The day after senior prom, I took my first comedy sketch class.
I arrived 15 minutes early, eager to start, though a bit apprehensive. Aside from the vast difference in age between me and my classmates, I was a little concerned that it would feel like a frat house: especially after learning that the ten highest paid comedians of 2013 were all male and seeing a 2015 Vanity Fair cover that featured all-male late-night talk show hosts. So when class began, I did a quick head count.
Six women. Five men. I was relieved, and also excited: in this comedy class, it was the men who were outnumbered.
Or so it seemed. The door creaked open and a sandy-haired, freckled man scooted in, nodding his apology for being late. Oh well, I thought.
As the teacher talked through our syllabus, I thought about how I had made my way to this writer’s room.
It started last summer, when I found the class while researching an essay about the role of women on Saturday Night Live, a project that made me realize how few women were in comedy. As part of my research, I read the autobiography of cast member Amy Poehler, who is also the only female founding member of a renowned comedy brand called the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre Company. I Googled UCB, and discovered the company’s Diversity Program.
For the past seven years, I learned, the UCB Diversity Program has been working to bring the voices of women and minorities into the largely masculine world of comedy. UCB Los Angeles gives 300 scholarships to new and returning students each year.
Once the scholarship application opened up this March, I submitted my package of three essays. When I got my acceptance email later that month, I was so elated I jumped off my bed and called my mentor.
When class began, I quickly discovered the topics I chose to write about differed from those of my male classmates. I love writing about feminism and double standards. The things I used to roll my eyes about could now be the butt of my jokes.
I also became hyper-aware of the age difference when the class joked about things I didn’t understand, like Al Gore and Led Zeppelin.
I would have been bored if my classmates and I all wrote about the same things. When I spoke to UCB staffers, they talked about how diversity keeps comedy relevant. “Comedy requires authenticity of voice. We need unique people to tell jokes that are true to them,” Mano Agapion, the UCB LA Diversity Coordinator, told me. “There are jokes we’ll never hear if we don’t get diverse, truthful voices on our stage.”
Minority writers often write sketches about how they’re treated, my teacher Adam McCabe told me — as opposed to how “a white guy will bring in a Breaking Bad sketch.” He clarified that both are important in order to maintain balance.
Many comedians from diverse backgrounds have found a way to use their comedy as a megaphone to amplify social issues, such as police brutality and rape culture.
One such comedian is Jessica Williams, a UCB alum and Daily Show correspondent famous for addressing controversies head-on.
“Now let’s take my walk to work,” said Williams in a segment about street harassment. “For most guys, it’s just a calm, boring commute. But for me, it’s like I’m competing in a beauty pageant every single day.”
Even though Williams is a symbol of the diversity program’s success, there is a long way to go.
“People aim for diversity. They set that goal for themselves, then they’re like, ‘How do we achieve diversity?’” said UCB Diversity Scholar Ego Nwodim. Nwodim has made it onto both a sketch and improv group at the theater, even though it’s notoriously difficult to get on just one.
Sometimes, though, being the only minority in a room can stifle creativity.
“When I first started taking classes, it [the group] wasn’t diverse at all. But I loved it so much,” said Londale Theus Jr, another UCB Diversity Scholar who, like Nwodim, is also on a UCB team.
But it wasn’t until he joined an all-black, male comedy group that he found his home. “It unlocked something I didn’t even know I was feeling,” he said. “It made me realize a whole other world was missing from this great art-form.”
It’s not uncommon for minorities to feel like they don’t fit in. Initially, I stiffened whenever one of the guys stood near me—which meant that my guard was almost always up. I approached my friendships with them cautiously, ready to defend myself if they questioned why I was there.
It wasn’t until the third week that my classmates discovered I was in high school, when I made the mistake of wearing a sweater emblazoned with my school’s logo. I’d been dubious that they would actually care about anything I had to say if I revealed my age.
I was completely wrong.
No, they weren’t like me. They didn’t have to worry about school homework in addition to the sketch homework our teacher assigned us or when and where they would be picked up by their parents.
But they shared my love for comedy. And more importantly, they never looked down on me for being young or being a woman. They supported my sketches and pitched ideas to make them funnier. We laughed over our favorite scenes from SNL, something I can’t even do with my best friends. Somewhere between café trips and shared YouTube clips, we became a community.
I hadn’t expected this. I was sure people would patronize me. But through the general enthusiasm to collaborate, I realized people at UCB were not there to judge.
I could have been a 17-year-old female or a 40-year-old monkey—no one would have cared.
We were just there to laugh.