A Very Serious, No-Nonsense Take on Oberlin’s Comedy Scene

by Teagan Hughes

Staff Writer


art by Eva Sturm-Gross

[originally published August 2021]


 


Standup comedy has finally returned to Oberlin’s campus after a yearlong hiatus. Students have hosted Shit Pit, Oberlin’s standup comedy open mic, three times this summer, and Shit Pit is gearing up to return in full force this fall. Shit Pit is a relatively new invention on Oberlin’s campus, but it’s gone through considerable evolution through the years. I’m curious how Oberlin’s standup has evolved up until this point, and I want to know what we can expect from it in the future. Looking forward to the future of standup on campus necessitates looking backward and examining its past presence in Oberlin.


Recent Oberlin graduate Gabi Shiner ‘19 defined Shit Pit as “an open mic for solo/small group comedy acts running the gamut from classic standup to multigenre stuff.” According to Shiner, Shit Pit was co-founded in 2015 by alumni Maya Sharma and Sophie Zucker. “The sentiment was always to try out an experimental act, even if you had never done standup before,” Shiner said. “It also felt like an informal, fun comedy hang where people from different ‘scenes’ could perform together and just spend time with each other.”


Shit Pit is the only recurring standalone comedy open mic on campus. It’s typically held in someone’s living room, and in terms of timing, it happens when it happens. Freedman recalls that when she began attending Oberlin, it felt somewhat exclusive: “There used to be a lot more, like, mystique around Shit Pit; that’s kind of the big change...when I was a freshman it was like, you would get an email—you were on some emailing list—they would tell you that it’s gonna happen...and then you’ll get emailed the address later. And it was this whole very exclusive thing.” According to Dayan and Freedman, this level of relative mystique and exclusivity went hand-in-hand with a sort of insularity. “One thing I do remember about, like, the previous Shit Pits is that it did feel like...it could sometimes be the same people,” Dayan said, and Freedman echoed this sentiment: “It kind of was a very bro-y club when really…[when it was founded] it was supposed to be very anti-bro-y, but I don’t know; I think along the lines it got kind of bro-y and it got really, like...weird and uncomfortable.”


Creating more publicity around Shit Pit has helped to combat this insularity. Freedman, along with fellow third-year Clara Zucker, does most of the planning for Shit Pit nowadays. Dayan often helps sign up and coordinate performers, and Freedman and Dayan have both emceed the event. More recent Shit Pits have gotten more advertisement than ever before, with the goal of expanding the pool of performers and audience members alike. Freedman has begun creating Facebook events and using other online avenues to advertise Shit Pit, and it’s been helping to bring in some new faces. “When Clara and I started hosting, and I think it started with Gabi [Shiner] and P.J. [McCormick, former hosts of Shit Pit] too, wanted to make it a lot more public,” said Freedman, “or else you’re just gonna get the same few people.”


All interviewees conveyed that having more outlets for standup comedy on campus may bring more people into the ‘scene,’ as it were—historically, it always has. All recalled that student comedians used to open for touring comics when they performed on Oberlin’s campus, and that this arrangement was often a huge draw for students interested in performing or watching standup. Freedman expressed interest in seeing more professional comedians come to campus: “It would be a great opportunity for people to open, and it would just be fun! And I think that’s how it would reach a way better audience.” According to Shiner, these opportunities to open for professional comedians during her time at Oberlin became a valuable opportunity for collaboration and spotlighting underrepresented performers. Recalling a show in which student performers opened for comedian Jaboukie Young-White in March 2019, Shiner said: “The other openers and I spent hours in Warner studios helping each other polish our sets. We really invested in each other’s success, which is not always true of stand ups. Kira [Felsenfeld] and Ru [Anderson, organizers of the event] also successfully made that show a platform for marginalized comedians, something bookers in the real world with way more money and influence than college students event planning on the side have deigned to attempt. I don’t know if I would have gotten into standup after college if not for this collective desire to pull off these very intentional and ambitious feats.”


The opportunity for collaboration in standup and general comedy at Oberlin has long been one of its strong points. “Looking back, I see that the standup scene (and the comedy scene in general) was well oiled because it was genuinely so collaborative and people were willing to put in the work,” Shiner said of her time doing comedy at Oberlin. All interviewees emphasized the variety in performance and perspective of student comedians on campus and the benefits this variety brings. “I feel like the people that I’ve met that felt really strongly and seriously about it [standup] have their own distinct style,” said Freedman, “and that’s what feels really great about collaborating with people is that you know that you’re working with people that have a different type of style, but you still really respect their taste and their opinion.” Shiner expressed that her favorite part of doing standup on campus was seeing everyone’s unique takes on the discipline. “Everyone at Oberlin has such a well curated perspective and sensibility, and is usually into a million different things and not just comedy,” she said. “So it was very cool to see how everyone brought their interests and backgrounds to their acts.”


There’s not only opportunity for collaboration within the comedy “scene,” but for collaboration with different creative groups and endeavors as well. Freedman recalled doing a standup set as an opener for a recent noise show, and expressed interest in more likewise collaboration in the future. Dayan conjectured that such collaboration could present an opportunity for student comedians to challenge themselves in performing standup for broader audiences, and to ultimately hone their craft.


As Oberlin’s standup community broadens, the medium and breadth of performance expands along with it. Dayan sees more performers taking risks at Shit Pit than when they first started attending, and Freedman and Dayan both indicated that they would be excited to see this trend continue. Freedman expressed interest in blending standup and music performance, citing collaborations between experimental forms of both music and comedy that have taken place outside of Oberlin as possible blueprints. Freedman and Dayan also mentioned that they would be interested in seeing forms of comedy and performance aside from what could be called “classic standup” at Shit Pit. “It’s not explicitly like a comedy open mic, even though that’s often how it functions,” Dayan said. “It can be any number of things...I’d love to see it reach into as many different things and disciplines as it can, while still being a fun experience.” Freedman emphasized the same potential for multidisciplinarity: “A funny song, a funny dance, a funny video…or, like, duos. I’d love a parody song,” she said. “It’s like, you wanna do a silly, goofy thing, come to Shit Pit [and] do a silly, goofy thing.”


When asked how she hoped the standup ‘scene’ had improved since her graduation, Shiner, who graduated in 2019, emphasized the importance of inclusivity and collaboration. “I hope people are just having fun and feeling included and using each other as resources,” she said. “I hope people are getting excited about all the creative ideas in the community and forging friendships through comedy. I wish I had been able to talk more with my friends and peers about their artistic ideas when we were doing comedy together, but I think there was a bit of fear around openly caring about that sort of thing, or at least I was afraid!”


Going forward, both Freedman and Dayan expressed a desire to make Shit Pit as open and as welcoming as possible: “I just want it to be a more inclusive environment,” Dayan said of Shit Pit. “The last thing I’d want is for it to seem like this kind of clique where like there’s a select group of people who get to do standup, like, y’know, friends telling jokes and introducing other friends to tell their jokes, and then, like, an outsider will come and do their set and it’ll just be dead silence...that’s the last thing I would want...my big goal for the future is just to get as many different people doing it as possible and...people with different perspectives on whatever it is they’re joking about.” Both Freedman and Dayan emphasized the community-building capacity of standup and other forms of comedy, and their potential power on Oberlin’s campus. “I just want it to be a community and I want it to not feel insular,” Freedman said. “I think my goal is to just...have it be fun and exciting. I think it gets boring if it’s the same few people doing it over and over again, but it also gets boring if it’s just—everyone just wants to do it once and then cry and leave…[when I first arrived at Oberlin] I was like ‘I hate this fucking place,’ and then I did Shit Pit, and I did Good Talk, and I felt really involved in something, and I felt like I was building a community, and I felt like I was pushing myself to get better ‘cause I was watching other people, and just really feeling safe in collaboration...I think I just want that environment.”