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Jaboukie Young-White Openers Discuss The State of Comedy


Stand-up comic and writer Jaboukie Young-White, best known for his work on The Daily Show and HBO’s Crashing, performed Saturday, March 2nd at Finney Chapel for a crowd that filled nearly every available seat in the 1,200-capacity venue. Warming up for Jaboukie were five of Oberlin’s very own stand-up comics, all people of color, who performed eight-minute sets to a strong reception from their peers. The Grape caught up with them—Ruby Anderson, Michelle Chu, Gabi Shiner, Brian Smith and Sammie Westelman—to discuss their views on stand-up as a form, a political tool, and more.


The following quotes have been edited for length and clarity.


On stand-up and their personal lives


Brian Smith: “It’s really just getting up on a stage and talking about yourself and your life experiences. And it’s really nerve-wracking because in a sense you have to be interesting enough. Or have experiences that are relatable enough for people to relate to them and find them funny.”

Sammie Westelman: “It feels honest...I like making people laugh.”


Gabi Shiner: “I’ll describe experiences where I couldn’t actually act like myself in response to them—or where I felt embarrassed at the time—and onstage when I recount them, I’ll respond as my unhinged self. In artistic reiterations of events, a way of being empowered is just having fun with it. Your emotions in storytelling can be anything you want them to be, and they can be complex.”


Michelle Chu: “I really like that it’s sort of conversational, even though there’s no response.”


On the importance of representation in comedy


Smith: “It’s interesting to see how it [comedy] has moved away from ‘Oh, I’m going to target a specific group of people, I’m going to target a specific person in the crowd and humiliate that person or those people’ in order to garner laughter. I think comedy can be inclusive, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”


Ruby Anderson [who was responsible for choosing the other four openers]: “I really wanted to prioritize opening up not only the auditions but the actual spots for the openers to people who weren’t white men. Comedy as an art form has its roots in Black and Jewish communities, and I think that inherently it’s an artform that comes out of different marginalized identities, especially Black communities. I think that...people who hold different identities that aren’t white, aren’t cis, aren’t male, have to engage in this daily act of self-regulation and I think it makes us more observant and more aware of the world around us...I think that makes for really good comedy and parody.”


Westelman: “Being Asian is a big part of why Ali Wong is such a big influence of mine. Asian women are expected to behave a certain way, and that way is not necessarily funny. It’s good to see people like me being funny, and that’s something that we’re allowed to do now. You do have to push the envelope a bit, [but] there are ways to do that without being harmful. Race jokes absolutely are funny, but I want to hear them from someone who’s not white. I want to hear their perspective.”


Chu: “Stand-up is stories from people’s everyday lives and experiences, and that has to deal with your identity, and so you have to talk about your position in the world. If all you hear is the same identity in stand-up, then you have a really narrow view of things.”


Shiner: I think there have been times where cis white dudes have made it really miserable for a lot of people [in the Oberlin comedy community], and I’ve also been lucky to experience amazing non-dudes in the [Oberlin comedy] scene. It is so different from being onstage with men. The comedy scene is overwhelmingly white and I don’t think we work hard enough to expand to people of color on campus. This [performance] feels like a banner event for comedy on campus, so I think it’s really good that…this space is being claimed for non-cis white dudes…especially people of color.”


On complaints that comedy has become too “politically correct”


Smith: “I don’t even like the term ‘politically correct’ because it assumes that politics are correct...If you have to tear people down in order to be funny, what does that say about you?”


Shiner: “I honestly think people who can’t get past punching down as a form of making jokes aren’t funny...people who think that comedy is too ‘PC’ are unimaginative and not trying to hard enough to actually make good work.”


Chu: “I would never write anything that would isolate a group of people. It’s never funny to say racist things. It’s also really tired. Not only is it not funny, [but] people have been doing it since the beginning of time, and you need to get creative nowadays…all types of discrimination are super boring.”


On standup as an art form and political tool


Smith: “We don’t really hold comedy to the same weight and value as [we do with] more ‘serious’ artistic mediums. I do think it’s connected to this bourgeois culture of what ‘art’ is and art being highbrow and comedy being lowbrow, and if it is highbrow comedy it has to be steeped in intellectualism and have these different connections to classist and elitist cultures. But I do think that as long as it’s created from a person, it’s art. If it’s created from a human, if it’s created from our experiences and how we navigate the world, then it’s art. We’re creators. That’s what artists do. We create.”


Shiner: “It’s like writing an essay. Your points need to flow in a way that feels resonant to a reader. It’s cool to think of it like that, because it actually feels like you’re working on something and putting it out there and not just judging yourself on whether you sound funny talking in front of a group of people”


Chu: “It’s hard to talk to people without people being afraid of saying the wrong thing, and so it’s a good platform for me to be, like, ‘OK, here’s my thoughts about my identity, you have to listen, and it’s OK to laugh if I’m acknowledging certain parts about my life. But it’s tricky.”