If you have a great story to tell, one that immediately grabs the audience’s attention with high stakes and culminates in a conclusion both specific and universal — well, that story would not go over well at “Off the Rails!,” a free, twice-a-month storytelling show hosted by comedian Katherine Jessup at Drafthouse Comedy.
“Traditional storytellers often struggle at my show, especially if they are tied to a specific ending for their story,” Jessup says.
That’s why, unlike groups like Story League and Story District — which invite amateurs onstage to tell stories — Jessup sticks to seasoned performers, usually fellow comedians. Another key difference: Jessup asks performers to adjust their tales on the spot, based on random interjections she writes just before the show.
“I might interrupt them and read a scene I wrote that sounds like it’s from a sci-fi movie,” she says. So a comedian’s well-practiced tale about joining the Army could end with an underwater dance-off between aliens.
“The point of the show is to get storytellers and stand-up comics to go off-script and be in the moment,” Jessup says. “It’s a really hard skill to learn, which is why I started the show — to be a fun way for us to eat our vegetables.”
One of a growing number of nationally touring comedians based in D.C., Jessup has always considered herself a stronger writer than performer. She launched “Off the Rails!” about a year ago to get better at reacting to unexpected, unscripted events. That’s an essential skill for any performer — especially stand-up comedians, who often face less than ideal circumstances such as hecklers in the audience.
“You don’t want to start floundering when things really do go off the rails,” she says.
Jessup’s hobby of deconstructing stories mirrors her life, which has taken some unexpected turns.
“I went to grad school for international development, interned at the World Bank, worked in the media, worked at a yarn store and now I’m a contractor at the Hirshhorn,” she says. “I’ve dabbled in comedy the whole time, but within the last year I’ve been trying more aggressively to focus on becoming a nationally known comedian.”
Besides hosting “Off the Rails!” Jessup performs at festivals (including D.C.’s Bentzen Ball), and co-hosts the weekly podcast “Advice! With Dave & Kat.”
As Jessup takes her life story in wild new directions, you can catch her at Drafthouse every month, encouraging other comedians to do the same with made-up tales. (For Friday’s show, Steven Chen, Adelle Gresock, Andrew Hall, Reggie Melbrough, Tim Miller, Mindi Mimosa and Max Wolfson will all take the stage.)
“I wanted ‘Off The Rails!’ to be a safe, fun space to try something new,” she says. “It’s a weird show that’s different than anything else that’s happening in the city at the moment.”
Drafthouse Comedy, 1100 13th St. NW; second and fourth Fridays, 6 p.m., free.