Finding Energy in Despair with the National ‘What a Joke’ Fest

In those first few days after the election, it felt like everything everybody said pretty much just boiled down to “What do we do?” Comics and non-comics alike were unsure of what could be said or done to adequately express what everybody felt. As we’ve moved past November 8th, although the situation is certainly no less troubling, thoughts seem to be finally coalescing. As far as comedy is concerned, this is thanks, in part, to outspoken, hardworking comics like Emily Winter and Jenn Welch.

Winter and Welch started working together almost immediately after the election to produce the What a Joke Fest, a simultaneous, nationwide comedy festival whose proceeds will benefit the ACLU. From Thursday, January 19th through Saturday, January 21st comedians will rally together to raise money to help offset what may prove to be an especially strenuous four years. The cities include Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Des Moines, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Oxford, UK, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, ME, Portland, OR, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Tucson, and Washington, DC.

As Welch stated below, the festival is not so much a protest against Donald Trump or those who support him as much as it is a call for unity to all who still feel hopeless and alone in view of the coming presidency. “The same way,” says Winter “that when you’re in a really good comedy room, you feel like the whole room has its own energy: I want that to be a national energy.”

Aside from being creatively productive comics in their own right, Welch and Winter are busier than most. Winter co-produces Side Ponytail (alongside comedians Carolyn Busa, Ben Wasserman, Chelsea Taylor, and Julia Shiplett) and her own BackFat Variety, a popular monthly comedy variety show at Brooklyn’s 61 Local. Winter also writes for TV Land, was a staff writer for Come Here And Say That on Fusion, and is an NBC Late Night Writers Workshop script judge. Her parody twitter accounts @Feminist_Bro and @TrumpFeminist have been written about on Someecards, Bustle, Hello Giggles, and The Frisky. Welch has spent the past year and a half co-producing The Stand-Up Showdown, a bracket-style standup competition at The People’s Improv Theater that’s taken place in Manhattan, Queens, Boston, and Memphis, as well as her own show The Half-Hour Hour at The Creek and the Cave. Her sketches have been performed at Second City LA, the iO West, and The People’s Improv Theater. She is a veteran improv house team member at The PIT and works as an improv instructor at The PIT Comedy School.

Both Winter and Welch kindly took the time to chat with me about what inspired What a Joke Fest, what they hope to see from it, and the effect of the incumbent administration on standup comedy.

So how did you guys first hatch the idea for the festival?

Emily Winter: Well, it was election night and everyone was sad.

Jenn Welch: Catatonic.

Emily Winter: Yeah. The results weren’t in yet, but I messaged Jenn.

Jenn Welch: I still don’t know why you… and I was thinking about this on the way over here…

Emily Winter: Why?

Jenn Welch: I’m like, I don’t know why Emily reached out to me. I love that you did, because it worked out, but I was like, “Why me?,” because we’ve never produced anything together before.

Emily Winter: Yeah, we’ve never worked together before. I was overcome with like, “I have to do something.” I was like, “Who is a person that is funny, and in comedy, and gets shit done?” And then I thought, “Jenn Welch.”

Was it immediately the ACLU or did you consider other organizations?

Jenn Welch: No, we didn’t even know… We were talking about, “This Friday, we need to do a show, like immediately.”

Emily Winter: Right, not a national thing.

Jenn Welch: Then, just the realities of our schedules and stuff, we couldn’t even meet up until Thursday to sit down and talk about it. Then, everybody was already branding a bunch of one-off shows. One-off shows for Planned Parenthood, for the ACLU, for the Southern Poverty Law Center, all that. So, it kind of felt like that opportunity of doing something immediate just wasn’t a reality.

Emily Winter: It also just didn’t feel special that way. It was Jenn’s idea to have it be a national thing, and the second she said it, I thought, “Oh my god, yeah. What can we do that’s bigger and would get more attention than just a one-off?” So she had the idea of doing it nationally. She’s done festivals and I’ve done festivals, and I lived in Miami, and she lived in L.A. So we have good networks outside of New York. You just build them, like any comedian who does fests and gets to know people outside.

Jenn Welch: I think that the first few days after the election… When you’re a comedian, your Facebook feed is just comedians wailing about whatever the new issue that week is. It’s so easy to get caught up in it and see everyone’s take on it. I think a thing that stood out for me that week was that everybody in my network, and I have comedians from Chicago and Memphis and New Orleans and whatever, I saw kind of all having the same sentiment, all having the same sense of hopelessness and like, “What do we do? What do we do?” We were all in the same boat.

So this is one way to get the whole country together so people don’t feel so lost and helpless. With all the talk about “bubbles” and “echo chambers,” do you think that this reinforces or breaks through that, or is it not even relevant?

Jenn Welch: First of all, I think “the bubble” is bullshit. The bubble is not at the elite liberal level, the bubble is the world bubble. The bubble is where people never have to interact with anybody outside of their friends, their family, their church community, whatever. If you live in New York City, you’re not in a fucking bubble. We have to be a human being, like a single human being, around everybody, like eight million people in a ten square mile radius on a daily basis. We are not in a bubble.

Also, I think that comedians aren’t in a bubble. I think that the comedians are the people who are stepping outside of that bubble. They’re looking at different perspectives, exploring their own takes on things, and yeah, I think the bubble is bullshit. Sorry, I get really intense, guys.

Emily Winter: I feel like most of the audiences that I do comedy for are liberal though, especially when I’m here. Although, I did a set in Manhattan to a bunch of Trump-supporting Santas on Saturday and it went awesome because I just got up there and I was like, “Santa, shut the fuck up! I’m talking to you!” They were like, “Woah, okay…” I was like, “You’re 23 and you’re from New Jersey.” And they were like, “How did you know that?” “Because I know who you are!”

Jenn Welch: Well, that’s the other thing, too. I feel like, as a woman in comedy, we don’t get a bubble to begin with. I can be at the most liberal show and half the audience is questioning every single one of my premises. So yeah, the bubble is just a way to be dismissive of thoughts that are progressive and outside of the normal way of thinking.

And comedy obviously has struggled and continues to struggle with a lot of internalized racism and misogyny; do you think that the current political situation is inversely going to help usher in more sensitivity to any of those issues? Or do you think it’s going to just cause a backlash?

Emily Winter: A Trump presidency is giving certain people permission to… There were racist outbreaks after the election. There’s been more racist violence. So, I think the same is true for comedy. When you have somebody giving you permission to do this, there’s going to be people who do that that otherwise wouldn’t. So, I think that, in that way, it’s like having him as a figurehead, as a symbol, to people that it’s “okay” to be racist, it’s “okay” to be sexist, and that’s definitely going to be in comedy.

Jenn Welch: And it is already. I think, too, we were coming out of eight years of racism and sexism and misogyny, but like racism, especially racism, being used ironically on stage by comedians because we have a black president, right? And we’re progressing with women’s rights and gay marriage and all this stuff; we’re progressing. So, now we can talk about this stuff ironically. Now we can play that ironically. It’s like, “No. No.” Going forward, for me, there’s no irony, not that I would ever play with that ironically.

And that’s all a part of the conversation we’re having again now, about normalizing these things. It’s not necessarily that it makes somebody do those things, but it does make them think that “that’s just a thing that happens,” so if they’re ever in that situation, they think, “Well, I’m just a part of this thing that happens.”

Jenn Welch: It existed before that, obviously, but I feel like, especially… You see young white comedians just like hell-bent on being able to say the “N” word. “Why can’t I say the ‘N’ word?” This is why. What’s going on right now.

Emily Winter: But also, you can’t.

Jenn Welch: You can do whatever you want.

Emily Winter: You can do whatever you want if you’re not…

Jenn Welch: But you can be an asshole…

Emily Winter: And we can hate it.

Jenn Welch: For all the talk about PC culture ruining comedy, it’s like you can’t even criticize anything on the other side of the issue without threats, death threats, or rape threats.

Emily Winter: Which I’ve had. I’m sure you have.

Jenn Welch: Yeah. I think people are terrified of me. People are terrified of me or they don’t know… I never take any…

Emily Winter: Jenn doesn’t take shit.

Jenn Welch: Nobody sends me death threats or rape threats, but I will get murdered at some point. That’s what I feel like.

That’s the plan?

Emily Winter: I have this weird fear that somebody’s going to shoot us at one of the shows.

Jenn Welch: I’ve thought about it. I’ve actually made sure… One of our volunteers is helping us with the website, Kale Bogdanovs. I actually reached out to him like, “Please look at all the security on the backend of the website, please look at all of these.”

For most of the shows that you’ve been going to, what has been the vibe, as far as wanting to hear political material versus not wanting to hear political material?

Emily Winter: For me it’s been mixed. I did a show on Saturday in Jersey. It was WFMU, so really liberal, and I started with political material that’s been working in other rooms, and I just like got the vibe that they didn’t want it. So I just switched to talking about my regular material. I feel like the first couple days… The first couple days it felt amazing, and it was scary to talk about it, but you could feel the energy in the room. It was so beautiful and wonderful. And just telling new jokes, although they’re not polished, but it didn’t matter. People just wanted to talk about it and hear about it. Now that energy has dropped. Now I just find that it’s mixed, and it depends on the quality of the jokes, it depends on the vibe of the room. I can totally see why, on Saturday night, people don’t want to talk about politics. Maybe that’s more of a Thursday show vibe. I don’t know.

Do you think it’s going to level out at some point, like people are all going to be more comfortable hearing it or even worse: not want to even talk about it, like it’ll be hack at some point?

Jenn Welch: Honestly, I feel like this situation is different than anything that any of us have been through in our lifetime. This isn’t Reagan, this isn’t … Reagan did a lot of awful things, but I don’t think people knew how bad that would be. But this isn’t even like George W. Bush, where he’s kind of cute about it, how dumb he is, like it’s kind of adorable, but terrifying. This is like flat out, “What the fuck is…?” But I’ve been through Reagan, two Bushes… I was born during the Carter administration. So, this is not my first rodeo. But it’s definitely the most terrifying. I feel like I’m a child in the home of two meth addict parents. That’s what I feel like: nobody’s fucking taking of me for the next four years.

As far as new Trump bits are concerned, is there anything that you’re already tired of hearing?

Emily Winter: I hate hearing, “I’m not gonna talk about politics, but…” And then they talk about politics for seven minutes. Just do it or don’t.

Jenn Welch: I hate hearing that “the President can’t accomplish anything anyway,” that “we all just need to relax.” I hate that. I hate it.

Emily Winter: I hate people that go on stage like they have the answer. That’s kind of bugging me a little bit too. It’s either done well or it’s done poorly.

For better or worse, do you think that comedy in the next four years is going to become more or less political?

Jenn Welch: It depends on what type of comedian you are. I don’t know. I definitely am feeling more political with what I’m writing, but that’s because I’m somebody who has to write about the stuff that… I’m like, “Let’s dive into the awfulness,” in terms of doing comedy. But then there are people who are like, “Uh, I’m doing this so I don’t have to think about these things.” Some comedians do it to process, and some comedians do it to escape.

Emily Winter: I think comedy as a whole is a way of making sense of your world. So, when something doesn’t make sense, then it’s ripe to explore. In that way, I think we’ll be seeing more, because a lot of people are like, “I explore things that are confusing and don’t make sense.” So, I personally feel drawn to it. But I never did jokes about Obama.

What are you most looking forward to from What a Joke Fest?

Jenn Welch: Beyond raising hopefully an incredibly significant amount of money for the ACLU, I want it to be clear that this is like a united front of comedy. And we put it in a great way that was like a subtle protest. We’re not going on there with our protest signs, we’re not going out there and standing at Trump Tower right now, but this festival in and of itself is… Our logo is a red hat the says “What a Joke” on it. This festival is like a “Fuck You” to this whole situation.

Emily Winter: When we were getting the festival together and people started saying that they were definitely signed on from all over the country, I was at my desk at work and I just started to cry. It felt so amazing, and I want everyone to feel that. I put together a promo video, and I’m going to tweak it and I had people work toward a different end to it. If they can play it, play it. I just want them to feel like they’re a part of… The same way that when you’re in a really good comedy room, you feel like the whole room has its own energy: I want that to be a national energy. Like you’re at this show on the 19th and 20th or 21st, and it’s happening all over the country, and I want that to just be tangible.

Our guy in Knoxville, Shane Rhyne, is incredible. He’s like, “This means so much, because we’re just this like little liberal dot in a red state, and we don’t know what to do.” To especially connect to those places is just so powerful, I think.

Jenn Welch: I feel like, too, there’s so much black and white talk, for lack of a better phrase. There’s so much, “Oh, the red states did this, blah, blah, blah, this and that.” I feel like it’s not red states versus blue states, it’s people. There are people who are progressive and want to continue moving forward in a direction that is open and supportive and bettering our country versus people who are voting out of fear or voting out of hate or voting out of whatever. Or greed or whatever it is. It feels to me, as well, like we’re reaching a hand out to our… What is the word I want to use? I want to say compatriots, but that feels like a very loaded word to use. Like reaching out to those people in those red states to be like, “We’ve got your back. We’re here. We know that this is not your fault. We know that you didn’t do this.”

Also, it’s not going to be three nights of political humor all about Trump. This was going to be just like the best comedy that you can see to raise money for the ACLU.

Do you take into account the way a lot of Trump voters view non-Trump voters as elitist or snobby? Do you think that is something that even needs be taken into account?

Emily Winter: I don’t think that we’re going to really be reaching Trump voters with this. I don’t see why a Trump voter would want to participate in this. We’re making fun of Trump.

Jenn Welch: We’re not going to change the minds of the people voted for Trump, but we can lift up and support the people who are feeling the same way about this election that we’re feeling, and more importantly, raise money for an organization that’s going to have a lot of fucking hard work to do over the next four years. This isn’t about Trump, this is about the people who voted against Trump. This is about that mentality in the country. This is about “Fuck that shit”.

Emily Winter: In a positive way.

Jenn Welch: In a positive way.

Photo by Phil Provencio.

For more information about What a Joke Fest, check out its website, Twitter page, or Facebook page.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

Finding Energy in Despair with the National ‘What a […]