URI comedy symposium to explore social issues

Posted on
One-day program to explore stand-up comedy’s value in addressing complex social issues

KINGSTON, R.I. – March 6, 2014 – Comedian Patton Oswalt once explained that comedy is “always about finding the balance between the emotional and the funny.” An English major in college, Oswalt recently released his fifth hour-long stand-up special and starred in several films, and he’s coming to the University of Rhode Island this month as part of an all-day event exploring comedy as communication.

The Harrington School of Communication and Media will present “Open Mic, Open Minds: An Exploration of Social Issues Through Stand-up,” Saturday, March 22, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Swan Hall, 60 Upper College Road, on the URI Kingston campus. The closing performance will feature comedian Patton Oswalt and special guest, Boston comedian Myq Kaplan, at 8 p.m. in Edwards Hall, 64 Upper College Road.

Tickets for the symposium are $20 for students and $30 for non-students, and all tickets include lunch, Patton Oswalt’s show, and a raffle with prizes from the Rhode Island Comedy Connection, Friday Night Live, Newport Comedy Festival, and local restaurants, among others. Registration is required at Symposium.

Symposium participants will learn about comedy and perform it, too. URI students, faculty, and the community will hear presentations and participate in workshops, but they will also plan and deliver a short comedy piece. Renee Hobbs, founding director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media, said, “This event embodies the spirit of URI as a creative, interdisciplinary place where we can celebrate, critique, and share ideas about the complex and sometimes controversial issues that are important in our society.”

Jerry Zolten of Penn State Altoona will kick the day off as keynote speaker, with a multimedia presentation on the historical roots of stand-up comedy. Workshop sessions include Canadian comedy presented by Humber College’s Humor Program Director Andrew Clark, the use of humor in the battle for same sex marriage in Rhode Island presented by Marriage Equality in RI Board of Directors member Rich Hite, and tips on writing stand-up and touring presented by comedian and URI alumna Poppy Champlin, voted America’s Funniest Real Woman on the Joan Rivers Show.

After lunch, participants will view and discuss a screening of video excerpts from stand-up routines that address issues in race, gender, politics and religion, and then attend live sessions with Boston comedians Myq Kaplan and Erin Judge, who will deliver material from their acts and pull back the curtain on how they developed it, what they hope to accomplish with it, and how it has been received by different audiences on tour.

Finally, facilitators will lead small groups in workshops to create original comedic material around a social issue of their choice. Facilitators include: Dan Martin, local comedian and comedy podcast host; Will Luera, artistic director emeritus of ImprovBoston; Mike Descoteaux, former musical director of Second City; Michelle Barbera, producer of the Women in Comedy Festival; and Robert Woo, producer of Hard Left Productions.

The comedy symposium was inspired by a URI graduate student, Jillian Belanger, who is studying comedy as a rhetorical form and who leads the team as conference organizer. As a doctoral student in writing and rhetoric, she recalls being struck by a powerful line from a 2011 TED Talk by Chris Bliss, who argued, “Comedy deals with a lot of areas where our defenses are strongest– race, religion, politics, sexuality– only by approaching them through humor instead of adrenaline, we get endorphins, and the alchemy of laughter turns our walls into windows, revealing a fresh and unexpected point of view.”

“This event offers a different kind of learning experience for participants,” said Jeremiah Dyehouse, URI associate professor of writing and rhetoric and the faculty advisor to the event. “Many academic symposia offer lectures and workshops, but this program gets attendees into comedy performance. It offers practical, hands-on experience in humor communication.”

Open Mic, Open Minds culminates a series of events in the Harrington School of Communication and Media’s yearlong initiative to explore comedy as communication. In the fall semester, the Harrington School hosted “Think Like a Comic,” a workshop to help students create and present stand-up material, and co-sponsored Last Ram Standing, a stand-up competition, with URI’s Student Entertainment Committee. The Student Entertainment Committee, led by advisor Michael Nolfe, has demonstrated its commitment to comedy this year by bringing in Oswalt as well as cutting-edge talents Amy Schumer and Jim Gaffigan.

For more Information, follow @ComedyScholar on Twitter, or contact Jillian Belanger at jillianbelanger@my.uri.edu.