Basking in the ‘GLOW’ of wrestling series and playing Gilda Radner

July 26, 2017
Photo by Koury Angelo

NAME: Jackie Tohn

AGE: 36

BEST KNOWN FOR: Making the top 36 in Season Eight of
“American Idol” (2009).

LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: “At 18, I came out to L.A. with my agent
and my mom and met Jessica Biel at the TV Guide Awards.
We became fast friends and I moved in with her and her family
in Calabasas almost immediately.”

Jackie Tohn is an actress, stand-up comic, musical comedian and singer-songwriter.

Recently, two Netflix projects have kept her busy: She plays wrestler Melanie in “GLOW,” a Jenji Kohan-produced series based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and comedic icon Gilda Radner in the David Wain-directed “A Futile & Stupid Gesture,” to be released later this year. The Oceanside, N.Y., native is high-energy and independent, qualities that she brought to these and other characters in her filmography — as well as to her Jewish Journal interview at a Silver Lake coffee shop on June 23.

Jewish Journal: How would you characterize your comedy style?

Jackie Tohn: Who I am is Borscht Belty. I’m a Catskills person. I look back at that time and I relate to it: Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman. I aspire to be a showman. For a long time, that wasn’t cool — it was, the more apathetic you are, that was the sign of a star. I have no aspirations to stand up there and be apathetic and not try. I like the idea that you make an act, you practice your act and now you’re performing for people. That’s why I like a Sarah Silverman: I respond more to people who want to put on a show. The apathy angle doesn’t really work for me. I’m way too excited for that [stuff]. I thought I was too big for myself, for the space, just too much. I was “Jackie Tohn: Not for Everyone.”

JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism?

JT: It’s a kishkas connection: It’s in my guts and who I am. I look at Mel Brooks and Gilda and Joan Rivers and even [Jerry] Seinfeld and Larry David — there’s something intangible but something you feel when there’s a Jewish vibe. I look at those people and say, hey, I relate to them. Especially the Jewish culture in comedy — they’re kindred; they could all be members of my family. Culturally, I just feel Jewish. As Jews, we’ve overcome so much and we’ve always been joking. Yiddish is the funniest language: “I can’t make it” becomes “With one tuchis you can’t dance at two weddings.”

JJ: What lessons have you learned from comedy?

JT: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the value of support. It’s really easy to cross your arms and say, “That’s not funny; make me laugh.” Those are the worst people to perform for, so I never want to be that person in an audience. I’m lucky to be in a special little part of the comedy community that’s filled with supportive, generous and loving people, and headed by comic and comedy mentor Gerry Katzman — it opened my eyes to the importance of coming from abundance and not scarcity. Just because someone else has a successful thing does not mean that there’s one less thing for me.

JJ: Why is comedy important, especially today?

JT: I was going to say comedy is more important than ever, but it was true, too, when they were making fun of [Richard] Nixon for Watergate. It’s true always, but we’re living now, so it’s always the most important and right now, because that’s all you have. We have to laugh through this. We have to believe that the future is going to be good and funny. With our current political climate and the separations and harsh feelings in the two-party system, we have to take it seriously and get things done, but we have to be laughing. Comedy is a healer.

JJ: How do you stay centered while promoting these high-profile projects?

JT: At the guarantee of sounding cliché, it’s a whirlwind. A friend who’s also an actress advised me to “be where you are.” I think of it every second of the day. “Be present,” of course, we all know that, but “be where you are” changed the verbiage: There’s 9,000 other things to do today, but this is what we’re doing right now.

JJ: What was it like to play Gilda Radner?

JT: I was hyperaware of her and “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda was the first person hired on “SNL.” I had a VHS tape of Gilda’s greatest hits, and I played it on the TV/VCR in my bedroom [growing up]. I was intimately familiar with her work, so when the audition came in, my head popped off and I put it back on. The movie takes place in ’70s, so it’s Gilda, [John] Belushi, [Dan] Aykroyd when they were in Second City. I didn’t have the pressure of having to be Gilda on “SNL.” For the audition, I went in there with costume changes and I did every Gilda character.  

JJ: What’s the most interesting thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?

JT: That I sing and play guitar, or that I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. Or that I moved out to L.A. on a break from college at U. of Delaware.

JJ: What would call your autobiography?

JT: “The Curves in Oceanside Is Buzzing.” When I was on “American Idol,” the show was at its height — even getting eliminated fairly early, I was in 30 million homes a week. And my mother said, “The Curves [women’s gym] in Oceanside was buzzing.”

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