“This wonderful thing is happening because this awful thing is happening!”
After four shows in four days, all under the mantle of the inaugural What a Joke Comedy Festival, I can’t get this opening line from festival co-founder Jenn Welch’s Thursday night set out of my head. It fully captures the energy that thrummed through the weekend, and across the country (plus across the pond!). 34 cities, 88 shows, and $51,000 later, it sounds as though that energy is sticking around.
“What happened this weekend was beautiful, bonding, and inspiring. It gave me hope,” Welch’s festival co-founder Emily Winter shared. As I traveled between New York and Boston for shows, scrolling through an Instagram feed for the festival that “made [Winter] cry every day” along the way, I couldn’t help but feel similarly inspired. Packed rooms, roaring laughs, and occasional chants made that inspiration feel communal- and as I learned from several of the comics, it was endemic in their ranks as well.
Across Boston and New York, comics I talked to cited their excitement to participate at the direct request of Welch and Winter, and felt personally aligned with the cause the founders are fighting for. Langston Kerman, featured on Friday’s show at the Annoyance, said it was “super encouraging to see so many comedians [he] respect[s] in NY and other parts of the country taking part in something so intentionally political.” Subhah Agarwal, co-host of the “My American Nightmare” podcast who appeared on the opening show at The Stand NYC, was similarly “ecstatic” to embrace the opportunity for laughs amid the present political landscape. “Comedy can be a quick escape from a depressing reality, but it can also change the way people think. [It] can expose people to new stories and perspectives, allowing them to see things in a new light.”
“My American Nightmare”’s other host, Ayanna Dookie, echoed her personal need to joke through an uncertain time. “As a woman of color, the election of Donald Trump was a reminder of how some view me in this country and that we still have a long way to go. The festival created a safe haven. and what better way to raise money for the ACLU than practicing free speech?!” Like Agarwal, she is convinced that the lens comedy shines on the world can help us through hardships that could be on the way. Pointing her attention to an oft-chanted at target of the festival, she added, “Whether it be the unjust treatment of people of color or the election of a racist, sexist, unqualified reality TV star, comics now have a platform to not only share their opinions, but hopefully educate.”
And yet, for all the political humor that was shared during the festival, it wasn’t all that was showcased. Many comics are choosing to let their comedy serve as an outlet from current events, rather than as a venue to interpret them. Kerman recognized a need to provide some relief. “I think for a great many of us, there’s a want to avoid shows that force a political hand (not that that was at all asked of us) because they can sometimes feel too much like either pandering or a town hall meeting.” Christi Chiello, who appeared on What a Joke shows in the Boston lineup, also embraces this approach. “I’m not one of the many comics right now who are joking about Trump. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with political comedy. I mean, all comedy is trying to make sense of weird things that don’t make sense, so of course Trump fits in there.” The great thing I found as a festival-goer was each show’s ability to break up political humor with more common or silly laughs. Christi relishes her role in providing that outlet for her audience, a release valve of sorts for audiences exhausted by the world around them. “[R]egardless of what a comic is or isn’t saying, comedy can provide an escape for people. It’s therapeutic to laugh and a lot of us don’t want to do that right now, but it helps.”
And what about beyond the right now? As I talked to comics and organizers in both cities, there was a natural inclination to use phrases like “in the future,” and “next year,” to describe future efforts to support What a Joke. I asked Winter if that automatic reference to future events was a correct one, and she enthusiastically responded “Yes!”, adding that the founders had plans to establish a 501(c)(3) organization so their partnership with the ACLU could become an official one for forthcoming projects. With a take of over $50,000 and a threat to civil liberties that likely stands to increase, I’m sure her answer would please many of the participants I got to chat with.
“With the recent election and countless list of social injustices, there seems to be more consciousness amongst the masses,” Dookie said; Agarwal agreed, noting “The beauty of comedy is you don’t have to agree with what the comedian is saying to find them funny.” Future events under the What a Joke umbrella could take advantage of that consciousness and ability to reach audiences, weaponizing it to garner support for the marginalized and violated. Kerman ended his conversation with me by encapsulating this beautifully: “[Comedy is] the tool by which America begins to articulate new ideas and experiences and possibilities, so it’s important that we stay as cutting edge and, for lack of a better word, resistant to what is simply being handed to us as truth.” His next words were designed to qualify many of his answers, but also seems fitting for the cause What a Joke seeks to help: “None of this was funny.”