Joke's on you: A look at three UofM comedy institutions
The origins of the Every Three Weekly, the University of Michigan’s satirical publication, aren’t exactly sexy. “I think a group of people who were not very good with girls started this thing: That’s how it came to be,” explained Business and LSA senior Suzy Weiss, co-editor of the Every Three Weekly. Its eye-catching slogan — “Better than sex, twice as often” — and biting headlines attract thousands of readers, from curious freshmen to seasoned seniors.
Founded in 1997 and funded by the University Activities Center, the paper has been triweekly — the name is a clever spoof of The Michigan Daily — since 1999. Its creative influence is undeniably The Onion, but its ultimate source of inspiration comes from AP style news headlines rather than satire.
“Real newspapers are probably of a more inspiration than comedy websites because the big thing that dictates the Every Three Weekly is form,” Weiss said. “So, we’re really married to AP style in a print paper.”
Its headlines take a mundane, often inconsequential campus event or phenomenon and bend it to reveal unseen hilarity. For example, “President Schlissel sends email urging student body to ‘check out all the sweet dinosaurs’ at Natural History Museum.” The Ever Three Weekly also includes sections beyond campus life, such as opinion, national, world and sports news satire.
There is a systematic approach to the Every Three Weekly’s publishing process.
“You try and find a trope that most people can relate to. It could be anything from not eating vegetables to a girl ignoring you, and you didn't want to be her boyfriend anyway — things that are sort of in the zeitgeist of campus,” Weiss said. “Then we come up with eight to 10 headlines that we pitch to the room before each cycle begins, and based on the amount of laughs it gets is what gets written.”
The Every Three Weekly avoids writing about hypothetical situations that would be funny if they happened — or as it calls them, WIBFIs (wouldn’t it be funny if…).
“When something is overly goofy or funny, like, ‘Schlissel elbows freshman in the face to get first in line Meatless Mondays’ … that's a WIBFI, which is something we shy away from,” Weiss explained.
Though eager to poke fun at almost everything, the paper has a moral code that dictates what gets published.
“I think a guiding principle of the Every Three Weekly is that we’re always siding with the victim,” Weiss said. “We never want to kick someone while they’re down.” It avoids topics that could never be funny, regardless of the direction it takes.
Still, the Every Three Weekly isn’t afraid to raise eyebrows. Weiss made it clear that there are “some things we think it’s our duty to lampoon, things that people are being overly sensitive about or having a reaction that’s a little too self-serious.” She is well aware that the paper’s style may not be for the faint of heart: “You can’t please everyone, and we certainly don’t want to. We want to offend to a tasteful level.”
As expected, its content occasionally stirs up controversy. In 2010, Briarwood Mall wrote a cease-and-desist to the paper for defamation after an article titled “Mall Santa tells child exactly what he wants for Christmas” explicitly mentioned the mall’s name. Weiss explained that today they’re able to laugh about the incident.
“We have this really serious letter that was written by their lawyer … and I just love the idea of him having to write that cease-and-desist letter.”
In such a contentious political climate, Weiss explained: “It's as important as ever to stay grounded in our moral compass and not to let that get shifted by the tides of so-called progressivism, so-called conservatism. I think if the joke’s funny, it'll run, and that is our guiding principle.”
The Every Three Weekly is an entirely anonymous publication, though a list of its staff can be found on each issue. Weiss noted that compared to other comedy groups on campus, particularly improv groups, there is a crucial difference: “They’re about immediate gratification; we’re about never being gratified. It’s an anonymous paper, no one knows our name.” Most students have had a class with an Every Three Weekly writer and probably never knew it.
“It’s a lot of kids who would giggle to themselves about something and think that everyone else would enjoy it, not people who are screaming out to get the big laugh,” she said.
“There are very funny people on the paper, but I think a misconception is, actually, that if you join the E3W, you're going to get … good-looking, very funny group,” and Weiss assured me that this is, indeed, not the case. “We’re not like an improv group. We have none of the good personality and barely any charisma. When you’re around ComCo and Midnight Book Club, two groups that I really love … they’re charmers.”
For what it may lack in charm, the Every Three Weekly makes up for in wit, possessing a creative lens that can make any trivial event hilarious.
* * *
ComCo, short for Comedy Company, was founded in the late ’70s, making it the oldest improv troupe on campus. Jon Glaser, famous for his role as Councilman Jeremy Jamm on “Parks and Recreation,” is among many of the successful alumni who performed in ComCo during college.
Structurally, ComCo specializes in short form, a style distinguished by short scenes dictated by a theme randomly assigned by the audience. Since improv is entirely on-the-spot and does not follow a predetermined script, the rehearsal process focuses on building skills. LSA junior Ellis Hyman, an improv veteran, wisely compared this to the way a sports team practices before a game.
“Think of (improv rehearsals as) analogous to a sports team. As a sports team, you do similar things you would do in a real game," Hyman said. "You do practices, exercises, even real scrimmages of the full game. But then, what you do in practice is 100 percent different than what happens on the field.”
Past improv experience is not necessary for ComCo. “One of our former alumni, Guy, who graduated last winter, joined ComCo as a sophomore, literally never had done improv in his entire life before, and now he’s pursuing it professionally in Chicago. So, we have people with no experience at all — never even been on a stage before — to people like myself who have done improv,” Hyman said.
Anyone can, and does, join Comco.
“It’s really varied. People from every major, every walk of life: just a random amalgamation of random people,” Hyman explained.
And this enhances the quality of their performances.
“You don’t want to have people of the exact same senses of humor because it’s going to be a one-man show almost,” Hyman said. “We’re of course looking for people who we like and enjoy, but also have a little bit of diversity in styles of improv, comedy and personalities.”
Differences in comedic style complement one another, making for a well-rounded scene.
“For me personally, I find the easiest humor to do is really energetic, movement improv," Hyman said. "But someone who would be a little more reserved, maybe have more of a cynical sense of humor, would really balance well to that. I think we all pull different aspects of comedians that we like because there’s not one style of improviser in ComCo, so I feel like we all get inspirations from different styles of comedy. And honestly, life is so beautiful: You can find comedy in anything and everything.”
ComCo, like other short-form troupes, plays games with its audience during performances. During rehearsals, it practices these games to improve its quick-wittedness and wordplay.
“We practice a game, it’ll be totally different in a performance than in practice, but it’ll be the same structure as what we do,” Hyman added.
Though ComCo’s improvisers are also hilarious off stage, it’s not all about being the funniest person on stage.
“Improv isn’t necessarily about being funny. It’s about scene work, being a good team player … and being able to think on your feet,” Hyman said. “If I went on stage and started cracking jokes and wasn’t thinking about anyone else, it would be the worst scene ever.”
The first ComCo show is free, and the troupe assuredly will continue its 38-year-long tradition of bringing quality improv to students in this year’s performances.
* * *
Midnight Book Club, another improv troupe at the University, has become one of the most influential and popular troupes on campus. MBC’s president, Kevin Corbett, a Music, Theatre & Dance and LSA senior, explained the troupe’s origins: “A group of similarly-minded individuals that loved comedy decided to create a group, and since then, they started performing in rooms in the Michigan League.” MBC hasn’t been around as long as ComCo, and was founded within the decade.
“The first (audition), they had five to 10 people come on for the troupe. Now, we’re having around 100 people audition and having big crowds come to our shows in Angell Hall,” he said.
Corbett agreed with Hyman about the different experience levels, which make “college improv so rich … you have these varying levels of experience. It’s a culmination of ideas and talents, and I think it shows in the results.”
MBC’s sole focus is long-form improv, with sketches often spanning more than 30 minutes. “If you have one idea going into a scene, it can easily change; it’s very malleable because it’s a longer set of time that you’re working with,” Corbett said.
Corbett described an abstract concept called group mind: “It’s the ultimate form of consciousness that you want to have as an improviser, where you know exactly what an improviser is thinking. And, you kind of get the general sense of where a scene is going to go.”
For long form, considering the sketch can take unexpected turns, this is especially important.
“I think that because we’re such good friends and because we have a really great sense of camaraderie, our group mind is heightened,” he said.
MBC competes against other colleges, and wherever it goes, it’s constantly performing both on and off stage.
“We do love our bits and we do love performing both in rehearsal and out of rehearsal — performing in the sense of making each other laugh,” Corbett said. “That’s what I love about MBC, is everyone just loves making each other laugh, whether it’s in rehearsal, on stage or getting dinner.”
It's that environment which makes MBC so great.
“It’s students that fucking love each other and fucking love comedy," Corbett said. "Going into rehearsal is … my favorite part of every week. It’s so much fun even if you’re having a shitty day … you're able to improvise with (your friends), make these hilarious jokes and just feel good.”
MBC is funded through grants and donations, and its shows are free of charge. Though consistently well-received by audiences, the troupe prioritizes its own enjoyment.
“We always say in MBC, let’s play for us,” Corbett said. “Let's improvise for us. At the end of the day, we’re happiest when we’re making each other laugh; I think that's what makes our group pretty special.”