Finding her voice in the comedy mecca of Brooklyn meant Sabrina Wu '20 had to scrap some old material. Was it worth it? She – and the laughing audience – say yes.
By Guest Blogger Sabrina Wu '20
Sabrina Wu '20, a resident of Dunster House concentrating in psychology, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to perform stand-up comedy in Brooklyn, New York. Under the mentorship of established comic Harrison Greenbaum, she performed in New York’s stand-up comedy scene, produced and host a bi-weekly indie comedy show, and developed material for her one-woman show. At Harvard, Wu has been co-president of the Harvard College Stand-Up Comics Society and a member of On Thin Ice improv troupe. She has opened for comedian Cameron Esposito and was a finalist in the Boston College Comedy Festival. Wu intends to pursue a career in stand-up comedy and TV/film writing. Refledctions on her experiences this summer follow.
When I was performing in Michigan and Boston, I was often the only queer person of color on a line-up. In Brooklyn, I’m one in a million queer POC comedians in the scene. Brooklyn, home to the “alternative” comedy scene, champions originality and authenticity in comedy. I rarely felt like a “hack” comic back in Michigan and Boston, given how few queer POC there were. Most of my material felt like a refreshing and unique perspective there. However, Brooklyn’s demographics and higher standards forced me to confront problems with my old material.
While most of my time in Brooklyn was devoted to growing material for my one-woman show, a lot of my work in Brooklyn revolved around combing through old material.
I scrapped a lot of jokes I used to tell. This is a video of me in the fall, opening for Cameron Esposito. Here are a few old joke lines of mine that make me cringe now:
“I hate when people stop in the middle of the road, after I hit them with my car”
“Asians aren’t bad drivers, maybe they’re good drivers with bad intentions.”
“Some guy asked me what culture are you? Obviously, I am a lesbian.”
To replace old jokes, I’ve tried out tons of new material. Inspired by the Brooklyn scene, I’ve tried to dabble a little in more absurdist comedy. To be honest, most of the new absurdist material failed miserably; it’s new to me, and my stand-up tends to be pretty sincere and personal. However, I have created a fun new bit in which I play “the world’s greatest actor”: I explain what a double-take is and then attempt to do the world’s first ever “twenty-four-take” on a pink dildo with tango music in the background. It’s weird and definitely a work in progress, but I’m grateful to have been exposed to and gotten to explore a new area of stand-up. While not all of my new jokes have stuck, it is obvious that my “booked show”/performance-ready material has changed a great deal since before Brooklyn. Here is a video of a recent set I did at a show called Lesbian Agenda at Union Hall in Brooklyn.
Many things took me by surprise in my time in Brooklyn. I thought when I moved there, I could do 10 open mics a week. I thought the best/only way to develop longer sets was through producing my own show. I was eager to have the free time of summer and resources of being in New York, and I wanted to milk it for all its got. I wanted to be a creative, joke-writing machine. I wanted to treat art like a sport, thinking the more I exercised the stand-up muscle, the better.
I quickly learned that 10 mics a week was unsustainable. A few weeks in, I realized I didn’t have the time and space to create big new ideas. Instead, I had the energy only to perform already-performed material. I could only add a few lines at a time. And I was exhausted and already feeling burned out. I also learned that getting a venue to agree to host your stand-up show is difficult if you’re moving away in the near future. A lot of ideas I had for improv were not working. I proposed an unsustainable means to get better.
But many new and surprising opportunities came. I learned that there is a huge indie/alt scene, and if broken into, a comic could get a lot more quality stage-time. After really nailing a few of my sets at open mics, I got invited to join many indie shows. While I didn’t do 10 open mics a week where I would be given 3-4 minutes of stage time, I did get to do around 30 booked shows that ranged from 7-to-15 minutes of stage time. Because I was performing on booked shows, I was able to experiment more with my material, as the audiences were bigger and more attentive.
In my final weeks in Brooklyn, I felt so much gratitude for this experience. Through integrating into the Brooklyn scene, I got to perform on shows with many of heroes: Julio Torres, Lorelei Ramirez, Robby Hoffman, Joel Kim Booster, Jaboukie Young-White, Ronny Chieng. I got to be on fun lesbian comedy podcasts, and be a part of a live-show/podcast taping with Bowen Yang (SNL) and Matt Rogers (Comedy Central), and there I performed arguably my best/favorite new bit that came out of my time in Brooklyn. Here is a link to the podcast website. Find me 85 minutes in on the I Don’t Think So Honey! 13 (part 1) Episode.
And the craziest, unexpected development of my summer is this: After I Don’t Think So Honey, I was approached by two producers. I’m in the process of creating a feature film/longer story about a relationship I had in high school. I’ve been pulling pieces of old and new stand-up material, and I think my work will have heavy overlap with my eventual one-woman show.