Arts Editor Grace Novarr and Deputy Arts Editor Marino Bubba attended Memento Mori’s Crowd Work, a stand-up-comedy-show-within-a-play written, directed, and produced by Jane Walsh (CC ‘23) and Sophie Simons (BC ‘25), which ran in the Glicker-Milstein Theatre on March 7 and 8.

We’ve always associated stand-up comedy with awkwardness, in the sense that it feels deeply awkward to watch someone trying to be funny knowing that your laughter may make or break their self-esteem. Crowd Work, a theatrical production by Memento Mori, Columbia’s stand-up comedy club, played masterfully on that awkwardness during its limited run at the Glicker-Milstein Theatre before spring break. Set at a bar in Portland, Maine, a stand-up competition formed the framework for this show, which emphasized both the hilarity and heartrending vulnerability of comedy.

Crowd Work was written, directed, and produced by Jane Walsh (CC ‘23) and Sophie Simons (BC ‘25), and co-written by Eliza Staples (BC ‘23) and Naila Julian. Cierra Martinez (BC ‘24) played Erin, owner of the bar hosting the competition. Her employee Stacy (Alex Prezeau, BC ‘24) wants to win, badly. But her chances grow slimmer when Kennedy (Ryan Puterbaugh, CC ‘24), an aspiring vice principal from a local middle school, joins at the last minute in an effort to appear more spontaneous. The competition is judged by a minor comedic celebrity, Skylar (Miranda Paiz, BC ‘25), whom Stacy desperately wants to impress. Yet Skylar appears more interested in flirting with the journalist covering the competition, Jamie (Lauren Unterberger, BC ‘24), who wants it to be known that she is a political reporter, not a stand-up expert. 

Though the plot was a little slow to come together, the show kicked into high gear when the standup itself started. Each character was afforded “rehearsal” scenes, introducing us to their comedic voice, and at the end, the actual competition took place, featuring some standup work from Skylar and Jamie as well as the contestants. If the audience’s laughter was any testament—and in the world of comedy, it is the testament—the stand-up was high-quality stuff. Any fears about awkwardness were comfortably assuaged.

The writers succeeded in defining a unique comedic voice for each character. Stacy is teased by the others for being uptight throughout the show, and her stand-up sequences provided a bit of insight into the reasons for her high-strung-ness. She riffed about trying and failing to make it in New York City (including a dramatic encounter with a Times Square Elmo), and a lot of the humor in her standup emerged from the relatability of the clash between her aspirations and the life she finds herself living. Erin’s brand of comedy was the most deadpan; her monologues were touched by cynicism. Though Stacy and Erin are in similar situations as employees of the bar, Stacy’s character was defined by insecurity and ambition, while Erin’s jaded attitude lent her comedy a darker edge. Kennedy’s comedy was characterized by reflections on pop culture—including a hilarious sequence about the procreation plot of Twilight, a highlight of the show.

A few of the characters seemed markedly different in their onstage “comedian” personas compared to the rest of their characterization. This was particularly apparent for Kennedy, who was introduced as a stiff middle school teacher who only joined the competition to prove he is spontaneous enough to be promoted to vice principal. However, he immediately (and without explanation) proved himself to be a natural comedian with a flair for the inappropriate and sexually explicit. Though this incongruity did come back to bite him in the end when he loses his job after Skylar leaks a video of his performance, this dissonance bordered on distracting. Kennedy was not the only character with unexplained motivations; Skylar was nasty nearly to the point of caricature. Though this was partially explained by her disdain at having to judge an amateur regional comedy competition in a mid-sized (at best) city, this could have been explored further to more fully flesh out her character.

This discrepancy may be accounted for by the fact that the writing process of the comedy sequences in Crowd Work was a collaborative process between the performers and the writers. Thus, the stand-up sequences, already breaking the fourth wall via a genre switch, also represented a collapse of boundaries between the characters and actors. In the show, the characters would have written their own material—knowing that this was partially true in real life increased the meta-narrative intrigue of the production.

Experiencing actors performing portions of their own routines also increased the immersion of the story. Especially in this play—which employed a prerecorded video screen showing behind-the-scenes moments in the bar’s bathroom, as well as intimate looks into the character’s tortured, aquatic psyches (you had to be there)—it was important to keep the audience engaged in the live moment. The confident delivery actors gave of their own familiar material made this possible.

Puterbaugh as Kennedy brought the most charisma and presence to the stage as a stand-up performer, though the whole cast proved to be successful comedians. Unterberger was hilarious as Jamie, who doesn’t even intend to be a stand-up comedian until what she witnesses during the competition inspires her to enter and essentially deliver a series of roasts of the others. 

The dynamic between Stacy and Skylar was weirdly sad to observe: Stacy idolizes Skylar, but Skylar couldn’t have more disdain for her. After the competition, Skylar offers the winning prize to every other candidate, who turns it down for one reason or another. Finally, she grudgingly offers it to her clear last choice, Stacy, whose excitement and joy is ironically painful: “I won?” she asks. This dynamic was rather heartbreaking, as opposed to funny. Clearly, Crowd Work’s creators were interested in portraying the real pain that goes into a career in the performing arts. 

Insofar as it showed the sad along with the funny, the lows along with the highs, Crowd Work was an ode to comedians as much as it was an ode to comedy itself. In the audience, we laughed hard, but we also felt the pain of Stacy’s failed attempts to please and Kennedy’s career consequences. The show ultimately made the vulnerability of performance palpable. Though we knew we were watching it within the context of a play, the stakes of the comedy competition felt real. Thus, the characters and the show itself felt real. After all, we were really laughing.

Crowd Work is available to watch via YouTube livestream recording here.

Header image via Screenshot from Crowd Work livestream