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Jamie Bridgers spent enough time nurturing her daughter and nudging her toward the career she has now — which is, for lack of a better term, rock star — that it make sense she’d pay as close attention as any Phoebe Bridgers fan would to the finer points of her sophomore album, “Punisher,” which came out Friday. Of course, as a mother, Jamie may be more on the lookout than others to see whether any interpersonal family dynamics snuck into her 25-year-old daughter’s often frank, sometimes enigmatic lyrics.
Admits Jamie, “I’m enough of a narcissist that when I listened to the new record, I was like, ‘Am I the Punisher? Phoebe, am I the Punisher?’ She goes, ‘No, mom.’ But of course, I was like, oh my God, no, am I? Every once in a while she’ll have to remind me: ‘Everything’s not about you.’ Which I get, and I don’t always think the good things are about me, but sometimes when the stingers are there, I’m like, ‘Uh-oh.’ When she sings, ‘I hate your mom,’ it makes sense that that’s kind of universal, but when I heard it, it smarted. And Phoebe’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not about you.’ And I was like, ‘Well, of course you have to say that.’”
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Parental pride trumps any other feelings that may come up, of course. “One time I was at one of Phoebe’s shows — I think it was at the Bootleg — standing toward the back, and she was singing her very confessional, earnest stuff,” Jamie recalls. “And somebody turned to me and they’re like, ‘Who hurt her?’” A smile that’s somewhere between embarrassed and pleased comes over her face. “It was like, ‘I did!’”
If you sense a bit of a comic spin on these recollections and observations, that’s no accident. As Phoebe has come into her own on the national stage these last few years as one of the early/mid-20s generation’s most acclaimed singer-songwriters, so has Jamie started to emerge, on a local level, as a talented performer with a unique voice as a standup comic. Or as a sit-down comic, for the moment, as her current gig is holding down a spot from her kitchen table in Pasadena as part of the live Zoom showcases that UnCabaret, L.A.’s long-running alternative comedy showcase, is presenting on a biweekly basis.
(Tonight’s UnCabaret, which will also features Margaret Cho, Julia Sweeney, Byron Bowers, Alec Mapa, Judy Gold and Alex Edelman as guests alongside Jamie Bridgers, starts at 7:30 PT/1030 ET and can be seen here.)
Her conversational comedy is hardly solely reliant on stories about her daughter and their interactions, but that’s a big part of it. In fact, Bridgers and the host of UnCabaret, Beth Lapides, are co-writing a TV pilot that’s partly based on the experience of raising a child who’s breaking into the music business, called “Whatever, Mom.” And this, along with Jamie’s standup, has Phoebe’s full seal of approval.
“When Beth and I started writing the script based on me raising Phoebe and [her brother] Jackson, my focus was too much on making it funny and light and kind of glossing over some of the dark stuff. And then Phoebe read it and she was like, ‘No, no, no. You need to tell the full story — like, go there.’” And on stage, “I started making some jokes about getting the most outrageous texts from Phoebe at 2 in the morning when she’s on tour in Europe, some things that might make you really nervous. When I first started, I wasn’t sure it was okay to use that on stage and I called her, and Phoebe was like, ‘Yeah, do it!’ And then she came to see me and she was like, ‘You could go deeper in that. It’s okay.’ And just felt really good to get permission from her to do that.”
Confirms Phoebe, in a separate interview: “She’s passed a couple of things by me, but I have not said no yet.”
Like, anything in particular that Jamie thought she needed to have vetted? “When I was, like, 19,” says Phoebe, “I texted her a picture of my vagina and said, ‘Is this herpes?’ And she was texting me back in the middle of the night about, like, a really horrifying, up-close photo of my genitalia. And so [recently] she was like, ‘I want to talk about it on stage, but if you don’t want me to, I won’t.’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s fine!’ That was one.”
Says Jamie, “On Mother’s Day a couple of years ago, my good morning text from her was: ‘Can you get a period stain out of my good jeans?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, happy Mother’s Day.’ And then I said, ‘Can I please post this?’ And she goes, ‘Sure, no problem.’ It doesn’t bother her.”
A generation gap comes up only occasionally between the two, as it’s apparent that complete and utter candor runs in the family, with very high thresholds for shock all around. “You know, Phoebe just had that thing in Rolling Stone where she flashes her breasts at CVS” — the last image in an online photo gallery the magazine put up recently — “and she tweeted, ‘Flashed my tits at CVS. Sorry, mom.’ But I mean, she knows that I’m like: Hey, they’re lovely. Like, no worry. No shame in that game.”
Phoebe clearly gets it from somewhere, and it’s not hard to see where, as Jamie uses her comedy to explore a variety of everyday subjects, some family- or show-biz-related, some not. Allowing that there’s a possibility the family-wide transparency could be “maybe too much,” she says that “it may be oversharing, but it’s on-brand. It is funny,” she says — so to speak — “to be this forward-facing, after spending quite a bit of time of my life… I was married to someone who I couldn’t really be my authentic self with.” (Phoebe has also been open in interviews about her complicated, oft-strained relationship with her dad before and after her parents’ divorce five years ago.) “And so it’s fun to now be like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to just be myself and tell my truth.’ And at this age, it’s amazing.”
Lapides says her gift for gab and combination of home-iness and edginess have made Bridgers — a real estate agent by day, and probably the least experienced performer of the UnCabaret regulars — a natural to hold down the final slot in the biweekly Zooms. “She’s a natural storyteller, but she’s also so surprising. I think the way she looks doesn’t always… Her frankness is somehow disguised by her pearls. Is that a good way of saying it?” laughs the host.
Five years ago, in the midst of a tough divorce, on her birthday, Bridgers got one of those email meme forwards that asks what you would do if you had no fear. Five minutes later, an offer to sign up for one of Lapides’ workshops for honing a comedic voice as a performer or writer (now called “You, But Funnier”) showed up in her inbox, and the kismet seemed too much to ignore. “After I got divorced, I wasn’t in crisis anymore. So things got very nice, but also very boring. And standup comedy was awesome because the stakes feel high and it feels really dangerous — but it’s actually not. You could have a great night and that’s awesome. If you have a bad night, you go home and rewrite your set, and nobody is in danger. So it felt like a good midlife crisis kind of thing to do.”
Says Phoebe, “Definitely people I date or my friends were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so similar to your mom’ — like, all the time. And I think for the most part we have a very similar sense of humor.” Which would not have led her to imagine her mother pursuing comedy as a career. “I remember a lot of people saying to her, growing up, that she should do comedy. She would always blow it off, so I just assumed that she didn’t want it. And also, I think it can be slight sexism — like woman tells joke, and man goes, ‘Are you a comedian?’ Like, no person who works at a hospital is allowed to be funny unless it’s their job. But I guess I read it differently than she did, because clearly that built up to her actually considering it.”
Initially the elder Bridgers honed in on middle age humor or mom comedy, which can still be more of the focus when she’s doing sets at the Ice House or the Improv or emcee gigs. “I’m obsessed with J. Jill clothes because I was getting their catalogs, and they were making me laugh because they were always like, ‘Relax. Don’t worry about it. You’re great.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I feel like Jill is my friend. She wants me to be easy and comfortable.’” Some of the comics at UnCab didn’t quite get the suburban side of her observations, “but then Merrill Markoe said, ‘I love the J. Jill stuff.’ And then I was like: I’m winning this. If Merrill Markoe likes my J. Jill jokes, I’m going to do them until the day I die.”
But she’s not necessarily the average mom that strain of humor might suggest. This becomes apparent as she talks on stage or in an interview about the things that come up as newspaper and magazine fact-checkers call her to confirm details about herself that Phoebe has brought up in interviews.
“The New York Times called me when they did that piece about Phoebe and Ryan Adams [when he was being accused of being a predator in his professional relationships with women]. Phoebe had referenced a certain conversation, and I mean, like most moms my age that I know, I save receipts. So I was there for that fact-checking.
“But then,” she adds, “the New Yorker fact-checking [for an extensive recent profile] was kind of funny because they said, ‘Phoebe said that you worked as a receptionist.’ I was like: I’ve literally never done that. But I have been an executive assistant, and I can see how my kids just thought, ‘Oh, she came out to get me at the front desk. She must be a receptionist.’ I don’t think your kids even really think about what you do for money until later. When I worked at Children’s Hospital, I’m sure my kids didn’t even know what I did all day. But I had a lot of jobs. I’m not proud of all of it. I mean, when my kids were really, really little, I did phone sex. I sold pot. I did a lot of stuff to make money — and I love how my kids are like, ‘I think she was a receptionist.’ I was like, ‘Phoebe, from my list of jobs, there’s a lot to choose from!’”
Jamie encouraged her daughter’s musical aspirations. Says Phoebe, “She introduced me to the whole folk world and singer-songwriter world, and she’s like 100% responsible for my music tastes. She would drive me to clubs and shows all my life, and to guitar lessons.” Jamie remembers taking her to shows by everyone from Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams to Patti Smith to introduce her to powerful female musicians.
Jamie says, “Their dad had a really good job when they were kids, but any extra stuff that he didn’t want them to do, like ski trips or guitar lessons, I had to come up with the money for it, so I was kind of hustling for that stuff. And that included Phoebe’s hair. One time Mitch (Kaplan, the musical director at UnCabaret) complimented Phoebe’s hair by saying it looked really expensive. And that’s one of the best things anyone’s ever said to me. I was like, thank you! Because when she was pretty young, I was like, ‘You gotta get your hair right.’ She and a friend colored her hair in the bathroom of the high school, and I was like, ‘Phoebe, you have an opportunity to have really good hair.’ My priorities were probably wrong,” she laughs. (To be fair, priorities also included driving Phoebe to the Folk Music Center in Claremont for lessons.)
All of that is a crucial piece of her storytelling now. “They always say, tell the story that only you can tell,” Jamie says. “And Beth was like, ‘I don’t think everybody does know what it’s like to sleep in your car in the alley behind a punk rock club at 2 in the morning, waiting for your kid.’ Or ‘I don’t think a lot of people have had to coach their teenage daughter on how to get paid.’ And I was a mom-ager in a way, which is a word that gets a bad rap. But every mom is a manager in one way or the other, whether your kid is into horseback riding or music — you’re helping them put the pieces together to move on to the next place.”
Memories of a slight exasperation as well as encouragement do creep into the stories that get told. “When she was in high school, we were constantly fighting about her doing her homework, and she had a really dramatic moment and was like, ‘Well, I’m dealing with a lot of stuff right now because I’m gay.’ And then we had a running gag where I was just like, ‘You’re not gay enough’ [to make that excuse]. And actually she corrected me and helped me understand the full spectrum. And I’m not trivializing anyone’s journey in that regard. … It just definitely was a joke in our house because I was like, ‘Phoebe, you’re a very femme-presenting bisexual woman. The world is not hard for you. Finish your biology homework.’”
Nowadays, Jamie is full of pride over how Phoebe did her musical homework to get to the place she’s at. “I was the best of moms, I was the worst of moms. You do your best. But then for your kids to be relatively well adjusted and God willing maybe even successful and get to do what they want feels so amazing. Just for them to be happy is huge, but for them to be able to pay their own bills and things like that feels unreal, especially these days — and in music, for Christ’s sake, you know?”
Her son, Jackson, 22, just graduated from college, so some of the UnCab humor focuses on the delight she figures he must take in being quarantined with his mom. He sits in with her, silently, in every UnCabaret Zoom. It started as a gag when she discovered a fuzzy spot in the lens on her laptop camera, and made Jackson sit alongside her so she could justify being off to the side. Now, even with a new computer, his being forced to sit in has become a running joke, as it’s not clear whether his smirk means he’s enjoying his mother’s comedy, in deep agony or both. “He is a little bit like the Mona Lisa of her sets, with his enigmatic smile,” says Lapides.
Asked what quality Bridgers and her daughter share in their sense of humor, Lapides observes: “I would say wryness without being dry. I always think of comedians as either wet or dry, and wryness is often something that is a dry quality. Whereas with Jamie and I would say Phoebe too, there’s so much emotion with that wryness — so much emotional juice behind it that makes it super-appealing.”
Lapides adds that Bridgers is “in that moment of life also when the nest is emptying and she’s reclaiming her voice. It’s exciting to see very young performers as they become who they are, but also really exciting to see more grownup performers as they transition into different parts of their lives. With Jamie, there’s her experience of helping shape Phoebe and helping her navigate the show business environment, and then sort of doing it for herself. You’re getting an inside look into Phoebe’s origin story but also Jamie’s.”
Says Phoebe, “When your mom changes her career trajectory… It’s amazing to be in the audience when people are laughing at her jokes. That feels great. I think we have a lot of the same forms of depression, and a lot of the time with that, for me, it just means inaction and sitting in something that isn’t working. And so to make that kind of a life change and be super-committed to it was impressive and gave me hope for myself in the future.”
As supportive as she is (and while Phoebe has even sat in at UnCabaret a few times when Jamie has been performing), Phoebe has so far resisted suggestions that they should team up for something as visible as a joint podcast, saying “we’ve kept our relationship pretty sacred and separate from work so far, but I’m sure at some point there’ll be some cool thing we get to do together.”
Like, maybe, taking her mom out on tour as her opening act? “Oh my God,” Phoebe laughs. “That’d be f—ing hilarious.”
Bridgers appears every other Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. PT on UnCabaret: Zoom Edition, which can be found here.
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