On the night of Oct. 8, the members of sketch comedy group Happily Ever Laughter (also known as HEL) performed their first show of the year: “Tomatoes are a Girl’s Best Friend.” This fun title was the brainchild of one of HEL’s newest members Jacob Liss ’20.
“Tomatoes are a Girl’s Best Friend” played twice on Saturday, which challenged the performers to figure out how to integrate performance and audience reception. Dakota Lee ’19 explained, “Historically speaking, the second show is better than the first show because we know the kinks of the first show, we can iron them out a little bit—we can see what we can do to get a better reaction out of people, and that’s what happened.” With that in mind you were lucky if you found a seat in the packed Shiva theatre for HEL’s second performance of the night.
A performance group’s first show says a lot about how the year is going to play out for them. HEL president James Pedersen ’17 has strong visions for this year and for the future of HEL, “We’re gonna build our year on the progress we made last year in trying to reach out to groups of people that are often untouched by the Vassar comedy scene.” Speaking passionately about the competitive auditions process this year, Pedersen said, “One of the things that stuck out about the two guys that we did end up taking is that they have a versatility in writing and in performance, and they’re just naturally cool and charismatic guys.” Liss and Daniel Rosen ’20 looked like they had a blast informing the audience of the clearly marked emergency exits at the beginning of the night.
After the show, Liss explained his vision for HEL, “I’m just excited to see what else we can do in terms of pushing not the boundaries of—I dunno—what’s acceptable, but what comedy can do. How you can present comedy, and how can comedy be staged— where does the comedy stop? Does it stop just in the scene, or can you fit it into the transitions? Can you make it a bigger theme about the whole show—not just a collection, but like a real through line?” This desire to make strong creative choices will surely serve HEL well during their year. The show did not skimp on the bold choices.
Boldness of choice aside, we can all agree on two things: 1. group work is nearly impossible and 2. comedy is hard. So through what trying process must a comedy group go through in order to choose what sketches actually find their way into the show? HEL presented over 20 sketches of various lengths and subject matter. The audience laughed over the trials and tribulations of the Kool-Aid Man as well as the saga of PTA moms concerned with Miss Frizzle’s liberal teaching style. It was surprising that amongst all of these playful ideas (which included an alien couple learning what “we’re on a break” means, and the existential crises imposed by a Socrates-turned-frat-bro) one of the sketches found itself with a great potential to offend.
A sketch that involved a pillagers versus villagers confrontation did not quite meet the standard set by the rest of the sketches. A sense of playful fun quickly turned to a problematic interchange onstage. The weightiness of employing a specific vocabulary of words (such as agency and patriarchy to name a few) as well as the implications of the kinds of systems these words are most commonly associated with should not be forgotten, and did not sit well with everyone in the audience. Pedersen described the intention of the sketch: “‘Barbarians’ is a critique of faux-ally culture, set in a fictional pre-modern universe like Game of Thrones. The crux is that deeds are what separate Liberal Arts defenders from people who just pretend. One character attempts to understand the experience of another, but in the end, makes no behavioral changes and perpetrates the same un-civic behavior that he claims to abhor. It’s also a sketch about trying to connect with parents of a different generation.”
In a sense then, this sketch provoked an unexpected conversation. An anonymous HEL member admitted, “While the writer of the sketch would probably claim that that was the point of the sketch—it doesn’t have to be. We’re a college sketch comedy group and honestly our goal should be to make as many people laugh as possible. If we’re making someone uncomfortable—we shouldn’t be making anyone feel uncomfortable, because that’s not the nature of what we do.” That same HEL member recounted, “A lot of the dialogue was filled with buzzwords … Pushing boundaries is okay but crossing them is not.”
An anonymous HEL member brought up a good question that artists are constantly having to ask themselves during debates about creative license, trigger warnings and problematic content as a whole: “How do you decide how many people you wanna offend and how many people you don’t? Where do you draw that line?”
Some may argue that this line could be drawn at co-opting the painful experiences of others for comedy, while other people could easily draw that line at poking fun at the integrity of Miss Frizzle’s renowned curriculum. Pedersen clarified: “We believe that beneath our brand of humor is true experience. Every emotion, whether it be the loneliness of the sentient box in Box or the jagged relief of the mascot in Kool- Aid, is grounded in the real emotional experiences of our group.”
And at the end of the night, the members of HEL considered the show a success. Lee boiled it down to, “We got a lot of big laughs, and I had a lot of fun doing this show. That is the most important thing for me: it’s that HEL has to be fun.”
The feel-good sentiments didn’t end there. The show as a whole was clearly a labor of hard work and comedy love, and there were smiles all around after the show had finished. For the second show, Pedersen mentioned, “I stayed up in the booth for a few extra seconds just to see all nine people…and I was so glad that we took every single one of them.” In the words of the members of HEL, this show was messy, spunky, fun, technical, splashy and most of all: tomato.