A Conversation with Jason Hensel

A Conversation with Jason Hensel

S1 Ep 2. Comedy writer Jason Hensel on unconventional humor and being inspired by art that sparks curiosity.

In this episode of Call/Response, Dallas humor writer Jason Hensel talks about his creative process, art that inspires him, and his music.

Synopsis: Jason looks for the uncanny in paintings, books and pop culture. His favorite places to see art include museums and galleries in Dallas and hotels with great art collections.

In this conversation, we discuss what sparks Jason's curiosity and how it inspires his writing, music and creative perspective.

Mentioned in this Episode:

Artists: Richard L. Ross, Thomas Hart Benton, Jennifer Morgan

Comedian: Sarah Sherman

Books: R.F. Kuang: "Yellowface," (Author) Sarah Moses (Translator) : "Tender is the Flesh"

Star Wars Locations in Death Valley

Museums: Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas Contemporary

Museum Hotels: 21c Museum Hotels

Dallas Art Galleries: Kettle Art, Conduit Gallery, Barry Whistler

Jason's Websites: Medium (Writing), Ab Ex (Music), Book and Beer


You're listening to Call and Response with K.Co Press, Conversations with Writers on Art and Artists on Literature. I'm Stephanie Khattak.

Today we'll be talking to Jason Hensel. Jason has been a member of many Dallas improv comedy troupes over the past 10 years and currently performs in Don't Broken, Not Fixin. He is a writer for the popular comedy science show "Answers with Joe," available on YouTube. He also produces electronic dance music under the name Ab Ex and is the creator of the popular Book and Beer blog on Tumblr. 

Jason, thank you for meeting with me today. Why don't you tell me a little bit about your work?   

I would say my work has varied over the years.  I consider myself primarily a writer. But I've also made films, made short films, done sketch comedy, improv, theater... I also consider myself a musician. I've been playing in bands since I was 18, 19 years old and currently, ever since COVID started — or the pandemic in 2020, I've been working on electronic dance music, which is something I've always been a fan of.

I've been a fan of New Order and bands like that. And so when we were locked down, I bought myself a little beatbox thing to make drum beats, and I just started putting out stuff under the name Ab Ex, and so now I have six albums and two EPs out.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that? What inspires you in your music and your writing?

I'm inspired by things that are slightly off kilter. Things that don't seem what they seem like a little bit.

There's just something just slightly off about it. Almost like an uncanny valley, but not that creepy. But, still, there's something. You might be looking at a picture and like, and you start.. the more you look at it, you're like, wait a minute, that guy's nose is really weird looking, or that guy's arm is longer than the other arm, and so I think the things that inspire me are the things that are subtle and don't come across at first glance, but I've had people describe my music, they're like, I like your music, and then the more I listen, that beat seems just slightly off a little bit, but they like it, that it gets slightly off. And I think the same with my writing. I like kind of grounded scenes that kind of take a turn, like a twist at the end or in the middle where you're like, oh, wait a minute! This character is not who I thought they were. This is not going where I thought it was. It's just something odd and not necessarily in a bad way...evil way or, you know, creepy way or anything. But just something like, hmm, there's something odd. I guess that's, that's the simplest.

Something odd is what inspires me.

Who are some of your favorite visual artists and how do they inspire or inform your work?   

I go to museums and I see artists and, I like a lot of everything. So locally, two artists I really love are Richard L. Ross, and Jennifer Morgan, because they both have that kind of like odd sense in their paintings and their work, you know, there's something —you know — something weird about it and something kind of fun also at the same time.  And I would say in the same vein, I like Jim Nutt, it's kind of has like, you know, there's some weird grotesque images, but also cartoonish in a way. And also fun.

I keep coming back to fun, you know, and some of the other artists I really like are  Jean Dubuffet, Victor Bronner. Thomas Hart Benton, especially, you know, those are elongated appendages in people's bodies that he paints. Conrad Felix Muller and Ivan Albright.

And as a humor writer who most likely sees the funny in almost everything,  how does an element of visual artwork translate into this does or would make people laugh?   

It's a good question. If I see something, what I kind of said earlier, it's like you see something that's slightly odd. Like I'm looking at a picture right now of Sarah Squirm (editor's note: aka comedian Sarah Sherman). And she's known for her kind of weird, grotesque humor and everything.

And, you know, I look at this, you know, I'm like, I'll see this picture and it's like blood coming from her eyes... how can you represent that on the page or the, on the stage or something where it's enticed enough to keep people wanting to keep reading?

It's mysterious stuff. That's it. The  mystery of it! It's just enough not to gross them out or turn them off. But just enough mystery and like, wait, why is this happening? There's a Saturday Night Live sketch that she's in where she has her head in her hands for like, the first half of the sketch.

And you're like, why is she sitting there like that? Why? And it's because she has googly eyes for her eyes and like, and she's like, she had eye surgery to get googly eyes! And so you're like, it's that kind of weird.

Like it was like that mystery of like... why is she acting like this?

And then you're like, why does she have googly eyes? So everything's a little, like a step in the mystery. And you're leading them down that path. 

That's great insight. That's really interesting.

How do you use humor writing to help navigate unfunny times?   

Use it like satire. I mean, like just kind of holding up a mirror to society! Politics, policy, you know, you want to hold up that mirror and reflect it back on them. So hopefully they can see, "oh, this is how people see me," or "this is how it's coming across. It's not exactly how I meant it to be." And you just kind of use that humor. 

It's like Stephen Colbert when he did the Colbert report, just using people's words, exact words, even. And I don't want to say against them, but, you know, using their exact words. Then when they hear it, hopefully they're smart enough that they're like, "oh, okay. I hear what you're saying." Like the way you're saying it. And then, so I like to use humor to reflect the world back a little bit. More satirical way, a parody.

And how does visual art inspire your music writing? Many of your songs don't have lyrics, so how does art inspire those pieces?

It goes back to the kind of mysterious element, the oddness, the slightly grotesque.  Look at, look at a piece, say, a Thomas Hart Benton, okay.  His people have sometimes elongated arms or, it's kind of like a warped, you know, fish-eye feel to some of the  artwork.

I wanna take people on that journey not necessarily through lyrics, but through music. Like you have a certain section of the songs where you have your standard four on the floor beat.

You know, kind of hook 'em in like, okay, this is familiar. Get 'em in with that familiar. And then you kind of bring in some kind of synth sound or some baseline that's slightly...something you don't normally hear maybe or just slightly something off about it. And you just kind of just keep layering and maybe bring them back to the familiar, you know, and then come back with something new, and just kind of keep building on that. Gradually, they get used to like, okay, this this is the Ab Ex sound or this is this is what it's going for. I mean, I don't know a lot about Thomas Hart Benton, but I'm sure like his fans at the time when he first started like people were like, whoa! That's weird!

I mean now, there's still odd stuff about it, but then it doesn't shock them, you know. I don't think. And so I think that helps get people out of their comfort zones. When you start to... when you give them something familiar and you slide in something unfamiliar and bring them back to the familiar, unfamiliar, back to familiar. It's just kind of that layering. And it kind of gets them opened up to a bigger world.

Do you use the visual arts to break through writer's block? And if so, how?

I would say occasionally I use visual arts.  

The arts that inspire me the most are like  film and reading, things like that.  I think, I think because when I read something, I'm constantly looking for the odd turn of phrase, the odd change in character on stage, things like that.  And it actually goes for the same if I'm walking around a museum and I see something I like, I'll take a picture .

Like at the Chicago Museum of Art you know, the Institute of Art. I'll  take a picture and come back home and look at it. Why do I like that? And it might  more subconsciously affect my writing and my music making, rather than overtly.

Where are some of your favorite places to see art in Dallas?

Of course, the classic places like the Nasher and the DMA are two. I also like the Contemporary,  Kettle Art, Conduit, and Barry Whistler. 

I understand that you went to the poster show at SMU recently, is that right?
(editor's note: May 2024)

Yeah. Yeah.

What did you think about that?

That was great. It was. I didn't really know what to expect. Were looking at it and I'm looking at the posters and I saw the buttons and the flyers. And then I turned to my wife and I said, "you know, it'd be even cooler...this exhibit would be even cooler if they had ticket stubs for all these bands." And then as soon as we were leaving, we walked around the corner and there was a case for like ticket stubs and things like that!

I was like, "Oh, cool! They heard me. They blew it up!" But yeah, it was  interesting. I really liked it. And I really wanted some of those posters!

I know you've been traveling around recently. Where are some of your favorite places to see art outside of Dallas?  

I like  the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Kimbell. I'm trying to think of other places! We're about to —family and I —go to San Francisco for a little vacation. So if I can convince them to go to the art museum there, then I'll check that out!

What else have we been to? You  know what's sometimes interesting? I just thought of this is hotels that offer art. I think there's the Museum hotel...

Oh yeah, the 21C Museum Hotels!

There's one Oklahoma City (editor's note: The Oklahoma City 21C Museum Hotel has changed ownership.) I remember an improv troupe stayed there for a festival and it was really cool to walk around.

It had all these art installations. I think at the time they had a penguin installation like this huge penguin statue. I went to Houston for a press trip one time and It was a Marriott and they had like, in the lobby all these kind of cool pieces. They had one piece of art that was just made. It was a guy, but it was all made from bullets. So it was like a mosaic. So, you know, it was really interesting! So I kind of like those kind of places where free art pops up and you don't expect it .

Like you're walking kind of like a little mini museum just for yourself!

Would you like to talk a little bit about the trip that you took recently to the Star Wars sets?

Oh, yeah.

Yeah. So my old co-worker Blair, he's a big Star Wars nerd and he's done this before with another group. He wanted to go back and check out with another old co-worker of ours Matt who lives in Vegas and then go to Death Valley. He had the coordinates down and everything, and pictures from the screenshots, and we'd find the ridge, and like, okay, yeah, this is the ridge that R2D2 was looking out over!

This is the valley they were walking down. Here's the sand dune that he was seeing, and what you find is like, oh, wow, that, that really is it! I mean, it was kind of fun and more, and more of that searching, you know, like an investigative feel to it.

And it was also kind of cool to see Death Valley.

I'd never been, we went on the perfect weekend. Because there, it was like 70 degrees and the next weekend it was like 95 degrees. And it has so much variety sand dunes and rocks and, like a salt lake .

So there's actually water in Death Valley! But it's like a big salt lake and people walking around the salt marshes and things like that. So it was... it was fun.

So what are you reading these days?

Currently I'm reading "Yellowface," by  R. F. Kuang. It's really good. It's a page turner, I would say! Do you know about the book?

I've heard of it, yes. I've heard many good things about it.

Yeah! I'm a book group with a couple of friends and we each got to pick a book and this was my selection 'cause I was like, "I wanna read it!"

Actually it's nice to find a book where I'm ready to get off work and be like, okay, I can read now. I want to just..I just want to read. I read my book. And before that   I read Dark Matter, and it's coming out on Apple TV.

And then I would say the best book I've read this year so far,  I will say it's a great book. And one I can't stop thinking about is Tender is the Flesh. (editor's note: by Agustina Bazterrica)  And so it's the end of the book that just makes me like... It goes back to my "Whoa, that took a turn!"  you know, like that. And I think that kind of inspired me like, whoa! Okay.

Didn't expect to see that coming.

Can you tell me a little bit about your Book and Beer blog? I know that you have been doing it for a while.

Yeah, I just started it one night because —I'm going to admit — I'm not a huge fan of beer. The guy who runs the Book and Beer blog, I'm not a huge fan of beer! But the reason I started it was so I could learn to find beers that I like. 

So, I started every Monday I'm going to do a book and beer. I'll have one, I'll pair it with the book I'm reading this week. I'll just put it with it and just take pictures of it. I just started doing that. And one day BuzzFeed picked it up as one of their favorite Tumblr sites, and it kind of blew up from there. And then it was good because I could get people, more people, to submit so it just wasn't me. And so I wanted, people to submit what they were reading. I'm starting to pick it back up again. I'm like, okay. I need to, 'cause I have a refrigerator still full of a lot of beers I've not had a chance to drink. So, I was like, well, this is a chance to get rid of these and check them out!

Where can people submit?

Yeah. Yeah! You can go to the Tumblr site. I think that's probably the best way to do it is still do it through tumblr.bookandbeer.com. I think that's the site. Now you're making me question my own website!

So what's next for you?

I'm still working on my next Ab Ex album. I just released the first single off of it. It's called "The Clouds." I'm working on that. I've been kind of at a pace of putting two albums out a year. So this will be my seventh album and hopefully it'll come out in the fall.

I'm starting to get into that inkling I want to write another play!

And so I'm thinking about...I'm going to let that kind of simmer a little bit more. A lot of times too, when I write a play or write something, I just start. I just have a line to begin with and I'll just start from there, and I'm not sure where the, where the plots go on, what's going to, where the story's going.

So this time I'm just going to kind of let that kind of simmer too. And maybe something I'll like, maybe a piece of artwork, a visual artwork, can inspire me to get out there and like, okay, that  I gotta, I gotta write a play about this, this grotesque piece of work.

Where can we learn more about you and experience your work?

Look up Ab Ex music and on Google search and my website should pop up there for you, and for writing I have a Medium site, I think it's under my name, yeah, Jason Hensel, and it has a few of my humor pieces that have been published on  Slackjaw and Jane Austen's Wastebasket, things like that.

Is there anything that you'd like to add?

No, I think you got it all. Thank you for having me on here!

Thank you! We've learned a lot and got a lot of great recommendations for art and writing and all kinds of inspiration.



Thanks for listening to this episode of Call and Response with K.Co Press.  You can find us online at www.kcopress.com , on Instagram @KCoPress  or on Facebook @KCoArts. 




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Call/Response: Conversations with Writers on Art and Artists on Literature is produced by K.Co Press. Find it, Like and Subscribe on Spotify, iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts and Amazon Music.

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