Weston Barker ’21 and the Midnight Comedy Troupe are deathly funny. The seven member outfit is Cornell’s newest and only dark humor sketch group that does its best to shock, awe and entertain. They hit the mark, brilliantly. Judged on just their comedic chops, this group stands alone. But what really sets them apart is their secondary goal: to inspire (or incite) meaningful dialogue and bring people together with conversation and laughter.
Their inaugural show On Thin Ice at the Risley Theater last Friday night was a smash hit. The doors opened at 11:50p.m. to greet a huge crowd of comedy-lovers who poured in and packed the theater to fire-code capacity by the time the show started nine minutes later. Dozens of latecomers were reluctantly turned away by the mustachioed Grady Owens ’21, a chutzpah-packing member of the troupe and one of the biggest standouts of the night.
The show began with a cold open sketch starring Barker, Owens and the equally delightful and dark Zvonimir Stojanovski ’18. The audience quickly warmed up as Stojanovski’s bizarre and hilarious character plunged us into a zany world inhabited by fishmongers, Croatian sea captains and Weston Barker.
Following that and a provocative jingle (the best ones always are) introducing the troupe, Barker took the stage again with a brief statement about the mission behind the show. Specifically, that if the audience should find itself shocked or offended, it should use that moment as an opportunity to open up a dialogue and come together instead of apart. His message of community comes as something sorely needed in this polarizing era for our campus and country.
The next hour-half or so was pure comedy (and a little insanity). We got to see Barker as a funeral home employee, a role that seemed a little too natural. We were introduced to Aidan Blaser ’21 who gave hilariously cartoonish performances of gun-toting redneck-types that, once again, he seemed a little too good at playing. There was even a bit in which “rocks” (crumpled paper given shape by rubber bands) were handed out to the audience to be used in a mock stoning. Running gags, such as an ABC crime show parody narrated by a prescient reporter who showed up uncannily at crime scenes (both in progress and before the fact), got funnier each time.
Political and social commentary were never too far from the surface, though. A sketch about an espresso machine powered by painfully sucking the life force from a captive was hilarious in its own right but was clearly a critique of the college students that made up its audience. Specifically, of our collective complicity in the consumption of goods such as coffee, sneakers and iPhones, all of which are produced with no small amount of human suffering. Mental health was also addressed in a sketch in which a suicide hotline gets mixed up with the front desk of Happy Endings Funeral Home.
But the strongest political statement was made in the standout sketch of the night, which opened with a famous Benjamin Franklin quote: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” It featured Barker as the grim reaper — there’s a pattern here — competing with an IRS collector, Spencer Blumenberg ’21, for the immortal soul of a recently deceased person. The sketch took jabs at the economic inequity of the law. The applause was wild; it was the perfect cocktail of ridiculousness and meaningful discourse — a brilliant piece of comedy and activism.
I spoke to Barker after the show and he elaborated a little on his ideas. “With dark comedy comes a responsibility for integrating dialogue,” he told me. He spoke about his hope that the audience would take more than just a laugh away from the show. He envisions a unifying role for his troupe — bringing together people united by love of comedy and sending them away with fodder for discussion and debate.
The Midnight Comedy Troupe is a one of a kind experience run by amazing performers with energy, chemistry and chops. If I were you, I’d check them out while they’re still doing free shows.
Varun Belur is a junior in the College of Engineering. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.