Standing Ovation

Knock, knock! HSUC opens the door to stand-up comedy at Harvard

See that comic over there? He SUCS.

Bet you never heard that as a compliment. But among those familiar with Harvard Stand-Up Comic Society (HSUCS), it’s considered high praise indeed.

HARVARD: SUCS-ING SINCE JANUARY 2007

While the club was originally recognized at the beginning of 2007, its founding members—alumnus David W. Ingber ’07 and Harrison R. Greenbaum ’08—were already participating in a growing comedic presence on Harvard’s campus.

Greenbaum, a magician by trade who was later bitten by the stand-up bug, performed at Harvard’s Demon ComedyFest his freshman year. Greenbaum returned his sophomore year, where co-founder Ingber entertained viewers with comedy songs strummed on his guitar.

“I thought his stuff was unbelievable,” Greenbaum says of Ingber’s act.

The two talked afterward. “Why do we have to wait one year to do a stand-up show? It sells out every year. It’s a popular thing. People really want stand-up,” Greenbaum remembers thinking. “This is crazy that it’s not here on campus.”

“Some people will start a club so that they can put on shows,” Ingber says. But the duo already had the shows—so why not just start a club?

Ingber, a former student in Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse’s Literature 166, “The Comic Tradition in Jewish Culture,” tapped into his professor’s enthusiasm when he asked Wisse to advise HSUCS.

“Comedy plays an increasingly important role in American culture,” says Wisse. “Anything that is so important in the life of the country should be reflected in life of the college,” she adds.

With a professor and experienced comedians on board, HSUCS was ready to take on the Harvard audience.

THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

While recognition from the College is one thing, winning respect from the audience is another.

Greenbaum says that he and Ingber started the club with several goals in mind. Helping new comics shape their acts was one of the most important.

“We nurture the comics,” Greenbaum explains. “We work on their three minutes, their five minutes, 10 minutes.” Although he had several mentors, Greenbaum says he was effectively learning the craft on his own when he first tackled stand-up.

“I would write out jokes that I could have sworn were hilarious, but when I got on stage, they would flop. It’s a horrible feeling,” Greenbaum says.

“We sort of vet the jokes before they even hit the stage,” he adds. This is an unusual practice for stand-up comedy, which typically focuses on individual performance.

“You work on your material yourself, and you don’t really get to learn how to improve it until you hear what the audience’s reaction is,” HSUCS member Matthew I. Bohrer ’10 says about sticking to open-mics. “Which can be a very painful thing,” he adds.

While creating a community of comedians is one goal, helping the audience understand the craft behind the scenes is another aim of the organization.

The group’s first show at Arts First, Greenbaum remembers, was not listed with the arts groups. “It’s really important to us to establish stand-up as a viable art form,” Greenbaum says.

Whatever its status in the world of performance arts, stand-up at Harvard is a popular act. HSUCS produced seven shows last year, all of which sold out, according to Greenbaum. In addition, comedians from HSUCS participated in five other shows not produced by the club.

A NETWORK OF SUCS-ERS

With Ingber’s graduation last year and Greenbaum’s impending exit from Johnston Gate, the club’s network is expanding beyond Harvard’s campus.

Over the summer Ingber and Greenbaum debuted “Don’t Touch the Foot,” a showcase for young Harvard comics and other budding comics. The Sage Theatre in Times Square hosted the show every week.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Ingber. “It’s a showcase for younger, rising comics,” he adds. “We’re all in it together.”

“Anyone who is in HSUCS can be in a Broadway show, which is pretty huge,” Greenbaum says in reference to the success of the production.

Harvard funnymen like Nathan J. Dern ’07 and Baratunde R. Thurston ’99 were frequent performers at the Sage Theater during its run. Thurston now hosts the show.

“[Ingber and Greenbaum are] really trying to build us a base, with connections to Harvard comics,” says Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a member of HSUCS.

Harvard comedians, it seems, are serious about their humor. When asked about her postgraduate plans, Petri says, “They definitely include comedy.”

“They also include eating,” she adds, “so it probably won’t be my day job, at least not for awhile.”

But have no fear, Harvard comics: performance opportunities are expanding as affiliated chapters spring up at the University at Buffalo, Brigham Young University and even in Sydney, Australia. Plans are in the works for bringing SUCS to Tufts University and New York University.

As the organization gains momentum at Harvard, in Times Square, and around the world, the future definitely SUCS.