It was leg day at the gym. Still damp from a rushed shower, I, with soreness, sped over to the Canterbury House on E. Huron Street on a weekend night surprisingly warm for early November. I was about to watch a student stand-up comedy show from the University of Michigan’s own Amateur Hour Stand-Up Comedy. I had little clue what to expect. I had never been to a live stand-up show before.
I exchanged a few notes and bits of conversation with the photographer, Grace. Looking about the room, I had trouble tapping the exact demographic of who squeezed into about 15 short rows of seats. It was varied, likely constituting the friend groups of assorted comedians. Just as the audience settled in, Tyler Sholtis, the first stand-up and head of the club, got the room laughing with a delightfully self-deprecating set.
With a background in writing and performance, I have a lot of appreciation for the craft of stand-up comedy and how difficult executing it can be. A stand-up must make an array of calculations quickly at every turn in their set. They probably don’t have time to make all of them consciously. Preparation helps. They must not offend or bore. They must cultivate a stand-up persona, a performance self, and feel out its relationship with every new audience.
I enjoy a good stand-up show. I love to laugh and know the craft is difficult. And ultimately, I’m interested in how comedians and audiences negotiate discomfort in stand-up, revealing how a sense of communal empathy (led by the comedian) factors into successful stand-up sets.
Nine other comedians graced the stage for the next hour, teasing each of us with roughly five-minute sets. Each brought their own distinct style and persona to the stage. The group mixed well and was vulnerable. But distinct from the stand-up specials I watched growing up was the way energy moved about the room during the performance.
In discussion with two aspiring comedians this past week, Sholtis and Mackenize Mollison, both described the push and pull between audience and performer that’s distinct to stand-up comedy.
Sholtis described stand-up as “a way to build community.” Mollison, a fifth-year University of Michigan theater major and aspiring comedian, thinks of laughter as the “only thing that can naturally and immediately cut tension. It’s beautiful and necessary when done well.”
Even so, comedy hasn’t always been given the reputation as a healing agent. For sections of recent American history, comedy has been repressed for perceived or real danger to dominant cultural values. In 1952, at the height of “The Red Scare,” Charlie Chaplin was banned from the United States for a series of satirical films, the last of which he portrayed and made fun of a Hitler-esque character in. Chaplin was not alone in his ability to trigger strong responses: Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested for his comedy act under charges of obscenity. A decade or so later, George Carlin’s famous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” prompted a lawsuit from the Federal Communications Commission.
Thus, comedy has a history of toeing lines that have made others uncomfortable and challenged the dominant narratives of institutions as large as government agencies. On a comparative level, the obstacles for these older U.S. comedians makes some modern comedians “crying cancel culture” appear foolishly dramatic, who assert that their audiences are too sensitive or self-centered in their discomforts. The self-centering of the comedian themself in this perspective problematizes some of the logic. The reciprocal positive energy of the room dissolves into something less kind.
So what creates that positive energy that good stand-up seeks? I find it incredibly important within my own personal politics to try my best to be open-minded and conscious while also knowing that no one can be completely “woke” to their internalized biases. If someone was “all-woke”, they’d have deity-type abilities. This truth about human fallacy contributes to a part of the inherent risk to trying one’s hardest to be funny.
But still, we can work toward improving our comedy while allowing ourselves to let go of attachments to perfectionism.
Sholtis posited that “every analysis of stepping over the line should be ‘why is my group thinking like this?,’” suggesting that self-reflection must underpin bolder comedic choices. Mollison added that this boldness can bring “new voice” to untouched perspectives and that “sometimes having the spin of comedy makes (untouched perspectives) more digestible.” As Chaplin, Bruce and Carlin prove (all three at least eventually won their cases), bolder or more controversial comedy can completely alter the conversation around a subject.
Coming from a very socially sensitive School of Music, Theatre & Dance, I’m not entirely sure how all my classmates would’ve sat with some of the content at Amateur Hour’s show, although the volume of laughter that night hardly ever lowered. At least some of this disconnect will root from nothing more than differences in taste.
But Sholtis points out that especially as a group that’s learning the craft, sometimes a joke that may be hilariously punching up one day might be mistold or mistimed the next and result in a joke that “stay(s) over the line”, becoming offensive. After recently writing a piece on Ann Arbor’s Groundcover News, one joke about homelessness from a comedian felt particularly sensitive to me, and I was not appreciative of it.
I forgave this comedian. Maybe because the rest of their set was absolutely fantastic, the joke shaping up to be a small misstep through my critical lens. Maybe because, generally, the atmosphere of the group, audience and comedians alike, seemed to accept that there could be a few personal discomforts and mistakes. And centrally, the intention of the group seemed genuine toward “breaking down barriers,” as Sholtis observes. This fostered empathy across the whole room, albeit with moments of discomfort.
Interrogating this a bit deeper, psychological studies and journals will remind us over and over again of the benefits of seeking out discomfort. That includes the media one consumes. In an art form based around jokes, how words perpetuate meaning, while still very relevant, becomes looser. Because of the manner in which stand-up naturally invites this experimentation, through a sense of play, watching a good stand-up set or special in full can be a great way to feel both uncomfortable and fulfilled.
Much of the time, we might realize that the discomfort we felt contributes positively to our sense of fulfillment about the artistic experience. Without it, maybe the punchlines wouldn’t have landed as well. Or perhaps we were invited to see the humor about a subject we take very seriously. I believe every possible subject has humor. And it can be very healing to laugh about what’s important to us.
But when a comedian uses the playful space of comedy to extend a joke into a continued rhetoric, their comedy will take on some broader meaning. When this occurs, and we’re still finding ourselves uncomfortable, the stand-up is likely advocating for something of which we disagree.
A comedian who complicates these distinctions, and hosted Saturday Night Live this week, blurring the lines between messaging and playfulness, is Dave Chappelle, perhaps the most popular and controversial comedian in recent memory due to his jokes about the trans community. It’s not uncommon for the jokes and stated beliefs in his sets to seem to contradict. Chappelle’s comedy, as a provocateur, lives and breathes in the audience’s negotiation with discomfort.
I think of something Mollison mentioned when trying to conceptualize Chappelle’s continued controversy. For the sake of their work, “comedians will put their persona first and humanity second,” Mollison said. And this can sometimes exacerbate already heightened tensions produced by a controversial joke.
Mollison continued, saying that it’s both “respectable and not respectable” to commit to the bit in this way. If the stand-up is able to clear up the controversy through their comedy, like one does when punching up after holding the audience in discomfort, it’s brilliant. At the same time, to some this move may feel like it makes light of the offense. Discomfort will inevitably offend. It becomes an issue when it harms, when a bigoted rhetoric starts to take shape.
Chappelle’s also well known for the empathy he usually holds of whom he jokes. At the end of the day, stand-up can best be understood not by its doses of controversy but, rather, its incredibly personal nature. This intimacy contributes to an empathetic community.
Mollison described her comedic self as an “impressionist.” She loves observing others. She described to me one experience of writing a joke that was “cathartic.” Meanwhile, Sholtis feels seen by stand-up by describing himself as “hopefully part of this last dying generation of guys that find it impossible to express emotions besides anger. I have a really difficult time managing … all my emotions.”
Sholtis continues that “stand-up is a way for me to express the visceral hatred I feel when someone is talking loud on the bus to North Campus without having a heart attack at 50. It’s very therapeutic for me.” He also loves stand-ups that “have intent with every word they say.”
Sometimes jokes must misdirect the audience. One must be baited to be hooked. For my personal taste, the best joke is simultaneously the most grating and empathetic.
And as I read the space cultivated at Canterbury House, I think most of us crave a world with a bit more empathy.
Linktree for Amatuer Hour Stand-Up Comedy — for any who want to support or get involved
Statement Columnist Nate Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.