Wrapping the truth in a smile
A few of the people behind Rochester’s comedy scene
(585)’s recent profile of comedy venues and events (“Going Out For Laughs,” in the January-February issue) generated a great deal of responses. Looking for something beyond an extended event calendar, several readers wrote, called, and took to social media to demand a light be shone on some of the people who make comedy happen. Here, then, are a few of the perspectives of those who answer the call to a particular form of stagecraft: the art of extracting laughter.
Kelsey Claire Hagen has opened for Maria Bamford, Nikki Glaser and Pete Johansson. She is the organizer of a multi-city series of benefit shows called Don’t Grab My Pussy. “All of the money we collect is sent to the local crisis center. In Rochester, we raised $3500 for RESTORE Sexual Assault Services. In Buffalo, we helped Crisis Services, and Pittsburgh it was Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR). For me, comedy is a way to tap into the current dialogue around difficult topics. It can punch up and make smart jokes about stupid, outdated patterns of thought and behavior.”
Laura Sherwood, as part of the troupe at Geva Comedy Improv, believes that with the critical mass of talent emerging, Rochester can one day be comparable to Chicago or Toronto. Geva Comedy Improv seeks to create conditions where the audience has just as much fun as the improvisers. “Improv’s not like being in a play or having lines to memorize,” Sherwood says. “That’s what makes it so much fun to do! You can have a bad memory and still perform for people. As an improv group, we have each others’ backs. If someone is drowning, we have someone to save us. But with stand-up, you’re doing it alone. That takes a lot of courage. I give props to stand-up comedians.”
Madelein Smith, a stand-up comedian recently relocated to New York City, maintains strong ties to the local comedy community. “Rochester has a great scene. When I first started out, I was given a good deal of opportunity by Mark Ippolito to run an all-female comedy variety show at the Comedy Club in Webster (Rage Against the Vageen). I also love all the DIY shows and open mics we have had over the years, especially Woody Battaglia's Tuesday open mic at Firehouse Saloon and Sarah Benson's monthly Show and Tell show. All in all, I think the scene is friendly and inclusive, and I think it's a great place to start in comedy.”
Sarah Benson, organizer of the monthly Show and Tell comedy variety show, points out that comedy creates a space where uncomfortable truths can be told. “People take me more seriously when I do stand-up than in real life. I use jokes as a way of deflecting my actual emotions. Sometimes with stand-up, being a situation where you’re expected to tell jokes, it makes me feel I can communicate points about my actual life easier and better. And it gives me a voice.”
Yolanda Smilez, organizer of the ROC Awards, echoes the truth-telling power of comedy. “I love comedy because it’s an outlet to be able to express myself, to bring joy to people, and also to be able to talk about uncomfortable situations. I can find the humor in the things people don’t want to talk about so we can stay focused and keep moving.” Within such a close-knit scene, Smilez holds out hope for mutual growth in the community. “Doing comedy in Rochester is hard. There’s not a lot of venues, not a lot of opportunities to become successful in a comedy career, because we’re not considered a Comedy City like Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or New York City. So growing as a comedian in Rochester means practice. We’ve got to work as many rooms as possible to better ourselves and our careers.” Smilez is a frequent feature at the Monday Open Mic at Clarissa’s African Lounge.
Kara Maillie, organizer of the Thursday open mic at Brue Coffee, started as part of the comedy band Hardwood. “We started by covering LMFAO’s song “Shots,” but as a fun, pretty, version with harmonies. Madelein Smith asked us to do more comedy music for her variety show, and it was well received, so we kept doing it. I realized then how much fun it is to be on stage and make a whole bunch of people laugh.” Maillie’s reasons for organizing Brue’s open mic are grounded in widening the range of representation: “Other mics might have their own crowds, but this one brings in the college students since it’s so close to UR. It’s nice to get that different perspective, and I like to create an environment that’s warm and inviting and not super intimidating, so people who are trying to get their foot in the door with standup have that opportunity.”
- Backdraft II: Laughdraft’s 50/50 Show: April 3, 7:30 p.m.
- Show and Tell with Sarah Benson Presents: Love Letters. February 8, 8:30 p.m.
- Don’t Grab My Pussy: Coming in April 2018, venue to be announced.
- Clarissa’s African Lounge Open Mic: Monday nights, 293 Clarissa Street.
- Brue HaHa Open Mic: Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. sign-up at Brue Coffee, 960 Genesee Street.
- Geva Comedy Improv
Correction: "Going Out For Laughs"’s mention of Laughdraft’s 50-50 Show, the balanced comedic lineup of women and men returning in March, neglected to credit Madelein Smith as the co-creator of the event with Woody Battaglia. We regret the omission.
Jeremiah Parry-Hill is a learning experience designer and a crafter of artisanal dad jokes. He lives in North Winton Village and works in Henrietta.