With a global pandemic, major social movements, and crucial political events all occurring within the past year, finding reasons to laugh has been challenging. After a year of empty venues, comedians are eager to return to the stage.
Joe Aasim, who hosts a monthly comedy night in Hamtramck called Neapolitan Ice Cream, and Diana Graham, a 5-year veteran of the Michigan Comedy scene, told Stateside about how their creative process has changed in the past year. They also shared their experience as members of Detroit’s queer community.
Early experiences onstage
Inspired by Dan Cummins and John Mulaney, Graham fell in love with comedy as a teen and felt they had to give it a shot. They are “forever grateful” for the Milford arts collective that hosted their first mixed-medium open mic.
Aasim’s first gig took place in a Florida Holiday Inn Hotel lobby before an odd mix of college kids, truck drivers, and other passers-by.
“I got enough laughs to not be totally discouraging,” Aasim said.
Drawing in new audiences in quarantine
While in-person open mics have been on pause for much of the past year, Aasim noted that quarantine gave many the chance to explore new sources of entertainment.
“I'm like, ‘Wow, this is like a time for everybody to find new stuff.’ And a lot of those folks are, I feel like, giving comedy a chance in a way that maybe we didn't have before the pandemic. . . Even if you weren't into comedy before, I bet, you know, you found a comic out there,” Aasim said.
Adapting to virtual performances
“I did one Zoom show, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it really. I just felt so uncomfortable,” Graham said.
The lack of audience laughter makes virtual shows radically different from in-person open mics. However, Aasim expressed that virtual shows pushed him and other comics to be more creative. He’s enjoyed watching other comics play with audio filters and bits about technical difficulties and bandwidth issues.
“Another bit that you can only do over Zoom that I saw. . . You can have a smoking room and a nonsmoking room at the same time!” Aasim said.
Presenting their identities onstage
Both Graham and Aasim incorporate bits about the LGBTQ+ experience in their standup material. They’re well aware that not every audience will be welcoming, but Aasim emphasized that, for queer comics, this experience isn’t unique to the stage.
“For me, that’s part of the rules of engagement in life. I think for a lot of queers, we walk out the door in a world that asks us to make adjustments, or asks us to accommodate us, and sometimes forces us to. So in a very real sense, queer comics are some of the most prepared people for a hostile environment,” Aasim said.
For Graham, comedy allows them and less accepting audiences to meet in the middle.
“If you can’t understand me or you don’t understand my identity, that’s okay. We can still laugh at this mutually funny thing together,” Graham said.
Writing jokes in the wake of a heavy year
Aasim has been working in an animal hospital throughout the pandemic. The daily reminder of mortality made him question whether he should keep telling jokes at all, but comedy ultimately helped him balance the gravity of this year’s challenges.
“People think of comedy as a superpower sometimes, because they both have the same origin story, which is trauma survival. Every single superhero’s origin story is trauma survival. The vast majority of comics have some sort of trauma survival in their past, whether they talk about it or not,” Aasim said.
Aasim will emcee the next Neapolitan Ice Cream show on Sunday, July, 11 at Trixie’s in Hamtramck.