Jess Varley has reimagined what it means to be millennial by creating shows that take the modern day American dream and turn it on itself
It is days before her 26th birthday, but Jess Varley already has plenty of reason to celebrate. She and her writing partner Ester Steinberg have recently secured a development deal with ABC Digital for their upcoming show Smoking Whitefish and are well on their way creating a new brand of high-concept American comedy.
Varley has managed to establish a brand that is rooted in dramatic reality – she began her career at 16 in her hometown of New York City, guest starring on shows like Law and Order, where she played opposite Jesse McCartney as a sinister, sassy pregnant teen who sets out to destroy the world around her. “I was typecast,” she jokes. Her career had begun to flourish by the time she finished high school, but she vowed to continue her education at NYU, ironically paying her acting school tuition using the money she had made in television and commercials. It was at NYU that she met her fellow classmate and future writing partner Ester Steinberg, a stand-up comedian hailing from Tampa. The two did not immediately hit it off. “We were opposites,” Varley explains. While Jess was starring in university productions at the Atlantic Theater Company, Ester was pounding the pavement of the New York comedy scene. But the juxtaposition between their two paths ended up being the key to Varley’s transition from dramatic actress to full-fledged comedic force.
Upon graduating from NYU, Varley was at a crossroads – she had built an acting career in New York, but unfortunately felt she was at the mercy of casting. “I had a lot of pent up creativity, and I could see what my life was going to look like for the next five years.” The following year she took an unexpected leap of faith and moved to Los Angeles, setting out to build her career on new terms.
“I wanted to get in touch with why I loved acting so much, which is the characters… I always had these characters built up inside of me and I wanted to find out a way to let them speak.”
When she arrived in LA, Varley reached out to Steinberg, who was already heavily involved in the LA comedy scene. The two sparked not only a friendship, but also a new comedic approach that blended Varley’s dramatic background with Steinberg’s comedic school of thought. It began in her living room – Steinberg set up a camera as Varley would improvise characters ranging from a middle-aged hiking enthusiast named Peg to an uptight, virginal woman named Jennifer who serves up sex tips with a side of pastel cardigan. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Varley said. It didn’t matter – because she finally discovered the outlet she had longed for. “I had to let go and not be so precious. I figured – I have to be bad now in order to get good at what I’m working towards. I can be bad now, and that’s okay…I had this tunnel vision where I knew what was inside of me was going to be good.” Her newfound expressions were met with resistance from all but one person – Steinberg. “My agents didn’t get it. My boyfriend didn’t get it. Nobody really got it except for Ester, who kept telling me to give it a go. She was the only person encouraging me, but that’s probably because she has no friends.” Eventually, the two managed to score meetings with several online distributors who showed interest in simplified, easily digestible digital content – unfortunately far from what Varley says she and Steinberg were trying to achieve.
“They kept telling us we should scrap all our ideas, and just…open up our windows, let in some natural light, sit on our beds and talk about funny topics…and I was like, ‘But I hate everything about that!’”
Perhaps Varley’s most defining characteristic is her ability to stand by her characters and her work. “The quantity of the work is what creates respect for it. If you create enough of your brand of work, it becomes something they can’t ignore.”
Her conviction was eventually rewarded when she and Steinberg pitched a new show to ABC Digital –Smoking Whitefish. The show is a mockumentary workplace comedy set in an aquatic theme park during the aftermath of a scathing documentary about the mistreatment of killer whales. In an era defined by Internet outrage, Smoking Whitefish illustrates Varley and Steinberg’s unique ability to find humor in a world filled to the gills with social commentary and the shamelessly self-aware. “To show how crazy our world is, we’re taking mainstream Americana and turning it on its head. We’re walking right into it and becoming those people.”
Since securing her first development deal last year, Varley has no plans to stop. In addition to Smoking Whitefish, she has additional shows in development including Jesster, a sketch show that again brings out the comedic yet visceral reality of modern day America. The show will feature Varley and Steinberg in scenarios that Varley says, “Push the boundaries of looks, gender roles, and even good taste.” As we near end our interview, I witness the unofficial beginning of her birthday weekend. “I’m having some tequila,” she laughs. “Actually, don’t write that.” Instead I cover by asking where her inspiration comes from. She pauses, takes a sip, and then responds:
“The question is always, ‘How can we make this better? How can we make this scarier? How can we make this more honest?” And it doesn’t matter if people don’t understand it. That just means it’s our thing.”
Written by Jack Dilday