Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Don't Go To Humor Conferences

I recently had the worst comedic experience of my life.

My college’s satirical newspaper, The Brown Noser, had been invited to the first "National Intercollegiate Humor Conference" at Princeton University. I was excited to write with my friends and meet funny people from other schools. The organizers even encouraged pranks (so long as they adhered to a sizable list of guidelines, of course).

The crowd at the conference was pretty much what you’d expect at a gathering of college comedy writers: an overwhelming majority of bearded white guys and a smattering of bearded white girls. Pimples made a great showing, as did t-shirts with jokes on them.

One MIT student with a long ponytail and a moth-eaten black sweater wandered over to our table and introduced himself as Pevner. “Satire?” he asked, eyeing a copy of our paper. “Eh, I feel like that’s kind of been done. Sure, it’s all the rage now, but I think humor should come from the abyss.”

The abyss.

I asked what MIT’s magazine was like. “To give you some idea, we once got a letter to the editor complaining that we only wrote about abortions and Nazis,” he said. “So the next month we started a comic strip called Aborted Nazi Fetus.” Pevner!

The writing sessions themselves ranged from lightning prompts (tweets for the hashtag #straightthuggin, “anti-jokes”) to longer stories for which the organizers would call out plot twists like “a main character is revealed to have an addiction in his past” or “someone pulls out a gun” (Remember the Office episode where Michael Scott pulls out a gun in every improv scene he’s in? Yeah). The sessions were broken up by a very funny, and slightly depressing, talk from CollegeHumor’s Streeter Seidell about writing comedy professionally and dealing with advertisers.

Writing with so many strangers felt like the first week of classes when everyone’s trying really hard to prove themselves to the teacher. You could see people opening their mouths during a lull to pitch a joke before anyone else could fill the silence, being careful to project so the punchline wouldn’t be lost in the giant room, and sitting back to see how much laughter they’d get compared to everyone else.

There was something strangely gross about 90 people sitting in one room trying to be funny. In order to stand out, we were forced to go to extremes – to stories about homeless guys shooting each other and pedophilic uncles. Personally, the writing I value isn’t pull-out-a-gun humor or humor from an abyss. It’s humor that in some way illuminates a truth about real life. And I was feeling pretty disconnected from real life at this conference.

In the early evening (right around the time everyone started drinking) we filed into a small room for each school to give a persuasive presentation of “what is best in life.” One kid gave a ten-minute speech about how boners were the best thing in the world. Another spoke about the majesty of America, and the room erupted into boisterous chants of “America! America!” Someone was banging a long wooden stick against the floor. I felt like I was in The Lord of the Flies. I needed some air.

On my way back inside, the drunk UVA student who’d spoken about America tapped my shoulder. His friends looked embarrassed, like they knew what was coming. “You know, if you tried, you could look presentable,” he told me.

It was the last straw for my sleep-deprived and comedically-frustrated mind. I felt like I’d been punched. I was baffled by the bizarrely misogynist, jingoist attitude suddenly in the air. I mean, I was at a humor conference, writing jokes with funny young people from all around the country. So why wasn’t I having any fun at all?

I went inside and slumped in my seat to await the night’s finale: three full hours of student stand-up comedy. Act after act went up, and the sheer volume of jokes I’d heard in the last twenty-four hours numbed me to anything that might have been enjoyable about them. They all blended together: Setup, punchline. Setup, punchline. Setup, racist punchline.

Finally, the last performer was announced. It was Pevner. I felt my similarly frustrated classmates perk up around me: finally, we’d get to hear some good old humor from the abyss.

Pevner began his set with a little background — he’d been scheduled to graduate from MIT three years ago and was now working in “what you’d probably call financial risk analysis.” No punchlines seemed imminent. He was just talking about his life. It was weird.

“My co-worker, he hates racist jokes,” he continued, “but he’s the worst race of all…”

I steeled myself for another offensive joke.

“…He’s a muppet.”


He continued. There was no punchline. No explanation. Just about a half hour more material on his muppet co-worker.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my friends starting to shake, their hands clamped over their mouths. Soon everyone in my row was laughing harder than we had all weekend. It was buckled-over, screwed-up-bright-red-face, crying-actual-tears laughter.

I’m not sure why Pevner’s set hit us so hard. Part of the reason, I’m ashamed to say, is that we were happy to see our biggest critic bomb. Part was the schadenfreude of watching something unintentionally terrible. And part was exhaustion and relief that the day was over.

But we were also laughing because it felt so good to see something different. We were laughing because after so much effort to plan pranks and deliberately write anti-jokes, after so much effort to be the funniest and the most outrageous, it was amazingly cathartic to see someone who wasn’t telling jokes at all. Pevner was just up there being himself — the opposite of what we’d been doing all weekend.

We were laughing because finally, we weren’t supposed to be laughing. We were laughing at the irony that we’d been trying and failing to make each other laugh, and finally someone was succeeding totally by accident. And we were laughing because the image of a muppet working in a cubicle is funny.

I guess maybe comedy from the abyss isn’t so bad. I’d rather be in an abyss than at a humor conference, anyway.

Hallie Cantor is a student and in five weeks she will be an unemployed person.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Caroline-Anderson/731041782 Caroline Anderson

    Refer to the episode of King of the Hill with Paul F. Tompkins as a comedy professor.

  • JoshUng

    Nobody how funny somebody is, if you said to them, "hey, be funny" or "tell me a joke" odds are, whatever they said wouldn't be very funny. This sounds like the same situation, only multiplied by 90.

    Also, MIT has a humorist? Aren't they an science/technology school? Wouldn't they just reprint Xkcd strips and call it a day?

  • RollSouth

    What an embarrassment to the great line of comedians MIT has produced.

  • Megh Wright


  • Dan.

    I was there. I was in that room, I was one of those 90 unshaven, pasty white guys. I won't say who I am or what school I'm from out of fear that at some point that weekend I sneezed in your vicinity and offended your delicate sensibilities.

    I thought the whole trip was going to be a disaster — I had the same thought you did: a bunch of college aged kids who all think they're hilarious in one enclosed space? It sounded awful.

    I had a great time.

    The lightning prompts were, admittedly, kind of lame. Tweet-based jokes just aren't my thing, I guess. Splitting up into mixed groups, though, was great. Getting to bounce ideas off of brand new people — one of them in my group was actually from Brown — kept things moving along nicely.

    And the "best thing in life" debate? Highlight of the weekend. It was inspired. And that's not surprising: asking people to whip jokes out at lightning pace doesn't really work, but give a group of funny people an hour to gestate with an idea, and you get good stuff. You must have been the only person in the room not having fun. I remember in particular the room going from dead silent to rolling in its seats as a guy from UNC deadpanned his way through his bit.

    Yeah, "AMERICA! FUCK YEAH" jokes are old hat, but I'd surmise that you're just a stick-in-the-mud if a bunch of Ivy Leaguers being led in a chant of "AMERICA! AMERICA!" by some good ol' boys from Virginia isn't inherently a good time to you. And what kind of humor writer has so thin skin that some drunk idiot spouting off gets under your skin? Relax, hot lips.

    I'm pretty sure that was Dan from Princeton (the guy with the big thick beard) who was banging the stick. That was the Tiger-head Staff.

    In closing, we hung out with Pevner and the couple of other guys there from MIT. They were nice.

    • Megh Wright

      @Dan. Thanks for the extra context, and the much better attitude.

    • HerooftheBeach

      @Dan. "Relax, hot lips"? Seriously? And we wonder why there aren't more women in comedy. Just a little sexual harassment! NBD! What, can't you take a joke?! He's only like that when he's drunk, he's actually a great guy! (Virginian good ol' boys are always great guys, I've noticed.)

      I thought maybe she was being oversensitive in places at first, but "if you're not having fun, you clearly have a problem" types are seriously the worst, and your comment gives me the impression you guys were setting the tone, with all of comedy's worst tendencies on display.

      This conference sounds like it was a shit sandwich. Sorry you had to go through that, Hallie.

    • Megh Wright

      @HerooftheBeach Really? "Hot lips" is sexual harassment when the author stereotypes all the writers at the conference as pimply, white, and bearded? Doesn't seem like a fair double standard to me. I'm sure the conference wasn't perfect, and I have nothing against the author, but I think the attitude in this article was off-putting, and definitely tiff-inducing.

    • Roxanne

      @Dan. @Megh Wright: I'm pretty sure with "sexual harassment" HerooftheBeach was referring to the good ol' boy's behavior, not Dan's lame sexist putdown.

      Yeah, she made a vague, meanish comment calling a group of people pasty and bearded. So what? That's totally different from an unasked-for comment on her appearance/drunken come-on.

      Can't really call "double standard" on this one because she it's not like she was going up to dudes at the conference and telling them they could be more presentable.

    • Megh Wright

      @Roxanne Fair enough. I'd rather be told in person that I could be more presentable VS find a whole article about how pale and pimply I am on the internet, but we could go back and forth about this forever. That said, I really enjoyed the ending of the article, and the arrival at some kind of harmony that apparently we need down in the comment section. Hugs?

    • Dan.

      @Megh Wright I was about to launch into a diatribe about my inexorable right to call a woman "hey you with the boobs" and that woman's right to call me "hey you with the small penis", but you're probably right, this could go on forever. I would very much like a hug.

    • Roxanne

      @Megh Wright Yeah, no worries. I think this illustrates the trickiness in addressing sexism in comedy – as opposed to say, science or technology – since being a bit of a jerk is part of the job description (for both genders).

  • Dan.

    PS: The stand up was a mixed bag. Some people were funny, others not so much. Pevner went dead last, at 1AM, to a tired, half-empty room. And he was nervous, practically sweating bullets. Give the man credit for even going up — I wouldn't have.

  • ScoopChang

    You could've really shown 'em up if you put some jokes in this dour, misplaced tumblr report.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogold Pablo Goldstein

    I looked into the abyss and Pevner looked back.

    • Joshua Kurp

      @Pablo Goldstein Can Pevner becomes Splitsider's "hummus" or "canceraids"? Meaning, it'll be funny for about two days, then become terrible yet still exist.

  • http://sorryyourheinous.tumblr.com/ sorry your heinous

    I don't really know what to make of this, except it sounds like the humor (type of) got hijacked early and sensibilities didn't mesh. That sucks. It's happened to me at engineering conferences (like, first five presentations are all embarrassing "oil companies can do no wrong!" when I'm there for cleantech, etc.) and it can poison everything that comes next. Maybe if you stay involved you can help set more of the tone for future conferences? I'm sure there were a lot of people feeling the same way, but found it a little easier to go with it (not judging).

    That one dude sounds like an asshole.

  • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

    I never went to any collegiate humor conferences, but I went to quite a few college improv festivals, and they were always a little awkward. College comedy groups are products of their own respective campus communities. They evolve as a reflection of the tastes of the bored freshmen who come in droves to see their shows. Throwing them together often felt like the counselors from church camps from around the country meeting to show off their "closing campfire talent show skits."

    The benefit for me was just hanging out and chatting with all the bizarro versions of myself in other groups. Also, taking workshops with the headlining professional group, which was often the only good show in the whole festival.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daniel-Hall/1605914261 Daniel Hall

    This whole conference sounds like all the humor came out of the abyss, and by the abyss I mean Penver's ass…
    Cambridge and Oxford gave the world the Monty Python troupe, Rowan Atkinson, and other ingenious satirist comedic writers, and this is what America's Ivy League institutions will soon be unleashing on the world of comedy? Somewhere right now there is a kid doing five minutes at the Comedy Cellar and he's going to be running circles around everyone who came out that conference in five years, and he won't be talking out of his abyss…

  • UNC

    As another person at the conference, I was disappointed with a lot of things too. Housing was a main one, as we had three girls (and eventually four, when you were put into our room at 2:30am the first night) crammed into one dorm room with less than hospitable hosts. To me, the conference was somehow both highly organized and highly unorganized: yeah, there were events set up, there were nametags, but it seemed to me more like a PROVE I'M THE FUNNIEST fest rather than a genuinely take time to get other comedians from other schools and lets all party together-fest.

    By the way, Hallie is not exaggerating about that Penver guy. He was awful. He came up to my group and was like "SO WHO HERE IS THE FUNNIEST LOL" then started talking about how he had some sort of an alcoholic/nervous breakdown and had to drop out of MIT for a while or something. His stand-up bit was one of the more painful and awkward things I have ever witnessed. Also, I am pretty sure drunk UVA guy managed to be drunk for the entire weekend. He fit the UVA stereotype to a tee.

    Basically, I really wished it had been more time just hanging out with each other, exchanging ideas, sharing our publications and all that kind of stuff. Judging by your stand-up performances, you Brown kids seemed pretty awesome, and it would've been a lot of fun to actually hang out with you guys rather than feeling an atmosphere of constant competition. But, it was the first conference ever, so maybe it'll get better with some tweeking.

    One of the non-bearded UNC girls