“Honestly it’s pretty terrifying to share some really dark stuff about yourself with an audience. But a lot of times people wait for me after the show and say ‘That reminds me of stuff I’ve been through,’ or even more meaningful- ‘I understand my brother a little bit better now,’ or ‘I understand my kid a little bit better now,’ and that feels very good. When I was young I felt very alone, but maybe this can help some other people feel a little less alone at that age.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“I’ve always felt resistance to people’s expectations of me as a woman, as an African-American and anything else they may perceive me to be. Comedy has been the most fun and fulfilling way to send those expectations straight to hell and just be myself, while occasionally pretending to be other people.”
“There wasn’t a ton of stand-up when I was really young—nobody my age for sure—and when I started seeing comics in San Francisco I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can say what I want to say! I don’t have to read lines from a play or interpret somebody else’s work, I can write it myself!’ That was really exciting to me.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“I’ve just started talking about how poor we were growing up–-like how we used to dumpster-dive for food. I’m insecure about it because sometimes it gets audible groans from the crowd. And it’s kind of the opposite sound you want to hear up there, because you’re up there to help people escape from their problems. So for me to err on the side of almost a sob story is a little irresponsible, mixed in with… I’m just legitimately scared to be that open with people.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
"I have a dead dad, a dead brother, and a sick mother. Comedy has provided me with tools to not only survive and work through trauma, but the ability to hot glue pieces of it into some weird stuff that gives me huge amounts of joy and satisfaction."
"Comedy is my favorite brand of recklessness. It's risky and you can fall hard, which makes the reward that much greater."
I stumbled upon improv comedy when I was in high school, and before then I don’t think anyone would have considered me funny. I unintentionally walked into an after school meeting of the improv club and was encouraged to stay. That one day sparked a life trajectory of dedicating myself to comedy. What I loved most about the art form is the autonomy. You don’t have to wait for a role, you don’t have to save up money to invest; You get to create something right on the spot and make people laugh.
“As a female director I'm afraid of the fine line that exists between us being 'Passionate/Assertive' or 'Crazy/Emotional.' I like to talk about this in my stand up. A man has an outburst and he's 'impassioned;' A woman has the same outburst and she's 'over-emotional.' Society is taught to devalue women by trivializing their actions and emotions. But the stage always feels like a safe place to talk about this fear and be as fucking crazy emotional as I want while doing it.”
"I think I gravitated towards comedy when I was younger because I can actually be pretty shy, which is something most people don't know about me, and it helped me connect with people more and make friends. It gave me a sense of self and it really helped with my confidence. But, honestly, there's no better feeling than making other people laugh so I'm really lucky comedy has become such a big part of my life."
"I've always just wanted to make people laugh. My first memory of consciously trying to make people laugh was in nursery school. It was someone's birthday and they gave us cake and I remember thinking that icing on my face would make them laugh and honestly, I fucking crushed."
“Every bit of emotion I show when I'm performing is connected to a moment in time where I didn't come through for myself or others. Over the years I've struggled with anxiety and self-doubt. There's definitely been times in my life where I've shrunk in situations where I knew I needed to step up. I carry all of these failures everywhere I go, especially on stage.”
"I did a puppet show with my Girl Scout troop where I got to play the witch. I gave my puppet a long pointy nose that snapped off halfway through the show. I panicked, and then just sort of went with it and made jokes about it in character. The other kids loved it - one girl laughed so hard she wet her pants. I went from being the weirdo to being magic. I loved the feeling of my brain just unraveling, doing bits as this cranky noseless witch. That's pretty much what I do for a living now."
“Everybody who gets into this job has an overdeveloped sense of humor because we’re coping with pain in our childhood. People cope with pain in a bunch of different ways, but everybody who does this job chose de-escalating the situation through jokes. So it’s just a skill-set that I have, and I love it because I care about connecting with people. That’s sort of the most important thing to me, and stand up makes that possible.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“It is interesting to be able to channel my feelings of frustration as a gay guy on stage and feel a level of validation. Not necessarily getting people to agree with me, but just saying the things out loud and getting some response feels cathartic. It’s easy to do that through comedy rather than protests or essays or social media. Saying it all out loud on stage... that’s where it feels the most healthy and cathartic.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
"I think fear is a great muse. A lot of my comedy is inspired by it... After Charlottesville, I was so upset I wrote a whole set inspired by Nazis."
“I think growing up you see other people’s lives and you can look at somebody else and pick so many things about them that are great, and that you wish you had. But once I became an adult I was like, ‘All I want to do is be quintessentially me.’ Because that’s the gift in us—Nobody else can be us the way we can be us, and I feel like comedy allows me to explore that and accept who I truly am.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“I do get nervous. I think that’s a part of doing comedy. That’s what makes it exciting. I think when you stop getting nervous, it just stops being exciting.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“Standup is the ultimate outlet. The ultimate outlet of all my frustrations, all my silly thoughts, all the craziness in my head, I can just let it live. It means freedom of self too-- It’s where I’m most comfortable, it’s where I can have the sharpest most streamlined conversation.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“Growing up in the Midwest, there’s a lot of smiling, but sometimes people don’t really say what’s really going on. They just kind of talk about the pleasantries and not the ugly side of life. I like comedy because it talks about the ugly side of life and tries to make sense of it.” Taken @ Just For Laughs
“I don’t think I could do anything else. I live to laugh, I love to laugh… I think everyone has gifts in life. My sister is a nurse, and I like to make people laugh. You gotta laugh at life- it’s so painful." Taken @ Just For Laughs
"I don't understand how people relax. When I'm working, I can't relax, and when I'm not working, I can't relax, because I want to be working again. Laughs are like heroin. Once you've heard a room full of people laughing just because of something you said, all you want is more."
"People always ask me about my 'character' on stage but for me it's completely natural and just what comes out. I think a lot of times I have felt pretty powerless over life and meek in a lot of areas I wish I wasn't -- and so on stage it feels good to be ferocious and nutso out of my mind."
"I grew up chubby, brown, and very gay in North Carolina. It was a full nightmare. I had a new bully or bullies for every year of my schooling from k-12. Thankfully, some part of me knew I should fight back. In middle school, I got really into snarky comebacks and clever insults. People used to cheer me on when I would say funny, shitty things to my bullies. I think that was the beginning of it. I knew I could make people laugh with my words."
"I've just never had confidence. I don't know what it is. The reason why I'm considered funny is because of my lack of confidence-- it was a defense mechanism. It was how I made friends. I was very self-deprecating early on."
"To me comedy is the best because it's a charming way to transmute your fear, shame, and loneliness into art. I have spun some of my biggest disappointments and failures and deepest heartbreaks and darkest hours into maybe not comedy gold but definitely some kind of comedy metal. Maybe brass."
“Everything I do in comedy comes out of dealing with personal struggles.”
“I got into comedy largely because it was relatively easy for me to make people laugh in conversation. I liked the feeling of seeing what felt funny in situations and sharing it with those around me-- It's an enjoyable form of human connection."
"In my experience, ideas derived from fear and embarrassment are what resonate most with an audience. It’s relatable for them and cathartic for me. One of my favorite comedic character bits to perform is this introverted standup guy whose jokes are too specific to his own interests to be broadly relatable. It’s kind of meta, but really it’s a way for me to draw on my fear of being terrible at comedy.”
"I could talk all about comedy being a helpful tool that I used to make friends and thwart off bullies, but when I really boil it down I just keep coming back to the phrase, 'Hi, I hope you like me and think I’m funny.'"
"Latin-American culture is still struggling with inclusivity. So I like using comedy as a means to bring everyone together. Like a big, loud family dinner where we can all laugh about our differences and similarities. And, you know, pig out on plantains."
“My default in any moment is to either worry about the future or dwell on the past. But when I'm doing comedy, whether that means performing in an improv show or working on a script or acting in something, I'm right here, in the moment, actually experiencing all the loveliness of life.”
Phil Augusta Jackson
"Comedy is a fascinating art form to me because you get to explore a wide range of emotions and find the funny in them. I get just as excited making an audience feel that range as I do in getting to the laugh."
"I’ve always played music and I’ve always loved being silly. Being serious is very vulnerable, so the mask of comedy is a safe space and music is my auditory blanket."
"Only child, single mom. Needed friends. Got funny."
"You're only as good as your last set, and some days it's a long wait to redemption. It's also hard to get on the other side of it and not just curl up in a ball and give up. But I'm always glad I do. And stronger. Just have to remember that I'm a tree."
"When I was growing up, being funny was my way of feeling liked by my friends and family. I was (and continue to be) this tiny, pale, redheaded, obviously gay kid, and leaning into the absurdity of that vibe was the only thing that made me feel good. I guess it was always a performance and a defense mechanism. Now I don't feel the need to perform as often, which is why I'm a lot funnier on stage than in person."
"I was an accident. My siblings and cousins were way older growing up. On Christmas Eve 1988, they hanged my Roger Rabbit doll from a chandelier and told me he committed suicide. I felt honored to be involved in such a grown up joke, and I went with the bit. That same Christmas I performed Dana Carvey's Church Lady and it killed. From then on, I performed some show or sketch at every gathering. I did it again this year at my parents 50th Anniversary and I was still nervous."
"I had a lot of tough times growing up. My Nan always says 'You either laugh or you cry,' and I'm not hot enough to look good crying publicly."
"I originally was drawn to comedy because I found comfort in interacting with others while performing in a character, rather than as myself. It felt less vulnerable to hide behind the perspective of someone else. But now I'm beginning to realize that comedy helps me define who I am on a daily basis."
"When I was younger, my friends used to ask me to make up stories about people we knew. I always pulled tiny specifics about these people - our teachers, whoever - and we'd laugh until we couldn't breathe. I guess at some point, I wanted my life to be even a fraction as fun as that was. I wanted my life to be a bigger collection of those moments where you have to pull the car off the road because you're laughing too hard."
"I used to think comedy would make me invincible. That somehow proving I was funny would wash away all that fear. After ten or so years of wins and losses, I've learned that the fear never leaves. What did wash away was the delusion that comedy could fix me, or that I was ever broken to begin with."
"I feel like all of our comedy comes from exposing our own fears, failures and desperation. It was terrifying to do that at first, but once the audience laughed, it made us feel less alone in the world. Then people started telling us it made them feel less alone. Then we cried. We’re still crying, laughing, and then crying. That’s pretty much what we do in art and in life."
“The main fear I have lately is repeating myself as an artist. I’m more afraid of making something repetitive than trying something new and actually failing at it.”
"I'm sad or at least numb a lot. I'm consistently on the verge of emotional instability, and I'm constantly searching for that thing that is going to make me feel like what I assume is a normal human being. Through all of that, the only thing that keeps me semi-sane is being able to laugh about it. That's honestly what comedy does for me."
"I grew up in a house where everyone made fun of everything that everyone did. Parents, aunts, brothers, Pop Pop... No one was safe. In order to not get roasted, you had to learn to attack first. I also learned how to take it as much as I gave it out. Turns out one of the most important traits you need to make it in comedy is the ability to just eat shit. Bad shows, bad auditions, shitty notes... I've been accidentally preparing for this my whole life."
"When I was about 10, my aunt asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told her I wanted to be a comedian. She responded saying something like, 'Isn't it better to choose a career that will help people, like a doctor or teacher?' To which I replied, 'Laughing helps people.' She smiled and said, 'That's true.'"
"When I first started performing, I would get physically ill before going on stage. I would just pace around white as a ghost trying not to puke. Over the years I’ve bombed so much that I learned it really isn’t that bad, but I still get nerves every time I go on stage- Doing comedy is my skydiving.”
"I had a lot of different jobs growing up, and comedy seems to be one of the few career paths that actually rewards you for being yourself. I'm realizing the better I get at being myself, the further I move in my career. That's pretty dope."
"I moved to NYC to be an actress, but five years later, I hadn’t done shit except a few lame showcases and a very brief stab at stand-up. One night I went to see a show at LaMama called “One Woman Shoe” by Amy and David Sedaris. It is still to this day, the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It lit a fire for me. It made me want to do THAT."
"When I started doing improv in English, I spent months being the person who made literal sense of everything. People made sure to point out I was different, from 'you're so exotic' to 'everything you say is sexy' (which to this day makes me furious). I learned a lot though. I'm stronger for it."
"I was the only girl in my college improv troupe and people would often come up after shows and say, 'you're really funny for a girl.' It used to really piss me off. Now I would just reply, 'Nah, I'm funny for anybody.'"
"Undoubtedly every character I play is a representation of some part of myself. I identify with people that are scared, or are misunderstood, that misspeak, even. To a degree I'm uncomfortable in my own skin, but put me in a fat suit or give me a physical adjustment of some kind and I'm golden."
"I've always had a burning desire to be taken seriously and found it endlessly frustrating that, whenever I opened my mouth, people would laugh. One day I realized it was an asset, and that's when a lot changed for me. I'm still learning to accept myself with all my quirks and flaws. Comedy helps me point them out without being ashamed of them."
Allen Strickland Williams
"I just think life is pretty ridiculous and makes no sense, so the best way to deal with it is by making fun of it, which is basically every comedian's job."
"When you say something honest to a crowd and they laugh, some of their laughs are saying 'that's nuts, you're so crazy!' which is certainly fun, but some of them are saying 'me too' and that's the most addictive thing I've ever encountered. I'm positively desperate for 'me toos.'"
"I struggle a ton with self-doubt and I think one of my biggest fears is that I don't know who I am. I've found solace in doing comedy. I'm able to be completely free when I'm improvising because there's no time to worry or doubt. I just have to make a choice in the moment."
"I know people see me as ethnically ambiguous, so I try to stay aware of all races I portray. The last thing I want to do is offend by playing within a stereotype. I am excited for the day I can just play me."
"Both my parents are dead. I used to have several jokes about that, and I learned that those jokes were too dark. If I go dark, there needs to be a universality about the joke."
"I'm not a great storyteller, but I feel totally comfortable sharing personal stories when I'm performing with Wild Horses. We're such good friends and I love talking to them so much that I often find myself divulging memories I'd rather forget. I've reaped the highest rewards when offering my more personal stories, the kind I wouldn't even normally share."
"I started making people laugh when I was a kid, mostly as a reaction to getting teased. I noticed that I could make fun of myself better than the bullies could, and being funny immediately gave me a role in the social order that was much more fun to play than 'awkward girl number four.'"
"'Without comedy, I don't have enough. I don't have enough of whatever other things make up a person.' That's the feeling that was in me, and it forced my sense of humor to work harder to compensate."
"I think comedy was my way of pointing out odd or hurtful things. Sometimes, when you boldly say something very true, people laugh. It's a relief!"
Heather Anne Campbell
"We are all going to die someday. I'm terrified of it. But it also makes me wake up and make stuff every day."
Emily Maya Mills
"I'm working on a new half-hour show based on a standup bit about my fear of small talk. Which sounds kind of G-rated, but I'm trying to trace it back to the original trauma, trace the cause of my anxiety."
"My humor started from a place of needing to belong. I was an overweight kid from an immigrant family, so there were no social or cultural shortcuts to understanding my peers or being understood. If I wasn't either funny or absolutely terrifying, then in my eyes, I had no distinguishing features."
"I remember realizing that the more honest I was about my feelings and opinions, the better my improv scenes went over. I project a certain ... sadness? resignation? And I would get laughs just by shrugging my shoulders and saying 'I guess.' Playing someone who had given up, a bit, seemed to really hit! So a lot of times when I improvise I let that part of myself out."
"Doing comedy has helped me get through everything from dumb young heartbreak to my brother's death. Some people say tragedy + time = comedy, but I don't really like waiting in lines so to me it's more like tragedy + comedy = survival."
"I think so much of comedy comes from struggles. Big or small. I think that's where I draw most of my material from, whether it's struggling to lose weight and get off the couch, or struggling to make people care for the lives of refugees. I think the need for comedy is directly related to the fact that life is hard so we all need to laugh about it, or else what's the point?"
"When I first started performing and writing comedy, I was surprised how many people labeled me 'dark' or 'edgy.' These were not things I was going for, I was just expressing what I found funny. I don’t really think in terms of something being dark. I see comedy in pretty black and white terms - it's either funny or it's dumb. I like pulling from real life, I like things that are true, and I like a clear perspective."
"I tend to frame my fears, embarrassments or shame in a warm, empathic way when in front of an audience. I don't want them to feel their reaction needs to take care of me, so I make sure I've already done that myself. It would be great if I could do this offstage, too."
"I got into comedy because I'm not very good at anything else. What happens when I stop being funny? What if I'm already not funny? It's too late to start anything new. Help!"
"I tend to have way less of an edge than a lot of comedians. My comedy always came from liking to have fun. I'm one of six kids and I definitely developed my sense of humor as a means to get attention from my parents and siblings. That being said, I'm probably the least funny kid in my family."
"I've always had pretty bad anxiety. Even as a child, I would have panic attacks (the first one I remember I was 7 watching Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds). However, I've always felt very safe and calm while making people laugh. Whether it was in a classroom (sorry to all my teachers), or in a college play, I always loved just being in the moment and throwing away my anxiety for a few hours and getting silly."
"I have an annoying habit of seeing somebody do something cool, and immediately deciding I want to do that too. I remember watching Circus of the Stars as a kid, and instead of enjoying what they did, I spent the whole time jealous that I couldn't already do the trapeze. I saw a show at UCB and fell harder than usual. Now, I don't think I have a choice about doing it: I'm ruined for anything else."
"I think I started doing comedy to alleviate my fear that no one likes me. It hasn't worked yet, but it probably will."
"When I was a kid, I was terrified of aliens. As I grew up, those fears faded away but they were replaced with other fears-- worry about career, relationships, success. Eventually I realized all those fears were no more "real" than the aliens and they were coming from the same place-- anxiety. And I knew one place that anxiety couldn't get to me... on stage. Performing was my first therapy, the stage my first therapist-- it's always had my back."
"Usually my best comedy comes from a moment where I was upset, sad, frustrated or anxious, but not in that moment. Some people can be funny while they are sad or mad, but I can't. I tend to use moments after they happened, assess them and find the funny once the uncomfortable moment is over."
"I'm a fairly anxious person, and my head is usually swirling with concerns that range from irrational to ridiculous. But I find that using these fears as comedic premises helps me to see their absurdity more clearly. It also kinda changes the nature of anxiety-- when you're experiencing it, it can be really isolating, but when you're expressing it, it can be really connective, because I think almost everybody experiences it in some way."
"I'm pretty sure every comedian I know is a tortured genius. In one way or another, we wake up every morning and remember two things: Nothing matters, and soon enough, we'll all be dust. Comedy is a solid way of not taking ourselves too seriously in the meantime."
"Laughter can mean acceptance, but it can also mean rejection. Maybe I got into comedy because I wanted to control what other people's laughter meant about me."
"I definitely took on a peacekeeper role in my family. I love to avoid conflict. I think that's part of where my sense of humor came from--it's a tool."
I have had the pleasure to work with many comedians, and they are my heroes. Comedians open up about their lives and struggles in a way I wish I could, and it allows the audience to relate through laughter. When a performer commits so fully to a crazy character or situation on stage, it breaks the tension and connects everyone in the moment.
However, it can be hard for performers to be this open off-stage. For this series, I spent time with each comedian in their home or another spot that they frequent in their day-to-day lives. I chatted with each of them and asked how they are able to use their personal fears and struggles in their comedy. These portraits are a vulnerable look at their off-stage lives, with no character to hide behind.
Carissa Dorson is a cinematographer and photographer based in Los Angeles.