When guests arrive at URI’s first-ever humor symposium, “Open Mic, Open Minds: An Exploration of Social Issues Through Stand-up,” on Saturday, March 22, they will receive “gag bags” that contain a whoopee cushion or rubber chicken or electric hand buzzer in addition to the usual conference swag (folder, pen, water bottle). It’s a fitting beginning for a conference that straddles the line between academia and comedia — or whatever the name is for the world where people ascend stages with the purpose of making their fellow humans laugh. “This is a chance for the theorists to connect with the practitioners,” says Renee Hobbs, founding director of URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media, the event’s sponsor. “That’s what makes it so exciting.”
“Open Mic, Open Minds” caps off a school-year’s worth of programming that has included two stand-up shows on campus (Amy Schumer and Jim Gaffigan), a “Think Like a Comic!” workshop (see our sidebar) and a “Last Ram Standing” stand-up contest won by 20-year-old Hope Valley, RI native, Evan Little, who riffed on the ways that searching for a parking spot at URI’s Kingston campus changes a person. “I’ve never killed anyone. . . but I have considered murder-suicides in the parking lot,” he said, as the audience howled. Meanwhile, the PhD Writing and Rhetoric student who organized the “Open Mic, Open Minds” conference, Jillian Belanger, took second place with a routine that included an observational bit about how bossy rappers can be. “All their songs are like ‘Drop that ass down’ and ‘Grab the wall,’ and ‘Wiggle like you’re trying to make your ass fall off,’ ” she says.
Belanger — whose research involves watching numerous stand-up specials and comedy documentaries each week — has arranged a remarkable schedule for the symposium. There will be a keynote address on the historical roots of stand-up; workshops titled “The Comedic Portrayal of Transgender People” and “Canadian Comedy — Pod People From the North”; screenings and discussions of stand-up routines by Margaret Cho, Louis CK, Bill Maher, and other comics; sessions to facilitate the creation of original sketches and routines by attendees; and an evening performance by the actor (Young Adult, Big Fan), firebrand Twitter philosopher, and stand-up comic, Patton Oswalt.
And it’s all open to the public ($20 for students, $30 for everyone else), which is why, to help whet your appetite, we got a preview of the funny feast from symposium guests. Ignoring E.B. White’s quote about the dangers of examining comedy too closely — “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it” — we aimed our questions straight at the heart of the symposium’s subject: what is comedy?
Read on for an up-close look at the frog’s innards, and a couple side dishes, too.
COMEDIAN FEATURED ON THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O’BRIEN, THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, AND HIS OWN COMEDY CENTRAL SPECIAL; CO-LEADER OF “COMICS ON POLITICAL TOPICS” SESSION AT “OPEN MIC, OPEN MINDS” SYMPOSIUM, AND OPENING COMIC FOR PATTON OSWALT
Comedy isn’t just one thing. It isn’t even just one thing to me.
I will say that it is one of the only art forms that has a very specific response desired/required/expected for it to be considered the art form that it is. That is to say, a movie can be dramatic or comedic or thrilling; it can make you laugh or cry or both. But if a stand-up only makes you cry, some people might have some questions about the nature of that stand-up. Unless they’re only making YOU cry, and everyone else is laughing at that.
PHD STUDENT IN WRITING AND RHETORIC AT URI’S HARRINGTON SCHOOL; “OPEN MIC, OPEN MINDS” SYMPOSIUM ORGANIZER
Sometimes people laugh because something makes them uncomfortable. Or sometimes people laugh because what Chris Bliss [of the TED Talk, “Comedy Is Translation”] calls, “A verbal magic trick has been performed,” where you think a sentence is going in one direction and it ends in another direction and the juxtaposition or the mismatch makes you laugh because it has tricked your brain, basically.
Another area of research I’m interested in thinking about is what has been described as the “ladder of humor,” that starts out at unsophisticated slapstick humor and very physical comedy and then it moves up the ladder, and irony and sarcasm are supposed to be the height of humor and you’re supposed to be smarter if you think that stuff is funny. But I think that a lot of that is cultural and whoever came up with the “ladder of humor” might not have been taking into account what people in different places and times have considered funny.
My whole mantra is that comedians are smart, funny, conversationalists who use rhetoric in their material. [But] I have a five-year-old, so I [also] laugh at fart jokes every day.
PROFESSOR AND FOUNDING DIRECTOR AT URI’S HARRINGTON SCHOOL
I think comedy is joy. It’s the release of tension. It’s the chance to see the world afresh.
PROVIDENCE NATIVE, COMEDIAN, HOST OF 990WBOB’S “COMIC’S CORNER” PODCAST; WORKSHOP FACILITATOR AT “OPEN MIC, OPEN MINDS” SYMPOSIUM
This is going to sound so fucking cliché, but, truth, I think comedy is the truth. If you’re lying to yourself onstage, or you’re making stuff up to be funny, it’s probably going to come off that way. But I think if you just be yourself, that’s the way to shine. Some people have different styles. The guys who do one-liners, guys who do goofy stuff, that’s them. They’re being themselves and they’re getting genuine laughs.
My brother is a heroin addict, so I sort of have bits about growing up with that. I was abused as a child, so I have jokes about my dad and his alcoholism. I have really dark jokes with stark images [that] make people cringe and laugh. When I started stand-up, I weighed over 500 pounds. I weighed 625 pounds at my heaviest. Now I weigh under 300. I lost about 400 pounds. In the four years I’ve been doing stand-up, I wanted to improve my image and my health so that I could have longevity in comedy. So, that became part of my life now and part of my act.
[Comedy is] a great release. Sometimes, I have people thank me for some of the things I talk about, because they’re not able to talk about them in their own life.