On Humor and Horror
Comedians discuss the art and craft of making others laugh amid personal and collective crises.
By Elizabeth Jackson
“Hi, um, welcome to Olive Garden, I will be—taking your order on this national Day of Mourning, what would you like?” says a sniffling waiter to a perplexed, increasingly concerned customer.
“It’s just the—it’s just the news, it was, it was so sad. I—I can’t believe Obama is dead,” he responds when the customer asks him, tentatively, whether he’s alright.
“It’s really, it is sad,” the customer assures him, “but, can I get a refill of the water? Cause you’ve been dipping my napkin into my water and wiping your face with it.”
Their conversation continues, by turns distraught and uncomfortable, until the manager of the Olive Garden interrupts, voice quavering, as tearful as his employee. He manages to hold it together until bursting out, “You’re in great hands! You’re in such good hands, Leul’s a great server, and I just, I hope, that, um, we’re able to bring a smile on your face on this very sad day.” The last part of his sentence is positively shrill, a near croak.
The customer, searching desperately for a comforting phrase, settles on the Olive Garden slogan for inspiration, offering weakly, “When you’re here you’re family and, you know, you gotta—mourn as a family.”
“Here are your Barack sticks. I mean, breadsticks,” another server whimpers, entering the fray as the customer looks more and more regretful about her choice of dining establishment.
Introductions are probably in order. The manager of this Olive Garden is named Harris Solomon, CC ’22, the unfortunate customer is Sophie Lee, CC ’22, and the valiant servers are Leul Abate, CC ’23, and Naomi Rubin, BC ’23. These four are members of Third Wheel Improv, and this sob-filled sketch was part of the group’s virtual April Fool’s show this year.
The Olive Garden skit explores a common paradox: humor amid or about tragedy. And in a larger sense, the entire Third Wheel show—streamed via YouTube to a socially distanced world still shuddering from the pandemic, reckoning with racial justice, and scrambling to combat climate change—also reflected this paradox. While so much has come to a screeching halt over the past year and a half, laughter has not; and there are those, like the members of Third Wheel and other Columbia comedy groups, who have remained committed to inspiring more of it.
Despite this commitment, the pandemic imposed extreme physical limitations on the practice of comedy. Most of Columbia’s comedy groups, excepting CU Sketch Show, are accustomed to developing and performing in-person shows rather than recorded ones. All of the comedians I spoke with, from improv group members to stand-up comics, emphasized the absence of immediate audience feedback as a disorienting feature of the transition to digital comedy. For example, Rubin explained that during Third Wheel Improv’s in-person shows, performers can hear the audience’s reaction to each joke. Based on this response, performers may decide to bring a character back later in the set or adjust a bit that isn’t landing. By contrast, during virtual shows, performers must trust their instincts without the benefit of real-time audience reinforcement.
Performing to a stationary camera obviously limits the degree to which performers can incorporate physical comedy into their routines, but space limitations can also impact a comedian’s mental acuity during a show. Rubin elaborated that when performers are sitting down, the state of rest can hinder their ability to think on their feet. For her, being physically poised for action makes her feel more ready to improvise. To this end, Rubin said that during in-person shows, she often stands on her tiptoes behind the active performers when struggling for an idea. Needing to stay within a camera’s limited frame impedes such physical tricks.
In addition to shifting techniques and media, some comedians felt that the goals of their groups changed during the stress of the pandemic. Hazel Streeter, BC ’21, a member of Third Wheel and co-president of Chowdah Sketch Comedy, explained that maintaining a durable community to provide support during a time of isolation became more important than rapidly releasing new content. “It’s hard to be funny and take care of others if you can’t adequately take care of yourself,” she said, going on to describe the “therapeutic values of having time that is just about laughter and joy” without the pressure to consistently produce.
While some comedians, like the members of Third Wheel, have adapted performances to the digital realm, others have preferred to view this time as a break from their normal comedy practice. Augusta Chapman, BC ’18, who had been performing standup professionally before the pandemic, felt the transition to virtual performances had an insurmountable effect on comedic timing and did not attempt to translate her live work to the digital sphere. Olivia Rodrigues, BC ’18, who also performed standup regularly before the pandemic, has done some digital performances, but mostly used the time during the pandemic to focus on writing. Rodrigues expressed disillusionment with amateur comedians who continued performing in person, particularly those who used the tragic circumstances to justify hosting shows or parties. She’s “skeptical about having a mission to soothe the masses” when that mission is used as justification for putting others at risk.
Nonetheless, the comedians I spoke with often found solace in humor during the pandemic. Some acknowledged comedy as a necessary tool for escaping the constant barrage of tragedy. Streeter, for example, recognizes the importance of comedy that engages with difficult themes and forces us to question ourselves, but described her own preference to use comedy to distract from painful situations: “I feel like my goal is just to make people happy and make people laugh, maybe forget about their troubles for a little bit.” By contrast, Fiona Flanagan, BC ’21, former president of Latenite, prefers comedy that is “making a statement and commenting on things that are happening and aren’t just absent distractions.” She continued, “that type of thing, when it’s just serving as a distraction, ends up not being funny. I feel like the things that really make you laugh are ones that engage with hard questions.”
Venice Ohleyer, CC ’21, president of Fruit Paunch and Memento Mori, discussed the relief of being able to laugh at brief comedic clips online, and observed that really good comedy, rather than making fun of a tragedy itself in a hurtful way, is often “criticizing the things that led to it or criticizing people’s reactions to it.” She went on to applaud jokes that tackle serious issues, saying that they make social critique “more accessible and easily digestible.”
Ohleyer often uses her personal experience with widespread issues as a basis for her comedy. During the pandemic, she, like many native city-dwellers, felt the restrictions of space more acutely than many living in suburban or rural areas, and, given her environment, got little comfort from the ubiquitous advice to take long walks or spend more time outside. So she turned her frustration into a recorded sketch, which focused on her attempts to transform her fire escape into a substitute for a backyard or a large house.
During her sophomore year, Ohleyer was diagnosed with celiac disease and was shaken by the knowledge that her habits would need to drastically change and by the fear that others would be unwilling or unable to accommodate her new dietary restrictions. She could see the absurdity of some hyper-specific targets of her anxiety (i.e., suddenly becoming very concerned that her hypothetical future husband would be unable to cook pasta for her), and recalls thinking, “How could I joke about it? Or how can I turn it into something that’s funny and sort of reclaim it that way?” Indeed, her worries eventually found their way into one of her jokes.
Similarly, Lee and Rubin mentioned that when Third Wheel incorporates serious themes into its improv, those themes generally relate to their members’ experiences. This focus on personal experience may stem from the varying levels of comfort that Third Wheel members have with addressing particular serious themes, but may also reflect the reality of improv that several group members mentioned: Addressing serious themes insightfully and tastefully is much more difficult to do on the fly than it might be in a pre-written routine.
In addition to the performer’s own personal experience, theatrical comedians may also examine the hypothetical personal experiences of their characters when deciding whether and how to engage with serious or tragic themes. Solomon addressed this idea when discussing his play Bard Overboard, a farce centered on cruise ship actors that was slated to perform at the 2020 (and then 2021) Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Solomon said of the supplementary virtual piece the cast produced during the pandemic that it would have seemed “disingenuous to not touch [the pandemic] at all,” given the cramped cruise ship environment in which the characters were situated. Instead, the cast decided to use the piece to satirize the way that corporations “often dealt with the pandemic in really bizarre and sometimes nasty ways.”
Speaking more generally about how comedy could be a tool in responding to tragedy, Solomon mentioned that comedy “brings new perspectives on certain problems or circumstances” and opined that “the best thing about comedy is that it includes everybody—or it tries to include everybody and give people a shared experience,” or at least to “recognize a shared experience” that already exists.
Rodrigues similarly spoke about good comedy’s ability to humanize a social ill after the news media has inundated viewers with desensitizing coverage. Specifically, Rodrigues contrasted mainstream, exaggerated political parodies with Los Espookys, a primarily Spanish-language HBO show centering a group of friends in an unidentified Latin American country attempting to start a horror-for-hire business. As Rodrigues explained, Los Espookys addresses immigration issues, including the difficulty of obtaining a green card, with a light hand, producing a show that remains lighthearted while acknowledging a backdrop of immigration difficulties. Rodrigues commended the show’s subtlety, saying that Julio Torres’s performance in the series felt “more active” and “more like a conversation, rather than simply just exaggerating these people’s talking patterns and putting on a sketch.” While other forms of comedy, like SNL sketches, “can sometimes serve to only intensify the tone that the news can take by exaggerating it or by imitating a politician talking about the border crisis,” shows like Los Espookys, which treat the migrant crisis as only part of its characters’ identities, may aid in cultivating greater empathy among viewers.
Los Espookys exemplifies comedy’s ability to bring crises down to a level where they can be more readily processed and handled. Several comedians, including Rodrigues, highlighted that tragedy, because of its overwhelming nature, is often closely related to the absurd. She discussed a show that she curated several years ago which focused on “the space between humor and horror,” inspired by her viewing of Hausu, a Japanese comedy/horror film. Rodrigues had seen a separate interview with Hausu’s director in which he explained that the basis for the film was the fact that all of his friends had been killed when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. From the director’s perspective, Rodrigues hypothesized, the devastation of this event “could only be expressed through a comedic means because it’s just so absurd … the only way you can kind of process the tragedy that happened is through absurdity.”
Chapman likewise discussed tragedy as an apparent breakdown of reality: “The worst thing that can come of tragedy is the feeling that there’s been a break from reality,” particularly borne of the feeling that something is “not supposed to happen to us.” Chapman pointed to the example of losing a loved one and feeling such intense grief that one perceives the beloved’s death as impossible, despite reality. She continued, “That fissure is so, so, so brutal and can lead people to and through just the worst places in their lives. Whereas, I think, if you’re able to understand grief or tragedy, whatever the situation may be, as a more normal thing, as something that happens to everyone, then you’re able to understand a way forward and a way through it. And I think that comedy is a thing that can bring you to that.”
Chapman, who has a background in climate writing and anthropology, also spoke with me about comedy’s potential role in helping people cope with the specific tragedy of the climate crisis. “Something that is shockingly missing from any kind of climate conversation is any presence of humor,” she said, and noted that approaching the climate crisis through humor is often viewed as an indication that the humorist is ignoring the gravity of the situation. But such a stance of extreme solemnity, she argued, may not be a sustainable climate communication strategy: “I think there’s no way to maintain that level of sincerity and seriousness and keep most people engaged in a topic long term.”
While Chapman emphasized the importance of activism and acknowledged that it “would be great” if someone could use comedy to motivate greater activism or behavior change, she admits to feeling as though she personally lacks the power to call people to action. Instead, she believes that comedy’s principal role in the climate crisis is to help people “metabolize” the dire situation. “It’s really a place of extreme darkness,” she said, “considering the actual severity of the problem for many, many people, and helping people experience that not as, like, a crushing burden, but instead as a part of life that they can deal with and live with is something that I think is really urgent.”
Regarding activism, Rubin took the stance that comedy “can mold and adapt to answer many different calls” when circumstances demand it. She referenced a stand-up special that centered consent and sexual assault, in addition to comedic TV shows like Veep that used their platforms to hold fundraisers for political causes during 2020.
As well as discussing the varied utility of comedy amid tragedy—a tool for escapism, for activism, and for coming to terms—the comedians I spoke with also had varied thoughts on how to assess whether engagement with tragic topics through comedy was helpful or harmful.
Performers’ approaches sometimes differed based on the particular form of comedy they practiced. Flanagan explained that “the role of [Latenite] is to be experimental and to do things that haven’t really been done on stage before. So we just kind of navigate it by doing it—you know, trial by fire.” She explained that the group often takes risks that less experimental comedians might not take, based on what their respective audiences will find palatable.
Some comedians—like Streeter, who generally prefers to keep her comedy lighthearted rather than political—feel most comfortable when making light of their own traits or experiences. Several interviewees mentioned “punching up” rather than “punching down”: It’s often better to joke about those with more power or influence than the comedian herself than to joke about those with less. In practice, however, this concept has more nuance than a hard and fast rule. Several comedians discussed the importance of examining the intention, construction, and thoughtfulness of a joke when determining its value or acceptability. “One of the markers for me is tone,” Solomon said. “Does it seem like the tone of this is to make an observation and to make some sort of point that people can relate to in a positive way somehow, or is it just to be mean? And I think if it’s just to be mean, that’s my issue.”
Ohleyer noted the importance of ensuring that one isn’t making a joke at someone else’s expense because that person or a group they belong to might seem like an “easy target” or an “easy laugh.” She expressed skepticism about comedians’ ability to respectfully center jokes on people with different identities without either leaning on stereotypes or making an uninformed joke that is unlikely to land. We discussed the difference between drawing from one’s own personal interactions when addressing sensitive issues in comedy and using generalizations to extract cheaper laughs, and Ohleyer stressed the need to trace the intention of a joke when assessing its value. She told a story of interning on Samantha Bee’s show Full Frontal where, in one meeting, the writers explained that they start out by pitching a serious issue that they are invested in and want to cover. Only then, coming from that place of deep care, do they attempt to add humor to the issue. “For the most part,” Ohleyer said, “I think you can almost make a joke about anything if it’s made in a smart way … but I think the catch is you’re not making a joke about the horrible thing, you’re making a joke about the horrible circumstances that have led to it.”
Rodrigues also mentioned an important nuance to the trend among comedians addressing sensitive topics to engage in self-deprecation as part of their comedy. While self-deprecation is a common feature of the trade, Rodrigues observed that some comedians use it to avoid accountability in the eyes of their audiences—giving themselves license to say whatever they like, no matter how lazy, offensive or harmful.
While each of these comedians has a slightly different, complicated perspective on the best methods for tackling painful topics through humor, and though the pandemic has impacted their comedy careers to different degrees, a common theme of these conversations was the perseverance of laughter—or, at least, the need for it. Chapman, who recently worked in a coffee shop, noticed that customers were “desperate to laugh.” Streeter remarked that comedy is “always relevant. It’s always needed … there’s a constant desire to find some laughter.” Similarly, Lee said Third Wheel’s goals during the pandemic included helping “people to feel like they’re less alone, and they have people around who want to make them laugh. ” Even when confronted with collective and personal tragedies, these seven have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of our amusement.