When President-elect Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office on Friday, many of us will feel like crying. And vomiting. And maybe cry-vomiting, which will no doubt prove messy. But Emily Winter and Jenn Welch would prefer to have us laughing — and, more importantly, giving our money to a very Trump-unfriendly cause. That’s why these two Brooklyn-based comedians have founded the What a Joke comedy festival.
Throughout inauguration weekend, more than 500 comics will perform more than 80 shows in 33 cities around the country, including New York City, Albuquerque, Boston, Chicago, Des Moines, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis, San Francisco, Tucson, and Washington, D.C., not to mention Oxford, England. You can even buy “What a Joke” hats, with white text embroidered on red baseball caps, naturally. All proceeds from the festival will benefit the ACLU.
Welch performs and teaches at The People’s Improv Theater, where she also co-hosts The Stand-Up Showdown. Winter writes for TV Land and previously wrote for Fusion’s Come Here and Say That. In addition to coordinating the festival’s hard-working network of local producers and comedians, the duo is planning What a Joke’s three NYC shows, at which they’ll also perform: The Stand on Thursday the 19th ($40, with Janeane Garofalo headlining), The Annoyance on Friday the 20th ($15), and Rough Trade on Saturday the 21st ($20).
The Voice caught up with Welch and Winter about What a Joke and comedy in the age of Trump.
Where were you on election night?
Emily Winter: I was on a show where women and gay men dress up as straight men and make fun of them [Dudes Being Dudes Being Dudes]. I have a character called Feminist Bro: He supports Hillary, but for all the wrong reasons. He wants you to burn your bra so he can see your tits.
I was feeling very confident with all these other women at this show that everything was going to work out that night, but then we came out of the show space and there was a TV in the bar. It was very gloomy and it was very strange. I just got in an Uber and got home as fast as possible, then ate myself into a food coma.
Jenn Welch: I was doing social media for a women-run sketch show [The Box] at The PIT. We had taken over the entire theater for election night. There was a sketch performance downstairs and then upstairs was going to be live election results rolling in with a female comic giving commentary. But everybody was so stunned, the commentary didn’t happen. There was nothing to joke about.
I feel like every woman has been in a situation where That Guy has beaten us out for an opportunity. Trump is That Guy, just heightened and more awful. We live in a country that would rather take a chance on That Guy based on his potential than reward a woman for working her ass off. Our society doesn’t value Hillarys. Our society values Melanias.
How did the What a Joke Festival come about from there?
EW: As the results were coming in and it was looking grim, it wasn’t even a conscious decision. I immediately thought of Jenn Welch and Facebook messaged her, “We need to do something,” because I know Jenn is very funny and Jenn gets shit done. It was Jenn’s idea to do a national festival, or at least to reach out to other cities and see if they were interested. That just sounded so special and so important to me.
JW: By that point we were already seeing across our social media networks the same sort of despair coming from friends in different cities, and this “what do we do?” mentality. What do we do, as comedians, what do we do right now? How do we have as big of an impact as possible?
When we first sat down, we made a list of cities that we’d love to have involved. Then it grew exponentially as word started spreading.
What do you think when people say a Trump presidency will be good for comedy, or good for art in general? Do you agree?
JW: Ugh! Ugh! That’s what I think about that. Just write, “Jen just made horror noises. Jen recoiled.” I feel like our livelihood and our civil liberties and our access to reproductive healthcare and our ability to not have a wall between us and our neighboring countries and our ability to practice whatever religion or no religion at all — all of this is more important than comedy. I would rather be able to go to see a doctor than get a good joke about a man peeing on Russian prostitutes.
EW: I totally agree, but at the same time, it occurs to me that the comedy shows can’t be that good in Utopia. The comedy shows are probably not that good in heaven. And this is really fucking absurd, the fact that this man has the presidency. There’s a lot of material that needs to be mined, because people need to make sense of all of this.
A number of the cities participating in What a Joke are smack in the middle of red states. Was that a priority for you?
JW: If anything, I thought we wouldn’t have a shot there. I feel like a lot of the red-state cities came to us, and I think that’s really telling. [Knoxville producer and comedian] Shane Ryne caught wind of it and reached out to us. He’s built his own mini two-day festival there. He has 14 shows going up in two days; he has comedians from six different states involved. Shane was saying that, being a little blue enclave in a red state, you feel really isolated, and it means a lot that they can be part of this and feel part of something bigger.
Should ticketholders expect a lineup of explicitly political comedy?
JW: We are all inundated with politics right now—I don’t want this to come across as, now come listen to a bunch of comedians do the same take! We just want the best comedy show.
EW: What all the comedians decide to talk about is totally up to them. You wouldn’t go to a fundraiser for a dog shelter and expect to hear two hours of dog jokes, you know what I mean?
JW: The point of this is not political humor; the point is to raise money for the ACLU. And to come together, and laugh, and commiserate. Timing-wise, we’re hoping it will feel like a very mild “fuck you” — but not mild — to what’s going on. This is what we’re doing this weekend.
And why the ACLU?
EW: You expect that your president would protect your civil liberties, but when you look at the list of civil liberties, it’s just a list of things that Donald Trump has attacked — from how sexist and misogynistic he’s been, to how racist he’s been, to how he’s been to the press. And the ACLU has been so aggressive in saying, “We are going to hold you accountable. When you do illegal things, we’re going to sue you.”
Do you have any intention of watching the swearing-in ceremony on Friday?
JW: I teach tap dance classes, so I scheduled a class for that time, because I was like, screw it. While that shit-fuck is getting sworn in as president, I’m going to be teaching women how to tap dance.
EW: I’ve been doing a lot of social media for [the festival], so I will probably have it on in the background to fuel my hate and anger while I work.
Do you imagine that any Trump voters will come out to What a Joke? What would you say to any of them who might be considering it?
JW: I would love to have your money so that we can donate it to the ACLU.
EW: You know what, somewhere out there is a Trump voter who likes the ACLU and just wants to go to a comedy show. And that’s fine, they can come, great. I don’t understand their logic, but sure. Have a seat. Have a good time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.