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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Here for the Laughs: Comedy as Art


Davis comedians straddle border between funny, offensive

Fourth-year history major Roman Spinale had his first stand-up comedy show when he was in fourth grade. Well, at least a version of such.

“I remember there was a substitute teacher, and I was talking in class trying to make my friends laugh, so she told me if I was quiet for the rest of class she would let me come up for a couple minutes to make jokes,” Spinale said. “[I] went up for two minutes, killed it. Now I guess I’m doing the same thing at Davis.”

Aspiring student comedians with humble beginnings may find themselves in a variety of places, including UC Davis. Comedy is indeed not exclusive to the eager audience of elementary peers and a frustrated substitute teacher.

“We really had to create that community on campus from the ground up; there are not a lot of places for comedians to perform in Davis,” said Rebeca Nava-McClellan, a third-year communication major. “I helped start the stand-up club my freshman year to make such a community.”

The fact that Davis is not a major comedy-hub city can limit the options for those who want to pursue comedy.

“It is hard for people to commit to comedy in general,” Nava-McClellan said. “It is a lot of collaboration, it is a lot of working with people with a lot of different styles and you won’t often have the same perspective. It is hard to follow through with comedy as a career — you have to be really strong-headed to do so. So if you’re just having fun and not intending on pursuing it further, teams and clubs will eventually dissolve on their own.”

Comedic minds nonetheless find themselves congregating on campus, so the art of comedy finds itself relevant. Yet something as involuntary as a laugh can be difficult to explain; good comedy is ambiguous and often misunderstood as an art form.  

“I have known people who think that comics don’t think out what they are going to say,” said continuing lecturer Karma Waltonen, who teaches a first-year seminar on stand-up comedy. “Unless that person is doing crowd-work, which is a very specific subset of comedy, of course they have thought about it. Some people can get really upset when they find something like this out about comedy — but you don’t get mad about a pianist reading notes while they play. I think that comedy, especially conversational-style stand-up artists, make it seem like they are just talking to you. There is a special art to comedy as well.”

Comedy can be a very personal experience for the audience and often equally as much for the comedian themself. For Waltonen, the success of a comedian — either that night at a club or as a whole — is largely based on the audience.

The comedian stands on a tightrope, as there is an instant reaction from the audience, with little time to analyze the success of their own material. The audience holds a lot of power in their reaction.

“When I show stand-up to my students, they tend to judge if they liked a comedian more based on how they related to the comedian and what their material is about,” Waltonen said.  “But they are judging relatability on art, and that doesn’t necessarily make it good or bad. People often forget that it is art.”

In the same vein, however, comedians can make a perfectly successful career by not catering their work to the audience’s desires.

“There are some comedians known as comedian’s comedians, who are getting more respect from the people in their field than they are getting recognized by audiences,” Waltonen said. “The comedians can see that they are doing something really new and different and brave, and the audience is like, ‘They are weird.’”

Subjectivity thus comes into the mix; there is no formula for the perfect comedian. The comedian must then decide whether to follow their intuition or the judgement of the audience.

This issue is not reserved for only comedians with a different performance style. The audience’s concern with subjectivity — a comedic catch-22, if you will — is not unheard of among all kinds of comedians.

“There is no audience in that everyone is going to love everything you do to the highest degree,” Spinale said. “But it would be boring if it was that easy. There are some jokes that you will tell and only a few people will laugh, and you can’t help but think these are the smart ones. And there is a weird source of pride that comes with that. Of course I would love to have mass appeal, but you never want to compromise your material and what you think is funny for the sake of what the audience may be into that night.”  

It cannot go unnoted that art, comedy included, has the ability to hurt. Indeed, comedy can include pushing social boundaries for the sake of making a point or a joke, but the line between offensive and progressive is up for debate.

“I’m an advocate for accessible comedy versus offensive comedy,” Nava-McClellan said. “‘Accessible’ comedy is when everyone can laugh at it and no one has to feel bad. ‘Offensive’ is that one marginalized group is going to be offended in some way by the joke or bring traumatic experiences back to the audience.”

The comedian is then, once again, placed in a important position in distinguishing the emotional charge of their material.

“It is the easiest thing to make jokes about racism, as the stereotypes they are based on are is still strongly supported, sadly, in the community,” Nava-McClellan said. “You as a comedian are in a position of power, and it’s not going to negatively affect you to make those jokes, and those stereotypes are widely known in the community. So stereotypes are an easy way to make people feel like they can relate to what you are saying since they have prior knowledge. But you can go in the marginalized position. You can be a white person but be poor and talk about classism. Everything is part of a suppressive system, and it is all intersectional. And you can talk about other people’s oppression, too and how you affect it, and that’s the intersectionality. That’s where you can make fun of your own shame.”

Addressing these sensitive issues is inevitably complicated. Using stronger language and more intense jokes could offer a shock factor or offer a powerful message. Yet the same can be accomplished without offending others. The way in which these issues are provoked is ultimately at the discretion, power and ability of the comedian.

“Comedy can push the lines, and people don’t quite understand that a joke about racism is not the same as a racist joke,” Waltonen said.

The audience is therefore the deciding factor of where such sensitive boundaries lie.

Comedians are further restricted by the regulations associated with on-campus performances. Therefore, UC Davis offers a specific niche audience that comedians must consider.

“There are certain spaces on campus because of our [intention] to be a safe space, [so] it can be hard to perform,” Waltonen said. “People can take jokes out of context and get you in trouble. […] Being in a college town can sometimes be stifling. But on the same token, you have a much more liberal and politically aware audience in a college town.”

Comedy has a complicated status as art. It must push but be careful as to how much; it must stay true to the comedian but be aware of its audience. No matter the complexity that surrounds this art form, comedy remains an important art form.  

“[When] you make a joke and the entire audience laughs, it does two things,” Spinale said. “It tells you that the audience likes your joke, but it also tells the audience that […] they all agreed on something. Through this uncontrolled response, [they] confirmed that they are all on the same page […] Everything else they don’t agree on doesn’t matter for at least that moment.”


Written by: Caroline Rutten — arts@theaggie.org  


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