TFL Comedy endeavors to build more inclusive community with rebranding effort

Junior Emily Baker performs at the Tufts Funny Ladies' recent show "Woke Up Like Like This" on Nov. 3. (Courtesy Sarah Gruin)

TFL Comedy may be one of the newest additions to the Tufts comedy scene, but the group is already making waves with its focus on creating a comedy group less focused on performances and more on building confidence and community. The challenges women face in comedy are well-documented by the media, but women aren’t the only ones who can find the wider comedy scene less than welcoming — or in some cases, downright hostile — due to its homogeneity and pervasive stereotypes. In light of this, TFL wants to make sure others feel like they have a platform to express themselves, too.

Its transition from an informal group to a formal one last year, an effort led by seniors Ilana Hamer and Isha Patnaik, who is the group’s current head of public relations, as well as recent SMFA dual degree graduate Jehan Madhani (LA ’16), was a result of many peoplemost  feeling that underrepresented demographics needed a better outlet for their comedic creativity and a place where they felt they could share their experiences safely. Following the success of their most recent show, “Woke Up Like This” on Nov. 3, current group leaders Hamer, sophomore Erica Gelfand and juniors Emily Baker and Laura Donovan concurred that the group has been making clear progress toward fulfilling that vision.

“TFL was created out of this frustration with other comedy groups and with comedy at large and the mentorship that came out of that frustration,” Hamer said. “Comedy will, unfortunately, continue to be relatively homogeneous, especially the Boston comedy scene, which is known for being very white, cis male. But a lot of the frustrations I’ve had have gone down, which is amazing.”

Originally called Tufts Funny Ladies, the group rebranded itself as TFL Comedy at the beginning of this year after group leaders felt that the name did not accurately express the way the group hoped to reach out to those of, according to their blog, “any race, religion, sex, socioeconomic status, national or ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, ability, height, BMI, sports team fanbase, birth order, or caffeine sensitivity.”

According to Hamer, other comedy groups do not focus as much on the composition of the group or on trying to bridge the gap between the male-dominated comedy scene and everyone else, which is why TFL was able to fill that niche.

“We’re focusing on female-identifying, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer and trans students. That’s who makes up our audience and our group and also something we talk about a lot,” she said.

Hamer added that TFL’s goal had always been to be as inclusive as possible, but the group wanted to reiterate its commitment to this goal with its rebranding — members need not identify as “ladies” to feel like they have a place in TFL.

“People aren’t going to get comfortable getting on stage if they don’t see people like them onstage, which is relevant to all identities, gender, race, socio-economic status, all of those things,” Hamer said. “TFL tries in part to combat some of those issues. Before TFL was started, there were women in other comedy groups, but they weren’t leadership positions. Many sketches end up being played by two guys. In TFL, you know that parts will be played by people who aren’t men.”

Aspiring comedy writers or actors may feel discouraged from pursuing their passion when they’re tasked with presenting a sketch or doing standup for the first time in front of people they worry may not understand where they’re coming from or understand their sense of humor.

“Especially in marginalized groups, there can be a lot of fear and embarrassment about writing and acting in comedy. Watching a show and being like ‘Wow, that person talked about an experience similar to mine or an identity that I hold.’ That’s a really powerful thing,” Hamer said.

One way TFL differs from other comedy groups on campus is that they take a proactive role in ensuring people feel comfortable in the group and have the resources to feel confident. Gelfand, who is the group’s mentorship coordinator, explained that the group was leading the charge to make valuable intra-group relationships a key part of their mission.

“We have this thing called TF Lunches. We were the first comedy group to do this, but now I think Major: Undecided does as well. Basically, we send out a survey and match up people who we think would get along and create mentor-mentee relationships with each other,” Gelfand said.

Another way TFL strives to build confidence comes from making sure members feel like there is a path to improving their comedic abilities and that learning to be funnier is a valuable endeavor.

“We do a lot of workshops. We did a standup workshop, we did a sketch writing workshop and I think Majors does this a little bit, but since we do one show instead of two, we really focus on teaching skills,” Donovan said.

Besides its performances, TFL also plans to make its blog another platform for people to express themselves offstage. With a new iteration on Dec. 4, the blog is intended to provide another outlet for members to showcase their talent for comedic writing or to express themselves in any way without the added pressure of standing in front of a live audience.

“So far, we haven’t been completely focused on it since the show has taken over our lives, but we’re planning on a blog launch in a few weeks,” Hamer said. “A lot of other comedy groups with so many shows focus more than anything on their performance. Performance is a huge part of our group, but another huge part is improving as comedians and part of that is becoming better comedic writers, so the blog is a place for that.”

Though the group is still relatively new and in the midst of getting Tufts Community Union funding, Hamer feels that they’ve already begun to make an impact on other groups by virtue of being more malleable and willing to experiment with new ideas.

“This past show cycle, we tried a completely different kind of rehearsal, and this show cycle we’re going to do something different again,” she said. “We’re not as entrenched. We don’t necessarily have 10 years of doing something a certain way.”

Other comedy groups are seeing people from more diverse backgrounds take an interest in comedy as of late, and Hamer believes that, while TFL isn’t the sole reason for this change, it is a contributing factor.

“Major: Undecided has more women than ever, has more female writers, more female heads of the group than since I’ve been in Major: Undecided,” Hamer said. “If you ask anyone in Majors, they will say that TFL has given a lot of female-identifying people confidence that they didn’t use to have. I think now more than ever people see TFL and say, ‘This has a purpose, even for me who’s outside of the group.'”

Donovan agreed that since TFL’s early days, people who once shied away from the spotlight seemed more empowered and willing to speak up.

“Last year, we had a comedy show that was majority women, which was really cool,” she said. “Just a lot of girls going up and trying things they’ve never tried before. People talk about how they’re nervous about writing to other groups, whether it’s Institute or Majors, but at TFL they’re taking risks, and people who never do standup do it for the first time at our show.”


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