Happy Hour on the Fringe: Conversation with Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell and Betty Smithsonian
On this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Jess Conda and Jenn Kidwell, two-thirds of the artistic team behind A Hard Time, sit down to chat with comedian Betty Smithsonian about what’s so freaking funny. They chat about what men should do at talkbacks, what audiences can expect at A Hard Time, and why people (men) believe that women aren’t funny. This episode contains explicit language. Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript below.
Feature Photo by Jauhien Sasnou
Conversation with Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Betty Smithsonian
Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. FringeArts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Tenara, the Audience Engagement Coordinator here. I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Here at FringeArts we are getting ready for the Berserker Residents upcoming family-friendly piece Broccoli, Roosevelt, and Mr. House! which opens TONIGHT. Come on by with the whole family for this spectacularly silly show about fun, adventure, and friendship. Tickets are available on our website at fringearts.com. But today, you’re going to hear a conversation between three fantastically funny comedians: Jenn Kidwell and Jess Conda – two-thirds of the trio of Pig Iron Theatre’s newest show, A Hard Time, opening at FringeArts on May 1st. Jenn and Jess sat down with legendary comic Betty Smithsonian, also known in Philly as Beth Eisenberg, whose claims to fame are vast and who organizes and curates the amazing comedy night The Bechdel Test Fest. Jenn, Jess, and Beth talk about A Hard Time, what’s so funny, and what men at talkbacks should do.
Jess: And the safe-word is: cut that, don’t you dare fucking put that in the interview.
Jenn: In my “interview.” Get that out of my “interview.”
Betty: Yeah, the safe-word is “these are new, is that a new stain?”
Jess: I love it.
Betty: Alright everyone, welcome to the podcast interview moment, this intersection of essay podcast and real conversation. I am Betty Smithsonian and I am joined by two fantastic individuals who are:
Jenn: Jenn Kidwell.
Jess: And Jess Conda!
Betty: Heyo! Today we are going to be chatting about something that we all know is the most non-controversial thing ever – women and comedy. Tell me how your show is going to fix the world. Tell me in ten seconds or less.
Jenn: This is what I was thinking this morning – I keep going back to this thing that our director said – our director who is a man. His name is Dan Rothenberg.
Betty: I know Dan!
Jenn: Yeah, everybody knows that guy. That guy.
Jess: That scalliwag.
Betty: I saw him falling asleep at a show once.
Jenn: That just means he likes it. So Dan said – he was relaying this quote that ‘women are afraid that men are going to kill them. And men are afraid that women are going to laugh at them.’ And I was thinking this morning that ultimately perhaps this show gives male-identified people – gives the patriarchy an opportunity to laugh at itself. And notice how silly and idiotic it is.
Betty: The patriarchy.
Jess: OUR FRIEND THE PATRIARCHY.
Betty: The patriarchy! So that’s fantastic, can’t wait to see the show. Go on and remind me what the name of this show is.
Jenn: It’s called A Hard Time. But the official title is Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, Mel Krodman Want to Give You A Hard Time.
Jess: Duh duh duh da duh duh.
Jenn: *laughing* How do you spell that?
Betty: Is this a noir piece? Where is this piece living? What’s happening in the show?
Jenn: It’s not noir!
Jess: It’s like a pastiche, which is a snobby word for collage, of different things that are funny to us until they’re not funny. So we kind of were inspired by vaudeville and quick change and the way like, our bodies can morph into different characters. You know, cause we’re all trained in this kind of clown way.
Jenn: Yeah like using your body.
Jess: But also like what can this body do, can this body take on all these different identities over the course of the play.
Jenn: And is that funny?
Jess: Yeah, and is that funny?
Jenn: But it starts off with this sort of – so some men got together and defined comedy as the benign violation theory. It’s their theory about comedy. And we open the piece by discussing this benign violation theory, and then we sort of put it into practice in this Vaudevillian, quick-change manner. And then we continue to put the theory into practice in a long, drag sequence in which we are playing three drag personas. Two of them are Len and Stan. And I pointed at Jess when I said Len because Jess is Len, and I am Stan.
Betty: So you’re talking about what is going on in this show.
Jenn: Yes. This is what happens in this show. We start off with the benign violation theory –
Jess: SPOILER ALERT – that was the first forty minutes of the show.
Jenn: But just to say actually there’s a throughline which is: what’s so funny?
Betty: Yeah, so tell me that. What do you think is the issue right now with women being called out for either being too sensitive around comedy or women being called out for not being funny? Tell me what you think of that?
Jenn: Do you call somebody out for not being funny? I feel like, the call-out – I always attach that to politics.
Betty: Well, I guess like people saying that women aren’t funny. That is a thing that people have said. Men specifically. For a long, long time.
Jenn: I mean, they also say that women aren’t powerful. But that’s not true! Why would I believe them?
Jess: That is funny.
Betty: So what do you think about this show proving that thing that you just said? Do you think it’s possible to create theater that can unravel that very frustrating thing? I am a comic, I hear it all the time that women aren’t funny. So tell me how your show could unravel that. What do you think about it personally, not even just your show?
Jess: I’m going to go back into something I was tapping at, and this is just true for me – about my body. Which is that sometimes, I think that women get labeled as unfunny, because you’re too caught up in my damn body. And that’s a complicated thing that we maybe can’t unpack as a society in a play. But I think there is something in the way in which my/our bodies are revealed to this audience over and over and over and over again where hopefully my body becomes fucking irrelevant by the time I’m through. That’s just how I feel. I think that that’s one key that we offer to the audience.
Betty: And this concept of making your bodies into – like you were saying you morph into things in this show, and you’re kind of pulling apart that concept with that through-line?
Jess: There’s a lot of shapeshifting in the show.
Jenn: Can I go back to something – what you said, ‘I feel like maybe people don’t think women are funny because they’re so caught up with my body,’ meaning like they can’t even listen to what you’re saying because they’re so focused on appearance? Is that what you mean?
Jess: Yes. I think there is a –
Betty: Like the first thing that a female brings to the world is their body and the second or third or fourth thing is what they say, or the space that they take up outside of that. I think it’s part of the reason why we see some comics who have different shaped bodies have to do different kinds of comedy, right? The people that on the planet would be considered less average body shapes, and bigger shapes would have to do a different kind of comedy.
Jess: Or what are you looking at when you look at this? I’m doing a stand-up and you have to like rank my tits for five minutes before you maybe listen to what I say. And that is part of why the drag piece is kind of important to me because it’s just like, watch our bodies do this, now this, now this, now this, now this, and like, have you listened? Have you taken my tits out of the equation of your listening? Cause I don’t need to be sexualized when I do public speaking about whatever I might be public speaking about.
Jenn: I think, I appreciate what you’re saying and I think that the drag section works in a couple different ways. It works in the like, how about we take my tits out of the equation, or like, all of the ways that you want to sexualize me as like a woman out of the equation because we’re playing these dudes – I mean, they’re not calendar guys. I don’t know. The other way that that section works is this thing that you were trying to say which is like, how are you hearing me? We might actually be saying lots of the same things, so how is the humor working now that we’re inhabiting these other bodies? And also don’t forget that we’re still here. So actually all of this stuff is being said by and written by women. We just decided that the mouthpiece for this section is going to be these dudes. And then there’s more, but that would be spoiler alert.
Betty: What do you think is funny?
Jenn: I have no idea how to answer that question. You mean, just in general, in life?
Betty: Yeah, what’s funny to you?
Jenn: I’m trying to think of the last funny thing that happened today…
Jess: We’re just gunna cut that part out –
Jenn: Yeah, edit that out! “What do you think is funny?” “Uhhhhhhhhhhh…..um. Stuff.”
Jess: We do make each other laugh a lot. Have you ever done that game with kids? Or adults? The theater game where you have two partners facing each other and you have to like make the other person laugh?
Jenn: Just like, do whatever you can do?
Jess: Like I would say a funny word and then you would say a funny word?
Jenn: Yeah, I think so. In like clown class.
Jess: I’m just thinking about that.
Betty: Have you ever done the game where you look at someone and you just have to just start fake laughing together? And then turn that into fake-crying?
Jess: Oh yeah. The membrane is so thin between laughing and crying!
Jenn: It’s true!
Betty: Well I guess I want to know what’s funny because I want to know what drives this show for you as you build something comedic. So you’re playing in a space and the thing that makes you laugh, or delights you is the thing that you’re doing, and then you have this like other social thing that you’re trying to push out there, so that’s why I’m wondering what’s funny to you.
Jess: I wish Mel Krodman, who is a comic genius, was here.
Jenn: She’s in Atlanta.
Jess: She’s in Atlanta. I mean, there’s general weirdnesses that are delightful to us. And I’m talking about like when we first started rehearsing basically we sourced this gigantic amount of – I’m going back to vaudeville – a giant amount of vaudeville costumes and put them in the rehearsal room. And we just followed our bliss in terms of inventing these characters and a lot of that is based on like stupidity, just like what tickles us in this stupid way. I’m thinking of our French teacher in grad school. She would say, ‘That is so stupid!’ and that was like the best compliment you could get in art school. So stupid things are funny to us. Mel has this real talent for being like, these teeth and these eyebrows and this belly and this cape make me wanna go, wooooo, and it’s just because it’s so pleasure-based, so that’s kind of the practice.
Jenn: You have a talent for those one-liners that are so wise but also just like everything gets distilled in just a few words.
Jess: Well, Len is dumb. Len is kind of a base man. But the maker is smart, so he gives me a vehicle to the kind of like, to have some dead air.
Jenn: But there’s some real wisdom there.
Betty: Do you ever feel – so I’m faced in comedy to be super clever, we have to be super clever, we have to always be at the top of our intelligence, we have to create and craft these words and these kinds of concepts and things that are the smartest. But the way I do it is more towards this, because I feel like that’s where you get people to really open up, to get them to laugh at something that they don’t realize is the funniest thing. It kind of shuts off their brain center a little bit and they react to the fun.
Jenn: I think it can be visceral. It’s visceral at times.
Betty: Mm. Yeah. So, if you could wave a magic wand and have someone who’s leaving your show have a thought in their bodies because of what they just saw, what would it be?
Jenn: Uhhh…I kind of would love for people to be like, I think I have to go throw up right now…but like enjoy it.
Betty: YES! Yes!
Jess: I mean, it would be nice – I would like to have a talkback where the old white men in the audience said nothing. But like, in a way where they were checked in but they didn’t want to speak first, or perhaps at all.
Jenn: That’s what the magic wand really does. It says: ‘you don’t have to say nothing.’
Jess: Right?! Like if they were like, ‘perhaps this is a gentle time in my life to allow listening to enter.’
Jenn: ‘Let me unburden myself from the feeling that I need to insert myself.’
Jess: Can you sing that again?
Jenn: ‘InSERT myself.”
Jess: No, what’s the song?
Jenn: You don’t have to say nothing, just sit there and be quiet.
Jess: But like if they really meant it! If they were like, ‘ahh…I can free myself from all this…. penetrating.’
Betty: Yeah, yeah, that’s what’s up.
Jess: That would be amazing.
Jenn: *impersonating a pastor* And every man becomes a wide receiver!!
Betty: A wide receiver for like a football team?
Jenn: I don’t actually know what wide receivers do.
Betty: *impersonating a pastor* Every man becomes a titan!
Jenn: I was just thinking like instead of constantly pushing themselves, you know it’s like, they expand, take it all in.
Betty: So they can check their privilege and really check in?
Jenn: But we don’t even have magic wands. We have magic vagina lips.
Betty: Yeah! Some of us do! I can’t wait to see your show. Is there a talkback for your show?
Jenn: We were just talking about that today.
Jess: We have to talk about that, I think there will definitely be. I think it’s nice to have a chance to put discussion in the room after a performance. I mean, all that said about how I want all the men to be quiet, but still be in the room and engage with the material.
Betty: Have the two of you ever done work before that’s tried to shift the understanding around gender on the stage? Or at least leave your audience with a new understanding? Have you done theater for social change before? I mean, I know nothing about the two of you except for a little bit. Where does this rank in terms of on your road of work?
Jenn: I tend to do politically charged work that sometimes makes people throw up.
Jenn: Or faint.
Jess: Send emails.
Jenn: Oh yeah, send emails. Respond.
Betty: Did you get emails from a show you did?
Jenn: Oh yeah. I once had somebody watch something I did and when we were doing the talkback, and this individual stood up with no question, but just told me in no uncertain terms how much he hated what I had just done and how terrible it was. He was like, ‘I don’t know what you are, if you’re a man, a woman, a lesbian.’ It was beyond.
Betty: Was that the worst moment – well, I won’t say worst – was that the most intense review you’ve ever gotten?
Betty: Alright then, what was the most intense review you’ve ever gotten after a show?
Jenn: I’ve been accused of pornography, I’ve had an entire campus of students hate me and everybody else associated with the show. And they’re still mad, I think! I mean, that’s just such a long story. Somebody on the faculty just quit not because of our show, but I think our show kicked off some things on that campus that, uh…so yeah.
Betty: You shook it up! You jostled it!
Jess: I was recently called some things by the local press that were motivating.
Betty: What local press? Is there still local press?
Jess: I just like the phrase, you know, the local press.
Jenn: They were motivating?
Betty: Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
Jess: Well, yeah! I was doing a cabaret in the Fringe with the Bearded Ladies, and the reviews came out, and one said, ‘the half-screamed, half-bleated vocals of Jess Conda proved particularly inept.’ Bleated like a sheep.
Betty: Oh shit!
Jess: And the other one said ‘I wish I had skipped the self-indulgent Jess Conda’. Cause I do a lot of rock and roll singing in my underwear.
Jenn: I would say – a gentleman asked us – accused – it was an accusation. It was a j’accuse.
Jess: Oh! Are you going back to the very first question of our talkback in our works in progress showing?
Jenn: We had a work in process. He said, ‘I have a question. I mean…is metaphor dead?’ Right? That’s what he said. Is metaphor dead.
Jess: It was like louder and grumpier though. I HAVE A QUESTION.
Jenn: Yeah. ‘I have a question. I mean. Come on! Is metaphor dead?’ And then were we like – ‘do you mean, did we kill it?’ Is that what we’re getting at here?
Betty: Did you watch the murder of metaphor here?
Jenn: What did we say?
Jess: I’ve kind of erased that question.
Betty: I have a question. In terms of like why we make work and what the reviews say or don’t say, what is for you the ultimate point of doing this show?
Jenn: It’s pleasure. It’s fun.
Jenn: And it allows me to ask myself questions about like my point of view and how I’ve been conditioned, how I’ve been gendered or accepted a gendering of the world. How am I feeding into the patriarchy, what am I doing to buck up against it?
Jess: I do think humor is a rad vehicle to have conversations that are important but can maybe feel too earnest in other mediums. You know, I’m thinking about the funniest thing that I think happened this year was Michele Wolf’s White House Press Correspondents dinner bit. In the way that humor can be the thing that lets us say all this shit that if we were just doing some kind of autobiographical monologue play perhaps would be tedious for all. Perhaps. But you know, comedy is this boat that allows us to be like, ‘this is stupid. This is so stupid. This is so pleasurable, this is so stupid, stupid, stupid.’ And this is also so fucking stupid and it’s actually not funny anymore. And I think it’s just a medium to have these kinds of harder talks.
Jenn: It’s the truth-telling medium, and I think that is why tears and laughter reside so closely. I mean, I’m a big proponent of this. You know, just peeking over the fence of comedy is devastation. And that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the patriarchy. That’s some real suffering.
Betty: Yeah, just to plug one of the things that I do –
Jenn: To anal plug it?
Betty: Just to anal plug one of the things that I do is an event called Porn Stash, which is a panel of comics where we look at porn and review different –
Jenn: Like a mustache? Or…
Betty: And a stash of porn.
Jenn: A stash of porn!
Betty: It’s a double entendre, I guess. We always have sex educators in the audience just to be there, but it’s all about sex education and sex positivity and we’ve been doing the show for a couple years, our goal is just to shift – by getting somebody to laugh, their mouth is open, which connects directly to their brain, and we can just throw the stuff in there, and it kind of jostles in there while they’re laughing. Like if you can get their mouth open laughing, you can insert in the bigger things, even if it’s just questions or curiosities or whatever. It sits in a different place, because you suddenly have all this access to the ‘HA!’
Jess: You mean something clinical’s happening when you’re laughing?
Betty: A hundred million percent.
Jess: I believe that.
Betty: It shifts a part of open mindedness that removes all barriers.
Betty: Well I think we’ve said it all – what do you guys think?
Jess: I think there’s plenty of material to cobble together into a piece!
Betty: I think women are funny, I think people are funny, I think men are funny, I think that we can do more, we have to do more–
Jenn: Anybody who would make a statement like, ‘women aren’t funny’ – I’m like, what? I just want that person to look themselves in the mirror with a finger in their butt –
Betty: I mean, are you in the comedy community? I’m about to bring you into some groups with specific comics where their main goal is to continue to make sure people know that women are not funny, that women can’t be funny, that women are not as funny as men, and there’s like incredible comics in this city. We’re talking Mary Radzinski, Chanel Ali, Michelle Biloon, who are phenomenal comics, who do not get booked as often as the most mediocre, straight white dude fucking two years out because there is this overwhelming sense that men are funnier than women. Or that audiences want to see male comics over female comics. So the reason that I’m saying it is because for some reason there’s a community out there that doesn’t fucking think it.
Jess: That’s so stupid.
Jenn: If you wake up in the morning and you think to yourself in any semblance of rational sense that women aren’t funny, you need to take your dominant hand and put it on your genitals. Take a finger from your other hand and stick it up your ass. Open your mouth. Thank you.
Betty: Well, you two are in the theater world, I think core, and then music and then comedy and clown and all that stuff. I do a bunch of shows every month and am always looking for comics to come on up and do a bit, a character, a song, even if it’s just chatting with the audience. There are stages with microphones filled with a bunch of people who think that women aren’t funny. So, when y’all wanna come down and fucking shake your shit out, I got a mic for you.
Jess: That is so kind!
Jenn: That is kind! We might take you up on it.
Betty: And when can I come see your show?
Jess: Come through! It’s May 1-12.
Betty: Dan is the director, and you three are the writers, and who is the lighting designer?
Jenn: Amyth. Justin Hicks on sound, Meredith Ries is on scenic design, Jack Tamburri on the Dramaturgy. LeVonne Lindsay on costumes. That’s a heavy lift.
Jess: That is a heavy lift, she’s doing great.
Betty: Where is the show? It’s going to be at FringeArts?
Jess: Right here at FringeArts.
Betty: Well, I wanna thank y’all for doing this, and please come to the Bechdel Test Fest –
Jess: Yo, thanks for all you do man, in the trenches, getting the funny to the people.
Betty: I’m in those other trenches in the other side of the stream, but I want to jump into your brook once in a while and you can come into my pond.
Tenara: Is metaphor dead?!
Jenn: TAKE THAT!
Betty: I also think we should start a Facebook group that’s just the bad reviews and emails and everything –
Jenn: Let’s start a WhatsApp group, cause I quit Facebook, because…fuck Facebook.
Betty: Yeah, dude, I’ll do a WhatsApp.
Tenara: You know, Facebook owns WhatsApp.
Jess: Oh no.
Tenara: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, and download the FringeArts app. Visit FringeArts.com to purchase tickets for A Hard Time, which runs May 1-12. We’ll see you soon.