"It just seems unnecessary for it to be so competitive."

A conversation about comedy and Chicago with Cassidy Kulhanek.

"It just seems unnecessary for it to be so competitive."
Photo by Brandi Alexandra / Unsplash

Today I resuscitate my occasional but long-dormant series of conversations with comedy workers about The State of The Industry at its ground floor, with an eye towards how things have or haven’t changed over the course of the pandemic. I recently spoke with Cassidy Kulhanek, a comedian and visual artist based in Chicago by way of North Carolina, whose work I’ve enjoyed for several years now (in internet form… I am woefully overdue for a Chicago trip). She is the host of How to Write a Joke, a podcast featuring craft conversations with other comedians, and if you’re in the Chicago area you can catch her show The Laugh Yard every third Saturday at the Lincoln Lodge. We discussed her frustrations with the business, the persistence of the boys’ club, whether collective action is possible in comedy, and more.

Our conversation is below, lightly edited for brevity and clarity; at the end of this email you’ll also find a brief roundup of some things that have caught my eye lately. If you’re a comedy worker interested in chatting for this series, please reach out anytime.

Can you tell me about what drew you to comedy?

My entire life I wanted to go into it. When I was a kid, I used to watch the Comedy Central specials that would run in the afternoons pretty obsessively. And then as an adult, I lived in a place where there wasn't a comedy scene, so I didn't get into it until my late 20s when I moved somewhere that did. I started when I was 26 in 2019, and I started out in the Chapel Hill/Raleigh area. My partner was already living in Chicago at that point, so I wanted to move to Chicago for the comedy, but then I also had another reason to come, so I ended up here. And the pandemic happened and I've been doing comedy here since 2021.

I want to talk about the pandemic in a second, but first: what's the scene like in Chapel Hill?

It's surprisingly strong. It's not a huge scene, but the comics there are pretty good at what they do. At the time that I was there, it was pretty awesome because the unanimously agreed-upon best comedian in the scene was a 19-year-old who has since come out as nonbinary. They were so important for all of the women and nonbinary people in the scene there, because you had someone you could look to that everyone respected, and it kind of validated everybody who wasn't just a straight white dude. So it was a pretty good scene to start out in, I would have to say.

Fast forwarding to 2020, what was your experience of the pandemic?

When the pandemic happened and there was no live comedy, I was moving, so I had a lot of other things going on in my life too, and I had just finished grad school. With regards to comedy, I kind of pivoted and focused all of my energy on Twitter and trying to perform comedy in that way—to write tweets and think about it as my writing practice, and do little videos and things like that and try to build a following there. And then when comedy reopened, I pivoted back and stopped focusing so much on the online stuff.

How did the pandemic affect the live scene in Chicago?

There's no gentle way to phrase this, but I think that the pandemic was the best thing that could have happened to the Chicago comedy scene for people entering it, because it created a lot of vacuums that needed to be filled. I was able to start on my feet. In June of 2021, when things opened back up, I started putting on backyard shows, and doing those shows helped me get my foot in the door in a lot of places and get to know the community. I was booking major acts from around Chicago in those shows, and I think people wouldn't have been as willing to do a silly little backyard show if the clubs were still an option. I know that the pandemic affected the scene in a lot of other ways, but my experience was that it created opportunities for new talent to enter the pool.

One reason I wanted to talk to you is that I've seen you tweet a few times about your frustrations with comedy and that you're considering leaving it; I’m interested in the things that drive people out of comedy or make it difficult for them to keep going. Can you tell me about that?

One of the dominant problems for me is the transactional nature of the social aspect. As a comedian and as a producer, I feel that there are a lot of people who I'm constantly interacting with who are not wholly genuine or authentic in our interactions. I feel like it's very much a ladder-climbing game, and everyone is always trying to get up to the next rung. So I've had a really hard time making true deep connections with many comedians, because I have found that a lot of the people I'm interacting with are just interested in you insofar as you are able to benefit them. That's a really, really dominant attitude, which is unfortunate because it's very counterproductive to the supposed community aspect of comedy.

Another thing that I find really frustrating, and something that's kind of driving me to no longer want to do this stuff, is that—people make arguments that it's not a boys' club anymore, but it 100% still is. And it's really hard to be taken seriously when you point that out, because there are examples of women in comedy who are really successful and who are doing well, but they're still outliers. And a lot of the shows, a lot of the clubs I've dealt with, a lot of the festivals I've dealt with, they're all by and large still run by men. And there is a lot of ingrained misogyny and sexism in these institutions that makes it hard to be welcomed in or taken seriously once you're there.

Do you think these dynamics have gotten sort of worse as the industry and the pipelines have dried up? Have they stayed the same?

I don't know that it has gotten worse across the board. I do think there are more opportunities now for writers and comedians who are people of color, or who are women or nonbinary. I think the problem is that those opportunities tend to be not the most major opportunities, and the most major opportunities still seem to be going to the same people.

Is there any interest in collective action in the circles that you're in? Do you think that's remotely possible in such a stratified, largely DIY space?

I think it's possible. The problem is that there is a really retaliatory nature in these people who we would be working against. I think that a lot of people that I am close with or that I work with, people that I respect, even, that believe in what I'm doing or want to be a part of something like that, even those people would hesitate to put their name on something like that, because it means not getting booked at certain shows. It means not getting to do Comedians You Should Know. It means that these people turn you into a foe and start excluding you because of your associations. So I would love for that to be the case, but it's hard to do with so much at risk for so many people. And I think that's actually also part of what is so attractive about the idea of leaving the scene—I could finally be able to talk about these things more openly and not fear repercussions.

If you are trying to get the big external opportunities, like JFL before it went under, or a Saturday Night Live audition, or the Netflix Is A Joke audition, then you need to focus all of your energy on the Laugh Factory.

What's keeping you from just calling it quits right now?

I mean, I do love performing. I really love writing and I have a really great writing partner who is very encouraging. Think I'm just gonna pause for a little while, but to focus on writing and performing in a new way. I'm more interested in doing comedy that's not standup right now. I think that if I didn't love it, I wouldn't do it.

What sort of sway do the traditional clubs still have in Chicago?

If you are trying to get the big external opportunities, like JFL before it went under, or a Saturday Night Live audition, or the Netflix Is A Joke audition, then you need to focus all of your energy on the Laugh Factory. The Laugh Factory still has pull. Zanies, not quite so much. The Comedy Bar, I would say, doesn't really have any sway at all. The Lincoln Lodge is not really a club per se, but I would say the Laugh Factory and then the Lincoln Lodge would be the two most powerful institutions in the scene right now.

It's interesting, there's still this narrative out there that alt comedy has made it so you don't have to go through those spaces anymore. But the more I talk to people, the more it seems like you really do if you want to make money.

I was not here before the pandemic, so I can't speak to it, but from what I've heard, the alt comedy scene was much bigger in Chicago, and it's kind of a shell of what it used to be. All of the alt comedy is kind of taking place at the Lincoln Lodge or the Annoyance, and there's not a ton of DIY stuff happening.

These people aren't just some dude. So many of these guys have major roles writing for TV, doing different production things or whatever. They're powerful and they abuse that power in multiple ways.

Has anything changed in the wake of MeToo in the way people deal with or talk about abusers?

Absolutely not. Not even a little bit. That's not something that you and I have talked about here, but I've had experiences with men in comedy like that, and it's very demoralizing and it's a very difficult part to reconcile with my participation in the scene. Because just see these people that are your attackers and you just have to sit back and not say anything, because they're so successful that it could ruin your career. My attacker went on to become a writer for a popular TV show—what am I supposed to do or say? These people aren't just some dude. So many of these guys have major roles writing for TV, doing different production things or whatever. They're powerful and they abuse that power in multiple ways. And when you know about it or you've been a victim of it, that is a really difficult part of comedy. It's always hanging over your head, and it's something that you have to be careful with who you talk to about it. Because there are a lot of people who start to tune you out or roll their eyes if you bring it up.

You're also a visual artist. What itch does that scratch for you that comedy doesn’t?

It's kind of my first language. I feel like I'm able to communicate things a little bit easier and more naturally through visual art. Whereas I feel like when I'm on stage, I'm communicating very vulnerable parts of myself, but I'm performing them. So there's still kind of a character element to it, even if I'm just myself.

In a philosophical sense, what is the point of comedy to you? What drew you to those specials you watched growing up?

I think the thing that drew me to those comedy specials, and the thing that comedy does in a writ-large sense, is that it is an act of manufacturing joy. I've always been very much a people pleaser my entire life. Making other people happy is my favorite thing. And so to make people laugh—which is like the ultimate expression of joy—is kind of like the most pure form of that, right? 

And I have jokes that are not easy subject matter. I talk about being attacked. I talk about my friend who died when I was a kid. I talk about all these different dark things, and they were hard for me to deal with, but the way that I survived them was by finding the absurdity and the humor in them. So to be able to communicate experiences that are really difficult in a way that makes people find little glimmers of joy is something very powerful to me, because I hope that becomes a resource for the audience. They can then do the same thing, you know?

Absolutely. It's magic. Do you feel that working in comedy has shaped your political consciousness at all?

I think that working in comedy has not shaped my political consciousness. I think art school probably shaped my political consciousness the most.

Interesting. How so?

Just being in a setting where we were very much encouraged to be the most liberated forms of ourselves, and seeing what it was like to exist without certain social expectations or whatever. And all of it just pushed me farther and farther left, because it was very much like—there are ways that we could be living, where we could be kind and we could be happy and we could be working together and collaborating on things. I think if anything, doing comedy has actually made me less politically active.

There needs to be either many, many more opportunities for upward mobility or absolutely no opportunities for upward mobility.

What do you think needs to happen in the industry to make it more of a space where people are free to make good art without worrying about the politics and the transactionalism and the business of it all?

I think that there needs to be either many, many more opportunities for upward mobility or absolutely no opportunities for upward mobility. I think being in the middle—where there's a few opportunities here and there, but not that many, and that means there are thousands and thousands of comedians fighting for five spots on one thing—it creates a really hyper competitive environment. And that competitive nature, I think, is what contributes the most to the negative social aspects of it, or the cliquishness of it, or the isolation that a lot of people feel. It just seems unnecessary for it to be so competitive.

That’s what boggles my mind—all of this scarcity mindset over writing for Jimmy Fallon or Lorne Michaels. And all of the suffering downstream from those being the opportunities that everyone's after.

And I think that what excites me the most, and why I gravitate towards working with the people that I work with, is that these institutional longstanding opportunities should not be everyone's end goal. I loved Saturday Night Live when I was a kid. I don't want to write for or perform on Saturday Night Live as an adult. And it's just because I know that that's not the kind of work that I would be best suited for or would enjoy the most. I think there is so much opportunity for people to create cool new things, but they're so focused on the old things that they don't take those opportunities.

Rounding it out, then: what have you seen lately that made you laugh?

This is such a stupid answer, but the thing that has made me laugh the hardest in the last few days was that a friend of mine sent a really, really dumb typo to me in a text last night. He had left something at my house and I had just dropped him off, so I was gonna have to loop around and come back. And he meant to say, "Thank God, sorry to make you loop, take your time." And he said, "Thank God, sorry to make you poop, take your time." And it just sent me. That's maybe not the answer you were looking for, but that is the hardest I've laughed lately.

No, I love stories like that. Talking and reading about comedy, you encounter the mindset a lot that comedians have a monopoly on being funny, and that all of the funniest things happen in comedy sets, but to me so many of the funniest things in the world happen completely accidentally, outside comedy, and to me comedy's about recapturing that feeling.

Yeah, that attitude is so, so bad for comedy. I feel like you can only think that way if you think that comedy exists in a vacuum, and if you think that comedy exists in a vacuum, then what the hell do you get on stage and talk about?

What Else?

-I very much enjoyed Matt Porter’s new short See Saw.

-The comedian and filmmaker (and my friend) Marissa Goldman is raising money for a short film starring Anna Seregina, David Brown (of See Saw, above, and also Jury Duty and much more), and Jon Daly. Chip in if you can!

-I had a great time watching Dan Licata’s special For The Boys, which I may or may not have more to say about soon. Still pondering.

-You’ve probably already seen Boy Room, but let me say here anyway that I’ve been loving Boy Room, Rachel Coster is such a funny host and for me the show really captures that “these people are REAL?!” feeling that made Nathan For You and How To With John Wilson so consistently wonderfully surprising. Check it out. 

-If you feel a terrible shudder pass through you this coming Friday, don’t worry: it’s probably just Jimmy Fallon meeting the Pope

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