Leadership of Comic Relief, TFL speak on importance of representation in comedy

'Comic Relief' is pictured here at its first show on Mar. 8, 2019. (Kyle Lui / The Tufts Daily Archives)

In the past five years, Comic Relief, a comedy group for students of color, and TFL, a comedy group for marginalized gender identities in comedy, have emerged as a way to provide a space for traditionally underrepresented voices in comedy. 

According to junior Alex Soo, TFL was formed in 2016 from conversations in a group chat of women in existing comedy groups who felt they weren’t being properly represented in the comedy spaces at Tufts.

 In the fall of 2018, Trina Sanyal, a senior, started Comic Relief after a number of conversations in the Women’s Center about her frustration with the majority-white spaces of existing comedy groups. TFL was originally formed as Tufts Funny Ladies, but its name was abbreviated so as to include all non-cisgender male gender identities.

“I just think back to when we’re doing our club fair, and every single non-cis male that passes, we talk to them, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not funny.’ And so many of them say, ‘I’m not funny,’ which is so so sad, because I feel like we’re just taught that we’re not funny,” Soo said, speaking on her experience with recruitment for TFL.

Sanyal echoed similar sentiments. “In most of the [comedy] spaces I felt very much like I was speaking into a little bit of a void because I felt it was hard for the writers’ room to reflect the writing that was happening, and it was hard to get critiques of my work or have the courage to present work in majority-white spaces … I ended up feeling like I didn’t really have a voice,” she said. 

“My goal was to make it as accessible as possible, so it wouldn’t have anything to do with auditions or experience, because I knew that a lot of people were really funny but just hadn’t been given the platform or the chance,” Sanyal said. 

Neither Comic Relief nor TFL hold auditions so as to make their groups feel more welcoming to people who may not be as confident about their skills in comedy.

Since then, both clubs have become full-fledged performance groups dedicated to providing spaces for people to share their stories outside of traditionally white cisgender male spaces.

“Comedy is a traditionally cis male space, and I don’t think it’s malicious, but when it is a lot of cis guys they do tend to be quite loud and to dominate the room,” junior Anne Savage, one of the other leaders of TFL, said. “I feel like when you’re in a space that is meant for people who haven’t traditionally been the face of comedy that you do have more of an opportunity to speak, and it is more democratic and frankly fun.”

Sanyal shared similar thoughts: “I also feel like white men do speak loudly, and so they just speak over people a lot of the time, and that kind of humor is valued in a really specific way. But I think that all of the people I’ve met through Comic Relief are just so funny because they are so brilliant, because everyone has such a specific experience and also nobody is trying to talk over anybody else.”

Soo, Savage, Sanyal and senior Campbell Simmons, another member of Comic Relief, all spoke to the importance of spaces like TFL and Comic Relief to encourage newer and more thoughtful kinds of comedy that come from having people in marginalized identities speak on their experiences.

“I definitely think we have a certain slant to our comedy, and it’s not supposed to be shock humor, but it’s more thoughtful and intentional … and maybe a way to address issues or aspects of certain people’s lives that they wouldn’t normally get to address,” Savage said.

Soo echoed this idea: “So many jokes have been done about the same things and people just use the same things but we really push to think critically about a topic so the humor is fresh and meaningful.”

Simmons said, “There is something about making light of the enormous amount of s— that you have to deal with as a person of color that is so powerful … being able to take those experiences and turn them on their head is so gratifying, and it just makes you feel like, ‘You know what? People can say whatever the f— they want to me because I will laugh at them and I will get a whole audience of people to laugh at them.’”

Soo said that her personal experience with comedy had been incredibly gratifying as well. “Doing stand-up for the first time was really empowering for me, especially since I had just gone through a breakup, so I channeled my breakup into my stand-up and had everyone laughing along with me, and also having it be such a success and being supported every step of the way – it was a great experience.”

Both groups stressed how comedy can be such a useful tool for coping with the seriousness of the current times.

“Stand-up comedy is so important for catharsis in this time and a way to survive in this time because there are so many heavy topics, and I think you can still talk about them comedically, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it,” Soo said. 

Sanyal said, “I think a lot of the narratives around diversity and marginalized students have been about all of the ways in which we suffer at Tufts, which is super valid and all very true … but I think I always find it a little more livening to focus on the ways that I can find joy in all of my identities, so it’s definitely given me the confidence, and that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important, because it’s also important to focus on what makes us laugh.”

Comic Relief and TFL are still operating this semester, and both groups continue to encourage interested students to reach out about joining. As Sanyal said, “Anyone can write, and everyone is funny because everyone has perspectives.”


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