It’s true that comedy, especially lately, has deviated somewhat from the norm of white men standing onstage telling jokes about themselves and usually at the expense of others. But there aren’t always places one can go to be away from all this, to safely cultivate one’s humor without fear of condescension or competition. A new pop-up comedy group called the Absurd Comedy Collective seeks to change that, offering free workshops, open mics, and shows that “create space for women-identifying people of color, and all genderqueer, nonbinary, and trans people.”
When I met up with Absurd Comedy Collective founder Rachel Kaly, I was surprised to learn she was still in college, and the Absurd Comedy Collective was a summertime venture being funded by a grant from Wesleyan University, where she studies English. However, she grew up in the city and has been doing stand-up and comedy since the ripe age of ten. “I’d started being disenchanted with it at school; I do improv and sketch there. It’s very much ruled by white cis hetero guys, and I found that I wasn’t able to explore much [in my work], it was just about pandering,” she explains. “And I saw something similar when I got [to the city]– less so, definitely, but still. And I was like, something’s gotta change.”
Kaly officially began the collective in mid-June, and they’ve already had shows about every two weeks at places like Bluestockings and The Annoyance, collaborated with BHQFU, and held 7 diverse workshops taught by some of the most interesting figures in comedy, with several more to come.
Attendees at Absurd Comedy Collective’s workshops have learned from comedians like Jo Firestone and Ana Fabrega about finding your voice and making your ideas reality, comedian and visual/performance artist Lorelei Ramirez about incorporating multimedia into performance, activist and comedian Elsa Waithe about joke writing, and more. Upcoming workshops include an exploration on using your body onstage, incorporating personal darkness into comedy, and developing your weirdest ideas.
Attendance for these workshops has been spirited but sometimes sparse. “It’s hard to get the word out, because I’m limited by the money I have from my grant. I do all the PR myself,” Kaly tells me. “It’s mostly people I don’t know, though, and mostly people in their 20s and 30s. I initially hoped it’d function more as a youth outreach thing, but I just didn’t know how to do that.”
The shows, featuring the collective’s teachers and their friends on the bill, also function as open mics, where anyone, particularly students of the Collective, are encouraged to perform their own work and try out skills they may have learned in workshops. Rather than separating the open mic performers and the booked performers, Kaly has chosen to stagger them, eliminating the hierarchy that one is more worthy of attention than the other.
The Absurd Comedy Collective’s showcase last Friday at The Annoyance was a fine example of this blend. It featured several of the collective’s teachers and some guests, and featured more traditional stand-up in addition to some who deviated from that norm. Queer comic artist Hazel Newlevant presented a few comics she had drawn, and Kaly herself showed a Powerpoint of her early 2000s LiveJournal posts. The open mic performers were a lively mix, including Kaly’s nonbinary partner, the Annoyance’s bartender, and a drama therapist from out of town who had never done comedy before until they attended one of the collective’s workshops.
Their workshops and open mics have drawn comedians and newbies alike, and many people keep coming back, which has in turn created a community. “I think it’s a very supportive environment. People feel comfortable doing whatever because there’s no one in the audience rooting for them to fail, which is not true of all mics, especially in Manhattan.”
Inclusive as it is, Kaly acknowledges that it isn’t perfect. When I bring up the fact that most venues they’ve done shows at aren’t wheelchair accessible or not near accessible train stations (of which there are very few), she’s quick to agree that she hasn’t quite made adequate space for everyone yet, and that’s something she hopes to improve on. “Disability is so not talked about [in comedy],” she tells me. “This was a project where I was trying to make things more inclusive but I completely forgot a whole section of the community, and that’s so terrible. It’s another thing I want to fully take into consideration going forward. What’s being discussed so much is gender, race, and sexuality, which is so important, but what about people who aren’t in the room because they’re literally not able to get into the room?” Brief research reveals that UCB Chelsea, The Annoyance, The Experiment Comedy Gallery, The PIT Loft, The PIT Underground, and The Comedy Cellar aren’t wheelchair accessible, to name a few.
She also wants to bring shows and workshops to other neighborhoods with less of a comedy scene, as most of them currently take place in north Brooklyn, where there is comedy aplenty. “I’ve had a lot of people saying they can’t go because they live in Washington Heights,” Kaly admits. “This one woman said there are no open mics like this [uptown], bring it there.”
Kaly tells me that running the collective has made her rethink the way she makes her own comedy, especially as she’s met more people who make comedic work but don’t necessarily consider themselves comics, or people who experiment with form. “I’m in this phase of trying stuff out because I just kind of realized you could do that,” she says. “This collective has made realize I don’t have to pander to white males anymore. And seeing so many different performance styles… There’s so much to play with.”
Though she’s heading back to school after the summer, she’s interested in potentially planning shows remotely, and hopes the community fostered through the collective persists. “It’s important for there to be a space like this,” Kaly says. “Something I always say is come to our shows, but also bring your queer friends, your friends who are women of color, whoever that isn’t just a cis white man, to open mics. Make it a queer space. Take the notion of having a supportive community and bring it everywhere you can.”