OK. Tomorrow is the inauguration. We have all kinds of feels. And if this past election has showed us anything, it’s that we can and will strategically come together to support, defend, edify, forgive one another, and even laugh out loud in the midst of heartbreaking confusion.
Brooklyn comedians Emily Winter and Jenn Welch are doing just that with What A Joke – a national comedy festival which spans across 34 US cities, includes 86 shows, and gives all the ticket sales proceeds to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The NYC shows are happening right down the street at the Annoyance Theatre (367 Bedford Ave.) and Rough Trade (64 N. 9th St.) on Friday and Saturday. And the festival kicks off in Manhattan tonight at The Stand, and includes a happy hour and silent auction. The lineups are full of a number of headliners like Nikki Glaser, Dave Hill, and ‘Comedy Central’s Comics to Watch’ sketch team, the Astronomy Club, among a whole lot more. (Side note: Rough Trade is having another benefit for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood tonight with a nice little music lineup).
We got the chance to ask Emily Winter (co-founder), a few questions about the festival and discuss why good comedy is no joke.
Greenpointers: How did the idea for a national comedy festival come up?
Emily Winter: After the election, it felt like everyone we knew was craving unity. Trump’s election meant we were essentially being told that this country isn’t for us—it’s for white, straight, racist men, and everyone who doesn’t fit that description doesn’t deserve human rights. (If you’re a reader and you think that’s an overreaction, do your research.) So when Jenn suggested a national effort, the idea immediately stuck. This would allow everyone who rejects Trump’s racist, sexist, classist vision of America to come together.
GP: What made you decide to choose the ACLU, specifically, to receive proceeds.
EW: The president should protect human rights. From freedom of the press to freedom of religion to freedom of speech, Donald Trump attacks every last one of our human rights.
GP: You only had a couple months to pull this off. Did you have a big team behind you?
EW: Yes and no. Jenn and I organized the national effort, but we have at least one producer in each participating city (minus New York City, where we produced the shows). We also have volunteers in many cities, and an incredible publicist who took on the cause pro bono. It’s been interesting how some people message Jenn and I like we have an office and a full-time staff. We’re just two people trying to go to our day jobs, do standup comedy, write, and run an international festival. It’s been hard!
GP: How did you get the other comedians involved? Was it easy to get people on board?
EW: Booking comedians for our NYC shows was a treat. There are hundreds of wonderful comedians here, and so many were thrilled to be a part of this effort. As for the comedian/producers around the country, they were so trusting and enthusiastic about this idea that it made me cry at work like a little booger baby. Their hope and hard work from the get-go was so inspiring. All we had to do was ask, and they were sold. If they hadn’t been so gung-ho, we would have never been able to pull this off.
GP: How much of the proceeds goes to the ACLU?
EW: All ticket sale proceeds minus standard expenses (which includes things like venue rental, printing costs for signage, headliner pay and travel, though most if not all are doing it for free) are going directly to The ACLU. Also, 10% of the red WHAT A JOKE hat sales are going to The ACLU. The rest of the profit is going back into the festival.
GP: Will most of the comedy be politically driven?
EW: No. Thanks for asking. Some media outlets have had misconceptions about this. You wouldn’t throw a benefit for an animal shelter and expect 2 hours of dog jokes. The same logic applies here. Comedians are welcome to do political jokes if that’s their thing, but no one is pressured to.
GP: How have you seen comedy help “heal” a community in the past?
EW: Good, smart comedy helps us make sense of this crazy world. It has always been a tool to help heal. Bad, dumb comedy does the opposite—it reinforces stereotypes and further divides us.
GP: How has comedy helped you cope, specifically?
EW: I had a show the night after the election, and I was nervous. I felt a huge responsibility to say things that were both insightful and hilarious, even though I still felt numb. But when I got on stage, I felt relief. I talked about the election, and you could FEEL the cathartic energy in the room. It was amazing and I’m so grateful I got to be a part of that show, and found a way to make some of what was happening laughable, at least.
GP: What is your hope for the festival?
EW: That people feel the energy behind this movement. That they have an amazing time. That they feel like they aren’t alone. That we raise a lot of money for The ACLU.
GP: Do you think you will try to make this a reoccurring event?
EW: Yeah! We’re looking to becoming incorporated and doing it again next year. Unfortunately, I think we’ll need it.
For full details of this weekend’s shows, performers, and that red hat go here.