Campus comedy groups creatively approach Tufts political climate

Lillianna Levonick of the comedy group Tufts Funny Ladies opens for comedian Natasha Leggero at Cohen Auditorium on March 16, 2016. (Henry Hintermeister / The Tufts Daily)

As Craig Drennan and Jess Silverman, now co-editors-in-chief of Tufts’ comedy magazine The Zamboni, watched the election unfold in horror on Nov. 8, 2016, they decided they had to come to terms with what they had just seen in the best way they knew: with their unique brand of absurd comedy.

“By 2 p.m. the next day, we had put our other issue on the back-burner and gotten to work,” Silverman, a junior, said.

The result, The Zamboni’s 2016 election “Burn Book” issue, took 12 days to produce, almost eight times as fast as the usual three months The Zamboni spends on its issues.

The issue, featuring pieces such as “Melania Trump’s Cyberbullying Speech” and “Mysterious Swarms of Lizards Appear Around New York Following Election, was the most overtly political release ever for The Zamboni, a publication that, as senior Drennan described, typically specializes in “laughable smut.”

“It used to be absurdist and now it [isn’t] so absurd anymore,” Silverman concurred.

In a post-Trump world, on a campus that has been described by this very publication as a “liberal echo chamber, comedy is often stereotypically thought to have been choked up by a rising tide of progressive, politically correct culture. Famed comedian, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks calls it “the death of comedy.” However, talk to the members of the numerous comedy sketch groups, stand-up collectives and comedic publications active on the Tufts campus, and you’ll discover quite the contrary. To the members of The Zamboni, Major: Undecided, the Stand-up Comedy Collective, TFL Comedy, HYPE! Mimez and The Institute Sketch Comedy, the unique culture at Tufts is not the comedic grim reaper. It’s just good fodder.

Major: Undecided has, in the past, raised this bubble to quite a literal level.

“People are using platforms for discussion and discourse as a way of gaining social capital, using words that people use to make themselves sound educated,” senior Allie Dawson, president of Majors, explained. To lampoon this culture of competitive intellectualism, Majors’ Artistic Director Jamie Juviler, also a senior, alluded to one sketch in which they staged two students having one of these characteristic insufferable Tufts conversations while the students simultaneously pleasured each other.

Beyond their mocking of Tufts culture, however, both Dawson and Juviler were quick to praise the comedic environment at Tufts.

“The Tufts audience tends to be sensitive in good ways and critical in good ways, and they hold us accountable for our content in ways other audiences don’t,” Dawson said.

Of course, this is not to say that Tufts comedy groups like Majors shy away from controversial or topical content.

“With certain jokes at Tufts, it gets blurry,” Juviler said.

“But at the same time, we have a responsibility to perform sketches that are relevant to us and to the campus, so we’ve done that,” Dawson added.

In order to stay relevant, comedy is always walking the tightrope between interesting and provocative, tasteless and tone-deaf. Accordingly, all Tufts comedy groups make considerations to ensure that material will go over well. The mantra many abide by is “punch up, not down.” Junior Erica Gelfand and sophomore Ben Gaspin of the Tufts Stand-up Comedy Collective explained their process for ensuring their jokes remained in good spirit.

“In our meetings, it’s all stand-up, and people get feedback,” Gelfand said. “If people were to say something off-color or offensive, usually the line that they’ll get is something like, ‘That probably won’t play very well to a Tufts crowd.’”

Both Gelfand and Gaspin emphasized that the open nature of the Stand-up Collective always keeps them on their toes, bringing in fresh material and fresh voices from all over campus.

“The thing about the Stand-up Collective is that it’s very individual,” Gaspin said. “We’re not necessarily going for a group stance on anything; it’s more up to the individual person doing the jokes. Sometimes, this makes for awkward meetings. We can’t control if that person believes in a joke, even if it’s intrinsically really offensive. They can go to Boston to an open mic and tell that joke, but here we try to remind them of the sensitivities.”

Notwithstanding her occasional need to filter out some disrespectful content, Gelfand remained cheerful about her role in the Tufts comedy scene, both with the Stand-up Comedy Collective and with TFL.

“[TFL] is a great community to do sketches in a different tone than we’ve been used to for so long,” Gelfand said. “I’ve written things for TFL that I wouldn’t feel comfortable pitching to Majors — like a song I wrote this year for TFL about being afraid of girls your age and intimidated by how together everyone else is.”

Fellow TFL member and President of The Institute Lily Blumkin, a senior, concurred.

“For me, it’s a totally different vibe [with TFL], and there’s none of that stereotypical sexist pressure that exists in comedy,” Blumkin said.

The many comedic hats worn by both Gelfand and Blumkin are very typical of the funny people who make up Tufts’ comedy groups.

“The comedy community at Tufts is really big,” Blumkin said. “We’re always at each other’s shows, supporting each other. A lot of our groups are very collaborative; we run jokes by other people, edit with other people and pitch stuff to other people.”

She was quick to point out, however, that this does not at all mean that the different groups at Tufts run together.

“I wouldn’t say that the Tufts comedy scene is the most politically focused,” Blumkin said.

However, her work with both The Institute and TFL has brought her into contact with myriad comedic sources, both political and apolitical.

“We did a sketch in our TFL show that was critiquing the Women’s March, how a lot of white women showed up to the march and claimed to be great feminists but also overlooked a lot of issues of race and gender,” she said.

With The Institute, Blumkin also once again found herself in an unenviable position on a comedy stage for a pre-rehearsed sketch show on the Friday after the election.

“We had some jokes in it that were like, ‘Four more years!’ because we were all expecting Hillary to win,” Blumkin said. “We had to take out those jokes. We knew we couldn’t ignore it, so we just added a little statement at the beginning that was like, ‘This is a really hard time to be making comedy. We’re all dealing with this; we’re just here to try and provide some laughter.’”

The diversity of voices in Tufts comedy also includes one group that has no voice at all: HYPE! Mimez. Senior Phoebe Cavise and sophomore Faizan Muhammad of HYPE! Mimez proudly noted that they were reaching their 20th year as the only continuous collegiate mime troupe in the United States. With the unique challenge of comedy ‘sans voix,’ they have often been able to provide totally fresh perspectives on a number of topical fronts.

“Miming is very abstract and difficult to understand, so we can’t put out a really complicated political satire,” Muhammad explained. “But we do have themes that show up.”

In that respect, Cavise pointed to last semester’s parody of the “Free Speech Is Dead At Tufts” ongoing controversy.

“Our show was called ‘All Speech Is Dead At Tufts’ and we had a free speech sketch,” she said.

In the time Cavise has been involved with HYPE! Mimez, she has seen a marked shift in their material from more dramatic to comedic.

“When I first got to Tufts, we had a lot of dramatic stuff, and I really loved it, but there’s been a steady push toward comedy,” she said.

Muhammad agreed.

“I have a really funny cow-themed sketch in our upcoming show,” he said. “It’s a spicy show.”

The shift from drama to comedy is not unique to HYPE! Mimez. Comedy across the board at Tufts seems to be getting sillier, more absurd and more outlandish, but no less smart and no less hilarious.

“I think with the way the world has been changing, people can’t handle as much sadness,” Cavise said. “We have a bunch of raunchy sketches coming up.”

So brace yourselves, Tufts, because comedy is here to stay, and it’s getting weirder. And there will be cows.

Editor’s Note: This article has changed a quote to a paraphrase to more accurately reflect the intention of the interviewee.