Harrison R. Greenbaum ’08 does it for the anxiety. “Stand-up is the most adrenaline-fueled performance art,” he says. Right from the start of his journey towards creating a comedy institution on campus, he felt that anxiety.
In January of 2007, Greenbaum, along with David Ingber ’07, got Harvard’s first ever student organization devoted to stand-up comedy approved as an official club. They called it the Harvard Stand-Up Comedy Society, or HSUCS. Say that acronym out loud once or twice and you’ll get the joke.
“The dean’s office didn’t realize that our acronym was Harvard SUCS,” Greenbaum explains. But soon, it seemed that the proverbial jig was up. “They called us in to tell us we needed to change the name, so we thought they would be pissed.”
As it turned out, the dean’s objection was actually just that “Harvard” could refer to any one of the various schools within the University, so the group needed to specify “Harvard College.” With a sigh of relief, they changed the name to the Harvard College Stand-Up Comedy Society (HCSUCS).
Such stand-up comedy groups have no real precedent at Harvard, but Greenbaum and Ingber have managed to gain a foothold for HCSUCS in the world of the arts on campus, as well as the world at large.
The gestation of the group began in 2006 at the annual Demon Comedy Festival, when Greenbaum and Ingber recognized a void in the Darwinian social order of campus organizations.
Within a matter of months, the group was functional, producing seven shows and participating in five more.
“They were unequivocally all successful,” says Greenbaum. “We saw there was an implicit desire for comedy on campus. People really wanted to see live comedy.”
With their Harvard momentum propelling them, this summer Greenbaum and Ingber set out to establish themselves in New York and managed to secure a weekly show, “Don’t Touch the Foot,” at the Sage Theater in New York City.
Of course, path-breaking can be strenuous work.
“In this situation, you have to handle the business stuff,” explains Greenbaum. “You’re hustling, you’re calling shows, you’re sending press kits.”
But not everyone in HCSUCS has to feel the pressure. Matthew I. Bohrer ’10, in his second year with HCSUCS, is excited by the group’s success in so quickly tapping into a base of alumni.
“We’re trying to create something that people can make into a career if they want,” says Bohrer. “Or not.”
SLAYING THE DRAGON
Meanwhile, back in Cambridge, HCSUCS’s new generation is testing out their chops.
It’s a Friday evening in a Winthrop common room, and HCSUCS’s first self-produced show for the school year is gearing up. The performers are mostly sitting on their hands in the front of the room, stage left. Every poshly-upholstered armchair in the room is full.
“Stand-up is the most terrifying thing ever. It’s like slaying a dragon,” says Nelson T. Greaves ’10, a recent initiate into HCSUCS. “But you also want that dragon to think you’re cool and funny.”
Megan L. Amram ‘10 has something of the mild, expository, unthreatening stage presence of former Saturday Night Live comedienne Julia Sweeney—except she wants to be funnier than someone like Sweeney.
“I love stand-up comedy because it combines my two favorite activities,” Amram says. “Standing up and comedy.”
Amram, Greenbaum, Greaves, and Bohrer are soon joined by Alexandra A. Petri ’10 and Hillary H. Wang ’11.
The routines mostly consist of jokes on the kinds of topics you might expect: Harvard, drinking, sex, and Judaism. What is surprising is that they’re good.
In fact, most of HCSUCS had the chops to get spots at the Boston Comedy Festival, which runs through Oct. 13.
“YOU SHOULD TRY STANDUP”
In part, the level of polish some of these novice comedians display is doubtlessly attributable to the collaborative workshopping of routines—a vital part of HCSUCS.
“Stand-up can be an isolating, solitary pursuit,” says Petri. “You usually come up with things you think are funny, you go and do your set, and if you people think you’re funny, you know you’ve got some good material. If not, you walk off with your tail between your legs.”
“The Harvard community is great because you get to bounce ideas off of this little cadre of people,” Petri continues. “It’s sort of weird, that’s not the way things usually work.”
HCSUCS prides itself on just this kind of motherly guidance and unconditional openness. “Performers have an open invitation from us,” says Greenbaum. “We’re more than happy to help out new comedians.”
Wang, for instance, who joined HCSUCS only weeks ago, performed her first show in Winthrop on Friday.
“I was just talking to my roommates one day, telling a joke, and they said, ‘You should try stand up.’”
As the comedians themselves attest, getting a slot on stage is far easier than succeeding on that stage.
“My first show, I was terrible, I bombed,” Bohrer recalls. “I had a few good jokes, but I was completely nervous.”
“Since then, I’ve worked out what works and what doesn’t by process of elimination,” he says.
Which isn’t to say the process is without rewards.
“The moments when they do laugh, and when there’s even any applause, they make it all worth it,” says Wang. “You think, ‘I wrote that. That’s my joke. That’s my laugh.’”