Andra Whipple stands alone in the spotlight and fights back the tears. “It was just a cluster*#@! of emotions,” she would later reflect, “it was kind of morbid for me.” On the stage at the University of California, Irvine’s Little Theatre in front of a full house she cries, she struggles to speak to the crowd, but across her face is the biggest of smiles brimming with pride; organising a comedy festival is relentless and exhausting hard-work, but the Coup de Comedy Festival 2014 was finally over and, judging by the standing ovation, it had been a huge success.
The Coup de Comedy, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Improv Revolution, a 12-person college improv team co-captained by Andra and fellow drama major Vinny Tangherlini. Joel Veenstra founded iRev as a graduate student in 2010 before handing over the reigns to Andra and having since becoming Associate Head of Stage Management at UCI now serves as the group’s faculty advisor. In this position Joel was able to help Andra and Vinny organise and get financial support and so The Coup was born.
Preparations for this year’s festival began almost as soon as the 2013 event was over. Though successful, the first festival had its fair share of teething problems to learn from and build upon:
Though Joel had some experience in this sort of thing, in general we had no idea how to plan a festival; we were running blind. So this year, when the opportunity came up to do it again, we were all stoked. Since it was my last year [in college], Vinny, Joel, and I really wanted to do it up and do it big, sort of as a testament to how much fun we’d had working together these past 4 years, and as a way to really solidify that comedy is a presence here at UCI and it is only going to get stronger as time goes on. (Andra Whipple)
The three once again applied for funding and set about raising money through a crowd-funding campaign with the rest of the iRev team. Promotional videos, endless begging and perks for donations such as swag bags, ‘Adopt an Improviser’ and dangling the bait of team members dying their hair a shade of vomit for targets being met helped garner over $3000 in extra funds. After that it was phone calls, emails, orders, negotiations, scheduling, designing websites and T-shirts, and even more endless begging to finally make it happen. It is clear that a huge amount of effort and work had gone into the festival and that it hadn’t been easy; when I interviewed Andra she was forced to note in a moment of self-congratulation “A huge achievement was maintaining my sanity, just to be able to work with your friends that closely and still love them afterwards.”
The four day festival was held at multiple venues across the UCI campus featuring seventeen shows, twelve workshops, as well as panels and screenings all featuring professionals from different backgrounds including improv, sketch, stand up and clowning — all of it completely free.
The size of the festival alone was a significant undertaking with a limited college budget, Andra says “some of the acts and people that we got down took a little bit of cajoling,” but these acts were no small fry: those in attendance included Emmy award winner Tony Hale famous for Veep and Arrested Development; The 313 starring Maribeth Monroe from Workaholics and whose full ensemble includes Keegan-Michael Key of Key and Peele fame; professional troupes from LA’s Impro Theatre and ComedySportz who performed fully improvised musicals, action movies and alternative episodes of The Twilight Zone; and renowned improv coach and performer David Razowsky who was a resident at The Second City during the same era as Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey.
Comedy is big business. The broader Arts and Culture sector at last count comprised 3.2% of the US economy — or $504 Billion. Whilst not everyone working in comedy makes a great deal of money, the highest earning comedian in the US last year, Jerry Seinfeld, earned $32 Million and in the UK, despite its market being smaller, Peter Kay earned over $55 Million; that is $75,000 a day. In Hollywood the third highest grossing movie from last year, Despicable Me 2, was a comedy and has made over $1 Billion worldwide; even in ‘free’ media, YouTube comedian, Shane Dawson is estimated to have made $315,000 a year even though his fans don’t have to pay for his content. As comedian George Wallace puts it in the documentary ‘The Business of Comedy,’ “people need to laugh […] the economy goes down, life goes down, laughter goes up — the business of comedy is good.”
But, if you ask Andra about what success looks like for her and her hopes for the future then her reply is telling: Yes she wants to perform and write comedy, but she is more concerned with living close to the beach with a pug and a bulldog where she can work on her friendships, relationships and perhaps a family; money isn’t mentioned.
“My water and sunlight are laughing and working with other people,” says the 21 year old, “which is why I love the Coup so much. I am the kind of person who loves being stuck in an office at 1am counting money with my best friends and laughing hysterically.” This cooperative, laughter first approach fed directly into the Coup; any member of the public who made it to the full line-up of the festival could sit pretty in the knowledge that they would usually have had to part with over $1000 to attend all the same events privately. There was a beauty to being able to watch a high-schooler, with no previous experience of improv, walk into the church-like Studio 5 for a workshop with Razowsky, start out seeming shy and nervous, confused by Razowsky’s no-nonsense “I’m shouting with you not at you (you just haven’t started shouting yet)” teaching style, and then for her to leave having built some successful scenes that made a room full of strangers laugh.
It isn’t just teenagers growing through comedy either; across campus in the Nixon Theatre the next day, Benjamin Ridge, an iRev alumnus and stand up comic who has flown from England to be at the festival, hosts the Epic Open Mic event. After prancing behind the thick-set red stage curtains and playing around with the microphone and mic stand that aren’t really plugged in during his segue as emcee, Ridge introduces Scott Hogan. Scott, a forty-three year old undergraduate, fumbles with the mic stand for a few moments, but it stubbornly refuses to adjust. He is a tall man with an imposing frame, yet he bends down towards the microphone (that’s still merely a prop) and begins with his soft-spoken voice, appearing small and timid in the spotlight. This meek persona belies an inner strength however; Scott has never even attempted to do stand up before now in the moment. He takes his phone from out of his pocket and quietly narrates his actions as he thumbs the screen: “Google: Good Jokes.” The audience loves it. He leaves long silences as he reads from his phone, but his style is so unassuming and charmingly awkward that the whole room barely stops laughing the entire time that he is onstage. He gains confidence now to start some self-deprecating original material, but then makes an unexpected shift back to his phone to build upon his original bit even as a few heckles spring from the back of the audience. The only break from the laughter comes as Scott takes a heartfelt moment to thank iRev, whose shows and weekly workshops he attends regularly, for helping him to grow as a person even into his forties; as his ten minutes come to a close, the room couldn’t be more in love.
It is in the moments like these that the true importance of comedy as well as the motivations for a group of College students to spend their time putting together a professional festival for free reveal themselves:
Comedy is the most powerful way to reach out to people. They aren’t expecting it to change their lives, but it will. Laughter is the spoonful of sugar that helps us see what else comedy is pointing to. We often discount fun as a real reason to do something, but it’s so true. Laughter is healthy. Joy creates a better world. Comedy makes life better. A life of drama is no fun at all. It would not have been nearly as gratifying to put on a drama festival. (Andra Whipple)
Andra might never win an Oscar or make millions, the high-schooler might never do any improv ever again and Scott probably won’t be the next Louis CK, but why would any of that ever matter when for these four days they had a safe space to laugh and be happy and to help everybody do that with them? Comedy allows us to learn about ourselves and experience emotions, ideas and growth that might otherwise have seemed out of reach. People often say you can’t put a price on happiness, so why not make it free?