The Joke and Its Teller

The Joke and Its Teller

A survey of comedy on Columbia's campus

Published on April 6, 2016

We begin in a basement

Under a house of God, in a tiny, overfilled—and indeed, leaking—room, Jackson Fisher, a senior at Columbia College, makes a joke about fucking bread. A couple of performers later, Columbia College sophomore and former Spectrum blogger Shreyas Manohar cautiously ventures out on a joke about the positive effects of racism. And a couple of sets after that, Barnard sophomore Olivia Rodrigues rouses a sharp laugh by taking a shot at where it truly hurts—every male’s string of eight differently cropped Pokémon profile pictures on Facebook.

Four tiny lights illuminate these comics (and more) against a brick wall. We could be in any comedy club or cellar in New York. There is no one “theme” or motif that tethered the range of comics that performed at Postcrypt Coffeehouse, the tiny space under St. Paul’s Chapel, last Friday.

But these students were gathered here by more than coincidence and the logistics of room bookings. The comedy on offer at Postcrypt was unmistakably collegiate—and perhaps, more importantly, unmistakably Columbian. Comedy is happening at Columbia.

It is the comedy of here and now, and it reflects here, now, and comedy.

PART ONE: Commedia della Columbia

In one of Columbia University (No Budget) Sketch Show’s recent pieces, a drunk senior attempts to recollect the plot of the Odyssey; a group of toga-clad actors tries to recreate their own version with campus serving as their sea of monsters. It is a joke made funny by Literature Humanities—this is a humor that exists specifically within the space of Columbia. Another one of their sketches, Honest CU Snap Story, provides a portrait-mode style reflection of campus as only an undergrad can know it.

CUSS, as its full name suggests, is a video comedy group that is as concerned with its sketches as it is its content—campus. CUSS’ co-founder, Anna Hotter, a senior at Columbia College, describes its creation as borne out of the “gaping hole of video sketch comedy” on campus. Comedy needs its audience.

Hearing Hotter describe it, comedy sounds like a product: Supply will emerge where there is demand. And ease of supply is what makes video comedy such a potent medium. “That’s the most easily consumed comedy, because you can hit a button in your bedroom and you don’t have to go anywhere,” she says.

There is no means of media consumption that is more college than that.

But CUSS doesn’t just exist at Columbia—it is tied to its campus in a manner far more inextricable. Hotter personally believes that good comedy necessarily engages with its surroundings. She describes imbuing her own writing with ideas and concepts that, “whether they were funny or not … resonated with people on campus.”

CUSS’ comedy serves as an absurd mirror of Columbia. “We have all these weird idiosyncratic things on this campus,” Hotter says, reflecting on the space in which CUSS operates. The example she provides is of their sketch, “Sign Out,” which sits in the awkward air of an early morning Barnard dorm sign out. It is, again, a Columbia-specific premise, drawn under the lens and dissected.

Catering to Columbia-specific preferences feeds the tone and pitching of CUSS’ jokes. “We are a very politically engaged and culturally interested crowd that inevitably takes on some kind of deeper meaning than just fart jokes, which I’ve written plenty of,” Hotter explains.

Though she concedes, “There is a sketch entitled ‘House of Farts,’ which is actually only fart jokes, and it’s terrible.”

And sticking to this niche—making comedy that can only be made by someone on campus, for people on campus—gives CUSS its own voice.

“If you want to see a great Donald Trump impression, you go to SNL, you don’t come to CUSS,” she says, laughing.

But while CUSS is new (founded in 2014)—and is finding its footing in a modern, quickly consumed comedic scene—Columbia-specific comedy has a history that goes back 122 years.

The Varsity Show, which will be producing its 122nd performance at the end of this semester, is one of the cornerstones of Columbia’s comedic culture. Sheltered by its tradition, the Varsity Show incisively swipes not just at the institution of Columbia, but also its people and the years gone by. Mockery seems to make the show fundamentally itself. The show’s official website describes it as a performance “that skews and satirizes many dubious aspects of life at Columbia.”

Columbia College senior Anika Benkov, a board member of NOMADS, a theatre group I am involved with this semester, is a co-writer of this year’s production. She sees the institution of the Varsity Show as a comedic, retrospective lens through which to view the past year. “The Varsity Show tries to give a picture of campus life. It tries to satirize the administration, and the students, and the particular quirks of the year,” she explains.

But this desire to represent the Columbia experience doesn’t produce direct, literal summaries of the school year. Last year’s show—the 121st, titled “Almageddon”—envisioned a dystopian Columbian future, broken and in flames. Needless to say, it exaggerated the state of Columbia.

The Varsity Show embodies the concept of self-awareness: It has the ability to be somehow deeply aware of the absurdity of campus, all the while being written and performed by students who live that ridiculousness out everyday. For Benkov, this self-awareness is necessarily bound to the creators’ four years on campus and allows it to be a product of its place and time.

“Most of the shows are very specific to the culture on campus. As it should be,” Benkov holds. “All of the satire that you’re making is for a very specific and very contemporary audience. … Even alumni from years later won’t necessarily get half the jokes I’m making.” 

As Columbia’s relevant—but still time-honored and inherited—comedic centerpiece, what then does the Varsity Show seek to achieve in its satire?

Benkov concedes that some of satire’s goals are more noble than others. On one level, the Varsity Show exists to make fun of people and institutions for its own sake. “I feel like I’m very bad at that,” she confesses. “I don’t want to be mean to anyone.”

In describing the struggle of finding the right tone for the show, Benkov falls into the same terms that one might use to explain to a child the difference between friendly teasing and bullying. “You have to find a balance … [and] make it so that you’re laughing with them and not at them,” she explains.

But the grand history of the Varsity Show seeks higher ground than just playful mockery. “I think satire can also be used as a way to grapple with things that would otherwise be hard to talk about or hard to laugh at,” Benkov explains.

She draws on the example of “Almageddon” to illustrate her point. Despite being dark, she explains, “It managed to find humor in it that allowed people to be brave. … Without diminishing how genuine those experiences were—those struggles were—it also made it easier to deal with it.”

The Varsity Show’s support and interest—many alumni still come down to watch—gives it institutional power that is not common in satire, which already serves to challenge said power. According to Benkov, this endorsement acts like a double-edged sword.

“Something that’s institutional both has the potential to be more conservative … a little more safe because you’re dealing with such a broad audience,” she explains. “But I also think it really gives you an opportunity—if you want to be brave—to say real things and have real commentary.”

PART TWO: The Line

Last June, Jerry Seinfeld—in an oft-cited interview on “The Herd with Colin Cowherd”—said that he has been warned to “not go near colleges. They’re too PC.” College students, Seinfeld believes, “don’t know what the hell they’re talking about” classifying and drowning out comedy.

Similarly, in September, Caitlin Flanagan declared in The Atlantic that “today’s college students can’t seem to take a joke.” Her analysis, which was based on a National Association for Campus Activities conference, is that college students want comedy so clean that if “the most hypersensitive weirdo on campus mistakenly wandered into a performance, the words he would hear would fall on him like a soft rain, producing a gentle chuckle and encouraging him to toddle back to his dorm, tuck himself in, and commence a dreamless sleep—not text Mom and Dad that some monster had upset him with a joke.”

Flanagan infantilizes college students as “coddl[ed]” children while the adults are having a conversation at the dinner table.

The conversation about free speech on college campuses is larger than comedy, with complex arguments being made on both sides of the issue. But even before the conversation can be properly had, an image is already starting to form: College undergraduates are unfunny and self-serious, unable to take anything lightly or without an air of self-aggrandized entitlement.

And yet, college students here and everywhere continue to create comedy. How, then, are these disparate views of the world reconciled? How is comedy being created in an intellectual space where humor is supposedly being shut down?

My first step in attempting to understand these comics’ perspectives on the dilemma of speech in comedy was to ask them a large, loaded, and clearly unanswerable question. I asked about The Line. That mythical universal demarcation—old and tangible—between what can and can’t be said, I asked whether it’s real.

Their immediate reactions are “no.” Fisher makes clear that although The Line is not in one clear place, and he can’t be the one to demarcate it, comedy has an unspoken limit of the acceptable. “I think there are things that somebody in good conscience shouldn’t say,” he explains.

“[It’s important] to not use comedy or free speech as a carte blanche to say absolutely anything, because I think that takes away some of the power of it, when it is poignant and it is sensitive to issues that are going on,” Fisher elaborates, placing the onus of understanding the weight of their words back on comics.

Regarding The Ever-Elusive Line, Hotter, too, does not “agree with the notion that certain things categorically can’t be made fun or made light of.” She is quick to qualify the statement by returning to two key core tenants of CUSS’ comedy—audience and intention.

“Within the community that CUSS wants to be a part of and is a part of, I think that we just never had that goal … [of getting] that shock laugh,” she explains. There is a lot of value in this humor, she maintains, but it is extremely hard to do well. In her understanding, The Line is about understanding a joke’s target: “If you make a great Donald Trump joke but it still misses the target, have you really done anything, or is it just bad comedy?”

Benkov stands firmly by Hotter in tying comedy to its intention. “If you’re going to make fun of someone, make sure it’s for a good reason,” she says. “Picking on people who don’t have power in their situations … [is] less appealing to me than picking on people who are the source of a problem.”

It is here, in comedy’s treatment of relevant contemporary concerns, Benkov explains, that it becomes most polarized. The difference between “punching up” and “punching down” allows comedy to “bring out the worst in us. Or it can be used to make a point about it,” she says.

According to Benkov, the rise in unfavorable reactions to comedy is at least partially the consequence of a larger-scale empowerment. “Part of the reaction, or the negative reaction, is having to do with marginalized communities having more of a sense of entitlement to not being made fun of as much,” she explains. “And I think that that’s totally valid.”

But it isn’t the only contributing factor. Some of the aversion, she explains, is also the product of bad listening: Trigger word-hunting in an increasingly polarized conversation.

“Sometimes people aren’t very close listeners or good leaders and instead take one aspect of what someone is saying and blow it out of proportion,” Benkov says.

Understanding when a joke is missing its target is, for Hotter, an issue of representation. Diverse rooms help create better comedy.

“That’s one of the great benefits of having a writer’s room, especially one that is very representative of the Columbia community at large,” she says. “There’s a diversity of voices—because you know you can’t, you might not even catch something that could actually be punching down if you’re three people and you all think the same way.”

The student-written and -directed theatrical anthology Latenite, and its president Columbia College senior Zac Collazo, have the same philosophy. Although Collazo too refuses to point to a single location of The Line, understanding what can and can’t be said is easy with a particular group of people. What’s offensive “becomes evident especially when you get a diverse group of people together who represent not only Columbia’s campus but also the world’s campus,” Collazo says.

None of this, of course, is to take away from the fact that despite our discussions about The Line and its existence, some of the funniest comedy pushes boundaries in the way we least expect it. Hotter points to a surprisingly large overlap between heralded, politically active, and effective comedians and comedians that challenge our understanding of what can and can’t be said.

“The biggest working comics today usually overstep the boundary, if we can talk about objective boundaries. There are very few successful comics who are working today who are clean or who are not controversial,” Hotter points out.

No group on campus better exemplifies this drive to be funny in the murky waters on the other side of The Line than The Cleverest Band In The World™.

Standing on top of a desk in Butler 209, Alex Della Santina, a junior at the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a current columnist for Spectator, describes to a crowded room an imagined conversation on the Carman Hall Facebook group about deciding “whether it’s worse to live on the eigth floor and wait for the elevator or to live on the 13th floor and be trans.”

The room bursts into a loud chorus of shocked ohhhhs before, gradually, the groans dissolve, giving way instead to a round of applause. Somewhere in the space between the two reactions, the initial confrontation of Della Santina’s joke fades, and its target—the transphobic attackers, not trans people themselves—becomes clearer.

A few minutes later, she describes the activist group Students for Justice in Palestine as having gone missing like a “Palestinian child on a beachside excursion.” The groans return, although this time they aren’t replaced by applause. They linger, punctured by scattered whooping. The contrast between the aftertaste of this joke—bitter, uncomfortable—and the one before it captures the two sides of life beyond the line perfectly.

The rest of Della Santina’s set continues to fluctuate between the biting sharpness and groan-inducing discomfort. A lot of jokes are a bit of both. She endeavors to characterize Orgo Night’s polarizing brand of comedy for me.

“Irreverent, perhaps? Definitely irreverent, but also we try not to be shocking to shock,” she explains. “Generally, we do have a point in mind and of course we might throw in one or two groaners really just because there are some people who come specifically for those.” 

Orgo Night, a product of the Columbia University Marching Band, is a comedic staple on campus. Over its 63 past performances, it has developed a history as mired in controversy as that of the band that created it. (That’s probably an exaggeration—the band is apparently, as it stands, still banned from West Point for its burning Cambodian village formation from the 1960s.)

Originally performed in Butler Library the night before final exam week began with the intention of disturbing the organic chemistry curve, Orgo Night has since evolved into a semester-condensing spectacle every finals season.

Far removed from its original noble, curve-disturbing aims, Orgo Night today is a brazen and contested comedic event—most recently, a Spectator op-ed asserted that “If you go to Orgo Night, you’re part of the problem.” The op-ed summarizes the general consensus of those opposed to the event—that its humor is violent and triggering to a number of marginalized communities across campus.

Despite its critics, Della Santina believes that Orgo Night is largely supported and loved by Columbia students. “Honestly, I think really it’s mostly appreciated.”

That is, of course, not to say that Della Santina isn’t more than aware of its critics. Discussing the widely shared op-ed, she claims that there is a critical skew in the reaction received by the general public.

“Most of the people who enjoy us after Orgo Night, if they really enjoyed it, they’re not going to write an op-ed saying, ‘This was great.’ They’re only going to write an op-ed if they don’t like it,” she says.

Despite this strong support that she highlights, it is clear that the reactions of late have had an impact on Orgo Night’s creative process. “In the past year, it’s been difficult after the [op-ed]; people have been way more cautious than they were in previous years,” she says. Rehearsal rooms that once echoed with laughter are now more somber, serious, on the lookout for anything that might offend.

For Della Santina, the value of Orgo Night’s unabashed comedic style lies in the catharsis it provides from the general tone of Columbia’s campus, “a very careful campus.” For some students, she says, Orgo Night is “just partially a catharsis,” and a fun way to “get engaged without worrying that they’re going to like offend someone or something like that. Because we’ll do it for them.”

At the same time, Della Santina also concedes a more intuitive explanation—that this shock factor is exciting. “It’s also fun just to witness shocking things—go into a library that’s got a ton of people in it and laugh. I think it’s generally something that people like to partake in because it’s so out of the norm,” she explains.

Despite this—and Orgo Night’s proud, thriving existence swimming beyond The Line—Della Santina holds herself to considerate standards.

“I try to avoid ever making jokes simply about someone’s identity because they have an identity,” she explains. “I feel like that’s cheap humor and that’s not something that I really would set as a goal. I try to make sure that if a joke is put in there, it generally serves some kind of purpose.”

When I ask Iqraz Nanji and Max Rosenberg, the editors in chief of the The Federalist—Columbia’s satirical newspaper—if they’ve ever received a negative reaction, they burst into laughter. These “Feditors,” both Columbia College sophomores, have the same incident in mind.

Last year, the newspaper ran a joke advertisement that framed the breaking away of the Korean International Students Association at Columbia from the larger Korean Students Association as a process of “ethnic cleansing.”

“The minute we started distributing, we got a notification—or the editor in chief then got just a message—just like, ‘No, this is not okay,’” Nanji says.

Rosenberg understands, to a degree, the reaction. “In defense of the people who got very offended at it, there was no context given for the joke,” he explains.

The disclaimer, it seems, was printed in a tiny, barely legible font. “And the way we fixed that, I went through about 300 issues and hand-fixed everything by pointing to the disclaimed and just changing up some of the words in the ad itself,” Rosenberg explains, elaborating on the crisis management of the time.

As satirists, the Feditors pride themselves in The Fed’s nondiscriminate swipes at all campus events, with no agenda but satire itself. “It makes people sort of look at the things that are going on around in just a little in a lighter way, and there’s value to that alone,” Rosenberg says of their work.

But despite their goal to push the envelope and to provoke, the Feditors recognize the presence of The Line. “Probably one of the most important rules in leading The Fed is deciding where The Line stands between what we should print and what we shouldn’t,” Rosenberg says.

Finding The Line is all about finding the balance between the clear intent of humor and the possibility of offense. Rosenberg explains that satire is about pushing it far enough to be clearly recognizable.

“There’s sort of a trade off between how funny a joke is and how much it’s pushing the envelope. If a joke is very funny … what we’ve found is that it sort of seems a little more acceptable if it’s clearly jesting.”

But Nanji qualifies that nothing is immediately off the table. “When someone has pitched the idea, we as a group work together to figure out if we can manipulate in a particular way that could be more palatable to the audience that we do have, and if there’s a way to do [that], then we let them try,” he explains. The Line is there to be played with.

PART THREE: Comedy in, of, and for itself

For Fisher, who told that joke about engaging in sexual intercourse with bread at Postcrypt, the allure of improv is in its living, fleeting nature. Fisher is president of the campus improv group Fruit Paunch. He believes that it is the collaborative creation of a moment that makes improv so pure. “It’s something that can only happen live,” he says.

And it is a total and complete adherence to this moment that makes good improv good. Improv falls flat when its jokes sound like they’ve been thought of in advance, Fisher explains; it falls flat when performers don’t react honestly to the situation; it falls flat when the rules of the situation aren’t obeyed and the reality of the scene created is denied.

He sums this up with the Golden Rule Of Improv: “Yes, and…” This proclaimed mantra of improv puts the moment and the scene first.

“If you’re onstage with somebody else and they say something—if it’s about you or the environment, anything—the best response is ‘Yes, and…’ to acknowledge that what they said is correct and ‘and’ to elevate it or take it one step further,” he elaborates.

Although Fruit Paunch’s sets don’t have a plan or “thesis,” Fisher trusts the moment—and the people who create it with him—to be funny, entertaining, and sometimes message-bearing. That is improv’s magic.

“Faith in people’s everyday experiences, in people’s self-consciousness, and people’s own creativity to create something of value. I think for me, that’s the implicit message of improv.”

As five Vikings in front of me finished their interpretive dance in the opener to this semester’s Latenite anthology, I only had one thought. It was the same thought I had last semester when, as a part of the anthology (a collection of short, comedic theater pieces) I watched a brutal killing and satanic ritual conclude an otherwise sweet Christmas sketch.

Where did these ideas come from?

To call Latenite weird or bizarre would be to say that which has been said too often. This characterization of absurdity (accurate though it may be) is to focus on product rather than process, style rather than philosophy.

Collazo characterizes the work his group does as “experimental comedy.” It’s a vague phrase, and one that is thrown around too loosely, too often. Collazo provides a more concrete definition—he sees Latenite as experimental in terms of its defiance of convention.

Describing what drew him to Latenite in his first year, he says, “I liked how they took a lot of risks involved. These risks were very much risks of humor, risks of acting, risks of storytelling. Having shows that don’t make any sense whatsoever but being able to say that, OK, we’re going to be a group that produces the stuff that might not be able to get produced elsewhere,” Collazo says.

Latenite’s absurdity is rooted in its novelty. “That’s something that we’ve always kept at the core of the group: this want to try new things.”

Collazo, though, makes sure to not over-intellectualize the group’s work. “I could give you an answer of like, ‘Oh, we like it because it advances the genre.’ But I think a lot of people who do Latenite think that it’s just fun to do, it’s just fun to take these sort of procedural risks and see what happens.”

It’s a liberating view. “If an experiment we try doesn’t work or doesn’t get laughs, so it’s sort of like it’s fine. It’s fine in the moment that we made the attempt, we took the risk,” Collazo says.

And yet, this inherent curiosity that appears to drive the theater-making of Latenite manifests in a proud defiance of conventions of style. Comedy challenges institutions and conventions and for Latenite, the comedic form is no exception.

We end where we began: on campus

If Jerry Seinfeld is to be believed, college students today sit on the verge of rejecting comedy—at least, as he knows it—in its entirety. Although having stirred and started conversation, this looming calamity doesn’t seem to have stopped comedy here. Columbia students keep being funny.

And the humor made here is inherently just that: the humor of now. It reflects the college it was made in, the conversations occurring here—seriously, where is The Line?—and the art form as it’s understood by its next generation.

Collazo endeavors to capture what Columbia students as a whole find funny.

“We appreciate it when student writers, comedians, artists, even activists, point out things that are making our lives difficult, or seem absurd to us—point them out in ways that are not only sort of cathartic … but also in ways that are actually productive,” Callazo says.

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