Stephanie Brown always thought she’d go back to grad school to get her PhD “eventually,” the winner of the 2018 Graduate Student Leadership Award said. But a few years working in the entertainment industry in LA and New York convinced her that the time was right. It would be several years until the #MeToo sexual assault awareness campaign took off in late 2017, but for Stephanie, enough was enough.
Stephanie is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Communications Research at Illinois. This semester, she’s wrapping up her dissertation and plans to defend this summer. When she’s not exploring issues of gender in comedy for her research, she’s living them. Stephanie founded and runs Broad Comedy, a local comedy group in Champaign-Urbana that is dedicated to diversifying voices in the local stand-up comedy scene.
Her passion for comedy is no laughing matter. “I’ve always been a comedy fan,” she said “but when I started looking into issues with gender and women and comedy, I realized that a lot of comedy scholars were doing film and textual analysis, but not actually interviewing people.” She set out of the understand what it was like for women to perform comedy - in particular stand up - on the ground. According to Stephanie, stand-up is still even more male-dominated than other forms of comedy like improv and sketch, and she hoped to learn why.
She hit the comedy clubs of Chicago and other cities to talk to female comics about their experiences performing. “I saw the gatekeeping mechanisms that are weeding people out. I talked to a lot of people about experiences of harassment, feeling like you were an outsider, and feeling like they couldn’t do it because they didn’t see other women doing it,” she said. “It was a lot of ‘No one talks to me,’ and ‘It’s a super boys’ club.’ I wanted to see what we could do to change that.”
Broad Comedy was born. Inspired by a comedy course designed up Chicago comedian, Cameron Esposito, Broad Comedy is designed as an inclusive space for women to perform stand-up. Since the organization’s creation in 2016, its mission has expanded to include not just women in comedy, but anyone who has felt uncomfortable at other stand-up open mics.
“My cofounder is an undergraduate at the university and was involved in the local comedy scene. She was frustrated being the only woman regularly performing stand-up in town and I wanted to try to put my research on gender and gatekeeping in stand-up culture into practice,” Stephanie said. Together, they created Broad Comedy, a monthly open-mic night for local comedians.
One of the other reasons that some people have been kept away from stand-up is the contents of the jokes. “From people who don’t like performing at the other (not Broad Comedy) shows, I often hear ‘Its nice to come here and know that I don’t have to hear violence against women jokes or racist jokes or homophobic jokes, I can just relax,” Stephanie said. “Comedy is thought to be this space where you shouldn’t have any rules, but that’s not necessarily what comedy is. Can it be these other things too?” At Broad Comedy, a feeling of inclusivity is the product of community guidelines that keep these things from happening.
Speaking about the power of comedy, Stephanie said “From a personal egotistical standpoint, it’s so scary, but it’s so rewarding when someone laughs at your jokes, something you’ve written and been working on. It’s a very rewarding experience, to feel validated. I say things on stage that I wouldn't’ even tell my friends; about body image, problems I’ve had with my mom; it’s a way to communicate about problems that we all have. It’s especially important for people marginalized by gender or sexuality or race. Seeing people like you who are telling stories especially if you don’t see that other places; getting that validation - it’s a chance to see and feel that your point of view matters to somebody.”
You can check out Broad Comedy this month on Tuesday, April 10 at 7 p.m. at Blackbird in Urbana. Follow Broad Comedy on Facebook for updates.
Stephanie is the winner of this year's Graduate Student Leadership Award. This award is sponsored by The Graduate College and its student advisory group, SAGE (Students Advising on Graduate Education). It was created to recognize graduate students who have exhibited outstanding service that has positively impacted the campus or wider Urbana-Champaign community. This year, two other graduate students were honored with Special Recognition for their leadership and service. Check out the full list of honorees.
Caitlin Brooks is a PhD student in Recreation, Sport, and Tourism. Her research focuses on the creation of communities of meaning in liminal leisure spaces and her dissertation explores marriage practices at Burning Man. In her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.