On The Couch with Keisha Zollar

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Keisha Zollar

I always find it to be a particularly poignant therapy session if the subject does the lion’s share of the talking and I, the therapist, do the listening. This time, however, it was not because I wanted the patient to find herself through her words, but rather because I could not shake the feeling that I was fortunate to bear witness to a truly inspirational woman, one who was breaking boundaries with her ideas without even knowing it. The patient worked through her past, present, and goals for the future in such an eloquent manner that I felt suddenly so inadequate in my knowledge of discrimination, marginalization, and inclusion. It didn’t hurt that she was as charmingly self-aware as I hope to be, and well-versed in the New York comedy scene as a vet in the improv and sketch world. Keisha Zollar, who created and hosted “An Uncomfortable Conversation About Race”, a live panel discussion about racial relations this past December, stars in the first all-black house team at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and landed a role on Orange is the New Black last season, may aspire to be “Oprah-esque,” but she is well on her way to surpassing the Big O.

How did you get your start in improv comedy? Did you do other forms of comedy beforehand?

Oh no, improv was definitely my first form of comedy. I did it a little bit in college, and then I moved to New York to go to acting school and decided I wanted to cry all the time. And then upon graduating, I realized, “Oh, I miss being funny, and I like being funny.” And that’s when I started doing improv.

Did you start taking classes right away?

I started doing short-form improv, and then eventually I started taking classes at UCB, took a break, and then re-started taking classes at UCB around 2008.

How has your comedic style changed since you first started?

I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I don’t know how much it’s changed, as much as I feel like I have a better understanding and deeper respect for the craft. God, that sounds like a bullshit reason, but my comedic point of view is one of the things that drew me to improv. I love mixing real issues and true things, and mixing tougher issues with things that are funny. It’s not quite straight-up social commentary, but I’ve always enjoyed pushing people’s buttons. I was a semi-finalist for the Andy Kaufman award, and so that was my jam – I always enjoyed pushing buttons or being weird, and I think I’ve just found different tools and techniques to honor that. But my voice has kind of stayed the same.

Cool. Why do you think comedy needs diversity?

I think comedy needs diversity because you need a bunch of different points of views. It was one of the things that I found challenging when I was growing up, the fact that I didn’t see myself represented in comedy. So there were aspects of comedy that I felt weren’t for me. Beyond race, it also had to do with gender. Specifically, the comedy icons that I most connected with were white men, and when they weren’t white men, they were black men, with the occasional white woman, and the even more occasional black women or other women of color. So I feel like diversity is critical to comedy because I think the more voices and perspectives you have, the more things you can find funny, and you can talk about.

I look at other black comedians I know, and just seeing them makes me feel strong, because they’re doing their thing and there’s a space for them.

Do you think that there is more diversity in comedy now than when you first started? Do you think you’ve played a role in that?

That’s the part of my brain that goes, “Aw man, narcissistically I hope I’ve made some sort of difference.” But I think that by being someone that people have seen perform on stage all over New York, just by seeing that I exist, I think that it’s important. Because I look at other black comedians I know, and just seeing them makes me feel strong, because they’re doing their thing and there’s a space for them. So I hope that I’ve helped to increase diversity. Also by talking to people motivating them to stay around when it gets hard. Right now I’m on the first all-African-American house team at UCB, called Astronomy Club. We’re a Lloyd team, and I’ve been on other teams that have had runs at the theatre, but we auditioned as a team and we got on, and we are all black, and that for me has been a really powerful experience because we do more than improv, we also write sketch now. We had a black history sketch show. I had a couple of black students come up to me and say, “Thank you for doing humor that we can understand, and it was absolutely UCB’s style, their humor, and it was so lovely because it had specifics that we could relate to.” And I feel like that’s how I hope to influence people. There’s some awesome comedy out there, and there’s some awesome comedy training out there. And to apply your personal narrative, especially if you’re from a diverse community, I think you can do really beautiful things and still make it appealing to the broader masses. It’s so rare to have someone say, “Thank you for speaking to my black experience,” in a theatre that tends to be white. On the other hand, one of the things that I struggle with is that on the outside, I feel like I see a lot of segregated comedy, and I think that’s getting better. I think people are starting to become more accepting—like, if it’s funny and relatable to me, it’s funny and relatable to others, versus being a black comic, a white comic, an Asian comic, etc.

It’s so rare to have someone say, ‘Thank you for speaking to my black experience,’ in a theatre that tends to be white.

So do you think any form of comedy is particularly conducive to racial humor?

I don’t know if I know enough forms of comedy! Because I’ve done stand up a little bit, I’ve done characters, I’ve done sketch, I’ve done improv. Stand up is the beast that I feel like I get in and out of bed with. But it’s very interesting, because I don’t think it’s the medium that conveys the message, as much as when an artist feels like that’s important in how they express themselves. Because I think that if that’s how you identify and express yourself, it will inherently come out no matter what you do.

Why did you choose a comedy show format to discuss issues of diversity in “An Uncomfortable Conversation About Race”? Do you think comedy is more conducive to discussing matters of diversity than other forms of entertainment, like drama?

I like to think that when a joke hits, it lingers in you. It does the same way in drama; however, I think most people want to spend their time happy, or trying to find happiness, and I think jokes hope to reinforce that. And if you can attach some sort of idea in your comedy, even if it’s not hitting it over the head, but it’s peppered in, it gets in there. If you look throughout many diverse societies, there’s always a joker figure, a comedian figure, someone to relieve tension. I think comedy is a good barometer for what we can and cannot joke about. They are the ones who are tasked at seeing society’s lines and pushing it a little bit further, and holding up a mirror to ourselves. So I think what makes comedy so powerful is its level of catharsis. I think comedy tends to be more “entertaining.” I think that entertainment can stay with us, because it reminds us of something simple and digestible, whereas I don’t want to think of 12 Years A Slave all day long. But I’m happy to think about Top 5. And that doesn’t mean that 12 Years A Slave isn’t an impactful, interesting, well-done movie. It’s just that as soon as I think about it, I’m like, “Aw man, I’m starting to get sad.” Even though there are scenes in Top 5 where you think, “That could make me sad,” it’s not the same. I still have a hint of laugh or smile, and that’s how that resonates in me.

Have you ever faced discrimination on a professional level as a comedian?

I have a hard time with that, because as I’ve gotten more and more involved with social justice—and I am still a novice—I’m trying to do more on a day-to-day basis, and I’m trying to negotiate that into my life as we speak. That being said, I still don’t think I’ve come to terms, and I still think I’m unpacking all of the microaggressions I receive on my race and gender. And in retrospect, there are moments where I think I internalized it as, “Well clearly, I’m not good enough.” And that was like a burden inside of me. One of the reasons I am so pro-diversity, pro-inclusion, pro-supporting people who feel like they aren’t heard within comedy is that was so painful, because I internalized all of these outside messages that didn’t belong in my creative process, and it made me feel bad and shamed, like I’d never be good enough.

I’m sure if I meditate long enough on this question, I will find a specific instance of discrimination, but overall, all I can say is that, it’s not just one time; it’s subtle. There were probably more times when I wasn’t even in the room. One of the things I am so passionate about is that I want to lessen that for other comedians and artists so they can do their damn thing. Ultimately, that internalization of sexism, racism, bigotry, homophobia, whatever it is, can do so much damage to a rising comedian, artist, writer, actor, whatever. And if I can reduce that—because that’s where I think power lies—I want to help reduce the things that prevent them from connecting to their own power.

In my perfect, Oprah-esque world, I would reduce that. Because I’ve had a number of boyfriends tell me, “You’re not funny, you’re not good enough.” And maybe after the fact, they’ll be like, “Do I feel that way because I’m black? Do I feel that way because I’m a woman?” And sometimes I’ve settled on, “yes” and sometimes I’ve settled on, “I don’t know.” Regardless, I’ve tried to treat it as a place to make myself get better, because getting better and modeling better behavior. That sounds like respectability politics, gross, I hate it. It’s not about modeling better behavior, let me rephrase that: I want to become the best artist I can be, and I’m still striving to do that, because I want to make it easier for the people behind me, the people next to me, in front of me, everyone who is doing their thing. I think the more I can just be aware that there are inequalities and a lack of representation and try to do my part. Now that I have the language, when I see inequalities, I feel apt to say something and do something because I’m a little more aware. And I hope it opens doors, and I hope people feel validated where they did not feel validated before.

I think that entertainment can stay with us, because it reminds us of something simple and digestible, whereas I don’t want to think of 12 Years A Slave all day long. But I’m happy to think about Top 5.

Has your childhood had an impact on your comedy?

Oh, absolutely. I wasn’t a class clown, but I was the weird kid. And I look back on it, and I was the weird kid whose body didn’t quite fit. I was nice and likeable, but I remember feeling like my parts never quite lined up or fit—not unlike most comedians’ back stories. I think my background absolutely influenced me, because I tended to be one of the only black kids in my class, so I became the emotional, cultural experiment for my classmates, which was a challenge. And just like, I dealt with some heavy shit: depression, and loss, and anxiety very intensely as a kid. I carried a lot of shame in that realm when I was younger, and that’s one of the other ways that I feel powerful to talk about it. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety; I’m not ashamed of it. It’s like anything else, you just take care of it, and you learn how to be better. And I think all of those things made me go inside and see the world in a different way. It made me want to construct the world in a different way.

My dad says it best, I always had a mouth on me. What he meant by that was that sarcasm was always my tool. I got myself out of a lot of punishments by being really sarcastic, and I think I realized that there’s a certain amount that if you coax the bear, and the bear kind of smiles, you can get away with it. It’s not necessarily shock humor to punch down, but it’s boundary-pushing to ask, “Can we push up?” Can I do something that’s a little edgy or shocking to push up to expand people’s view of the world around them. So that, absolutely, was a view I had as a kid. I was also really shy and awkward, but when I opened up, I opened up. I remember having a panic attack trying to call the pizza delivery guy when I was like 11. I didn’t have pizza that night, but it was fine.

It’s not necessarily shock humor to punch down, but it’s boundary-pushing to ask, ‘Can we push up?’

How has comedy affected your mental health?

Oh man, I feel like it’s helped. Comedy has helped to give me balance. Dare I say that it’s not the comedy itself, but the things that come with the comedy. The feeling of community, the feeling of being able to have expression that’s not trapped inside me, and to watch other people share that expression, is what I love. And the reason I go to this word “community” is that it’s not just all this stuff that I’ve done. When I see people express themselves, it feels like I get to see the mirror into their souls. Because I love comedy, and the things I remember from being a kid was watching comedy. So for me, it’s that community aspect, and feeling like I have a community has absolutely helped my mental health. Comedy has helped to give me that.

I could say the process of comedy has helped me, but I’m not sure if that’s it, for me. I think it’s the community that I’ve found, the conversations I’ve been able to have, the things that have been able to lift me out of funks, that have told me to get help, to not get help, to take care of myself. I’ve gotten that from comedy. So, is it in the telling of the joke and the process of creating the joke that I’ve found an easing of my mental health? Or is it showing up to the show that has helped me. I would say it’s the latter. That’s what I’m so lucky to have. I’m getting a little choked up because that’s the part that transformed me from that weird, awkward, button-pushing, sarcastic sad girl to the weird, slightly perverted, silly, goofy, awkward, happy woman I am. And that’s what I’m ultimately grateful for; that sense of community, man. I’m not going to stop telling jokes, because I feel like it’s not even a mental health thing as much as, I don’t know what else I would do.