What’s the Deal With Local Comedy?

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A group of men and women start arranging tables and chairs. They place candles around the room as overhead lights dim and musicians take the stage. When Thursday rolls around, so does this ritual. The tradition is secular yet its dogma is laughter — a tenet several people throughout Santa Cruz subscribe to when attending Comedy Night at Blue Lagoon.

“This might sound sort of cheesy, but when I’m setting up tables at the Blue it feels kind of like holy work,” said Jon Alcabes, a student at Cabrillo College and a local Santa Cruz comedian. “It feels like you’re doing something, like you’re making a thing happen.”

Alcabes said comedians rely on an audience’s laughter the way a musician might rely on a metronome to keep a steady tempo. Part of the art form is playing off the energy of the audience, and on Thursday nights at the Blue it can be hit or miss.

“It’s interesting because it is kind of like practice,” Alcabes said. “You’re there and you’re putting on a show, but you’re not necessarily going to be great. The only way to develop is to be in front of people, so it puts an interesting strain on the relationship with the audience. You almost start to feel like they’re a tool.”

Comedy has conventionally known forms as well as more nuanced subgenres. There’s “Insult Comedy,” or when comedians talk smack about people in the audience, that is exemplified on Comedy Central roasts. There’s “Observational Comedy,” made popular by Jerry Seinfeld, who makes jokes out of everyday things.

Then there’s the kind of observational comedy one creates by having a certain lens, like political comedy which can be considered observational, but pertains to one topic. Famous politically and socially-aware comedians like Hari Kondabolu use this type of comedy as an avenue to discuss political climate, collective consciousness and racial injustice.

DNA, a local comedian and emcee of the Blue Lagoon’s comedy night, co-founded the comedic website and platform Stand Up Santa Cruz. The site lists the profiles of over 35 local comics, along with dates and times of six weekly-running comedy shows.

DNA admitted that comedy changed a great deal since Jerry Seinfeld first took the stage, and attributed the change to the supersaturation of media and how observations of the world have become more accessible.

“Seinfeld used to be like, ‘What’s the deal with butter?’ And people would be like, ‘Butter!’” DNA said and laughed. “Back then in his heyday, we had ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS — cable was just getting going. So, butter blew your mind. It’s not like nowadays.”

He said comedians need to have a thick skin if they’re going to talk about people and engage in sensitive subjects. DNA’s colleague, local comedian and UCSC alumna Hannah Marianetti, said she welcomes all conversations around comedy and her sets. She is not one to shut down any feelings of discomfort after her sets, including her own.

“Once I told a joke at the [UCSC] barn that didn’t sit well with an audience member,” Marianetti said. “We talked about what I did that made him think I was being hateful. It was a learning moment for both of us, and now we’re friends. How cool that because of my stand-up I got to have a real conversation with a stranger about bullying.”

Comedy can be a moment of growth for those on and off stage, but sometimes that growth is hampered by discrepancies in representation. Despite Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer and Tina Fey making headway in the comedy world, Forbes reported the top 10 earners in comedy are men, starting with Jerry Seinfeld.

When asked how she felt being in a male-dominated field, Marinetti said she doesn’t feel “disregarded” as a female comic. She said that since our culture structurally prefers men, being a woman on the stage comes with the same hardships as being off of it.

“It’s always been hard for me to demand space, and my comedy’s work has been trying to unravel the insecurities that go with being afraid to take up space,” she said.

Comedy is one of the most accessible forms of receiving information, and it’s taken seriously by many viewers. According to the PEW Research Center, 12 percent of all “Daily Show” viewers and 10 percent of the “Colbert Report” viewers watch these shows for actual news. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is supposedly satirical, yet when his political witticisms resemble those of established news anchors it becomes difficult to decipher who’s making a joke and who isn’t.

“The president is funny, everyone’s clever on Twitter, everyone’s gotta make a joke,” DNA said. “Everyone is talking about current events and they’re always making a Trump joke — it’s kind of the zeitgeist. When things get really bad you want to laugh. It’s kind of a reaction to everything.”

On Thursday nights, Blue Lagoon is one of many Santa Cruz comedy-venues where UCSC students, local comics and headliners can all react to things happening in the world, laugh about it, at one another and, overall, have a sense of community that keeps these conversations and rituals going.

Illustration by Owen Thomas