Chris Fleming on Sick Jan and Jamie Lee Curtis’s New Role

A multiversal divergence.
Photo: A24; Chris Fleming

Jamie Lee Curtis’s lay-it-all-on-the-table comedic performance as Deidre the IRS stooge in Everything Everywhere All at Once is getting good notices. The Guardian calls Curtis’s performance “harsh and humane.” IndieWire praises “how fearlessly” Curtis approaches the surprisingly layered character. RogerEbert.com notes that Curtis is clearly “having the time of her life” in the role. None of them mentions that she’s just doing Sick Jan.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure (?) of meeting Sick Jan, she’s a character dreamed up by comedian Chris Fleming, whose videos often involve him playing (Amy Klobuchar) or encountering (DePiglio) an unsettling character with a weird worldview. But Sick Jan, who made her internet debut in July 2020, is an instant classic, a comedy character as lived-in as a pair of old orthopedics. She’s a startlingly intense H&R Block tax preparer with “enough turquoise to get into Stevie Nicks’s house” who is hell-bent on going to jail for minor tax fraud. She treats her job like a heist scene, and she approaches her only client (Chris) from across her desk with a heady brew of exhaustion, defiance, annoyance, and a persistent cough. Fleming’s video has racked up millions of thousands of views since its debut two years ago, and if you search “Sick Jan” on Twitter you’ll find — after sifting through COVID tweets about people being sick in “jan 2020” — dozens of people tweeting about doing their taxes and revisiting the clip.

LikeJan, Everything Everywhere All at Once‘s Deidre is a severe woman who works in the wacky world of taxes, albeit for the opposite team. Both have chunky necklaces, gray-white wigs, and a focus on home-business write-offs. Both take a perverse pride in their status in the office; Jan is good at her job — her sneezes are triumphs — while Deidre’s desk displays IRS awards that look like butt plugs. At one point in the film, Deidre pins down a paper on her desk and says, “It does not look good.” At one point in Fleming’s video, Jan sings, “It’s not looking good, Christopher.” Was this just a case of parallel thinking, à la Antz and A Bug’s Life? Or was it more than a coincidence? I called Fleming for his take on the confluence, and our conversation quickly devolved into a feverish dissection of Sick Jan: the woman, the character, the myth, the tax preparer.

So I went to see Everything Everywhere All at Once last week. In the movie, Jamie Lee Curtis does this great comedic turn playing a character named Deirdre Beaubirdra, who is remarkably similar to Sick Jan.
When the trailer came out, I kind of tucked it away in my stress chamber because if you’re on Twitter at all, you’re basically just volunteering for SNL or other shows like that. So I was like, Oh, no, I hope Sick Jan isn’t being preyed on right now. At the same time, if that’s going to get that archetype … although Jan’s not an archetype, Jan’s such a specific woman. But also, if Jamie Lee Curtis so much as saw “Sick Jan,” that would be such a great thing.

But the story of Sick Jan, the character herself, is so dense — maybe it’s just that all tax preparers have a vibe of anarchy and Southwestern style. With Jan, obviously, it was one song, so I could focus only on the fact that she was chronically sick for three years and never addressed it. And also her desire to go to jail — her overwhelming desire. People talk about sexual tension in the video a lot, but it’s just between Jan and the prison system. But she also adopted a bunch of adult children, which I found in my notes, and she had a catchphrase that I couldn’t remember. I remember putting her on speakerphone so my friends could hear her, because she would use this catchphrase while also coughing. She was just too good to be true. When I see Jamie Lee Curtis in that getup, it’s like, yeah, if I had good wardrobe, it’s kind of close.

Well, that’s the thing. It’s not a stock character. A lot of times, there’s a sketch on SNL, and a comedian points out that they’ve done something similar, but really it’s a recurring idea. But Sick Jan is such a specific character, and so is Deirdre Beaubeirdra: She’s a tax lady, although on the side of the IRS. She’s got the chunky beaded necklace and the very intense, severe energy.
Just from the trailer, I saw how much she was the king of her castle, which is very much the Jan vibe. When I brought her up at the office after she was fired, it brought a smile to everyone’s face, but she ruled with an iron fist and through intimidation tactics and was so intimidating, not only to me but to her co-workers. Curtis also embodies that. What’s your theory on all this? You saw the movie—how close is it?

I mean, I thought it was close enough that I needed to call Chris Fleming. So there’s something there. At the screening I was at, one of the directors mentioned being very into Tim and Eric, so it’s not inconceivable that they’ve also seen your stuff. On the other hand, I can’t imagine Jamie Lee Curtis relating to comedy about filing taxes at H&R Block.
You know, I thought that about Susan Sarandon, too, but she became aware of my shit somehow. Also, I wonder if the directors or wardrobe department happened to file their taxes in Pasadena between the years of 2012 and 2015. Jan ruled that area, so they could’ve had her. But I like that you think this goes higher up, like there’s a Sick Jan conspiracy out there.

And the movie’s about a multiverse. It’s a scary thought, and I’m sorry to speak it out loud, but there could be infinite Jans out there.
So you think that maybe this actually goes bigger, to a collective-consciousness-type thing, where we’re all conjuring up the same images.

Like Bob from Twin Peaks.
Is Deirdre sick in it? She doesn’t cough, does she?

She doesn’t cough, but she does have an unexplained injury.
Oh wow. Alright. You see, this is the shit that just chills me to my core. It keeps me up. Because there are a lot of creepy coincidences out there when you tap into the creative stream. But if I could just see her on the beach… that’s the thing. I’ve been looking for Jan. I think this was my Hail Mary that I put out, hoping that she would contact me. But nothing.

We have Christmas carols. We have one Halloween song on the books. How does it feel to have written the only tax-season carol?
Someone said today that it’s their treat for after they file their taxes. I hope that in 100 years or so, it’s listened to without any trace of humor — like, tax season is a big holiday season and they sit around the fire and listen to it.

Earlier, you said Jan isn’t an archetype, but there is something about how through your videos, you capture these things that surround us — tics, weird behaviors, strange references, the most obscure dialogue possible — and codify them into archetypes where there weren’t any before.
That’s great. That’s an honor. I’m making clip art for 2022. If only you could see how much turquoise Jan wore — encased in turquoise, like a turquoise sarcophagus. And she also did have glasses, and that was the one thing I had to omit from the costume because I needed to differentiate her from myself. I also think a main difference [between Jan and Deirdre], something that I don’t know if I was able to capture, was that Jan was incredibly physically strong — capable of doing serious damage. Jamie Lee Curtis’s character seems kind of slumped, bad posture. No, no, no, no, no. Jan was fucking on alert and ready for a cage fight.

Buddy, I hate to tell you this, but Jamie Lee Curtis has fight scenes.
Oh God! Okay, okay, game over. And Deirdre Beaubeirdra’s a really good name. It sounds like something the Story Pirates would come up with.

What have you been working on lately?
The past three years, I’ve been working on this beautiful pilot called “I’m the Mayor of Bimmi Gardens.” And we didn’t get picked up by the network that we made it for, so we’re trying to get it somewhere else. We did it with Victoria Pedretti, Perfume Genius — it was stacked. Heartbreak! Bimmi is off the coast of Florida, but it’s technically still a territory of Maine. I play the mayor there. That’s what I’m consumed by at the moment.

Last question and then I’ll let you go: Have you been following Amy Klobuchar? Can we expect any updates from her?
Oh my God, she is such an inspiration. Last I saw, she was in Ukraine, so I didn’t want to go near that. I follow her on all the social media she’s on, which is a lot, and I really hope that she is the next president. I cannot get enough of her. The last really good thing I saw — and I made a video, like, 20 minutes after — was her getting protesters and running away from them or something. She is the best!

I wrote a whole Amy Klobuchar screenplay the first time I saw her in the primaries. I stayed up until 4 am writing, writing, writing, writing, writing. It was all about her in a beach chair. I started doing a monologue as her in Washington DC It was something about [does the Klob voice] “I got over-served at a climate function. I read in front of Greta Thunberg, thinking it was funny. Next thing I know, I got sucker-punched by Greta and flew over a railing.” That was the last time I really put pen to paper with Amy, but the sky’s the limit.

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