“Can we joke about race in America?” was the leading description to Visions & Voices’ latest event, Stand-ups Speak Out. The answer, as one might expect, was an overwhelming “yes” from one of the most diverse crowds I had ever seen at a USC event. Even comedian Jenny Yang was surprised: “I like diversity but this is too far,” she joked after spending a good four minutes free-styling to the unstable beat of the crowd’s clapping hands. The event was an illustration of how comedy explored race, identity and stereotypes — a refreshing and nuanced idea in the volatile political climate of recent months.
Improv and sketch comedian Dwayne Colbert emceed the show, interjecting with anecdotes about seeing his father naked, and following them up with statements like, “I am not a comedian.”
The show opened with the adorable JR De Guzman, who was easily also the highlight. De Guzman, who hails from the Philippines, used his guitar to deliver some of the most poignant and original jokes of the night. Aside from the staple gag about Asian parents and their hostile relationship with their children’s careers, De Guzman employed his schoolboy charm to confess the disadvantages to living with your parents. The worst of all, he said, is when they tell you that they’re about to have sex: “He was at my doorframe with a wine bottle and he said, ‘JR, go to sleep.’”
De Guzman also addressed issues of racism with the same lovable originality. One of his songs inspired interracial babies everywhere: “You can be the president!” he sang in his vanilla voice. When recounting how he visited Tennessee with his white girlfriend and was met with disapproving bigotry, he launched into a song from the perpetrator’s point of view: “Nobody dates my sisters but me.” The crowd roared.
Yang also delivered a similarly energetic performance that touched on her experience as an Asian American at the predominantly white Swarthmore College and how she felt about the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee being taken down — which was, by the way, “turned on.” Her best moment was a strange bird-sound-cum-mating-call to illustrate how women act when they haven’t seen each other in a while. Her parting message: “Let’s not comment on each other’s bodies.”
David Arnold, although arguably the most famous stand-up of the group, was a disappointment. He had his moments — for instance, when he stated that “white people have been lying their whole life” and received many a hoot in response. However, it seemed as if he spent half of his set telling the audience to relax, relax again, and that no one gives a f— about white people. In a word, he was dripping with a certain cool guy attitude that got old extremely fast.
Finally, there was Priyanka Wali: a fellow Trojan, practicing physician and in her own words, “a down ass b—- who likes to kick ass.” Wali honed in on practically everything that is funny about being Indian: her grandparents’ arranged marriage, Indian dating websites and how you have to select a skin tone on page two of your profile (the shades are grouped by bread — wheaty, toasty and so on).
After creating an account for herself on shaadi.com without a single picture and the aforementioned personality description, Wali recounted how she got email, after email, after email — one from a father looking for a match for his son. Yes, it was the staple Indian joke, but Wali had an infectious presence that made even the stern old man next to me giggle.