Student performers, academics, and industry professionals gathered in the Knafel Center late Thursday, March 31, for “To Laugh Is Your Only Job,” a standup comedy show followed by a panel discussion. The event was held as part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s two-day Gender and Comedy conference.
Opening with remarks from Professor Shigehisa Kuriyama, the Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard, the standup portion of the night was hosted by Charlotte J. Daniels ‘23 and Claire J. Orrange ‘23 and featured a series of standup comics from the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society and the Harvard Undergraduate Feminist Comedy Collective.
Nothing was exempt from joke material, including the venue’s pronunciation (apparently the ‘K’ in ‘Knafel’ is not silent), the comics’ various gender and identity crises, and Go-Gurt.
“This was just as good as anything I’ve seen in New York as of late,” said audience member Rox V. Samer of the show. “I was really impressed with these young Harvard folks.”
Kuriyama returned to moderate the night’s panel discussion, which included student comics Isabel M. Levin ‘23 and Claire K. Yoo ‘23 as well as entertainment industry insider Lynn Harris and University of North Carolina professor Michelle Robinson. The panel fielded questions from the event’s online and in-person audiences using an anonymous form. The discussion focused on appropriate expressions of identity and trauma in comedy, the history of women, trans, and non-binary comics, and comedy’s place on college campuses.
“I was especially excited to hear from one trans standup and to hear many shoutouts to trans and non-binary comics,” said Samer. “I think a similar event ten years ago would have been 99% about women. This was a much more comprehensive and complex understanding of gender and comedy.”
“I joked earlier today that going on a panel after doing standup is like being in a post-game ESPN interview right after doing a basketball game,” said Yoo. “I’ve never been able to reflect on my comedy right after doing it… it was a really great exercise.”
Levin discussed the process of refining her standup set from earlier in the night in which she spoke about the Holocaust and her experiences as a Jewish person in an effort to strike a better balance between making the audience laugh and talking about incredibly difficult topics. Harris and Robinson cited many of their favorite female comics, such as Cameron Esposito, in addition to providing important context about the history of American comedy and its current state of affairs for non-male-identifying performers.
After speaking candidly for almost an hour, the panel came to a close. The room had an upbeat atmosphere as students celebrated the occasion with audience members, many of whom were involved in the comedy scene themselves or spent part of their careers studying it.
“This event represents an institutional shift in the focus that gender and comedy is getting on campus and how that might disseminate outwards to the greater comedy scene,” said Orrange. She credits the shift to the recent creations of the Undergraduate Feminist Comedy Collective, the undergraduate publication Peanut Kid Magazine, and the push to diversify on-campus standup.
The exercise of understanding earlier societal ideas about what constitutes comedy and who gets to be called funny and then actively broadening that understanding will hopefully continue outside of Harvard’s campus. All undergraduates are welcome to join the Stand-Up Comic Society and related organizations and bring to the table any experience or topic that they want to try to make funny. While it’s clear that more work must be done in the industry, this event and its broader conference were surely a memorable milestone along the journey toward progress.
Read more in ArtsLyLena D. Estabine ’24 on Faith, Community, and the Performing Arts