State of the Arts: What’s so funny?

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Staff Writer

Sarah Mixon (C’21) was ten years old when she watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live. Her family enjoyed stand-up comedy, so she was no stranger to the genre, but a fire was lit inside her that she could not extinguish.

“Immediately I was inspired,” she recalled. “[I] wanted to be like them.”

In middle school, she read their autobiographies, and started learning exactly what it took to become a comedian. At the time, she wanted to be a comedy writer, so she wrote talent show skits for her friends, which was “a lot of fun.” She then worked on and performed a handful of routines for high school shows. 

The first full set she performed was at Sewanee. At an open mic event hosted by the Writing House in the last academic year for the Humor section of The Mountain Goat journal, Mixon, a theatre and women’s and gender studies double major, performed her particular brand of poetry called “feminist comedy.” In her set, she talked about dealing with online trolls and about being a plus-sized woman. 

“I don’t have to talk about being a woman, but I like it,” she said. “I think it’s important. It would be nice if I could just talk about whatever I think is funny, but I think it needs to be said.” 

After the success of this venture, Mixon decided that she wanted to do it again. In the semester following, she tried to organize a comedy night, which unfortunately fell through. However, this semester, Dillon Sheehan (C’22), executed a comedy night at the Tennessee Williams Center (TWC), based on Mixon’s original premise. Here, Mixon, along with other comically-inclined individuals, got to work on and perform new routines. 

But this event is an outlier. Sewanee’s comedy scene is practically nonexistent, and aspiring comedians like Mixon are well aware of this lack.

When Max Saltman (C’21) arrived in Sewanee as a freshman, he knew only one other person who was interested in comedy. Having celebrated his sixth anniversary of doing stand-up just last month, he sought out open mics to perform stand up. During his sophomore year, as a resident of the Writing House and as the newly appointed editor of The Mountain Goat’s Humor section, Saltman organized and hosted the event at which Mixon made her college comedy debut. 

“A [comedy] scene is defined by its open mics,” said Saltman. “It’s a place where you can do a bad job and learn from your mistakes. The best thing about comedy is that bombing will feel like you’re dying but it won’t kill you. Sewanee needs that kind of space where people can explore doing comedy and can explore doing standup.”

Saltman carved his own space to explore comedy on the day of the Activities’ Fair in his first year. He recalled walking up to Robert Beeland (C’18), then editor-in-chief of The Sewanee Purple, drawing him a cartoon, and asking if he could be a cartoonist for the newspaper. His comics are an outlet of self-expression; and comedy, he sincerely believes, “is the most truthful form of expression—it really can tell the health of a society by the way it makes fun of itself.”

If that is the case, then Sewanee is practically at death’s door. Currently, we do not have an improv group. We do not have consistent open mics. Comedians do not perform here except on very rare occasions. To Saltman, all of this “just shows that we perhaps are not as willing to make fun of ourselves.” 

He offers Sewanee Monologues—the subject of a previous State of the Arts— as an example. He notes that some monologues maintain a comedic bent while others are more serious. At any other school, he extrapolates, Sewanee Monologues would have already provided an opportunity and an avenue for a parody event. 

“But we’re really sensitive about this stuff—for good reasons,” he said. “We’re a small space. We’ve got to use our inside voice. If we make fun of each other, things get awkward real fast. But this is where the job of the comedian comes in. If I’m a comedian, I should be expected to make fun of things.”

One may recall the almost instantaneous rise to fame of The Common Source, an Instagram account that parodied The Sewanee Purple. To date, The Common Source boasts 2,491 followers to The Purple’s 1,364 — a difference in follower count of over a thousand. However, The Common Source has since slowed down, with its last post on Feb. 1. But the rate at which the parody account rose to prominence speaks to a need and a desire within the college community: the need to laugh.

“I think people are frustrated,” said Saltman. “I sometimes feel frustrated that I don’t have an outlet to make jokes about the things I want to make jokes about.”

He draws a distinction between the terms “make fun of” and “make jokes about.”

“When you’re making fun of someone, it implies that I’m having fun and you’re not,” he explained. “But if I make a joke, everyone’s in on it.”

This is part of the vision for comedy that Saltman has for Sewanee: comedy that invites everyone into a space, to laugh together about the things that need to be laughed at. He believes that “we can do it without hurting each other’s feelings; we can do it without excluding people.” 

“Comedy is also a way for people who are not as well represented to insert themselves into the narrative,” he said. “I can’t imagine the experience of people of color here. I’m Jewish, and I’m like, [Sewanee] is really f*cking white. It’s so white that I don’t feel like I’m white. And that is ripe for comedy. And the nonwhite community definitely has a story to tell and it’s going to be funny.”

So what does a healthy comedy scene at Sewanee look like? For Mixon, it looks like getting an improv group together. It looks like an annual comedy night. 

For Saltman, it looks like hiring professional comedians to perform at Sewanee. It looks like consistent open mics. It looks like a campus and community wide comedy event on the same level of prestige as Sewanee Monologues or Perpetual Motion. It looks like embracing different kinds of catharsis to improve Sewanee’s collective psychological wellbeing.

“Everybody loves comedy,” said Mixon. “Everybody’s quoting John Mulaney around here. Why don’t we be our own John Mulaneys? I know that we have the capability here.” 

But at the end of the day, it is as much about capability as it is about a collective need. 

“We just need to be able to laugh at ourselves and we’re not doing that,” said Saltman. “Sewanee is a strange, weird place, and if we’re not willing to laugh at ourselves about that, then we’re not as good of a school as we think we are.”