If you’re at Yale and want to see some stand-up comedy, you basically have four options: go to Last Comic Standing, the competition that determines which student will open for the headliner of the Fall Show; go to the Fall Show, Yale’s annual comedy show featuring a popular stand-up comedian; go to the Cucumber, a regular open mic for student stand-up comedians hosted by the Yale Record, Yale’s humor magazine; or, see a show by Just the Tip, Yale’s only student stand-up comedy group.
You should know, though, that the first two options are only possible in October. Ben Boult, SM ’14, and Cody Wilkins, ES ’14, had this limitation in mind when they founded Just the Tip. Both competed in their freshman year to be in the Fall Show, which is where they first met. Although he had never performed stand-up comedy before, Wilkins won the competition and the chance to open, along with Yael Zinkow, SY ’12, for the Fall Show starring Michael Ian Black.
As it turned out, Wilkins had a soccer game the day after the Fall Show, so he couldn’t perform. Because Boult had placed third in Last Comic Standing, he got to take Wilkins’ place at the Fall Show. Ironically, Wilkins broke his ankle at soccer practice, so he couldn’t play in his game and ended up going to the Fall Show and watching Boult’s opening act. Later, the two came up with the idea to start a group for stand-up comedians at Yale.
Just the Tip hosted its first performance of the year Sunday, Oct. 14. Eric Nelson, SM ’16, performed in the show, titled “Don’t Cut Me Off.” Before his audition for the group, he’d never done stand-up. Nelson found the process of trying out for Just the Tip much more laid-back than that of auditioning for improv comedy or a cappella. “I was really not expecting to be asked to be in the show,” he said. “But I was, and I was overjoyed.” According to Nelson, what stand-up at Yale is missing is the kind of community other artistic groups have, and Just the Tip is helping to provide that community.
The first Cucumber show of the year happened on Sat., Oct. 13, in the Saybrook-Branford Room. Eight students performed, including seasoned stand-ups like Wilkins and newbies like Sydney Shea, TC ’14. Shea has a self-proclaimed dark sense of humor and described her stand-up writing style as based on “micro-stories.” Her routine on Saturday centered on two extended jokes: one about canned bananas in Trumbull dining hall and one about her grandmother’s gift-giving habits. The junior, who has written for the Record, was part of an improv theater troupe in high school, as well as a member of the short-lived sketch comedy group, Grin and Tonic, in her freshman year at Yale.
Shea sees the Cucumber, started in 2010, as a welcoming space for first-time stand-ups. But as only three girls performed at the Cucumber and zero girls performed at the Just the Tip show, it may seem that stand-up at Yale isn’t too welcoming of female comedians. When asked about doing stand-up as a woman, Shea said she had been somewhat afraid she’d be the only girl performing at the Cucumber, but that proved to be a non-issue. “We consistently have more than two female performers,” she said. “In terms of the Record, the last two editors-in-chief were women, and I think our board this year is half and half…It’s not really something that I considered as a barrier.”
Ngozi Ukazu, JE ’13, competed in Last Comic Standing in her sophomore year and has performed multiple times at the Cucumber. She first got into comedy at Yale by writing for the Record, and when the Cucumber started, she decided to give stand-up a try. Describing the way her comedy style has changed since she first began, Ukazu said that, these days, she’s less afraid of offending people: she’s moved from “safe” jokes to jokes that a Yale audience might not consider completely politically correct. But Ukazu says her awareness that she is a female comedian does somewhat affect her performance. “I do worry about how I look, I do worry about my appearance,” she said. “There are certain jokes that guys make and certain jokes that girls make. There are some things you’re almost expected to talk about as a girl, which is why I like talking about things… that are really not gender-specific.”
Ukazu will compete in Last Comic Standing for the second time this year, as will Boult. The competition will be held in SSS 114, which seats almost 400 Yalies. Members of Yale’s comedy scene will judge performers with a range of stand-up experience. The stakes (i.e., the chance to open for this year’s celebrity comedian) will be high—and the comedians will face the biggest crowd at any stand-up event all year. Despite the pressure, every year the competition draws numerous students willing to try their best to make a room full of their peers laugh.
“Comedy causes the most depressive anxiety I’ve ever experienced,” Boult said. “Sometimes, we’ll be rehearsing for a show and call each other and say, ‘None of this is funny, this is going to suck, this is terrible.’”
But Yale comedians agree, the feeling that comes after doing a successful show far overshadows the fear of bombing a set. Though he’s just starting out, Nelson already recognizes this. “I went out [to do my set] completely nervous, but I kind of had this amazing experience where, about a minute in, it just clicked,” he said. “I felt kind of comfortable, and once the audience started laughing, it was a lot easier.”
Yalies do stand-up for the same reason they engage in other artistic pursuits: because it’s a medium for self-expression, a creative outlet, a new experience. Stand-up, however, makes very different demands of a performer than other artistic activities do by requiring a person to stand alone before an audience and make themselves the butt of a joke in order to gain an intangible reward: laughter.