Amid Washington’s graduation season, we look at the craft of writing and delivering commencement speeches. What advice sticks — and what doesn’t?
From the “Saturday Night Live” cold open to TV shows like “Veep” to late-night monologues, “official Washington” gets plenty of comedy air time.
But what about local Washington? What makes Washingtonians laugh, and where do they go to do it?
We look at the Washington region’s growing independent stand-up comedy scene with three local comedians.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
KOJO NNAMDIFrom the "Saturday Night Live" cold open to TV shows like "Veep" and "The daily show" official Washington gets plenty of comedy air time, but what about right here in local Washington? Where do people go to find great comedy? And what jokes play well with Washingtonians? Joining me in studio now is Russ Green. He's a stand-up comedian. He has performed at venues across the D.C. region and nationally. Russ Green, thank you for joining us.
RUSS GREENThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Sean Joyce. He is the Founder of Underground Comedy, which produces stand-up shows and open mic nights all over the Washington region. Sean Joyce, thank you for joining us.
SEAN JOYCEThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us also in studio is our own Elahe Izadi. At least she used to be our own, Elahe Izadi when she worked here at WAMU. She's also a stand-up comedian. She's also a pop culture writer for "The Washington Post," which may be how she's best known these days. Elahe, great to see you.
ELAHE IZADIHappy to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs a comedian yourself, how do you think the stand-up scene in the D.C. region is doing these days? And how does it compare to when you started performing?
IZADIRight now, I think it's thriving. I mean, there's so many places now where comedians can go and work out their material at open mic nights, and also a lot of really great shows that they can get booked on and get paid work. And for a comedian, having good rooms as we like to call them, it's crucial in developing your craft and becoming a good comic. So many years ago when I started, there were maybe a few shows a week that could be considered good or a few mics a week that could be considered good. And now, you know, every night of the week almost you can get up multiple times.
NNAMDIHow did you decide to get involved in comedy yourself? What sparked your interest?
IZADIWell, I was always interested in comedy. As a kid, I would watch SNL and memorize the sketches. I would watch Comedy Central stand-up specials. And when I was in college I actually went to the University of Maryland. I decided to give it a try. The D.C. Improv used to run this competition, D.C.'s Funniest College Area Student, I think it was called. And actually Mike Birbiglia won that when he was a student in Georgetown and his prize was opening for Dave Chappell at the D.C. Improv. So anyway --
IZADIYeah. Good lineage there. Good history there. But, yeah, I just tried it and decided I wanted to try it and just went out and did it.
NNAMDII think you first went to a show and you didn't perform and then you decided that next time you went back you were going to perform.
IZADII like that you know my story better than me. You've done good -- You've done good research, Kojo. Yeah. No. I went to a show and I was like, "Oh, I can do that." And then I decided to do it. And I signed up for an open mic at SOHO, which is a coffee shop in Dupont Circle. Yeah, and I was a writer in college. I studied journalism. So I knew how to write. So that was kind of how I got into it.
NNAMDIRuss Green, what about you? What inspired you to seek out and become part of the local stand-up scene?
GREENI had a free night. I'm a husband and a father of four and my wife said, get out of the house, because I was kind of loafing about. She said, you know, get out of the house, and so, you know, being a Howard graduate --
NNAMDIYou were in the way.
GREENRight. I was a kind of stone and I just intrinsically just kind of, you know, went to U Street. And there was a club there, Red Lounge. And a bouncer on the street said, hey, we're doing a free comedy show. And I ran upstairs and the host asked me if I was a comedian. And I said, No, but I want to be.
NNAMDIDid you know you wanted to be a comedian at that point or did you just make that up?
GREENI'd been -- like I had this like itching, like, idea that I could do it for about a year after seeing Erin Jackson, who's also, you know, a Howard alum on "Last Comic Standing." And I was like, if she can do it, I know I can do it, you know, just kind of like -- no slight to her. She's amazing, but just, you know, you kind of have to -- representation matters. You know, see somebody that you're close to it's important to motivate you.
NNAMDIYou're a homey. You grew up here in D.C. You also went to college here. You went to Howard University. How aware were you of the local comedy scene when you were coming of age here?
GREENNot at all. I'd say I knew about the D.C. Improv, because I saw Paul Mooney live there, which was phenomenal, but beyond that not much at all. Actually, I mean, there was like Jokes On Us in Laurel. My parents took me there, when I was in college. I got to see my father get roasted by (unintelligible) that was a good time. But beyond that, you know, I didn't know much about the scene.
NNAMDIYou mentioned the great Paul Mooney. You know, before you went there, I think Howard University used to own the Howard Inn on Georgia Avenue.
NNAMDIThat's where he used to stay when he was in town. That's when I met him just hanging out at the Howard Inn back in the day. That's where I met Paul Mooney. Sean, you run Underground Comedy, which produces stand-up shows and open mics throughout the week across the D.C. region. But you didn't originally set out to do that. How did you get involved in stand-up?
JOYCEI was dating a girl and I was living in Northern Virginia and she wanted to go see a free comedy show, which I thought was a bad idea, because I watched a lot of comedy on TV. And I thought a lot of the comedy on TV was not great. So I figured that the local comedy would be even worse. And I was pretty sure it would be bad, but I liked her a lot so I went anyway. And it ended up being a great show. And the comics who were performing on that show, a lot of those comics are on TV now. It really, you know, I had no concept of local comedy or anything like that. So that opened my eyes to that. And then she started encouraging me to try it myself. So I started considering doing that. And eventually I tried it and it's pretty addictive when you do. So I got addicted to it and then I kind of fell into producing shows too.
NNAMDIYou mentioned comics. So I got to ask this. There used to be a debate about the difference between a comedian and a comic. Does that debate still exist at all?
JOYCEI don't think anybody really makes a distinction anymore.
NNAMDII don't think so anymore either.
JOYCEThey both make the same amount of money.
NNAMDIYour comedy nights have gotten really popular. You've been adding shows. What do you think accounts for that success?
JOYCEI think it was just a lot of factors kind of happened at once. I happened to be like a little bit older than comics are when they start. So I think I was a little mature compared to other people who were in my position. And I think I was able to get along with the more experienced comics, because I was older. And so then when I started running shows, I was already friends with really the best comics. And they did my show right from the beginning. So we were able to have great comics right from the start. And, you know, the shows are good. People come to them. And it's not easy to have good shows, but there's great comics.
NNAMDIIs it difficult to be both a comedian as well as a comedy promotor? Is that a difficult balance to strike?
JOYCEYeah, it's impossible pretty much.
NNAMDINo wonder you're doing it.
JOYCEYeah, I mean, I've barely performed jokes for the past year. I've been limited to just doing crowd work and hosting shows really.
NNAMDII'd like to make another kind of distinction, because there are a few different kinds of comedy and different types of venues. What's stand-up versus improv and what's the idea behind open mic night?
JOYCEWell, improv involves multiple people typically taking suggestions and kind of their different improv games. I don't know. I'm not an expert on improve, but it's pretty different. Stand-up comedy is one person going on stage generally with prepared material that they're going to tell their jokes. And then an open mic night is -- it's a place where you're going to go. It's a free show. You're not going to get paid. The audience is probably going to have low expectations. It's probably be low production quality compared to a free show.
IZADIWay to sell it.
JOYCEWell, I mean, that is the distinction between an open mic night versus a comedy show that you're going to pay for. You know, so you're going to have comics that are working on material. It's going to be looser. It might be more fun with that energy. And I think a lot of the free shows -- I don't know if you want -- it depends on whether you want to call that an open mic if you're booking the show ahead of time. Some people call it an open mic because it's free. Other people would say it's not an open mic, because it's booked.
NNAMDIAre you a comedian, yourself? Do you enjoy performing in our region? Melinda in southeast D.C. identifies. Hi, Melinda. This is the call you have to take real quick.
MELINDASorry. Sorry about that.
NNAMDIYou're on the air, Melinda. Go ahead, please.
MELINDAThat's so embarrassing. All right. Thank you, Kojo and thank you for the ice cream cone the other day.
NNAMDIThat was Monday. We don't need to explain that anymore.
MELINDARight. I performed with Sean at Underground Comedy like under his group. And that was the first time that I had went up was two years ago. And it was awesome. It was great. And I think, with the questions you had asked about what do D.C. people like, with the groups that I've done comedy with, it's been stories that really happen to people and just the natural humor that is in them. And so for me being in recovery from a mental illness, I have lots of stories of things whether related to when I was sick or related to the recovery process or just the kind of way you look at stuff when you've had those kind of situations happen.
NNAMDIHow long have you been doing this, Melinda?
MELINDAI've been doing it for two years. I do it off and on, and I've even done an open one myself, to create an album. I have not released it yet, (laugh) but I was always told I would be a great standup comedian. And I just never -- I would just always dismiss it as I'm funny in the moment. And so when I look for advice on doing it, they say, do it the way that makes your friends laugh. Don't try to be something you're not. And so that's how I approach it.
NNAMDIAnd so far, it's been working out. Good luck to you, Melinda. Thank you for calling. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about Washington's standup comedy. But you can still join it by calling 800-433-8850. Is there a particular local brand of standup comedy that you think that's distinctive? 800-433-8850. You can shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow, or email to Kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking Washington standup comedy with Russ Green. He's a standup comedian who's performed venues across the DC region and nationally. Sean Joyce is the founder of Underground Comedy, which produces standup shows and open mic nights all over this region. And Elahe Izadi is a standup comedian. She's also a pop culture writer for the Washington Post. Elahe, in order to improve, comedians need a lot of stage time. How many shows do you usually try to perform each week?
IZADIWhen I'm active, it's anywhere between -- I'm going up two to five times -- nights out of the week, but each night, I try and hit at least two open mics. And that's in addition to -- or including paid shows, so shows where I'm doing longer sets. Usually, open mics, it's five-minute sets. A paid show can be anywhere from ten minutes to 20 minutes, to 30 or 40-minute sets. So, really, it's like you're going up constantly, to the point where if I go a few weeks without going up, it feels like, wait, do I still do this? (laugh) Can I still call myself a comedian?
NNAMDIBecause when I read your stuff in the Washington Post, I'm, like, when does she get time to (laugh) actually do standup comedy? Geographically, what's the region that DC comedians typically range over to fill out their calendars? Where are the comedy spots that you seek out?
IZADIActually, when I'm thinking about, okay, let's say on a Wednesday night, I'm going to try and go out and hit a bunch of mics, I see where if they're kind of clustered around each other in the DuPont Circle, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan area. There used to be some more spots over on H Street Northeast. There are shows out in Maryland and Virginia, as well, and some comics live out there. I live in the city, so it's easier for me to kind of go to my job and then go do this, and then go home (laugh) and go to bed. The question is, when do I eat? (laugh)
IZADIYeah, in between the shows, somehow. But, yeah, like, for me, I'm able to kind of hit those spots around that area. Some of these places are walking distance, which makes it really easy to kind of ping-pong back and forth.
NNAMDINow, the real question is, when do you sleep? DC has a pretty good track record of producing famous comedians: Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, Patton Oswalt, to name just a few. The saying goes that, quote-unquote, "DC breeds killers" -- killer comedian that is. Why?
IZADIYou know, and I'm...
NNAMDIIs it the water?
IZADI(laugh) For me, I mean, I'll just say, my view on it is, one, I think audiences generally, here, are pretty smart. You know, they're paying attention to what's going on in the world or they're plugged into what's happening in their communities, and when you have an audience that can kind of keep up with you. But they're also laid back and easygoing. They're not too uptight, where as in some other cities, I think being very uptight can be difficult grounds for comedy.
IZADIAnd, you know, there are people who just experienced a lot of different things, as the previous caller mentioned, and being able to bring that to the fore. But DC in general has had such a rich artistic history, it's not just comedy. And so I think tapping into that same energy, you can see it within comedy, as well.
NNAMDISean, is there anything distinctive about the talent here in DC, or the talent that comes out of DC?
JOYCEI think the main thing is you are performing in front of a lot of very educated people. And so I think that that tends to change the way that people perform, because kind of things like puns and wordplay really don't do well in DC, at all. And you see people coming in from other cities, and you can tell that they're expecting these wordplay jokes to work well and get a big reaction. And they're really met with silence in DC. And so I think that that stuff kind of gets stripped out of routines from people who are performing here. I think that's one of the big things, is just keeping it smart.
NNAMDIRelated to that, Russ, you've performed outside of this region. You've performed in New York and Atlanta, for instance. At a certain point in their careers, standup comics in DC basically, I guess, have to make a choice whether or not to relocate to New York or L.A., places where they might be able to make it big. What did that calculation look like to you?
GREENThere's just more of a market for writing and for television and movies. I mean, the story goes, if you want to write, you go to New York. If you want to do TV and movies, you go to L.A. Sean and I talk about this a lot actually about celebrating the arts and entertainment, kind of how DC is, and really focus a lot of energy into, you know, trying to counter that brain drain, if you will, of comics exiting. But luckily, since the scene is so strong here now, you have a lot of, you know, people come back. Expats, you know, return to the scene. They know the rooms are stronger. They know the audiences are smarter. They know that there may not be as many opportunities to get up, but I'd rather get up in front of, you know, 40 people two, three times a night as opposed to four people six times a night, you know?
NNAMDIArt there untapped opportunities here in this region in DC that you could still explore?
GREENAbsolutely. I mean, there's so much -- I think one thing that's mainly untapped in this market is theater. You know, there's a lot of spaces to perform. People love the arts in the DC area, and what you'll see is a lot of independent shops, you know, will typically kind of (unintelligible) other people's rooms, or do, like, a hermit crab situation, oh, that's exiting now. I can kind of get into that show. But there's all these unexplored places.
GREENPeople still have not thought about doing stuff outside. I mean, just now, we got some producers in the area doing rooftop shows, things of that nature. And now there's like -- even with, like, Little Salon, they do, like, little, intimate shows in people's houses and private residences. There's a lot of different things you can do. So, it's just really thinking outside the box.
NNAMDIIs it easier to do comedy seriously now, outside of New York and L.A., given the advent of social media?
GREENA hundred percent. I think social media is probably the best thing that's happened to comedy in the last five to seven years. I mean, I know there's many comedians that would argue with me about that, but the reality is that all of us have an innate desire to be heard, right, and to feel validated. And social media gives people that audience, which you'll see, especially for producers and clubs. They want butts in seats, and if you can command a 100,000 audience online, you can also sell out 300 seats in a venue in DC.
NNAMDIHere is Robert in Silver Spring, Maryland. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTHi, Kojo. Thanks for having me. I wanted to say that I moved to the DC area. I've been a comedian for over 25 years, and one of the reasons was because it's such a great market here -- not only for the clubs that your panel is talking about, but there are a lot of private gigs. There are association meetings and conferences and conventions. And those are also a great source of work, because the audiences, as mentioned, are smart and they're educated and there's a diversity of voices, which I think is an important ingredient in having a great comedy market.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Russ, is there also a kind of silver lining to the lack of a big entertainment industry presence here in this area, more independence for both performers and promoters, perhaps?
GREENI think DC's always been like a grassroots activism kind of space. So, the reality that people can get grants and, you know, other different -- seek other, you know, different sponsors to start a show or to start a venue, or the collaborative nature of DC and the comedy scene here, you know, lends itself to starting something on your own. It's always better to be in a position of ownership. I mean, that's always been my shake, ever since Homegrown Hilarity, you know. I think it's important to recognize that, you know, nobody loves comedy more than comedians. And so you've got to work laterally, you know, to really build anything to have, like, a solid foundation.
NNAMDIHere's Pat in Gaithersburg. Pat, your turn.
PATHi. Thanks for having me on your show. I was wondering if there's any venues all your guests can recommend. I enjoy comedy and used to go to DC, and Bethesda actually has a lot. But I moved recently out to Gaithersburg, and I find a lack of comedy options out further in the suburbs. Any suggestions on locations, or how do I get organizations to start moving out that way?
NNAMDIElahe, do you go as far out as Gaithersburg? (laugh)
IZADINo. (laugh) I mean, I will say, I feel like a few years ago. there were a few spots out. There was somewhere in Rockville.
GREENYeah, Rodney and I used to rent a room.
IZADIYeah, and then way out in Virginia, Woodbridge, too. But now it seems to be more concentrated, but, hey. You know, if someone wants to start a room out in Rockville or Gaithersburg, comics will go.
NNAMDISean's got a notebook, here. Write Gaithersburg. (laugh) Thank you very much for your call, Pat, and good luck to you finding spots for comedy out in Gaithersburg. Sean, as someone who books comedy shows, you're on the frontlines of contending with what Russ calls the brain drain, as performers leave this area to pursue opportunities in New York and L.A. Do you see part of your job as kind of nurturing new talent, so that you can keep the DC scene vibrant?
JOYCEOh, yeah. Definitely. I didn't mean to set up a system like that, but that is -- once we added the paid shows, then we were having paid showcases and having local comics on those shows. And it's clear, if that's going to be part of your business model, then you're going to have to have newer comics ready to take over when those comics leave. So, then it became an important part of the job to develop comics through the smaller rooms and on the off-nights. So, absolutely.
NNAMDIHow important is it to book big-name comedians from outside this region, essentially touring talent?
JOYCEI think DC is already getting a lot of huge names in theaters, people are recording specials. (sounds like) And I think that's been going on for a long time. I think the thing that has changed in the scene is the kind of middle ground, where comics who are maybe ten years in, they're on TV a little bit, they're not household names, but they are on the verge of becoming household names. Those are the people that I try to bring in and kind of bridge the gap between being a local comic and being, you know, Patton Oswalt.
NNAMDIHere's Amanda in Arlington, Virginia. Amanda, your turn.
AMANDAHi, thanks for taking my call. I moved here from Chicago, and where I've gone to Improv Olympics and Second City a whole lot. When I first moved here, I was going through a little bit of improv withdrawal, because, like, even the DC Improv didn't have improv. And finally, I found WIT and Comedy Sports, but I just wanted to know if they had any -- I know they're all standup people, but if they had any advice about other places to see improv. And I also wanted to give a little shout to Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse. I'm going there tomorrow. It's like an international comedy fest, so I'm going for my birthday. So, I'm very happy.
AMANDAAnd I do have a question. So, improve and -- do they get people shouting out, like, suggestions that are, like, a lot of bathroom humor? Because that's a big difference, right now. People are a little smarter here, and I feel like the suggestions are a little better that people shout out when they ask for input from the audience. Okay, thanks. That's all. (laugh)
IZADIYeah, Washington Improv Theater is housed out of the Source Theater, which his on 14th Street. Arlington Draft House, I think they -- at least they used to have some improv there, but they definitely book stand-up comics. So that's another spot to watch improv. But, yeah, you know, we're not really -- in improv. I tried it a little bit. So, I don't know, as far as the suggestions. But I will say maybe like, you know, when a comic does crowd work, a standup comic does crowd work, that means they're engaging with the audience. They're having a conversation. Things will just kind of naturally come up. And, yeah, I think that's where sort of you can see the smarts and the savvy of Washington kind of comes out in some of those conversations, too. And just hearing even what people do for a living. (laugh)
NNAMDIDo you ever get suggestions from the audience, Russ?
GREENI try to quell as many suggestions as possible (laugh) when I'm on stage. I think there's a sense of entitlement to audiences in DC, as well. Because everybody is so smart, they feel like they can do what you do. There's nothing that separates a person, the average person walking the street from claiming themselves as a comedian. You know, you have people that say, I've done it twice, thusly, I'm a comedian. Versus, you know, someone who's been in the game, you know, eight, ten years, and is getting paid to do it. So, you know, you kind of have to kind of set a tone.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Sean?
JOYCEYeah. I don't think standup comics really want suggestions from the audience very much, unless they're specifically asking for them.
GREENI will say that there's, like, a black church kind of sensation that happens when you're doing really well, and people are calling out. And it kind of can throw off rhythm if you're not, you know, properly in tune.
GREENYou know, if comedy's working well, it's harmonious. You know, the audiences and performer are one, and it can be kind of like a, you know, synergy there. But, you know, you'll have jackasses that want to, you know, (laugh) turn the attention of the show.
NNAMDINoel is a standup comic, and she called in to say: you have to tailor your jokes for the audience. If you perform at the Wonderland, you can joke about smoking weed. They're chill. But I've done standup off of Connecticut Avenue, the Big Hunt, and it's a different group of people, more uptight. Different groups of people in different places aren't alike?
IZADIYeah, for sure.
JOYCEThose are both my shows. (laugh) So, that's the same person producing both of those shows. And, a lot of times, it's the same comics that are performing on both of those shows. But it is different people, and it's a completely different atmosphere, Wonderland on Sunday, than you're going to get at the Big Hunt during the week. It's totally different.
IZADIYeah, and I mean, one could argue that a comedian can tell a joke about any of those topics. And if it's a really good joke, it should be able to work in a lot of spaces. But the flip of that is even if you go out to Arlington -- which isn't even that far (laugh) -- and you're telling very DC-specific jokes, they're probably not going to hit. And so it's about developing material and a repertoire that can travel, that even if you wanted to go on the road, that isn't so specific to where you're living.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are there subjects or types of jokes that you'd especially enjoy, or do not? Russ, it's not uncommon in standup comedy to hear about urban or black rooms. What does that mean? I know that local comedian Niki Moore once invited me to a show, and...
GREENShout-out Niki Moore.
NNAMDIShout-out Niki Moore. And I saw what I think was a black room. It was very, very funny at the time. Is the DC comedy scene segregated?
GREENComedy is segregated. Entertainment is segregated. DC is no different. DC's very neighborhood-y. Like, we were talking about Wonderland, that's, you know, near Howard, and then you have DuPont. You know, it's very yuppie town. So, you know, it's two different climates. I think it's important to recognize -- like, one of my mentors always said, Tony Wood, it's like you're not going to talk to your grandmother the same way you talk to your sister, you know.
GREENAnd so you want to read the room. You want to make sure that you're aware of, you know, what's been trending in the room. But also you have to kind of have that edge that says I really don't care. (laugh)
GREENYou know, you're there to test out your material, to see if it's funny. And just like Elahe said, you want to battle-test that material. I think this stratification of comedy is the worst thing to happen to comedy. You know, there's clean, there's church, there's urban, there's, you know, nerd, there's science. It's just too much. It's just too much. You know, funny is funny, and you want to find what's universally funny to all audiences.
NNAMDIWho do you consider your core audience, as a comedian?
GREENBlack lesbians, between the ages of 27 to 45.
NNAMDIYou've said the joke's not funny until black women are laughing.
GREENAmen. Black women...
IZADIYou just Amen'ed your own saying. (laugh) Here, Kojo, say this. I want to say Amen to you. (laugh)
GREENBlack women experience a unique reality. You know, they're oppressed not only, you know, by the patriarchy, but also, you know, by racism, and often by class. But we're also talking about the most educated, the large number of business owners, the people that, you know, put a community on their back. You know, if you can make that woman laugh, then you've really done something phenomenal.
GREENAnd, you know, one thing you can say for certain is -- especially if you're a show produce like, you know, Sean -- you know, black women come in groups. If you want to try to sell out a room, you know, and you have a black woman that's coming, she's going to ask you most of the questions, you know, do you seat six? (laugh) You know what I mean? Like, is there going to be food there? We're going out to have a good time, you know.
GREENI just think that it's important to recognize those voices that are, you know, often dismissed or ignored. And I think this is the reality of, you know, black women are still in the space, largely where they're viewed as, you know, threats, you know. The dominant, you know, majority kind of looks at black women as someone that will call them out. And comedy exists in that space where you have to call things into question. And, again, you want to target an audience that's going to, you know, challenge, you know, thoughts and status quo assumptions. And I think black women are, you know, primary -- that's the way you want to go.
NNAMDIThey do call us out, that's for sure. (laugh) Elahe, women in general in comedy often face barriers based on their gender. I remember the days of Phyllis Diller and Moms Mabley, and they talked about the kind of experiences they had as women in comedy. Have you experienced any challenges in that regard?
IZADIYeah, but it's way more subtle. And I will say one thing, at least in my experience, that I really appreciate about the scene, is that there are people who are booking shows who will book shows with many women on it, and it not be labeled as ladies night (laugh) or marketed that way. So, I do appreciate that. I think some of the barriers are more subtle, and it just has to do with general sexism that you see in any industry in any space. And the way it looks in comedy, for instance, is one, there is no HR in comedy. You know, everyone's kind of an independent contractor. And so the person running the show or running the room bears a certain level of responsibility. But oftentimes, the way in which that plays out just depends on the character of that individual.
IZADIAnd then, in addition, you know, there are the barriers or the perceptions that you have to battle as a woman when you're on stage, even. So, like interacting with the audience. And every woman that I've talked to -- I actually wrote a piece about this for the Washington Post, just talking about sexism in comedy. And one thing that came up over and over is women performers often do a calculus in their head of how they're physically presenting themselves to an audience. What am I wearing, am I going to dress up, dress down?
IZADILike, even that being a conversation and a question is often one that men who are performing, don't have -- they're just thinking about what jokes (laugh) am I going to tell, and is it consistent with how I'm presenting myself, maybe? But women have to be thinking about every layer. And it can be really exhausting. So, it's as far as that, and then, you know, the green room type of atmosphere, it can -- you know, lines get -- it's not like a regular workplace. It's a different type of place, where people are telling jokes and saying things that would get you fired in any other place (laugh) of employment. And it's encouraged in comedy. And so navigating that in a space where your opportunities are often based on the relationships you have with people and kind of protecting yourself.
IZADIBut, yeah, like, as I was saying earlier, I do feel like this is a great place, as a woman, to do comedy. And I don't feel like I'm pit against other women who perform, whereas in other scenes, I've heard this sort of trope of there can only be one woman on the show. And if you get that spot, then another woman can't get it. I don't feel like I'm competing with the other women here.
GREENYou do still kind of see shows with one woman.
IZADIYou do, but it doesn't have to be that way.
NNAMDISean, would you say that you are booking diverse shows for a diverse audience, and how challenging is that?
JOYCEOh, it's challenging. I mean, I don't have complete control over who the audience is, over who shows up. And I'm limited in terms of booking to the people that I know and the people that I'm exposed to. And so it is work to make sure that I am taking diversity into consideration. And I am taking diverse audience members' tastes into consideration when I'm booking.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number's 800-433-8850. Do you have a favorite spot to go see comedy here? Are you a standup comedy fan? Can you find comedy that you connect with here in the DC region? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the standup comedy scene in Washington with Elahe Izadi, Sean Joyce and Russ Green. We got a Tweet from Edga, who says: could you please ask Russ Green why he didn't tell his book club that he'd be on your show? (laugh) We like books, but we like to laugh, too. Did he think his jokes were too smart for us? And we're all NPR types. I'm offended. I think you owe Edga an apology.
GREENI think Edga needs to apologize for taking several members of the book club to Trinidad for Carnival, and leaving me at home with four children. (laugh)
NNAMDIOh, yeah. That's mutual apologies there. (laugh) Wayne called in with a question for Elahe: in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” she wasn't allowed to make jokes about women's pregnancy. As a woman in comedy, how much of this has changed? Is there still censorship around what women can say?
IZADII want to say censorship in that sense, like, in the show, she's literally taken off the stage (laugh) when she starts talking about that. And now there are many visibly pregnant women who are performing. But there is a trope, and I kind of address this in my act, where, you know, oh women in comedy, all they talk about is their menstrual cycle. And there's kind of this feeling for women, then, that they shouldn't talk about that, because that trope exists. But I think they should talk about it, and I think it's actually not talked about enough, especially in comparison with some of the more graphic material that men talk about.
IZADISo, I think there's some of these things that women have in their minds of, oh, you know, it's a trope that women only talk about this or that, and so I shouldn't have my material be about that. And I just think you should just tell what's true for you, and what you really are wanting and eager to talk about.
NNAMDIBob Clark emails, please ask the panelists if they've seen any impact on the DC standup market, with the success of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel “show on TV. It certainly rekindled my interest in going to comedy shows. Shame there aren't any near where I live in Falls Church, Virginia. Has The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel led to an uptick?
JOYCEWell, I think that there's been a lot of shows about standup comedy over the past ten years, and they've all contributed to people becoming more interested in having a more kind of better understanding of what comedy is when they get there.
IZADIAnd that's in addition to podcasts, too. There's just so many podcasts about the art of comedy, and I just think there's so many more comedy fans now than even, like, 15 years ago.
NNAMDIHere's Douglas in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLASHello, Kojo. When I was a little kid eight, nine years old, I was listening to Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer. And now I love Weird Al. And I've done standup a few times, and I've taken somebody's music and writing songs. And people really like them, but I'm not a comic. Is there a market for songs I've written?
IZADILooking at Sean. (laugh)
NNAMDIWeird and funny songs, Sean?
JOYCEYeah, I mean, put them on the internet and see who listens to it.
JOYCEYeah, just keep trying to find different outlets to put it up, and see if people respond to it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Douglas. And now, a test: let's hear each of you...
IZADIOh-oh (laugh) .
NNAMDI...tell me and our listeners a joke that pretty much always lands here in DC.
GREENThis is the thing that comedian hate the most.
JOYCERuss is opposed to this. (laugh)
IZADIHe's going to be very antagonistic towards you.
NNAMDIIn that case, I better start with him. (laugh) Russ.
GREENSo, I'm a husband and a father of four, and, before you guys even ask, it is an absolute blessing, you know, just to be here and away from them. You know what I mean? (laugh) That joke works every time. I'd say it's important to recognize that comedians are performing for an audience, you know. An audience of one just does not an audience make, you know what I mean? But I think comedy's a special thing. It's very unique, and it's uniquely awkward, and it's designed that way for a reason, so that you're out of this, like, you know, status quo space to talk about dark, private thoughts and secrets. You know what I mean? That's kind of, once you bring that to air, it kind of loses that feeling...
NNAMDI(overlapping) How does your family feel about that joke?
GREEN...I actually wrote that joke with my wife in mind. You know what I mean? Because I tried to imagine what it's like for her when I'm out, you know, performing. And, you know, she's often, like, I would love to have a standup comedy night. (laugh) So, you know, I know she's listening. Kay, I love you. Thank you for supporting me and keeping the kids, you know, warm and safe...
NNAMDIPlease take me back in. Elahe?
IZADII don't know. I mean, lately, I'm really -- I love talking about my age. I'm in my deep 30s, as I like to call it. (laugh) It's a really great age. Like, I'm at that age in which you've still got acne, but now you've got wrinkles. (laugh) Like I'm playful, but wise. I'm just going to stop it there, because the rest probably won't work for on air. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah, right, we're on air, and there are minors listening. (laugh)
JOYCEI was trying to think of a joke that's, like, a DC-type of a joke. My jokes have a lot of words in them, so it's probably too much to say...
IZADI(overlapping) They're all...
JOYCENot even bad words, just a lot of words, in general. But I have a joke about DC water, and how they're always marketing DC water to try to get people excited about it, for some reason. I don't know why they market the water, but they were talking about how business owners in New York are -- they brag about how it makes their pizza crust and bagels taste better. And we should have that same price in our water. But it's, like, New York's water comes from, like, Upstate New York. It's filtered through natural reservoirs and everything. And DC's water comes from the Potomac. Like, it's not (laugh) good water. You're picking the wrong thing to be proud of. There are other things to be proud of.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, again, here is Chip in Washington. Chip, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHIPHi. Thanks for having me on. All the people that are calling about not being able to find comedy, there's a great resource, DCStandup.com, which will list comedy in your area that's free. So, I tell people to go to that. And you have three great examples of DC comedians on today who are speaking their truth. And people think that you can sit down and just write jokes and make it funny, but what works for an audience in DC is that you're speaking truth, that there's realness in those jokes.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. This is a pretty progressive region. Do you think the DC audiences are more -- to use a worn-out phrase -- politically correct than those in other places?
IZADIYeah, that phrase is so fraught now, I don't even know what it means (laugh) anymore. I think another way of thinking about it is maybe like sensitive and uptight, like two sides of a coin. And I've been in places where as soon as you start to talk about a topic, the audience is tensing up, and they're already offended before you even tell your joke.
IZADIAnd I feel like, in some rooms, there is some of that energy in DC, but I think it's way less than, in my experience, like in some rooms in the Bay Area or Seattle, for instance, where it's like this kind of waiting to be -- like, not even listening to the material in the joke. Because, you know, comics like to go there. They like to talk about maybe dark themes that have happened to them, and being able to buy into the premise of a joke is really important. So, it's kind of on the comic, in a way, to gain the trust of the audience, to be able -- so that the audience trusts the comic to be able to tell a joke about something so dark.
NNAMDIPatrick messaged us on Facebook: I would love to hear your guests' thoughts on recent shows depicting the lives of standup comedians like Pete Holmes' “Crashing” and Showtime's “I'm Dying Up Here.” Care to comment on that?
GREENI love “Crashing.” I love “Crashing” for what it does for other comics. Again, you know, nobody loves comedy more than comedians. And they highlight the comedians that otherwise wouldn't have been given that platform. So, I think it's important.
NNAMDI“I'm Dying Up Here.” There are jokes that work, since we know a lot of television shows explore the struggles of comedians, and in particular, bombing on stage, really crashing. (laugh)
NNAMDIIs that an inevitable part of performing, and is it more about the audience, or is it more about the joke itself? How do you know when it's just a bad joke, and not the audience? Who do you get to blame?
IZADIWell, one surefire way is if you keep trying it, and it's just bombing everywhere, then maybe it's not a good joke. (laugh) But some of us can be a little headstrong. I'm just speaking about myself. (laugh) And if you really believe in the premise, maybe the joke around it isn't what's working. But one thing that Stephen Colbert said that I really love, and I keep in mind, is you have to learn to love the bomb, and that the bomb is often the most instructive thing within comedy. Not just trying to get through it, but really learning from it, what didn't work. And also the resiliency that you develop.
IZADIWhat's so beautiful about standup is you can have three shows a night, do the same act in all three rooms, have a great set, crush in one room, and then completely bomb in another. And it's fleeting. You enjoy the highs when you have them, and the lows, you know, are temporary.
NNAMDIBombing, does it make you feel like quitting?
JOYCEOh, well, it makes me feel like going up again immediately, because it's a bad feeling. It feels really bad afterwards. And the thing is that if you've done standup for a long time, you know if you go back on stage, it'll probably be better than that was, and you'll feel better from that. So, I try to get back on stage immediately. If I have a great set, I try to get out of all my other sets.
JOYCEI don't want to go up anymore. Once I have a great set, I want to keep that feeling, if at all possible.
NNAMDIAnd, Russ, you've compared stand-up comedy to another art form, jazz. What did you mean...
GREEN(overlapping) Standup comedy's a black art form, started by black people. Jazz is a black art form, and started by black people here in America. It's bringing truth to light. It's improvisational. It's everything that makes us magic, you know, in one dynamic performance. And I think everybody gets to celebrate and benefit from it, across the globe.
NNAMDIWe're hearing from each of you about how you ended up behind the mic. What's your advice to someone who thinks they might have some comedy chops, and would like to give it a try?
IZADIDo a bunch of open mics, as much as you can, for at least a year. (laugh) If you're just going, like, once every once in a while, you're not going to get anywhere with it. You're not going to become good. And you can't really call yourself a comedian if you're only going up every so often. I don't know, some of us are a little -- like myself, I'm a little smug on that. (laugh) But, yeah, I mean...
GREENI resemble that joke. (laugh)
IZADI...it takes time to become good. And the same way as I would tell a journalist who's trying to make it in journalism, just write as much as possible. Find places to publish you. Same with comedy, you just have to perform. You just have to go out and do it. You can't sit at home, write jokes and think that that's going to do it. You have to get in front of people.
NNAMDISean, is there anybody you've ever said, don't do this again. (laugh) You're just not good.
JOYCEWell, that's a pretty harsh thing to say to somebody. I want to say that to people a lot. (laugh) I generally don't tell people to stop performing, because it is, you know, that's what they want to do. And maybe they'll figure it out at some point. But, yeah, there's people you see, that it seems like a bad idea for them to continue.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Sean Joyce is the founder of Underground Comedy, which produces standup shows and open mic nights all over the Washington region. Sean Joyce, thank you for joining us.
JOYCESure. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIRuss Green is a standup comedian. He has performed at venues across the DC region and nationally. Russ, thank you for joining us.
GREENThank you, brother.
NNAMDIAnd Elahe Izadi is a standup comedian. She's also a pop culture writer for the Washington Post. Elahe, thank you for joining us.
IZADIHappy to be here. Thanks.
NNAMDIToday's show on our local comedy scene was produced by Margaret Barthel, and our news update on this morning's arrest of the Venezuelan embassy was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, former DC Mayor Anthony Williams joins us to remember Alice Rivlin, the former Financial Control Board Chair who was credited with helping to rescue DC from insolvency. She passed this week. And we'll talk all things budget with Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. That's tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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