Bye-bye boys' club: Tackling inclusive growth in Grand Rapids' improv comedy scene is no joke

Grand Rapids' comedy scene is quickly growing. As it does, comedians are taking on equity issues that have long plagued comedy, both here and nationally, in a move they're hoping will make the city's laugh landscape a whole lot stronger and more inclusive.
A performer, producer, director, teacher, and all-around leader in the Grand Rapids improv comedy scene, Eirann Betka has watched the handful of improv comedy troupes grow to dozens in the past few years. 

The vice president of Dog Story Theater and member of No Outlet Improv Troupe, which brought back the weekly Comedy Outlet Monday performance and workshop, Betka worked alongside fellow comedians Katie Fahey, Kristin Hirsch and Jenna Pope to create the all-female comedy collective, Funny Girls, after identifying a need for more female voices in comedy following the 2015 Grand Rapids Improv Festival

“Comedy is generally not a woman's world, but when you step back and look at a lot of the projects in Grand Rapids that are happening, there is a lot of female drive behind it,” says Betka, who both recognizes the need for more female and minority representation in the improv comedy world, while also feeling very much a welcomed part of the existing white male-dominated culture. 

Funny Girls do improv games together to sharpen their skills.“In Grand Rapids, for me, I haven't felt (excluded),” Betka says. “It might be because I have my hands in so many pies, so people have come to understand and kind of respect that. But I think most females — and especially Funny Girls — are actually looked up to by a lot of the other groups, which is cool.” 

With events like Gilda’s LaughFest and the Grand Rapids Improv Festival working alongside more locally driven efforts like Comedy Outlet Mondays and other grassroots initiatives aimed at giving comedy, namely improv and sketch, a more permanent place in the entertainment landscape of downtown Grand Rapids, there seems to be no time like the present to tackle some equity issues that have long plagued comedy — not just in Grand Rapids, but across the country in general. 

Minding the gap

In contrast, Funny Girl newcomer Maleny Crespos doesn’t feel quite as at home in the comedy landscape as Betka, who has the benefit of fully-formed relationships and a slew of leadership roles rooting her in the community and culture. 

The 23-year-old Crespo moved from Holland to Grand Rapids about six months ago to attend Grand Rapids Community College, where she also works as the director of external affairs for the college’s student governance, GRCC Student Alliance. 

She feels like the overwhelming whiteness of the improv scene, including the actors and the audiences, creates an inaccessibility for people of color like herself

“I actually don’t think there are a lot of opportunities for people of color in the comedy,” Crespo says. “…I don’t think people in leadership positions are aware of artificial barriers that they’re actually putting up for POC cast members or potential cast members.” 

Alongside a lack of representation of women and people of color on improv comedy teams, Crespo doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of effort on the part of those in the dominant cultural group reaching out of their comfort zones and into other cultural groups — something she sees as the first step to creating a more tangibly inclusive space in the improv and sketch comedy world. 

“They need to get out of their comfort zones and actually support communities of color and go out to poetry events and other events around town. They need to be very enthusiastic when they advertise their events and intentional about not just asking white people to get involved,” she says. 

‘Not going to be a boys’ club’

There are those in comedy's dominant culture who do recognize the need for diversity, including Joe Anderson and Ben Wilke. Anderson and Wilke are two Grand Rapids comedians who are leveraging their past professional experience with groups like Chicago's famed Second City to rally support for their cocktail and dedicated improv and sketch comedy venue, The Comedy Project. The project is in its final stretch of fundraising via a Kickstarter campaign this week.

Provided The Comedy Project is able to meet its funding goal and is met with official  approval following the planning stages, the venue would not only host a handful of different improv courses and provide a space for local troupes to perform, but feature a cast of six to seven regular performers boasting the skills to become an entertainment mainstay with a wide enough appeal to keep audiences coming back each night. 

And although exactly who will be on the cast roster is yet to be confirmed,  Anderson and Wilke say they know diversity is an essential part of drawing in having a broader audience appeal, as well as fostering a culture of inclusion that they’ve struggled with as part of that dominant group of white male comedians. 

“(Diversity) is huge, it's one of the first things we talked about. We absolutely want it to come out of the gate and just be something where anybody can look it and think, 'In the future I can be a part of that because I am represented in some way in that cast and in those shows,’” Wilke says. “As two white guys starting a theater, we're already working with a handicap in that area, so we want to make sure there is no question about it — it's not going to be a boy's club.” 

Addressing deep-seated cultural norms

Though largely a stand-up comedian whose local comedy culture exists separately from that of improv and sketch comedy, Nardos Osterhart has spent the past five years rising through the ranks and gaining popularity as a performer who also happens to a woman of color. 

Although the 39-year-old comedian says the overall comedy scene in Grand Rapids is “…obviously still overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly young,” it’s a more subtle exclusion born out of deep-seated cultural norms as opposed to anything overtly sinister. 

“I don’t think (the diversity gap) is for lack of trying,” Osterhart says. “I think we have opportunities because we, ourselves, don’t make women or people of color feel welcome for whatever reason…we’re usually most comfortable with whoever is around us who look like us and talk like us…and that inadvertently makes it uncomfortable for people who don’t feel included in that group.” 

‘Lowercase inclusive’

Funny Girls member Angelika Lee agrees with Osterhart.

“My experience coming into the comedy scene here was very similar to my experience with Grand Rapids in general — it’s very inclusive, but maybe lowercase inclusive,” says Lee, who moved back to Grand Rapids and dove headfirst into on-stage opportunities after spending five years in Chicago, only participating in the Windy City’s comedy scene as a spectator. 

Angelika Lee“(Grand Rapids) really wants to be an inclusive space, and people say, 'This is a safe space,’ but even with the people who say it, you wonder if they really know what that means. If you are in the dominant group, or dominantly represented group, you don't really understand often what safety means. Your safety is not ever really being threatened because when you walk into a space and your power is recognized,” Lee says. “…Diversity would really drive the inclusion because I think that sentiment is really there, and people really want to be respectful and inclusive. And they really want more voices at the table.”

Having that level playing field as a starting point is a big part of what drew her to Funny Girls in the first place. As part of its overarching mission, Funny Girls hosts weekly rehearsals that are always open to the larger public with no requirement for past experience and no pressure for immediate participation. 

However, she admits that despite their best efforts so far, even Funny Girls is lacking that inclusive spectrum of representation outside of just its all-female collective membership. 

“Certainly at Funny Girls, I think we would say that we feel pretty incomplete because we are the majority middle-class white women and because we're trying to represent a woman's perspective, we are not complete.” 

Jokes and sketches are written and shared electronically.From where she’s standing, relationship building is the key to forging connections that defy cultural and even geographic barriers and allow the collective improv comedy scene to create shared spaces where everyone feels heard and included as part of the group. 

Like Crespos, Lee thinks it’s up to all members of Grand Rapids’ comedy scene — those who are dominantly represented, those who are underrepresented, and those who fall somewhere in between — to recognize what voices are missing from each table and actively seek to bring each other into the fold. 

“I'm always encouraging people that if you look around at your table, and you're creating something, and you want to include women in your stories and have a more meaningful message that's going to resonate beyond your own perspective, and you don't see women at your table — go find some funny women, some smart women and get them at your table,” Lee says. “The same is true for people of color, and just because they may not already be in your group doesn’t mean you can’t leverage that perspective — you absolutely can’t tell their story for them, but there is no reason they can’t be included in having the opportunity to tell their own.”

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images taken by Adam Bird