There are many instances in which silence is good. Preferred, even. On a quiet beach, with no sound but the waves. Or else a forest, interrupted only by the hum of nature.
Silence on the stage, however, is bad. Very bad. Standing in front of a crowd, rattling off jokes, hoping one will land. Hundreds of eyes glued to you. Mouths folded down into frowns. And nothing but an empty, gaping silence.
“I black out.” Hannah Ceisler (C ‘18) realizes her verbal misstep in a millisecond. “Not drinking! I just black it out,” she laughingly explains. Hannah is Vice President of Simply Chaos, Penn’s resident stand–up group. They have two productions a year, each with a Friday and Saturday show. However, to Hannah, there might as well just be a Saturday show—she can never quite remember Friday.
“The Friday [show] I always do better…I’m so nervous that I black out and I’m just more personable, I riff, I’m having fun, and then I go off stage and I’m just like, I need to see a recording of myself because I literally do not remember the things I say,” Hannah says.
Hannah has one goal: avoid silence. Laughs, gasps, even groans are good. For the five–minute set, Hannah and her audience enter a solemn pact, a kind of pseudo–relationship. She talks, they listen. She tells jokes, they laugh. It’s just her, her microphone and her listeners. And for those five minutes, they’re in it together.
Comedy exists as an incredibly intimate process. It involves exchanging jokes, being open to criticism and performing in front of students and strangers alike. However, comedy at Penn is undeniably competitive. There are only four established comedy groups on campus—two sketch, one stand–up and one improv. Comedy at Penn, it seems, exists in a strange juxtaposition of intense competition and intense intimacy.
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Without a Net, Penn’s only improv comedy group, always incorporates audience member suggestions into its performances. Just please, don’t call out a politician.
Jonathan Serota (C ‘18), Without a Net member and social chair, is somewhat famous for his love of politics and American history. So when friends and family attend a show, Nixon or Kennedy inevitably end up as character suggestions for his improv bit.
“I really don’t like it!” Jonathan notes. “When people try and place you in a box that they think you’ll be funny in, it’s so much harder to be funny. Because the whole point is to do things that don’t come naturally to people’s logic.”
And improvisational comedy is all about defying the logic of comedy. It’s about bending expectations, delivering something authentic. It’s about working closely with the audience and a partner to together create something new, original and above all, funny.
“[Improv is] probably one of the only forms of comedy that is wholly dependent on someone else,” Jonathan explains. “We’re more reliant on each other than we are on ourselves.”
Improv is about saying yes. It is about learning to work with whatever scenario you’re thrust into and finding the humor in it. However, this split–second form of comedy renders improvisational comedy so personal. All an improviser has to rely on is a partner, a scene and the hopes that the audience will be kind.
“There’s definitely something nerve–wracking about improv, especially earlier on, when you’re thinking, okay, I’m about to go in, I’ve thought about my idea for three, four seconds, I have absolutely no idea if this is an idea that will last a minute, two minutes, or two seconds,” Jonathan says. “It’s incredibly vulnerable and incredibly scary because sometimes…you only know what you’re saying as it comes out of your mouth."
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Aleah Welsh (C ‘16) sits in a plush chair in Houston. Later, she’ll meet a friend to go on a run. This kind of free time would have been unheard of last semester, during which Aleah served as cast member, director and apparel chair for Bloomers, Penn’s only all–female comedy sketch group.
“There’s 15 hours a week rehearsal time, and then there’s one hour a week on exec, but when I was director I would say I spent another…seven to ten hours a week planning and doing stuff outside of it,” Aleah explains, remembering her hectic Bloomers schedule. Ultimately, Aleah estimates she spent “upwards of 26, 30 hours a week” working for the group.
Aleah first joined Bloomers as a freshman, pursuing a her long–lasting love of theater and stage performance. She remembers the group as being smaller and less competitive in her first year. As director last semester, however, Aleah held auditions for somewhere from 60 to 70 girls, all looking to join the cast. Ultimately, five new performers were added.
Reilly Martin (C ‘16), who served as head writer for Bloomers for the past year, was tasked with hiring new writers. Out of the forty–odd applications she received, three writers were selected.
Bloomers recently added a fourth show to their usual three show weekend to compensate for increased demand. Applications numbers have almost doubled since Aleah was a freshman. However, opportunities for comedy on campus remain limited.
“I don’t think there’s actually a ton of opportunities [for comedy at Penn],” Aleah notes. “I was talking to somebody about the hierarchy of the dance groups or a cappella groups or something, and there’s so many of those to join, and there’s not really many [comedy groups]. There’s a male sketch group, a female sketch group, a stand–up group, and an improv group. And like, beyond that, I’m sure things exist beyond that, but I don’t know what they are.”
Despite its competitiveness, comedy remains an incredibly personal process for those working on and behind the stage. Reilly explains, “When you’re pitching an idea, even if you’re comfortable in a room, you’re still putting your idea on the line.” Watching a performance in the audience is equally as vulnerable—audience members watch, hoping the show will be funny and relieved when it is. Bloomers performs on level ground with the first row of the audience, as opposed to on a stage, and the close proximity makes it feel as though everyone watching participates in the show. “When you’re watching [the show] performed, you kind of feel like you’re in the bit a little bit. It’s not some far away stage, you’re really in there, and they’re pointing at you, and they’re five inches away from your face if you’re close enough,” Reilly notes.
And although that closeness is inclusive for an audience, it can be frightening to a performer. “I’ve always been a little self–conscious about theater,” Aleah says. “It’s always been a little self–promotional and a little ridiculous sometimes…I always wonder when I perform for people who aren’t like, into [comedy] themselves, are they going to get what we’re doing? Are they going to look at it and be like, what the fuck is this?”
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A large stuffed deer head presides over the room, and the walls are plastered with pictures of alumni. It could almost be a common room in a fraternity house, save for the costumes, tangled microphones and what appears to be a bedraggled wig.
Teddy Lavon (C ‘16) is perched on a couch in the Mask and Wig clubhouse in the Quad. He’s been a member of Mask and Wig for the past four years, and wrapped his final show this past weekend—a full length musical, in which he starred and served as head writer.
“I love performing comedy specifically because of the reaction when you say a line that gets a laugh…I don’t think there’s any other feeling like that,” Teddy observes.
Putting together a Mask and Wig show is intensive and exhausting. Teddy began preliminary work on the musical starting in early February—of last year. The production employees an acting director, music director, choreographer, costume director, light designer and set designer. The hours the cast and band spends rehearsing and performing are roughly equivalent to the time spent at a part–time job.
Being a part of Mask and Wig is exclusive and elite—the group boasts an extensive alumni network, a slew of traditions dating back to more than one hundred years and a rigorous application process. Teddy estimates that applicants for cast members number in anywhere from 35 to 55 students a year, with around six being selected.
Despite this competition, Teddy acknowledges that comedy is also an intensely personal process, particularly in Mask and Wig.
“We’re up there making fools of yourself for the amusement of other people…You put yourself in a vulnerable position when you’re on stage saying dumb stuff, sort of pleading for a laugh,” Teddy says. “That’s, I think, what comedy is. These are people that you know watching you do this. Usually, people appreciate it. But when you take a step back and think about it, I don’t know, it’s a weird place to be.”
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There’s only one thing scarier than actually performing: Waiting to go on.
“I love all the people in my group, but I’ll be in the back and hearing how many more laughs somebody’s getting, and I love them, but I’m also just like, they’re gonna make it, and I’m not gonna make it,” Hannah explains. “I’m really jealous of the people who can go and write full sets on their own and then just kill it. Like, I love you, but I hate you so much.”
Most of the time, however, stand–up sets don’t emerge from one person sitting down and writing a piece start to finish. Simply Chaos relies heavily on group feedback. A comedian will pitch a joke. They group will laugh, or they won’t. Then, they’ll figure out a way to punch up a set, to shape and prune it into what the audience eventually sees. Even though comedians present alone on stage, the writing process is backed by a team.
“I take full advantage of the collective aspect of [Simply Chaos],” Hannah says. “I’m still a little self–conscious, so I feel the need to pitch a premise first, and be like, oh, is it okay, is it okay, and then get the validation of the group and then go and write it.”
Comedy is loud and public. Jokes are meant to be understood and to be laughed at. Still, there is something oddly private about it, something delicate. At its core, comedy is about nothing more than a performer and an audience.
“The thing is getting up there and doing well is just like, it’s the ultimate vulnerability. Because you’re looking for one response, and it’s just you, and everyone gets to pay attention to you,” Hannah notes.
“Sometimes I wonder if it feels better to make them laugh, or to have them laugh at my jokes. It feels really good, and it feels that good because it’s that vulnerable.”
Orly Greenberg is a sophomore in the College studying English and Cinema Studies. She is a Features Editor for Street.