designated “wild child,” and never shied away from being different. Her dad had exposed her to comedy at a young age. She remembers sitting on the couch watching standup comedians like Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and George Carlin.
With her dad’s love for comedy and goofy personality, and her mother’s dry and sarcastic sense of humor, Jessimae had all the makings to become a comedian herself. But she clarified that the path to comedy is not so obvious, or so black and white as people would think. “It’s an accumulation of experiences in your life; lot of hardships and tragedy that you experience. And either you get into a life of comedy or you get into a life of drugs. But comedy is a drug in a sense, so I guess I got lucky that I chose that path,” said Jessimae.
Live performance, standup it’s the strongest addiction Jessimae has ever known but she’s not looking to go to rehab for it anytime soon. Comedy has not only forced her to look at herself from different perspectives, but it has helped her to question what is being said to her. She likes to call comedians insecure narcissists, because it’s the balance between vulnerability and complete cockiness that fuels comedians to get on the stage in the first place. So night after night she willingly stands under a magnifying spotlight and opens the floor to her own flaws and the flaws around her; and there is something very liberating about that.
For that hour Jessimae is on stage, nothing else really exists but the laughter in the room. She says what makes comedy so special is its power to slow the world down. The phones are off, the technology is put away and people are reminded of what it’s like not to check their phones every ten seconds and relate to people.
“I love it. Live performance is one of the oldest art forms when you really think about it. I just think being a part of that is something special because of the fact that it’s able to still be appreciated through all the technology and stuff,” said Jessimae. “I bet there were some cavemen back in the day drawing some cartoons on the wall or maybe doing a little act. I don’t know, like maybe the cavemen all got together and started making fun of their wives. There was probably a standup comedian caveman.”
The past few years have been a blur of tours, shows and appearances for Jessimae. She’s currently on tour, writing a book, writing shows, taping shows. She is so busy she basically has to remind herself to breathe. But after years of putting everything into her career, the 32-year-old comedian refuses to slow down anytime soon. “I have to schedule free time. The moment you don’t have to do that, you’re not busy enough in my mind. I like to be busy. It keeps your juices flowing. You can’t get too comfortable, and there’s always something more you can do,” said Jessimae.
She equates comedy to an instrument, her instrument. There’s always the fear that if she stops playing her muscles will get weaker. That’s why Jessimae chooses to keep at it, which can often times be gruesome and tiring but it’s her addiction it’s all she knows.
With her podcast “Sharp Tongue” airing Mondays on iTunes and Stitcher, and her comedy act hitting the road on her Jess America Tour (which she wanted to call the Miss America Tour but said Miss America and a bunch of rich old white guys came after her), Jessimae keeps popping up on stages and screens all across America.
Right now Jessimae’s career is pretty demanding, and although touring is fun it can also be extremely hard. She loves getting the chance to experience different cities while performing and meeting her fans, but what she’s missing is always hiding out in the back of her mind. For months at a time Jessimae’s traveling by herself, and as a result she’s left missing her pitbull fox-ter mix named Carlin and hating the fact that she can’t see her friends and family as much as she’d like. Those are always hard factors she has to come to terms with.
“I’m on an airplane and in a hotel more than I am in my own apartment. I’m probably on about 112 airplanes a month. It’s crazy; I should really date a pilot,” laughed Jessimae. “Can you imagine the vacations we’d get to take? We could go everywhere. We could go to Maldives, we could go to Fiji all those places that are really difficult to get to.”
That’s why she’s so thankful her tour is bringing her back home to Syracuse for the Thanksgiving weekend. Jessimae says it’s the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone. She gets to perform at Funny Bone and sit at home in her pajamas while her mom makes her food. Besides spending time with her family, most of the things she intends on doing while back in town revolve around food: going to Spaghetti Warehouse, eating her mom’s cream of wheat, and chilling at Change of Pace with her dad.
Jessimae may have fled Syracuse after high school but she never forgot her roots. In fact, she’s still so tied to her hometown that she absolutely refuses to call Carousel Mall, Destiny USA.
“I will sit in a cab and tell him I am going to Carousel Mall. And if he calls it Destiny USA I will sit in the cab, and have him drive around the whole damn city until he figures it out,” insisted Jessimae. “I am not calling it Destiny. How can you call a thing built next to a dirty ass lake Destiny? Who’s going to go into that thing? Tourists will come out with no skin.”
Growing up in Syracuse wasn’t like growing up in some magical place, but it was and is still home to her. Jessimae remembers always spending time at the mall, the zoo, rollerblading or biking to get ice cream at Rosie’s with her dad. She says she was fortunate enough to experience a childhood where computers were the size of TVs and cellphones were shaped more like bricks, and because technology was nowhere near what it is today she was always outside doing something.
It was never Jessimae’s plan to leave Syracuse and forget about the place that helped raised her. She has loved the city despite its flaws and its “13-month winters.”, Even in the wintertime it’s beautiful. Until it gets to that point where everyone’s homicidal. Wintertime homicide. That’s when people realize this s**t is real,” said Jessimae.
What made growing up in Syracuse feel so special to her was the fact that she felt like she was part of a community. People know who you are, and they look out for you. That’s why it saddens her so much to see Syracuse still struggling. She remembers a time when the city was thriving with car industries and companies like Carrier; but once they all left, Syracuse just began to suffer. Jessimae always found Syracuse to be beautiful in its many forms, and she makes sure that love for her hometown shines through no matter what she’s working on.
“I always talk about where I’m from whenever I do things. I have jokes about it in my sets, something to always have some hometown pride,” said Jessimae. “You got to have some hometown pride because, at the end of the day if anything goes wrong in my life, I want to come home.”
As many people in the entertainment industry know, a lot can go wrong. There’s the constant pressure to feel relevant, to reinvent yourself and although over time the rejections become less frequent they are still there. But Jessimae says the unwavering support of her parents, her sister and her entire family has been the constant factor helping her stay grounded in an industry that is so uncertain.
While recognition and fame are badges Jessimae feels blessed she can wear, she says her proudest achievement is that her parents get to see her doing something she loves.
“Very rarely do people get to embark on a career where it is also a passion. And to be one of those people, and then have my parents who both worked jobs and worked very hard their whole lives see that, gives me great pride,” said Jessimae. “Also that they know not all the sacrifices were in vain; me not being able to come home and being so far away. They know that it’s for something and it’s not just a hobby. To me, that’s the most import and most validating thing.”
Sometimes it’s easy to look around Syracuse and forget all the incredible people whose talent has been fostered within these 25.6 square miles: Grace Jones, Tom Cruise, Kelly Cutrone, Darin Morgan. The list goes on, and each day it continues to grow. It was never Jessimae’s end goal to gain a spot on that list, but she’s honored that her drive and talent have allowed her to represent Syracuse in such a positive light.
She’s on tour, she has her podcast, she’s writing . . . the dreams that used to feel so far away are right in front of her now. Sometimes Jessimae still has to pinch herself and say, “Hey, this could be as good as it gets and you better be happy with it and you better appreciate it because nobody’s guaranteed anything.”
So in this moment, Jessimae is loving the road ahead and loving the one that brought her to today. And while she’s happy with how far she’s come, she will never stop working to keep her star burning bright.
“You can be your own worst enemy, and I’ve learned that about myself. So I have to challenge myself to do better and to strive for more, and to know that I am worth the end result. And it’s worth putting in the work because I know I want to achieve something.”