Diversity Breeds Comedy
If you picture legendary comedians, a long list of diverse comics probably comes to mind—both men and women with different styles, stories and from all backgrounds and walks of life. How does Utah, being predominantly of a white Mormon demographic, factor into a national comedy scene? Do we have what it takes to produce quality comedy on par with the rest of the nation? If you’ve been to a comedy show in our great state, the answer will not surprise you. In our very own backyard, maybe in a little coffee shop, bar or comedy club near you, we have some of the most diverse comics to make any joke-junkie feel right at home. In part two of our three part series on comedy in Utah, we wanted to get an in depth look at how comedians see themselves and the scene in the state. SLUG sought out three of the busiest and funniest comics and grabbed some pizza by the slice at Downtown’s very own Maxwell’s to chat.
If you are even a casual fan of local comedy, chances are pretty good you’ve seen one of our three diverse comics on a stage or at an event. Andrew Jensen is the taller half of the comedy improv duo ToySoup with Troy Taylor, and he’s been on the comedy circuit for the better part of 14 years. Basically a one-man creative force of nature, Jensen can also be seen doing stand-up comedy, film, sketch comedy, and organizing events like Comedy Carnivale, which he co-founded with fellow comedian Christopher Stephenson. Jensen has often used his comedy chops for charitable causes. He and Taylor recently taught a workshop for students at Skyline High School. In the past Jensen has participated in charity fundraisers for MS at local venues like Mo’s Neighborhood Grille, and part of the proceeds from Comedy Carnivale went to benefit MS as well.
Natashia Mower began her comedy career just over three years ago, and she’s already one of the top performing comedians in the state, with her recent win of City Weekly‘s ARTY award for best local comedian. She’s hard at work on multiple shows, including Funny Fridays at Sandy Station, which she helped start and organize. An advocate for the gay community, she’s been interviewed for a comedic article in Huffington Post’s Gay Voices and has performed at the Utah Pride Festival. Mower has also worked with Create Reel Change, a local organization set up by comedian and film maker Brian Higgins that uses creativity and art to battle mental illness, depression and PTSD.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Jay Whittaker, who has been involved in Utah comedy for over four years, and is one of the busiest in the business. He’s a self-proclaimed geek who can talk for hours about super heroes, video games, and all things comic book related.. This makes him a favorite on panels at FanX and Salt Lake Comic Con, and as a regular on the Geek Show Podcast. Whittaker is a familiar face on the standup circuit throughout Utah, including multiple headlining shows at Wiseguys Comedy Club. He’s also one of just a handful of black comedians in the state, a group that’s been growing as diverse comics grow in Utah.
Diversity on Stage
We really do have something for everybody when it comes to comedy shows. “We have a pretty diverse group for Utah,” says Jensen. “There are a lot of different comics and different styles.” He doesn’t think it would be shocking to outsiders, though. Comedy nationwide tends to draw audiences and performers from all walks of life. Mower points out that all kinds of different styles are welcome and accepted on comedy stages.“There are occasions where you get fatigue,” she says, “like ‘ugh, this person was just like the last person talking about the same thing, over and over again,’ or when a show is inundated with Mormon jokes. But it’s really rare that it happens anymore.” These types of comics come from the mainstream in the state, and they do really well with audiences that connect with material from the world that they know. The types of material or people that go against the mainstream breathe fresh life into the norm. “There’s definitely way more shows now where there’s something new and unique to comedy,” says Jensen.
When it comes to different styles of jokes and topics for material, Whittaker is excited for all the up and comers, like Shayne Smith. “We’ve got a straight edge guy now, and that’s great! And he’s a super nerd!” Working comics often rely on other comedians to bounce ideas off of, because the difference in styles adds a new dynamic to their material. Whittaker is proud of the fact that there are so many great, diverse comics with unique voices. “The community here is fucking strong,” he says. He’s an experienced performer, and yet can still encounter situations where the material he wants to use doesn’t hit home with the crowds he’s delivering it to. The trick that separates the pros from the amateurs is making this type of situation work in your favor, and opening up new ideas to an audience. For example, he recently did a set explaining “Black Lives Matter.” “Half of the audience immediately turned on me,” he says. “How would I expect to talk to a room and explain Black Lives Matter and make it informational and humorous without alienating the crowd?” Understandably, there may not be a connection to the circumstances, but his job is to build a connection between himself and the audience. “It’s hard because you have to sit there and bring them down to your level.” Whittaker has had to sit through many uncomfortable sets with out-of-town comedians, and newcomers trying to be edgy. Comics using the N-word in a mostly white state tends to alienate the crowd. “They’re not going to relate to it,” he says. If anyone can bring an audience on board with new ideas, it’s the comics who have had to work harder to bring them down to the same level. “You have to find the common ground. All of us, we have to work faster.”
Our panel of diverse comics are all extremely hard-working, personal and relateable, so they haven’t changed the stories or jokes that they tell. Their material comes from a genuine place in their own lives. Mower learned how to adapt what she wanted to say with all audiences. “Recently, I realized there were stages and rooms where I was forcing material that wasn’t going to work or I’d have to approach it differently,” she says. She hasn’t really ever had an issue being herself onstage. “I have never really felt anything against any of my jokes about being gay—that’s just all silly and dumb anyway. The thing that I talk about a lot that’s becoming way more prevalent with my comedy that’s hard to get people to figure out how to relate to is dark humor.” She’s proud of that material, but had to learn how to work it into her sets in a way that would be entertaining. “I had to find a way to keep it light enough, but I still want to get the point to land,” she says. “Unfortunately, you just have to get them on board first, and then be like ‘ok, will they follow me in this direction. Just be real with me for a second.” Mower can also adapt to more mainstream crowds and has no problem doing clean comedy. “The second you say ‘don’t curse,’ I won’t curse,” she says. “It’s just really not a problem for me.” Her sets flow really well in between silly jokes and harder hitting material. “Dark stuff is really just always the challenge. Gay jokes are never a problem, because I keep them really light. Some of them are dirty, but you can just take them out.”
Diversity in Styles
Jensen and ToySoup have been the odd man out due to their performance style onstage. “The improv world doesn’t like us because we break the rules,” he says. “Whereas in the standup world, we’re not really standup either. We don’t write down our material.” They have also had to learn how to adapt and use this to their advantage, and by doing this they have thrived. “We do kind of have an advantage when we’re on a standup show, and then all of a sudden there are two people (ToySoup) doing a set and people are like, ‘check out this shit.’ It’s an opportunity to say, well sure, we’re not these guys.” Audiences welcome seeing something new and interesting, but Jensen has had his own obstacles with being a different kind of act. “I struggle with that because many times I’ve thought, ‘Well, they’re not going to like us because we don’t have a microphone and we’re different,’ but it is an opportunity,” he says. Jensen has learned to enjoy hosting and playing with the crowd, it’s a very comfortable situation for him. “The problem I have with standup is that I feel like I could be better at it if I actually focused on it, and put time into it. The problem with being a comedian and an entertainer is that you really have to focus on one thing. If you try to do too many different things you’ll just be OK at a bunch of things,” he says. “If you’re going to do standup, just kill it at standup.” Jensen is actually of a rare breed of comedian that can cross those lines and still make it work. Having diverse comics makes each comedy show unique. Utah doesn’t have a shortage of original acts, from comedic clowns, to avant-garde abstract comedy, improv, song and dance, and everything in between.
Jensen does think that those who can grasp improvisation make the best show hosts. “You never know what’s going happen at a standup show, or any show for that matter,” he says. “Sometimes it sucks because the next comic could be amazing, but because the crowd isn’t into it anymore, then they have to try to win them back. That’s why it’s so necessary to have such an awesome host.” Many experienced comedians like Jensen do hosting gigs as well as their own shows. “That’s where I do think that improv is an advantage in hosting because you learn to read the crowd in improv. If they don’t laugh, then you go, ‘oh shit, what do I do next?’” Whittaker says, “That’s because you have to think on your feet. If you can do a hosting spot, it’s not all about you. It’s about the headliner or the event, you just have to think on your feet. You can’t do your original set.”
Mower, Whittaker, and Jensen all agree that performers get better by stepping outside of their comfort zone from time to time. Jensen says, “It’s good to have people that do shows, people that put together shows, people that don’t that just perform, and people that do other things. You have to have them all. If you figure out what you’re good at, and then do that, that’s perfect, because you all can’t do the same thing. That would just suck.” Whittaker believes that it’s important for comedians to diversify what they can do onstage. “Comics are entertainers. If you’re going to be an entertainer, you kind of have to wear more than one hat.” Early on, he learned how to branch out and started picking up different gigs in commercials, and film. Mower thinks that it’s about the things you need to do to promote yourself. “You’ve got to say ‘yes’ a lot,” she says. It’s important to know your worth, and know when to say ‘no.’ “Say no to things that will hurt the comedy scene. Stop saying yes to those people. It makes the scene bad.”
Mower thinks that having the mainstream mix with something more unique is a great combination.“If there’s predominance of white males or anything else, that works to your advantage. I don’t feel like I’m up against anything, because if you’re on a show and you are the odd person out, they are going to eat it up if you’re good.” She feels like a break in the norm is refreshing, but it’s about the material and quality of jokes delivered more than anything. For instance, there could be a lot of white males doing a show together and they can all still be really good and really diverse in their styles. “It’s not to say that there’s a pigeon hole, I don’t think,” she says. Whittaker feels that the perceived obstacles aren’t really there, or they are manufactured. “Am I one of the token black dudes? Yeah, but do I use it to my advantage? Fuck yeah!” Being different, and being good at being different, whatever that difference may be is the key. Mower agrees: “It’s not so much of an obstacle as an opportunity,” she says.
Comedy shows in Utah
Having performers with lives outside of the status-quo breeds comedy. Whittaker understands this is what makes comedy work the best. “When you bring in all of these people, there’s a fine level of discomfort, and within that discomfort, that’s where you get it. You bring in all of those people from different walks, and it’s funny—it’s almost magical.” Jensen agrees and brings it into perspective from a local level. “I also think that part of it is that in this society here in Utah, in this culture a lot of people are raised sheltered, and it’s kind of broken out now so that those people want to go to shows and see how the other half lives,” Jensen says. “They’re kind of on the edge now where they are like ‘wait, there’s a world out there.’” Jensen admits that he was one of those sheltered people at one time, and he wanted to break out and experience more. “It opens their mind.” He doesn’t think that material should be tip-toed around so as not to offend. “People I think are sophisticated enough to get a joke. They get that we’re joking.” Mower points out “It’s perspective”. She says, “there’s a difference between silliness and blasphemy. You can make fun of something and not be completely shitting on it.” She’s got advice on how to handle those situations “Always assume that your audience is smart, and if they end up being dumb, have some jokes for dumb people ready.”
Jensen has learned the secret to winning over audiences in Utah. “You’ve just got to be true to yourself, because if you’re not true to yourself, then the audience sees that right away.” He’s performed in front of corporate crowds, college crowds and all-ages crowds. “You can’t go into it thinking, ‘Oh, we’re in Utah, there’s a lot of white Mormons here, we’ve gotta be super clean.’ I know a lot of Mormons, a lot of my family are Mormon, and they still think I’m funny. I just have to be myself. They know who I am.” He understands this perspective, because he used to be on the other side, and can still relate to it. “Sure, they don’t want to hear a show that’s super dirty, but that doesn’t stop you from being who you are. You’ve just gotta respect that. Be who you are, and the people that want to be around that will come to your shows.”
Whittaker gets passionate and philosophical about the need for comedy. “Standup is one of the last forms of free speech. It’s one of those things that you have to sit down, shut up, and appreciate.” He goes on to say, “When the apocalypse happens, you can’t go see a movie, you can’t listen to a song, who can make you laugh right there?” The comedians agree with him. “Laughter, it really is one of the last ways to communicate. It brings us all together,” he says. Jensen thinks that this is due to just the basics of a live comedy show. “There’s a ton of vulnerability when you’re onstage. When you go out there and lay it on the line, I kind of feel like the more you do comedy you want to say something meaningful, and make it funny, but you want to connect with that crowd.” Jensen says that the feeling onstage is powerful. “You’re being vulnerable, and they’re being vulnerable back and saying ‘we accept you for what you are,'” he says Being in an audience is a different experience than seeing it on TV. Whittaker says, “Go to those shows because now you get to see it happen.” He feels that it is all about those organic moments that happen at live shows to make it worth being there. It’s an experience that you have with the comic. The audience feeds off the comedian, and the comic can talk about what’s going on in the crowd, making each show unique. “Come see a standup show because you’ll discover things that you didn’t even know that you like, you’ll have fun.” Mower nods and agrees with him,“Nothing beats it.” She’s still a huge fan of comedy shows, and loves going to see live comedy.
Unity, Not Competition
Jay Whittaker yearns for more stages dedicated to comedy and more opportunities. “We need a place like the Comedy Store that stays open until 2 a.m. We can barely do 5–6 rooms a week. In big cities like New York City you can do 5–6 rooms a night.” He thinks that now is a pivotal time for Utah comedy. “Right now people need to be as creative as possible.” With festivals and big comedy shows taking place in the state, we’ve got a national eye on our little scene. Mower agrees enthusiastically. “Keep it going, but going in the right direction,” she says. “Be creative, be on your game, because people are paying attention.” She points out that comedy shows are getting more random walk ups to see comedy, the crowds are no longer only comics and friends of comics. Festivals like Comedy Carnivale and multiple podcasts have opened up new avenues for comedians. Promotional tools through social media, word of mouth and media coverage have also helped the comedy scene thrive. Mower believes that the steps for people interested in seeing comedy are simple. “Start locally. Even just liking SLC Comedy Scene or liking Wiseguys on Facebook will make sure you’re going to find out about stuff going on.”
Mower wants to get rid of the idea that comedians are in competition with each other. “We’ve gotta stop using words like that, just in general,” she says. “I mean, there’s jealousy that creeps in, but I had to learn to use that as motivation.” She remembers that she’d see people who were really good, and it was intimidating, but she actually needed that. “If you’re in a room and no one inspires you, get out of that room. Just think, ‘oh thank god that you’re here’ instead of ‘oh fuck that guy, because he’s better than me’, but really ‘no thank god you’re here because you’re pushing me.” Jensen, having worked in film as well, equates comedy to being on a big film crew. “In the film world, it takes a lot of people to make something good. A lot of people. It’s not just one guy’s idea, it takes a bunch of collaboration to make it work. And I think that’s where it is an issue, it’s not a competition. I think it’s totally personal. People are worried internally about what they are doing.” Whittaker remembers a time when he started and there was a lot of in-fighting in the local comedy world. “There was a divide when I first showed up, and I was like ‘great’. Then there was a peace time. The peace time was so nice.” Within that peace time he talks about, more open mics and venues popped up, and with those, new comedians. “That peace time was great because we needed that.”
However, Whittaker hates the politics. “The thing that I hate right now—that I’ve actually hated since I started, is the fucking politics.” He’s struggled with aspects of the comedy scene, and that some performers bring too much negativity with them. “I used to be the most optimistic guy, and now I can’t even get out of the house because I don’t personally like hanging out with comics. It’s too fucking negative.” Mower understands this first hand. “With comics there is an energy that you can relate to in some ways, but it brings you down. Where as with people like ToySoup I like hanging out with them because it’s a fun creative energy. It’s an ‘up’ energy,” she says. “It’s like, this is how I actually feel, I feel creative. But with other people it’s like ‘you wanna kill yourself, too?’ Cool, let’s just talk about that again.”
Passion for the stage
Despite having to battle against moments of negativity, these three remain passionate and dedicated to comedy. Whittaker recently did a show in Rock Springs and he took newcomer Eric Ripley with him. He says that not only did Ripley kill it on stage, but that he was excited to follow him. “That’s the mindset that people don’t have.” This kind of positivity helps comedians in multiple ways, if one succeeds, they all succeed. Jensen agrees, “That’s what I don’t get! When you’ve been to a show that’s an overall awesome show, it’s a euphoric amazing feeling. When it’s just you, there’s something missing out of that show,” he says. “You want the whole show to go well.” Jensen refers back to what Mower said about being inspired. “Because if you’re not inspired, why are you doing it? What’s your motivation for doing comedy?”
Mower points out that over the last few years, so many great new diverse comics have entered the comedy scene. “Seeing how many new people come around, and even being inspired by those who have only done a few sets, you think, ‘oh, you’ve got something to say, this is cool, I’m excited to see you grow and find your voice.’” She firmly believes that as a comic she wants to just support others, and ignore the negative talk. “If I’m ever feeling like ‘this sucks I don’t wanna be in this scene’ or I want to move, I feel like there are still people you need to support and kind of encourage.” Jensen agrees and recommends to “surround yourself with people that are uplifting.” Whittaker adds to this sentiment and says “surround yourself with people that are continuously doing projects.”
Whittaker admits that there have been times he’s struggled, but he’s remained focused on his job. He hadn’t been having a good time on stage for awhile, and just needed to let it out. “I go out on a Saturday, and had one of the best sets I’ve had. Just because I finally felt it.” He was able to reconnect with why he became a comedian in the first place. “I was tired of focusing on the politics and I was like, I’m just going to focus on my craft. Remember why you started to do this, it’s just to make people laugh.” In fact, many comedians have struggled with moments like this. In over 10 years onstage, Jensen can relate. “Bring it back to the focus. It’s that focus that you have to have on what you want to do, and you have to find that in yourself. Why are you onstage? Are you onstage to make other comics laugh? Then you’re not there for the right reasons,” he says. “You’re onstage to entertain others, and you like that feeling and you like that laughter and the audience, and maybe you are getting something artistic out of it, and it’s freeing you. That’s when you come back to where you are.” He sometimes admits that he realizes he just goes through the motions. “But it’s good, it’s freeing. It opens your soul up and you find out why you’re really there and what you’re doing it for.” Jensen gives sage advice to all struggling comedians and entertainers “Get excited about what you’re doing and believe in it, because people are paying attention.”
There are those out there that begin a career or hobby in comedy as an outlet or a purpose. Then, there are those out there that find a passion for the stage, like Jensen, Mower and Whittaker. Even those people who don’t necessarily fit in, or are not quite the norm, the misfits, the outsiders, and the weird kids, they can have a voice and a story to tell. All it takes is that passion to get onstage, and the drive to keep going in the face of struggles or negativity. This is the beauty of comedy as an art form, there really is something for everyone inside of it, and there are places for every type of person at the table. Being different as an entertainer is a strength, not a weakness, and can open you up for meaningful connections with an audience. If you have ever thought about seeing a comedy show, or trying out standup comedy, feeling different should not stop you, it should empower you. Utah comedy has proven that our diverse comics are on par, or even surpass, other comedy scenes, and that leaves the door open for new faces and voices to come join in all of the fun.
For more information on standup comedy in Utah, check out the other pieces in this series!