Comedy is hard, especially when you’re not a comedian. Yet, against all odds, a motley group of Beltway reporters took the stage at the DC Improv in Washington on Thursday night to try their hands at standup during a Journopalooza Fund charity event, Commedia dell Media.
Luckily for the performers, the audience was packed with fellow journalists. In fact, for better or worse, the whole event was essentially media Twitter come to life, with faces in the crowd from the Atlantic, the Daily Beast and Vox, among others. It was an interesting social experiment, a standup comedy competition where bombing was a near impossibility. Still, only a select few participants would be crowned D.C.’s Funniest Journalists.
“Is anyone here from the Washington Post?” asked Dylan Matthews, 26, senior editor at Vox and a WaPo alum.
Several in the crowd sent back an emphatic “Woooo!” as if he had just dropped the name of a hometown baseball team. Washington is a very small town.
Matthews served up a performance in the vein of vintage Woody Allen, delivering a self-deprecatory set about his trials finding a good doctor in the District of Columbia. “This is a crowd full of journalists, so I figured I’d talk about depression,” he quipped.
“So why are you here?” his doctor asked (allegedly). “I said, ‘Well, I’m depressed.’ So I was on an antidepressant. And then I was still depressed, so I got a second antidepressant. And I’m still depressed, which is where you come in.”
The audience giggled as Matthews led up to his doctor’s less-than-inspiring diagnosis: “Son, you have all the ingredients. But they aren’t working together yet. What you need is a spoon to mix them with — and the spoon is Adderall.”
— Sadie Dingfelder (@SadieDing) February 26, 2016
It was Matthews’ first time on the mic, although you wouldn’t have known it from his confidence, not to mention the fairly personal material. “I always wanted to try this in college,” Matthews told International Business Times after the show. “For the past few weeks, I practiced this set on my girlfriend a lot.”
There’s always been an amateur comedy circuit in D.C., where one could find Christopher Hitchens mugging at a National Journal open mic, or Grover Norquist facing off against Ralph Nader for the title of D.C.’s Funniest Celebrity.
But competition this week was among a decidedly younger crowd, and both the highs and lows were distinctly informed by the their immersion in the world of Twitter, where media types make up a disproportionate proportion of the user base. That’s a world where you can score laughs and hundreds of retweets from a meme of Joe Biden eating ice cream, or a 3-year-old joke about the time a red panda escaped from the National Zoo in Washington. It’s not what you’d call cutting-edge.
The media loves to credit itself with creating its own brand of internet humor, but journalists often parrot much of their gags from the comedians and writers who inhabit the edgier, more irreverent corner of the web known as weird Twitter. So Thursday’s crowd was on board for what might have otherwise appeared to be relatively mundane inside jokes about hashtags, Slack and standing desks.
Zachary Pincus-Roth, the Washington Post’s pop-culture editor, was a good example of a polished but hackish act: His set was basically warmed-over Daniel Tosh, making fun of Kim Kardashian’s butt, foreigners’ accents, etc. He didn’t bomb, but he didn’t seem to impress many, either.
Meanwhile, the Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng did his best to channel Lewis Black or Chris Rock, pacing around the stage and sprinkling f-bombs throughout a one-note routine about the perks of so-called Yellow Privilege in America. (Suebsaeng is Thai.)
just wrapped up stand-up at @dcimprov. the biggest applause I got this evening was for a line about asians, cocaine, cops & hookers
— Asawin Suebsaeng (@swin24) February 26, 2016
In general, the women onstage delivered funnier material than the men did. Washington City Paper’s Jessica Sidman breezed through her set with sardonic musings on her role as a food columnist in a town that runs on politics and scoops.
“I get scoops,” Sidman said, tongue-in-cheek. “One time I got an email from a restaurant that said, ‘Got a scoop for you — we’re adding parsnips to our menu.’
“Parsnips … are not a story,” Sidman said to laughs from the crowd. “They shouldn’t even be a vegetable.”
By far the funniest of the lot was Brightest Young Things writer Jenn Tisdale, who was more or less a ringer. Her effortless stage presence even got her through a five-minute technical difficulty as the techies struggled to project a PowerPoint presentation she brought along.
Undeterred, Tisdale rattled off musings on FX’s O.J. Simpson drama “American Crime Story” (“Johnny Cochran got somebody off with a rhyme, that’s fine”), her obsession with the Menendez brothers and her general fondness for cocaine.
“These days I hang out with friends and they talk about ‘baby bumps,’ and I’m like, OK, so that’s smaller bumps of cocaine,” Tisdale said to big laughs, killing time as her PowerPoint of “Making a Murderer”-themed Valentine’s Day cards was sorted out.
The night did begin to drag in the final half hour, as votes by audience members were tallied and the room was treated to the comedic stylings of Emo Kylo Ren, a parody of the villain of the most recent “Star Wars” film. Behind the dark mask was Washington Post blogger and columnist Alexandra Petri, who killed among the middle-age, white, male contingent of the crowd. “Good stuff,” one suit said in between laughs over Ren’s intergalactic goth poetry.
Others were less into it. One woman, who left for the restroom before Petri took the stage, emerged bewildered and blurted out, “What the f--- is this?”
Still, the crowd was in good spirits when the show’s host, another WaPo reporter, Elahe Izadi, emerged to announce the winner. “We have a tie!” Izadi shouted.
As it turned out, both Matthews and Tisdale were crowned the winners of the night. Journalists and outsiders who attended the event told IBT they got their money’s worth. All proceeds from the ticket sales went to the Journopalooza Fund to help protect writers working in Syria.
“I thought it was great, I felt like I was at an actual show,” said Hana Murr, a Washington native who works on international development.
“I came to see friends and colleagues,” said Emily Crockett, who covers gender issues at Vox. “Dylan Matthews killed it.” She added, “I was pleasantly surprised.”
All in all, everyone avoided a descent into pure navel-gazing. Still, the media’s tendency to serve as an echo chamber produced a slightly surreal moment during the show: One Politico reporter joked during his set that Donald Trump would crack down on cheese regulations and “Make America Grate Again.”
Just at that moment, and completely by coincidence, a Huffington Post writer tweeted the exact same zinger.
make america grate again
— Ariel Edwards-Levy (@aedwardslevy) February 26, 2016
Again, Washington is a very small town.