Tamale Sepp is a force to be reckoned with. I first met her through friends who were all part of IDKE (The International Drag King Extravaganza) years ago, where she was introduced to me as a “fire-dancing, burlesque-ing, joke-telling, motorcycle-riding son of a bitch.” Over time, she’s narrowed her focus to comedy and manages a whole handful of amazing projects including two of my Chicago favorites, Just Dickin’ Around and Brass Chuckles— but more on that later. I talked to her about how her identity as a queer comic, how she’s able to stay organized with so many things going on and what keeps her energized.
Kris: How’d you get started in comedy?
Tamale: My family jokes around a LOT, so it’s always been integrated into my life. It’s how I initially learned to connect with people, so I think that played a huge role. Once, I made an otherwise rather stiff friend of our family laugh so hard she started choking and couldn’t breathe. I could NOT stop joking and I remember my mother screaming at me to leave while our friend was gasping and coughing. I was hooked.
Kris: How would you ‘label’ yourself? A comic? A performance artist? A producer? All of the above?
Tamale: Gah, labels! Yeah, probably all. It depends on who’s asking, but I usually say I’m a comedic performer. That one gets the job done. I have a tough time with the mentality that if you do anything outside of one label, you are somehow not as legit. I think that happens with the word “comic”. The people I choose to surround myself with are complex and talented. We are many things. This last year I have shifted my focus to stand up and producing and plan to follow that trajectory more closely.
Kris: Since you’re trying to follow the comedy trajectory more closely, what does success in that arena look like to you?
Tamale: Not trying, doing. I’m producing two shows: Brass Chuckles Comedy once a month, and JDA three times a month, booking as many showcases as I can, and working out material on the daily. I write like a fiend and am building more relationships in the stand up and storytelling scenes. Success in that arena looks like people looking back at me from an audience with alert eyes and a ready laugh. It’s palpable. All those burlesque and fire dancing shows make me long for that energetic connection with my audiences. Years of teaching taught me how to be a powerful and loving presence on stage. Success is when I’m nailing all that AND making people laugh… hard. Success sounds like the comics in the back cracking up. The more work I get, the more I want. Success is feeling awesome about what I’m doing and getting to do it more, with people that light me up.
A really wonderful outcome around this has been having the experience of being really delighted again… I’ll hear a new storyteller, or watch a new comic and get completely inspired by their sheer awesomeness. It makes me want to make the absolute best work I can, and feeling propelled from my heart like that makes my demanding schedule and fairly intense self-imposed demands downright enjoyable. I’ll regularly stay up until 2 in the morning working on a website, writing another tag on a joke, or pumping out an essay and then open at 8am. I freaking love it though and I get really jazzed about showing off my new joke. That’s how I feel successful.
Kris: You’ve recently become a part of Just Dickin’ Around, a lady-centric comic space. What are your thoughts on ‘niche’ spaces in comedy, like queer nights or ladies’ nights or whatever? Pro/con, or more complicated?
Tamale: I am one of the four team members that produces JDA and it feels amazing to create, produce, and perform with such a great group of gals. I think it’s great to have space that supports niche groups in support of creating the confidence needed to shine in more mixed spaces. I am fervently in support of going outside your comfort zone too. It’s important to do the things that are hard and scary and sometimes those spaces dedicated to any one group let you fail a little more comfortably. The end goal is to take what you learn and powerfully perform in any space with anyone. I like it when everyone feels accomplished and supported. BOOM!
Kris: Did you ever make a conscious decision where you said, “I will talk about these aspects of myself, but not about these?” Why’d you choose what you did?
Tamale: Nope. I draw my material from my life and experiences- however they come.
I have noticed that as I perform more stand up, I have gotten more self conscious. It’s hard because what you’re saying can be quite personal and then everyone has an opinion about your personal business, viewpoint, actions, etc. I get that we are ALL really just figuring out stuff as we go, based on our experiences and personal values, but when you put it out there from a stage, you’re inviting other peoples commentary. For someone like me who just wants to get along and create harmony among a wide spectrum of people, it’s pretty much a freaking nightmare. You’re opening up yourself to be judged and rejected and that is scary, especially the more diverse your communities and the attachment you have to the people in them. Fold in the fear of people you love rejecting you and the stakes are jacked right on up. I suppose the more clearly to one side or another someone is, the more like-minded people can gravitate to you. But what if you are a topic by topic person? I was raised in Arizona, home schooled, studied agriculture in college, and am now a queer woman who champions for gun rights and the right for women to choose. I feel torn A LOT. I love to get along with people, wiggling under the radar, then providing the opportunity for tough convos that invite the consideration of The Other Side.
If people get pissed, they no longer are available to consider a position outside their own. Maybe if I cared less about what people think it would be helpful, but I DO care about what they think and *why*. It’s also ok for people to get stirred up, I just like a balanced approach and always from a place of love and inclusion. You don’t get through to people by attacking them and invalidating their viewpoints. Those viewpoint are their reality and to lose them is losing the chance to make a difference. Familiarity and a genuine desire to understand where another person is coming from, regardless of your position, breeds unity and community. I love that. IL just made it legal for gay people to marry. The snowball effect of brave people coming out, sharing their stories, impacting their loved ones by raising visibility and therefore increasing acceptance was how that happened. It wasn’t always pretty, but over and over there was a shift that happened in the hearts of people who could found that connection and acceptance through someone they knew who was gay. I have a hard time watching people I love war against each other and often feel torn and can only be responsible for myself. Through the process of developing as a stand up comedian, I’m getting braver and that feels pretty great.
Kris: How did you hone your voice, or did that just come naturally?
Tamale: For me, it comes from performing my ass off. Making work constantly creates an expression that reflects my voice whether it be comedy, storytelling, fire performance, whatever. The through-line is that I am creating it and with that comes a more developed point of view with each piece. Even with fire dancing, I like a more sensual, slow, and widely varied performance style with some audience interaction and lots of eye contact. That same style can be found in my comedy and other modes of expression.
Kris: What’s your favorite type of gig?
Tamale: A successful one. I love when everything falls into place- people are having a great time and we can all delight in a shared experience. I deeply enjoy an audience that is present and playful, getting callbacks and joining in on the “inside jokes” that are in the moment at that particular show. It’s fantastic.
Kris: I’m asking everyone this: is it weird when strangers friend you on facebook? Do you maintain some social profiles for personal use only and some more public?
Tamale: Not at all. Over the years, I have added friends as I’ve travelled and performed, reaching the limit on FB and requiring the addition of a fan page. When I go through to remove some people to add room for new friends, I find that I actually know the vast majority of the people I scroll though. That is super freaking cool and I delight in being connected with people who I know from Back In The Day. Facebook has switched things up over the years and now people can subscribe to my personal page, or join my fan page. I love making connections all over the world and maintaining them over the years. It’s so cool!
Kris: You’re involved in a thousand projects at once and seem to be able to keep it together pretty well. How do you do it?
Tamale: By taking 100% responsibility for things going well and relying on amazing teams of people to help realize that vision. When you surround yourself with people who each take a similar stake in things going well, it’s just a damn joy to create things with them. I use color coding, a day planner, my phone, and do everything I can to address issues quickly and work toward a workable solution. My peeps are brilliant and they make us all look good.
Kris: What are you working on right now?
Tamale: Building my career while having a blast. As cheesy as that may sound, it is totally true. The challenge has become generating opportunities while at the same time powerfully fulfilling on the ones that have been secured. It’s like building a plane while you’re flying it, and fabricating the materials to boot! The great thing is, I’m not doing this alone. I simply couldn’t. I’m up to big things and that takes collaboration to do effectively. I have a great day job at an art school, surrounded by brilliant, creative artists with a great boss, co-worker, and staff. That makes my day to day a downright pleasure while taking care of the necessities. Major score. My rent and bills are taken care of while I am in an artistically encouraging environment, fueling my excitement around generating ideas and work I want to explore.
Then, I work with people to manage and grow my personal career opportunities while creating work. I’m getting more involved in the stand up and storytelling scenes in Chicago and am responsible for reliably developing new material to present at an ever lengthening list of gigs. That means learning how to manage my time to create space to do that while developing relationships with even more people who book shows for those invitations. I love that!
I get really pumped about working with others to accomplish something cool, especially in terms of performance. Producing my own comedic performance show that’s interdisciplinary and a mix of all my loves (gender performance, fire and belly dancing, etc) with other performers that I enjoy has been pretty rad.
Performing internationally with other amazing performers has proven to really deepen my enjoyment of other brilliant, creative people in my life. We are gearing up for another trip to Europe in March. They inspire me to no end.
It’s also super fun to support other people in expanding and growing their success. Working with the gals of Just Dickin’ Around allows for that community building and a rewarding teamwork experience.
Organizing people in my other interest areas in service to building communities for a greater good has also been a focus. I helped to create Chicago’s premiere non-for profit motorcycle organization for women with a dedicated group of gals who also love riding. I have since focused more on comedy, but I still maintain a presence in support of our mission.
Kris: Do you see yourself sticking around Chicago for awhile?
Tamale: Do it. Do it now. Don’t wait until you (whatever you “have to do first” goes here). You can’t steer a parked car. The learning is in the doing. Pick it up as you go. Stop talking about it and hit an open mic. Also, hang in there and make friends. *hug*
Kris: Anything else you’d like to plug/talk about/soapbox on? Have at it.
Tamale: Maybe just one thing for now- I think it’s really important to have a life outside of comedy. I find people who have fulfilling, adventurous lives outside of comedy have really interesting things to inform their material. I also think it makes for a more balanced life experience and that’s just a more healthy way to be in the world. I love experiencing life though the eyes of people who have a different vantage point from mine and gaining experiences I would have otherwise had no understanding around. It also tends to put things in perspective. Highs and lows even out and the importance of relationships becomes clearer. You get a hundred years tops. How do you want to spend it?