There are maybe more comedians in New York City than anywhere else. And while material can vary a lot, stand-ups tend to have similar backstories, or at least in what they feel like dishing. But Elsa Waithe is a comedian like not many others. Sure, she’s a transplant from Virginia who said she “dropped everything” and moved here to “follow my dream.” She’s also of the opinion that “comedy quite literally saved my life”– another common story. But instead of squeezing her way into the big clubs, Elsa is carving out a place for under-represented comics, something she considers part of her work as a civil rights activist.
“I was tired of being in shows where I was the only Black person, the only woman, the only queer person,” she explained. Hence her monthly showcase at the Experiment Comedy Gallery, Affirmative Laughter (the January edition is going down tonight, Friday January 15 at 7 pm), which spotlights groups that Elsa describes as “underrepresented in comedy”– a mission that jibes well with Mo Fathelbab’s own ethos. Tonight’s theme, “Asians Are Funny,” which Elsa will host, brings in a slew of comics with Asian-heritage including Kate Moran, Andrew Lee, Jocelyn Chia, and Masafumi Abe.
While Elsa’s fully committed to comedy (“It’s the only thing I want to do,” she told us), her activism goes well beyond a mic and a stage. In fact, Waithe has put her own body on the line as a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. And more than once, that line has been crossed.
We spoke with Elsa about the show, her experiences as part of an under-represented group in the comedy world, and her narrow escape from “becoming a hashtag” at the hands of the police.
We’ve only done three or four shows, but they’ve all been very well attended. People really like the idea, and I’ve found that there’s a need for diversity, which is weird there’s a need for that in New York City, but there is.
I came up with the idea because I was tired of being in shows where I was the only Black person, the only woman, the only queer person. I called it out one day, kind of jokingly, kind of lovingly– this one show, I liked the guys I was on the show with– but it was really evident the audience was all white, the comics were all white, and it was just kind of bugging me all night. It was just regular, white guy comedy.
I’ve found that a lot of white people think ‘weird’ is diversity, but it’s not. I thought it was funny that all these guys were trying to out-weird each other. I came on stage, and was like, ‘This will now start the BET portion of the show,’ and ‘Thanks for letting me be your affirmative hire tonight.’ The host said, ‘You really got me thinking about the show.’ I was like, well good. But then I see the flyer for the next show, and again it’s all white guys.
So I decided, I need to start my own thing and highlight these under-represented segments of New York comedy.
I guess people feel like it’s the safe way to go. Even if you don’t belong to one of these minority communities, it’s important that we all hear voices from everywhere. Audiences for comedy, these days, are more diverse.
Did you see that video of David Bowie on MTV in 1983? It’s amazing how relevant the issues he brings up still are.
Yeah, I have this bit about how every Black History Month people are like, ‘Ohh you have a history month.’ And it’s like, well because [white people] have everything else. Or, ‘How come Black people get their own channel?’ It’s like, well, you do have your own channel, it’s called every other channel!
Not only do we need our own thing, but we need voices everywhere– because we are everywhere. I have another bit about how, Black people, we can do everything. You just don’t see us everywhere. Hockey was invented by Black people.
The first one at the Experiment was “Black Girls Are Funny,” and that show was packed out. There were people outside, up against the glass, the place was like a fishbowl. And people were tagging each other like, ‘I’ll come in for this comic, you can come in for the next one.’
I’ll have the lineup according to the theme, and then one affirmative hire, for “Black Girls Are Funny,” it was one white guy. I did “African-American Friday” at the Queer Center in Manhattan, on 13th street, and that was all Black queers– male and female– and one gay white guy. Then I did “Jewish Christmas,” which was all Jewish comics, and I had one Muslim. Finally, this month it’s “Asians Are Funny,” so it’s all Asian comics and one Black guy.
Oh my god, I wish there were more places like his. But then, maybe it makes sense that it’s only one. But he’s opened it up to comics at all levels– whether you’ve never tried comedy or never been on television– because even if you’re club is diverse, you might have to be the headlining name to get there.
I had Ted Alexandro as my affirmative hire for the first show, and Ted Alexandro sells out Madison Square Garden, and he was there with my friend who’s a poet, a children’s book writer, and just started doing standup comedy.
Really, it’s an experiment. Mo’s willing to do anything and everything to help comics and artists at all levels. I think that’s what people think New York is like, but when you get here, you realize you gotta know somebody. I think that’s what I really like about what Mo’s doing, he’s really open to everything– if it makes sense or it doesn’t, we’re gonna try it, which is the beauty of that space.
I think my biggest moment came last October, I was featured on This American Life, telling a story about how I fell in love with the police officer who arrested me at a Black Lives Matter protest.
Right now, I’m trying to find out what my ‘brand’ is, and I’m trying to weave my experiences from the BLM movement into comedy. I’m realizing even here in NYC you don’t get a lot of opportunities to be around somebody from a different background, so going to a comedy show may be the only time a white person hears authentically from a Black person.
People have asked me, ‘How do you joke about something that’s so dire, like police brutality?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s also very ridiculous too.’ I think when you shoo that bogeyman, and make fun of it, it’s easier to talk about it. They always say to open your speech with a joke, because it disarms people.
I’ve kind of given up on trying to break into some of the mainstream clubs. It’s very cliquish, if you’re not a white-bread white guy, people will think that tourists can’t identify with you. I spent most of last year trying to break into some of the name-brand clubs, I keep hearing, ‘Oh you’re funny, you’re great, this is awesome. But you need work.’
I’ve had people straight-up tell me at an audition before, ‘Hey, maybe not do so much Black material.’ So I’ve just chosen to go to places that celebrate me for me. I get it if the joke isn’t funny, but if you don’t wanna hear it, I don’t have time for that.
I was booed one time and had about half the audience walk on me. I didn’t even get to the punchline. I just said, ‘Black lives matter,’ and the crowd was like, ‘Nooo!’ It was the one and only time I’ve been booed in my life.
Even outside of comedy when I tell people about my experiences with the police like, ‘You’re from the South, you should be used to it by now.’ While I had some incidents with the police [in Virginia] that I’m pretty sure were colored with racist tones, I never had experiences with police where I felt like my life was in danger until I moved to New York. And I’ve been arrested before, I’ve been to jail before.
I was even just explaining to my girlfriend a couple of days ago that I feel like a couple years ago I would have been a person who said, ‘Sure, police brutality, but what about Black-on-Black crime?’I used to be that person, until what sparked my involvement in the BLM movement was, this was the summer after Eric Garner and Mike Brown, this was after the uprising in Ferguson– I was going to a show in Greenpoint on Franklin Street. But I wound up on Franklin Avenue, and they’re miles apart from each other.
And so I hopped on a bus, and I’m running late– I decided that if I jump off this bus right now and start running, I might make it in time. So I’m running through the streets of Greenpoint, I have my headphones in, and this cop car– I didn’t know it was a cop car at the moment, it was an undercover cop car– it jumps the curb. It all happened so fast, and I run full speed into this cop car. I have my headphones in, so the first thing I’m thinking is– troubled motorist, this guy must have had an accident or something. So I run up to the car door to see if they’re ok, and the door flings open, hits me, this guy jumps out– hand on his waist, flashlight in my face–and he’s yelling at me. ‘What’s in your hand? What’s in your hand? Get on the ground!’
And it dawns on me, this is a cop, and he’s got his hand on his waist right now. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?’ He goes, ‘Where are you running?’ and he says, word-for-word, ‘You are running too fast.’ He’s like, ‘Give me your ID.’
I gave him my ID, I had to show him my cellphone so he could see the show I was going to. I diffused the situation with humor and said, ‘Hey, if you’re going to put me in the back of the car, can you at least take me to the show?’
We had a little laugh about it, or whatever, and he gives me directions. But I didn’t realize until the morning after, when I told my friend, what this was. They go, ‘Do you realize what that was? That was fascism. You had to show him your papers to be able to proceed down the street.’ And it didn’t dawn on me until then, I could have been hurt or killed. In that moment, I could have easily been a hashtag. There was nobody on that street, so it would have been there word against my dead word.
About a month later, when the non-indictments came down I was just so incensed. I realized that could be any one of us, at any time, for any reason.
I don’t mean to toot my own horn– but I’ve led plenty of protests and marches. I’ve led approximately 1,000 people through the streets of New York, sitting on someone’s shoulders. I’ve given several speeches and interviews and talks, either on-location, while the protest is going, or afterwards, I’ve talked to different organizations who wanted to lend a hand to the cause. I teach know-your-rights course. I did a funny video that sort of ran out of steam, but it’s called Exercise Your Rights, it’s a protest workout video where I would teach you what to do when stopped by police.
I do Cop Watch, I haven’t in some months because I was assaulted by a police officer on April 14 last year, so I’m currently suing the NYPD. So I haven’t been out on the streets much, my lawyer advises against it until we can get the case underway.
So I’ve sort of taken a seat for a while, that and some disagreements with my protest community– but what I tell people is that activism isn’t just protesting in the streets. I consider mentoring children activism. These are all Black kids, 14 and 15-year-olds, and I’m the only Black mentor. I consider what I do on stage a part of activism. I consider Affirmative Laughter activism.
Where I’m from, Norfolk, Virginia, they had a Blue Lives Matter protest. Ick. [New York City] was the first time I was able to be around other like-minded individuals. In the two years I’ve lived here in New York, I’ve learned so much more about my Blackness, my womanhood, my gayness than I would have ever been able to experience anywhere else, just by being around other– I hate saying this word but– other ‘radical’ people.
My probation officer told me a bunch of bullshit, but one day she gave me a really good grain, she said, ‘You’re a dry drunk– while you’re not drinking or using drugs right now, you’re still enacting these destructive patterns. She’s like, there’s gotta be something you wanna do with yourself?
Ironically my mom bought me a book on joke writing and I spent that year writing notes, whether they’re funny, sad, or angry, without realizing– I’m jotting jokes.
One day, it was a super dark day, my friend came and took me to an open mic, and I was actually reading out of my notebook. It wasn’t the best stuff, but people were laughing. And I thought, I’ll have this better next week. And quite literally, comedy saved my life. You hear that from a lot of comics, and it’s very true for me. When I do something, I do it all the way. So I dove into it.
It’s strange, but it’s really the only thing I wanna do right now. I just quit drinking, actually. Today makes 46 days sober for me, and 13 days no weed. I’m only going 90 days without pot, but I just wanted to start my step work and start my year as clear-headed as I can be. I’m stuck on the 4th step right now.