November 13, 2008

Cornell Does Comedy

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You’ve got to have a sense of humor to get by at Cornell. With the fluctuating weather, the sometimes near-impossible courses, the even more ridiculously obscure prelims and the generally serious academic mood, something’s gotta give. Comedy offers no better way to balance the C.U. pressure cooker.
Cornell’s Program Board (CUPB) rolls out the laughs by hosting a gamut of comedians to offer their biting wit and spot-on observations. But did you know that there are student on-campus comedy troupes, too? And that a few of said comedians have dipped their toes — even gotten their feet wet — in the waters of stand-up? And, lastly, did you know that these kids are funny? I mean, really, really funny?
Cornell’s first comedy group on-campus was Whistling Shrimp, formed in 1984 by Lee Rosenthal and Bob Clendenin. As our only improv group, the Shrimp foray into both short and long-form improv, meaning that they’ll play longer games with suggestions from the audience, or shorter, one-line prop games (as you’ll probably remember from the TV show, Whose Line is it Anyway?). I caught up with Mark Vigeant ’11 to discuss his involvement with the Shrimp, stand-up and comedy in general.
[img_assist|nid=33538|title=Mark Vigeant|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Vigeant started on the Shrimp last year, but has loved and performed comedy for as long as he can remember. He describes his early years as “obsessed with TV” (specifically with The Simpsons) and a formative time for his comedy, since (quoting Jerry Seinfeld here), “Everybody’s funny when you’re little.” But perhaps being funny runs in the family: he and his older brother, Ben, want to start a two-man improv show in Chicago — undoubtedly the “mecca” for comedy.
All the same, Vigeant’s marketed his funny on his own accord: he takes classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York, and occasionally does stand-up. Speaking of, he’s been pursuing stand-up since senior year of high school, and tried a “last comic standing” gig at the Nines last year. However, a joke “absolutely everybody” found funny in high school, “absolutely nobody” found funny at the Nines. Still, he admits, that first reality check was necessary to refine his repertoire so as to improve his shtick. Vigeant occasionally does stand-up at the weekly JAM coffeehouses, where he is an R.A., and hopes to come out strong at the Nines this year.
Cornell’s troupes are divided into two styles: improv and sketch, and since I told you that there is only one improv group on campus, I bet you can guess where I’m going with this. The Skitsophrenics (“Skits” for short) is the second oldest troupe on campus, specializing in “absurdist” comedy, according to group member Zack Mast ’10 (who moonlights as an Arts staff writer). Started in 1992 by Eric Garcia (author of Matchstick Men), the Skits pride themselves on being similar to the style of Kids in the Hall (a Canadian sketch-comedy group), but maintaining their own unique twist.
[img_assist|nid=33537|title=Zack Mast|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Mast waxes philosophical about comedy. He insists that it’s not enough just to be funny or silly. Indeed, he separates comedians into two groups: those who thrive on the messy hilarity of improv and those who thrive on the structure and perfection of a sketch. Both types, however, including stand-up, require the creation of a persona. In this way, Mast, who also frequently performs in Schwarz Center productions, lends his theatrical air to the Skits’s shows.
Mast, like Vigeant, has been interested in comedy for nearly a decade. He posits that every comedian was “[un]popular in middle school and so relied on Comedy Central for company.” It was in these years that Mast realized he too could be funny — even in conjunction with his love for theater. When he visited Cornell as a prefrosh, a girl in the Shrimp quarter-carded him, and then he researched the Skits on his own. By the time he came to Ithaca freshman year, he knew what he wanted to do.
Though unsure of future career plans, Mast would like to continue his involvement with comedy after college since he says “he can’t imagine himself without it.”
[img_assist|nid=33534|title=Kenneth Jackson|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The final group may be the newbie comedy clan, but it is quickly gaining visibility and respect with every semester. Kenneth Jackson ’09 co-founded Humor Us with two friends in spring of 2006 when he realized that while he liked the sketch comedy format, his sense of humor didn’t quite gibe with the Skits’. Humor Us, he says, gives preference to “observational humor,” similar to Saturday Night Live’s humor. Their fall show was “Sex Ed with Bristol Palin,” and their jokes concerned pop culture and current events.
Jackson has also been interested in comedy since a young age, but unlike Vigeant or Mast, he never had an outlet for his comedic or theatrical side. While academically serious, he considered himself an “out of class” clown in high school, and was particularly good at impersonations of teachers, friends — and the principal, to boot.
He put his humor to the test for the first time at a stand-up gig this past summer in Nashville, Tenn., during the “talent night” at his internship. Jackson said he loved the feeling of stand-up being “just you” on stage, without other people or improv situations as a crutch. Though he hasn’t done any on-campus stand-up since, he hopes to collaborate with the Shrimp to create another “stand-up week” at the Nines, like the one in the spring of 2007.
He, like Vigeant and Mast, sees comedy as crucial, like a necessary appendage or an organ: he wants to keep comedy vital, even after college. In fact, he hopes to become an engineer and do stand-up on the side until he can support himself fulltime.
Jackson’s vision for on-campus comedy is to create more collaboration between the three groups. Already, there is civility and camaraderie: no group will book their shows on the same weekend as another, for example, and every group tries to attend each other’s show. But this was the first year that all three unique troupes came together to give one performance: the free show for freshmen during Welcome Weekend. That show, Jackson notes, was a great opportunity to appreciate and perform comedy … together. Aww, doesn’t that sound great?
Given whatever preference of comedy you have — be it sketch or improv: Join these groups at a show next time, won’t you?

Though only males were interviewed for this piece (very sorry, ladies!), all of the on-campus comedy groups are co-ed. And did I mention the troupes are funnier than all hell? Oh, I did? My B. For more information, please visit: www.thewhistling­;;