by Elana Spivack
Any artist will say that coping with rejection is crucial to success; for those involved in planning this past Saturday’s “Very Good Comedy Show,” their journey was no different. Samantha Shanker ’17 and Ethan Fuirst ’17, members of campus sketch comedy group Beyond Therapy and stand-up group Two-Drink Minimum, respectively, suggested the idea to their fellow comedians from their groups, as well as to improv group Fools on the Hill, that the three groups all perform in Rosse Hall one night. The groups initially turned it down, but Fuirst and Shanker held on to this idea anyway. Since January, the two comedians, along with four fellow students, continued to meet several times a week to produce a variety comedy show, culminating in “Very Good Comedy Show,” which went up on April 10 in Rosse Hall.
The performance, greeted by an almost-full house, showcased 10 sketches enacted by 13 students, plus guest appearances by President Sean Decatur and Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell ’84. Kenyon band Trix and the Kids performed as the house band, and comedic musical theater troupe The Company performed a dance interlude. The sketches encompassed various kinds of humor, from satirical racial commentary to an original musical number about the tough decision between eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill or at Panera Bread.
This project, the first of its kind at Kenyon in recent memory, was the brainchild of Fuirst, Shanker, Dylan Jones-Tuba ’15, Kyra Baldwin ’17, Libby Gardner ’15 and Ben Fisher ’17, all of whom are members of either Two-Drink Minimum or Beyond Therapy. This spectacle first began in January when the comedians formed a writer’s room, where they met to review and perfect jokes. They met twice a week for an hour or two, and then met four to five times in the last three weeks before the show.
Fuirst and Shanker said that, if nothing else, comedy is painstaking labor. “We … wrote for a month, two months of sketches and we met once, twice a week and reviewed them before we knew if we would ever actually perform [the sketch],” Fuirst said. The group rigorously worked their jokes, dissecting the properties of comedy and the anatomy of a joke. Jones-Tuba said that this collaboration created both setbacks and benefits — that fellow comedians would polish and hone jokes, but would also cut favorite parts of well-worked jokes. “It’s kind of hard to let go of that one poop joke you’re really happy with,” he joked.
The process, Shanker said, involved individual drive as well as the group members’ willingness to share their labored-over jokes to the rest of the group’s critical eye. “A lot of times we would write in partnerships,” she said. “Sometimes people would write alone but then we would always bring them back to the group — the drafts of sketches — and go through them sort of structurally and we would see what wasn’t working.” The sketch writer would receive feedback from his or her fellow comedians, revise it and bring it back the following week to reexamine it.
They ended up devoting more time to 20 sketches before choosing a final 10 to perform. “There’s nothing on here … that hasn’t seen, like, a fifth draft,” Fuirst said.
With such a critical view of comedy, it was easy for the planners to become immune to the humor; the actors, however, infused the jokes with new life. “Once you’ve been drilling these sketches, you sort of lose sight of the humor,” Shanker said. “So it was nice when we finally got the actors … and see what was actually working.” Shanker said that the written jokes were just 30 percent of the success — that the actors brought the other 70 percent.
Gardner, who directed the show, was pivotal to jazzing up jokes. Fuirst said that Gardner, in one instance, realized one joke could only effectively land when all the actors stood up and sat down angrily at the same time. “We rehearsed every sketch no less than twice, but no more than five times, before we did the show,” Gardner said.
While the show enjoyed generally positive reception, for some, the jokes fell flat. Nathan Durham ’17 critiqued a sketch that featured a black actor on a movie set whose performance was constantly critiqued as too hostile, prompting the director to call in a white “racial stunt double” who always got the take right. “I think that satire, when carried out effectively, can have a positive impact and make a positive statement about real cultural problems and I think that this show did not do that,” Durham said. “Oftentimes, white people will use satire as an excuse to sort of laugh at very unjust and unfunny situations. Why not just talk about race in America and not laugh at it? … That was my only … qualm with the show.” Durham did qualify that he, too, laughs at the type of satire that he condemns.
Seniors Gardner and Jones-Tuba both expressed hope that underclassmen, present and future, continue to produce this variety show each year. Billy Weber ’18, who attended the show, agreed that having a regular comedy variety show would be a good way to bring the campus together and encourage more student comedians. “It would be a bigger deal and maybe get more kids involved,” Weber said.