Noelle Austin ’18 made her Brown stand-up debut Tuesday night, but finding a space where she felt comfortable performing was not easy. Her set, part of a showcase hosted by Production Workshop, drew on “experiences that are not often conveyed in popular venues at Brown,” she said.
“As a black female (comedian at Brown), there’s been a lot of me having to feel like I deserve space as much as everybody else to be funny,” Austin said.
In the midst of University-wide focus on diversity and inclusion, the comedy community at Brown has made a concerted effort to increase outreach to students of color, women and gender nonconforming individuals, with varying degrees of success.
Comedy at Brown does not boast “a lot of diversity, and not even just ethnic diversity, (but also) diversity in experience,” Austin said. As someone “from a poor, minority community in the South,” Austin often finds herself in the minority when it comes to socioeconomic status and geographic origin as well.
The child of a military family, Alyssa McGillvery ’19, a multi-ethnic member of Brown’s first all-female sketch comedy group Skorts, moved around the country several times growing up, allowing her to see that what may seem “natural and everyday life to one group of people might not apply (or be funny) to another group of people,” she said.
Having lived in Georgia during her childhood years, Austin used to speak in a Southern accent. But upon her arrival in New England, she realized that “people do not take you seriously with a slightly Southern accent, so I crushed that out … I also use a lot of colloquialism(s) at home that I don’t use here (at Brown).”
Successful comedy centers around “knowing your audience and making jokes that your audience (will think are) funny,” Austin said. She has yet to perform for an audience predominantly comprised of people of color and anticipated that she would have to “code switch” for her set at Brown.
A spring 2016 Herald poll found of the students who indicated they attend artistic events, including comedy shows, 71 percent were white. Twice the number of nonwhite students had never attended an artistic event compared to nonwhite students who had attended an artistic event.
“I have a different way of speaking … (but) there are a lot of terms I have to explain” when performing, which can ruin a punchline or a story, she added. “A lot of my comedy is about being (a member of) the black community and … a lot of black community humor is satirical … (but) I wasn’t sure if that would fly at Brown,” Austin added.
National pushback against political correctness makes diversity in comedy even more important, said Ryan Cruise ’17, president of Brown/RISD Stand Up Comics. “There is a perception that Brown is too (politically correct), but in comedy, that’s not something I think is bad,” she said. “People hold you accountable which is good, … (and) I’m challenged to make sure I’m being intentional and saying things that aren’t hurtful.”
Morayo Akande ’16 GS, a member of Starla, also discussed the challenges she faces as a comedian. “It’s hard because comedy in general … draws on being able to make fun of oneself but a lot (of it) … is about making fun of race … or gendering things.”
“I was initially turned off by comedy sets at Brown. … I wasn’t sure of what I could joke about and what I couldn’t joke about,” Austin said. “(During) my first year, I went to a comedy set, and I was uncomfortable because a lot of it was mocking religion, … ( and it seemed like) you could mock religion but you couldn’t really mock other things.”
“In general, Brown does a really good job of not relying on those topics to propel what is funny … but I still don’t necessarily feel like a part of the comedy community,” Akande said. “I don’t know if (that feeling) has to do with race or exclusivity, in that it’s hard to get into these groups and it’s easier to (join other comedy groups) if you’re already in one,” she added.
Generally speaking, the world of comedy is also skewed in favor of men, Cruise said. But in her experience, comedy at Brown bucks this trend. “I found the comedy community (at Brown) to be so inclusive,” she said. “All of these groups are at least 50 percent women, and some of them are more women than men.”
Cruise is also a part of the improvisational comedy group Starla and Sons, which counts six members, three of whom identify as women. Similarly, Out of Bounds has 11 members, of whom six identify as women. Of the 14 members at Brown/RISD Stand Up Comics, seven identify as women.
“I never felt pigeon-holed into playing off stereotypes of women,” said Katherine Dunham ’19, a member of Starla. “But maybe that’s just me being lucky (or) a testament to how the comedy community is inclusive.”
In an effort to attract new talent to the comedy scene at Brown, Starla held a series of workshops Feb. 14 and Feb. 15 to introduce students of color, women and gender nonconforming individuals to improv and provide guidance in navigating Starla’s auditioning process.
Cruise led the workshop for women and gender nonconforming individuals. The workshops aim to address the fact that “white men (have been) the most represented demographic at auditions,” Cruise said. Students did “exercises that (Starla uses) for the auditions, … and the purpose (of this workshop was) to make the auditioning process for these groups less intimidating,” she added.
Akande, who helped lead the workshop for students of color, said the workshop was instrumental in convincing her to audition for Starla last year. “I used to go to a lot of comedy events, and I wouldn’t see a lot of people of color,” which made her hesitant to audition, she said.
“There’s not a lot of people of color in comedy at Brown … (we were) just trying to open up the door and see if we could get more people involved,” Akande said.
The Brown Noser faces similar challenges when it comes to recruiting a diverse group of writers, said Dunham, who is also the editor-in-chief of the Brown Noser. “(Fewer) women apply (to join the Noser) than men … which I think is a shame and definitely something we need to work harder on,” she said. “Roughly one-third of the staffers are women … those women still write half to over half of the articles,” Dunham said.
The Rib, an online publication that is written by and caters to women, has attempted to diversify its staff is by reaching out to women of color on campus and inviting them to apply as writers.
“I applied to the Rib because they specifically said they want women of color. I don’t think I would have applied if I hadn’t seen those exact words,” said Daniella Balarezo ’18, an editor at the Rib.
Balarezo stressed that outreach is critical in convincing underrepresented groups to join publications like the Rib.
The Rib was also instrumental in the creation of Skorts in 2015, said Nicole Martinez ’18, co-founder of Skorts and writer for the Rib. Inspired by Penn’s female sketch comedy group, Bloomers, Rib members wanted to start something similar at Brown, Martinez said. “We wanted a place where all non-male identifying people could feel included … as progressive as Brown is, comedy was (very) white and male,” Martinez said.
Though members of both the Rib and Skorts are “predominantly white women,” that is something “we are actively trying to change,” she said.
Comedy groups that successfully recruit a diverse range of performers sometimes struggle to retain them over the years. In her time working with the improv comedy community at Brown, Akande said she noticed that some of the students of color she knew in comedy eventually chose to leave their performing groups.
It would be helpful to have an “open discussion about why people of color or gender nonconforming individuals feel uncomfortable in the (comedy) space,” Akande said.
“Every time I go to a comedy show, it’s hard for me not to think about race or diversity … do the performers somehow make a rainbow of people?” McGillvery said. She acknowledged that Skorts has room for improvement in both its writing and performance teams, adding, “(our style of comedy) would only get better if we include people from (varied) backgrounds.”
Despite many discussions on diversity and inclusivity in comedy, “it was hard to pin down a definition” of what those two words meant in shaping a college community, McGillvery said. Achieving real diversity would mean that “whoever is watching or looking into these shows sees some of themselves represented on stage,” she added.