Student comedy groups must take risks

There was a time when we were Laughingstocks. Some people in the school still call us that. But that title doesn’t exist anymore, dissolved by a frozen budget and a controversy that leaked outside of Vassar’s gates. And it was all because a few comedians pissed everyone off.

No Offense. That’s what we’re called now. It’s bitterly perfect. I’m the current President of Vassar’s oldest sketch comedy group, a fact that transcends a name change. Comedy on the Vassar campus has experienced something of a renaissance the past couple years. The sketch groups host events with each other; stand-up collective Comedy Normative is an official organization of the VSA; and new groups bubble up into the mainstream (or at least Main’s) consciousness more often than not.

Last Friday’s Comedy Preview Show felt as if it had a third of the freshman class packed in the seats, on the stairs, on the floors of Sanders Auditorium. They were all subjected to a number of jokes, only one of which would be sufficient to get you blacklisted from Saturday Night Live.

And yet, I get the sense we’re being cautious. The Miscellany News no longer reviews comedy shows. The paper gives the comedy groups press, from photo ops to interviews, but somewhere along the line, before my time at Vassar College had begun, the front-line critiques, the gut reactions, they all stopped. A performance’s effect ripples by word of mouth, with exclamations of the funniest, the weirdest and the most divisive sketches being traded over those nailed-down Retreat tables and through shower stalls in dorm bathrooms. Students have come up to this campus’ comedians in the days after a show to profess their love or hate, or more accurately, a mixture of both. We get feedback from both friends and people whom we’ve never met, bringing about the type of reflection comedians require in their diets. Feedback is the oversized prune in a responsible comic’s life. Having a successful weekend of shows could mean you’ve been seen by nearly a sixth of our small school, a possibility that makes comedians tortuously aware of the ramifications a sketch, a joke, a gesture could have.

It hurts to reject a sketch. It hurts more to reject a good one. My group is full of some of the most modestly-intelligent, genuinely kind and courageously funny people I’ve ever met, and yet that doesn’t prevent us from encountering obstacles that could keep in heated discussion for hours a week before a show. Sketches for No Offense have commonly been of a singular inception, proposed by one person and developed by many. Sketch comics new to a group quickly learn to distinguish cautionary assessment and critiques from personal attacks for the sake of their work. One of my fellow group members has had one particular sketch make its way to the final voting stages on at least three separate show selection nights, only to have it refused a live realization each time. The debate and ultimately the denial come not from the quality of the sketch but its subject matter. It conjures up familiar words such as “triggering” and “reckless” when considering what the response of the audience could be, but trust me when I say that its execution is unlike anything that has been seen on the Vassar campus, and it makes me damn curious to put it in front of an audience.

What do we do with that dream? Do we abandon it because of a fear of backlash, of bad publicity? Or do we propose a secret show where we can unleash our darkest and weirdest on a select few, to be held in an undisclosed location on a need-to-know basis? No one enjoys seeing a sketch reap a poor reception, especially the writers and actors. We’ve all had it happen, and in many instances, it’s happened unexpectedly. We rashly blame it on an audience’s misunderstanding, or a collective unwillingness to smile that night, but with time we accept that the majority nevertheless decides our fate for the show, and we head back to the drawing board with new understanding.

Laughter is releasing, a medication for the mind. Jokes will come and go once the floodgates are opened, a good portion of them deemed distasteful. That’s expected, regardless of the veracity of the statement, if one is to try boiling down a person’s critique to as basic a categorization as true or false. I watched the smoke from the Twin Towers fill the air from my window when I was eight, and over ten years later, when I saw Louis C.K. do his bit on masturbating in between the two buildings falling, I laughed. Why? It was funny. Time heals wounds, but laughing about them is a faster treatment. I would encourage all comedians, at Vassar and in the world, to remind themselves to be brave and bold, as those are the qualities that first led them to this life choice, temporary or otherwise. Not every show needs a sketch that forever changes one’s outlook on womanhood or race, or a joke that’s bound, intentionally or unintentionally, to get someone sounding off on Say Anything, yet provocative jokes infused with taboo and implemented with confident awareness are the comedian’s scientific discoveries. They take those leaps, and can break new ground on landing. Our “The Vagina Monologues” runner was No Offense’s Hadron Collider. What should upset the comedian is if the joke isn’t worth the consequences, and that’s what we’re spending nights in Rocky lecture rooms attempting to figure out.

-Frank Hoffman ’15 is a member of No Offense.

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