Jill-Michele Meleán got started on her career path by humping her grandmother. "She would yell at me," says Meleán. "So I'd just start dry-humping her leg and then she'd start laughing. So I just kind of made the connection that if I make people laugh, they'll leave me alone.” At the tender age of 2, she picked up a lifelong habit of dealing with things through comedy.
Thirty years later, she's an acclaimed stand-up comic and established Hollywood actress. Her credits include roles as a cast member on "MADtv” as well as a recurring character on "Reno 911!" She's also a headliner on The Latin Comedy Jam, a touring act that hits the Kiva Auditorium on Saturday, June 30.
Childhood antics notwithstanding, Meleán began performing at the the age of 19, working out of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in her native Miami. Although she did some sketch training, her initial forays into the business were more about serious theater than laughs. When she struck out for L.A. 12 years ago to pursue her career, she quickly found that drama alone wouldn't cut it. She took classes at Second City, went to improv workshops and dived headlong into the open mic scene. "I realized that I had to quickly reinvent my game," she says. "I wasn't a stand-up—I just knew that I was a performer and I knew that I could make people laugh. So I just used to get up and do impressions."
Those impressions are arguably what Meleán is best known for as a comedian, and also why she calls herself "the Gary Oldman of comedy," referring to her transformative qualities.
Her ditzy, bubbly Drew Barrymore is so spot on—from the pronounced facial ticks to the cutesy lisp—that watching her inhabit the character is like being teleported to a scene in a schmaltzy Adam Sandler rom-com.
Meleán says her penchant for parrot-like mimicry stems from what she deems "dialect by association." In everyday life, it pops up in the form of inadvertently lapsing into the accent of a server she’s conversing with at a Chinese restaurant. "I'm like, Oh my God, what did I just do?" she says, the pungent scent of shame lingering still. Other times it's when she's in a more professional setting. "I meet these celebrities and I can't help but stare at them, and I study their mannerisms," she says. "I just take on their persona as I'm talking to them.”
When Meleán isn’t dabbling in famous farce, she gravitates toward themes that speak to her Bolivian heritage—themes that are popular among her fellow comics on the tour. “We all talk about our families because, you know, in the Latin culture that's a huge thing,” she says.
“There are funny things that Latin people do,” adds Albuquerque-born tour producer Mike Acquisto. “For example, when you get down to the bottom of your soap or shampoo bottle, Latin families for years, instead of throwing the last maybe eighth of an inch of soap away, What do you do? You add a little bit of water.”
But even with a heavy helping of cultural references, Meleán says the Jam has a wide appeal. “It's not like if you're from Kentucky and you come to our show you're going to be looking around going like, I have no idea what these people are talkin’ ’bout, these La-tee-nos,” she says, lapsing into a Southern drawl. “No, they'll be laughing just as hard because it's very mainstream, because we are Americanized. But we do keep the culture."