This weekend marks the inaugural (pun absolutely intended) What a Joke Fest, a 34-city comedy festival to support the ACLU as they take on an unprecedented threat to our civil rights. While some participating cities elected to stage special shows in support of the event, Boston organizers Kwasi Mensah and Emily Ruskowski used it as a clarion call to unite the many existing shows taking place in the city. Ahead of the festival, we interviewed them on how they got involved, how the coming administration is affecting comedy in the area, and their hopes for the busy weekend ahead.
The Interrobang: How did each of you get involved with a role in the festival?
Kwasi Mensah: I know Jenn Welch, one main co-producers in NYC, from comedy stuff I’ve done in NYC. She posted about it on social media and was happy to connect with her on it.
Emily Ruskowksi: I was/am involved with a group of comics in Boston who were working on putting together monthly benefit shows for progressive causes called “Laugh While You Can” (I’ll be on their February show) and I posted a status related to that. A friend then connected me to Emily Winter, who is wonderful, and that’s how I got involved.
The Interrobang: I love this approach to demonstrating resistance; how have you been feeling as comics about the coming administration? Are you able to tell how audiences feel about it as you perform?
Emily Ruskowski: I feel so scared! This, in my mind, was worst case scenario and I was shocked when it actually happened. I was so hopeful and excited about having our first woman President, and then we wound up with this absolute mess. I don’t do a ton of political material, but I think we’re in an area of the country where a lot of the folks in the crowd are feeling the same way we are.
Kwasi Mensah: [to Amma] Well, I think you were at the one show where I got to really see how certain people felt about it. There is the comic part of me that wants to process the new administration, but it’s really the person in me that has been feeling a lot of fear for people all around me I care about. A week before the election, I was in my best friend’s interracial same-sex wedding. So when the election night results came in, I immediately felt a huge disconnect between the country that’s progressed far enough for that type of wedding to happen and the country that would send such a loud and clear message that bigotry is acceptable.
But as a comic, I think our real power is in making connections between things that seem really disparate. And if used responsibly, is a powerful tool for broadening people’s world views which is the approach I’m taking with my comedy.
The Interrobang: As I look over the lineups for other cities, Boston has one of the biggest slates of shows. Is that representative of how many people wanted to be involved, how many people wanted to attend, or both?
Emily Ruskowski: People were definitely excited about getting involved. Kwasi did a wonderful job with outreach to producers and I did a little bit as well. I think people were looking for a way to get involved, and this was a perfect fit!
Kwasi Mensah: It’s definitely representative of the number of people that wanted to be involved. It’s a combination of Boston being a pretty liberal city and having a really thriving independent comedy show scene, so there are a fair amount of producers who aren’t afraid to show their politics for fear of losing ticket sales. We’ve even had shows we didn’t originally approach, reach out to us to be included.
The Interrobang: It’s definitely an expansive and well-established one, so I appreciate the approach you took of aligning established shows (The Gas, Mendoza Line, Liquid Courage) with the cause, rather than planning all new shows. How did the organizers respond to being included in this effort?
Kwasi Mensah: Everyone that’s been on board was super enthusiastic from the start. Nobody was terribly territorial over branding or what-not. Emily and I are both already fairly busy and given that, the time frame for setting this up, and producers we knew we could trust, working with them would be better than any one-off show we would’ve produced at the last second. Boston is filled with top-notch proven producers who are already putting on great shows (which you can find on http://rbostoncomedy.com/). And it’s more about raising money than giving publicity to any specific show.
Emily Ruskowski: The organizers were wonderful! Some of my favorite shows in the city are participating. I think it was definitely Kwasi’s idea to target established shows, and it was a perfect approach. The shows involved are fantastic, and they always have great crowds.
The Interrobang: Any idea how much you expect to make over the course of the weekend?
Emily Ruskowski: I think we’ll do really well! Many of the shows are donating the door, minus their costs, which is super generous.
Kwasi Mensah: Any amount over $0 will be good enough for me. While the money raised is important, I think that a national comedy apparatus could be setup so quickly is a really powerful statement and testament to Emily [Winter] and Jenn [Welch, the main producers].
And I think it’s also informed local comedy scenes on how to use comedy to support causes close to them. A bunch of Boston comedians just started Laugh While You Can to use local shows to raise money for charities and their first show raised over $1000 for RAINN.
The Interrobang: Do you anticipate continued efforts in the Boston comedy community to stay connected with shows that resist the coming political climate?
Kwasi Mensah: I think comedy shows are going to be more forward thinking about donating some of their proceeds to charity (that’s something The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square has set an example with for years). Plus, I’m excited to see if Laugh While You Can will be a sustained effort. I don’t know if shows will purposely challenge the administration. I co-run Laughing Liberally, which is a show that’s purposefully political, but in general, audiences can get really tired of hearing jokes about only one subject and as comedians, we want to be able to talk about other things on stage. But comedians are always processing the connections happening around them. Especially when they lead to hypocrisy, which this next administration is already full of.
Emily Ruskowski: Laugh While You Can is going strong (and in addition to their benefit show, several other established shows joined in their effort this month to raise money for RAINN) and I anticipate that this weekend won’t be the end of What A Joke. I think you’re going to see Boston comedy continue to contribute to causes we care about, especially as most of us lose health insurance! We’ll have to fill those hours we would have spent in doctors’ offices, so we can do more shows or learn to speak Russian. Actually, we should also probably learn Russian.
Eleven Boston shows will be participating in the What a Joke Festival; get your tickets, info, and event merchandise at the What a Joke Boston site.