Living on the edge

Funny woman Jeanne Robertson embraces 'a whole new world'
September 6, 2009
By KEREN RIVAS/Times-News email

After more than 45 years making laughter her business, humorist and speaker Jeanne Robertson’s career finally has come full circle.

“In the 1960s, I was talking about beauty pageants,” Robertson said. “Now, I am talking about getting older.”  After all, it was shortly after being crowned Miss North Carolina in 1963 the Graham native discovered she was good at making people laugh. She went on to grab the Miss Congeniality title at the Miss America pageant later on that year.  “It was a great opportunity for me,” she said of the pageant. “I found out I was funny.”


Sam Roberts / Times-News
Jeanne Robertson is a woman of many talents,
 including being a speaker, humorist and author.
The Graham native has a new DVD of funny stories
out now, and her comedic bits also can
 be heard on satellite radio.
And so her career as a humorist began. During that first year, the 6-foot 2-inch Graham girl delivered more than 500 speeches.
She was only 19 years old.  “At that time I was just funny,” she said, adding that she was too young to give any advice.


But as the years went by, Robertson started drawing on her life experiences to enrich her speeches. She went from being just funny to being a speaker with a message.  You have to have a message,” she said. “You have to have a reason for being there,
you have to have something to give” the audience.


She started incorporating her funny stories into speeches and for the past 45 years, she’s talked to a diverse range of groups — mothers, fathers, children, Rotarians, realtors, government workers, entrepreneurs — always connecting with them in whatever stage of life they were in. But as she got older, Robertson discovered people sometimes just want to have a good laugh. Now,
at age 65, Robertson is back where she began: Being a funny woman.


In the past 11 years, Robertson has produced six full-length DVDs, including her latest, “Just For Fun,” which she premiered
Aug. 27 at the Alamance County Arts Council in Graham.  Unlike her previous works, her latest DVD is a collection of 16
funny stories, not a funny speech. “I’ve come full circle,” she said. “I’ve learned to go with the flow.”


And while other people her age may be thinking about retirement, for Robertson that is not an option right now. She said the Internet has opened up a world of opportunities she never expected, so as long as she can deliver and as “long as the lights
are down low to look pretty good out there,” she said, she will be on stage.  “It’s a whole new world and I am embracing it,”
she added.


ROBERTSON’S INITIAL contact with this “new world” was partly accidental.  It all started three years ago, when she struck
a deal with XM Satellite Radio and it started airing inserts of her “Southern Style” CD.  “Finding clean humor that the whole
family can hear is apparently a challenge for them,” she said.  And though she started to get more name recognition as a
result, it wasn’t until about a year ago when XM merged with Sirius Satellite Radio that things exploded for Robertson.


About the same time, a friend who owns a recording label in Tennessee suggested she put her stories on the iTunes store,
the online music and video application owned by Apple Inc. that allows people to buy and download individual tracks as well
as full albums. “Who is going to know to go there?” she remembers asking her friend who finally convinced her it was the right
thing to do.


“We didn’t know what we were doing when we started,” she said. It didn’t take long for her to find out how good that decision
was. Since a great majority of satellite radio listeners are younger, she started getting requests about downloading her material.


Having been used to older audiences — she has been doing comedy tours for senior adults with comedian Carl Hurley for 10
years — she soon discovered this new audience was a bit different. They wanted things now. Calling a 1-800-number to place
an order was not an option.  The answer was something she was already doing: iTunes. All the stories from her first five CDs
can be found on the digital music store. Her new program will be available for download later this month.


In the spring of 2008, she had also posted a couple of clips on YouTube.com, which allows people to post and watch videos
free of charge. When each clip reached 100,000 hits a year later, she though she was doing great. She later found out that
wasn’t as high a number as she thought, considering that millions of people are on YouTube every day.  Then, three months
ago, something terrible happened, or so she thought.


Someone took one of her short stories called “Left Brain’s grocery list” and put it on YouTube under a different name — “Don’t 
send a man to the grocery store-hilarious!” — using the cover of her CD as the video feed.  Great! she told herself. Her No. 1
seller on iTunes is flying around the Internet for free and without video. Surely, she thought, sales are going to go down. To her surprise, the opposite happened.  “Our sales tripled!” she said. “What they did was illegal but they changed my world. I would
hug the person if I knew who it was.”


She realized that the key to be marketable in this new, fast, online world was to pick catchy names for her stories. She
decided to replace the pirated version with her own video clip but keep the new name. The result? As of Tuesday, that clip
 had received 1,267,739 hits in seven weeks.


She decided to rename other clips she had posted before. For instance, instead of calling one of her stories “He is too a nice
boy” as she did on her DVD, she went with “Mothers vs. teenage daughters.”  The response was almost immediate. She said orders are pouring in from all around and she and her people are struggling to keep up.


When she talks about “my people” she mainly means her husband of more than 30 years, Jerry, a.k.a. Left Brain, and her
longtime friend and assistant, Toni Meredith. She said that though she picks on Jerry a lot in her presentations, the two are
very much in love, something that is very apparent when you see the couple together.


MOST OF HER CURRENT success she attributes to the exposure she’s getting through satellite radio. On average, Sirius XM Radio, as the company is now called, plays Robertson’s funny stories 20 to 23 times each day on the family comedy channels. The radio has more than 20 million subscribers.

She said since she teamed up with the company, her sales have tripled and requests for speaking engagements have gone up
 five times. “They (radio executives) are mesmerized this is happening to someone who didn’t go the comedy club route,” she
said. Younger professional speakers also wonder how she does it. She said her secret is to constantly add new stories to her repertoire. She does this by keeping a journal.  “Everything that happens in my life that is funny goes into the journal,” she
said.  ”We are always looking.”  Though not everything that happens in life is funny, if you look hard, you will find that a lot of
it is, she said.


She said her “meat and potatoes” remains her public speaking engagements. In October alone, she is scheduled to speak in
15 different conventions.  She now is considering having a touring show to tell her funny stories, though she will not be
performing in comedy clubs. Her show would be more in line with the show she currently does with Hurley, she said.


Despite her busy schedule, Robertson always makes room for local events. For instance, she will be speaking at the
Celebrate Women Symposium at Alamance Regional Medical Center on Saturday. The event has been sold out for two
 weeks.  About 200 women have registered and already paid to participate in the event that highlights women’s health and alternative therapies. Due to the high number of participants, Robertson will deliver her speech during two separate sessions.


The Robertson's also make sure they support many local activities, especially sports. They are huge Elon University fans and
have been involved with the athletics at the school, even before their son graduated from there in 1989. Besides belonging to
the Phoenix Club, for the past 20 years the couple has fed the basketball and tennis teams at Christmas. Jeanne Robertson
also serves on the school’s Board of Trustees.  “You bloom where you are planted,” she said.


When she is not busy traveling to a convention, Robertson is keeping in touch with her fans. If someone includes a comment
when they buy a CD or DVD, she personally replies with a thank-you e-mail. If somebody sends her a message telling her he
or she listens to her on Sirius XM radio, she replies with a link so that they can let the radio know the program is successful.
If someone wants her to sign or dedicate a CD/DVD to someone, she happily obliges.  “People appreciate the personal touch,”
she said, “And it’s fun.”


As her business continues to grow, she might not be able to answer every single request, but she will do her best.  “I am still happy,” she said. “I love what I do.”

Her newest online project has been setting up a page in the popular social networking site Facebook, which she did three
weeks ago. She already has 1,200 fans.  Though she is still learning the ropes, “I think I am going to like Facebook,” she said.


“I am feeling very cutting edge,” she added with a laugh.

Coming up …

• Sirius XM Radio will air an interview with Jeanne Robertson at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sept. 26. The interview was taped in New York earlier this month and was conducted by host and producer Mark Seman. You can hear the interview on Sirius XM’s Blue Collar Radio (Sirius channel 104 and XM channel 148).

• You also can watch Robertson’s clips at any time on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/JeanneRobertson; send her a message on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Jeanne-Robertson or buy her stories on iTunes at www.itunes.com/JeanneRobertson.

• For more on Robertson, visit her Web site at www.Jeannerobertson.com.