For those bad hombres and nasty women on the liberal side of the political spectrum, the overwhelming feeling after the initial shock of Donald Trump’s win on November 8 was one of despair. If we’re truly as fucked as we think, then what is there to do besides curl up into a ball and cry? Well—you could laugh. That’s what New York-based comedians Jenn Welch and Emily Winter decided to do when they began organizing the first What A Joke comedy festival.
Taking place in 33 locations across the U.S. and U.K. (they’ve got their own political laugh-crying to do over there) from Los Angeles to Oxford, England, What A Joke prides itself on not limiting itself to cities in the “liberal bubble,” whatever that means. Each show is organized by local comedians, but they’re all united under the What A Joke banner—or red baseball cap, as the case may be—and are all taking place between January 19 and 21, a.k.a. inauguration weekend, a time when we all could probably use a laugh. As an added “fuck you” to America’s incoming Tweeter-in-chief, all proceeds from the festival will be donated to the ACLU.
The A.V. Club spoke with Welch and Winter over the phone, after learning about the Chicago edition of What A Joke at The Hideout. You can find out if your city is participating (and there’s a good chance that it is) here.
The A.V. Club: You started with 20 different cities in the U.S. and U.K.
Jenn Welch: We’re actually at 32 right now.
Emily Winter: Thirty-two confirmed, and then one more in the works.
AVC: How are you finding these cities? Or are they coming to you?
JW: When we first came up with the concept, we made a list of about 15 cities where we had contacts. Doing festivals and being in comedy for a while, you build up a network of people who you know and trust. And once we started reaching out to those people, those people knew people. And then we started reaching out to those people who knew people. And it grew to where [we are now]. We just added Lansing, Michigan, and I don’t think either of us would have thought to reach out to Lansing, Michigan.
EW: I’m a Midwesterner, so it was bumming me out that there wasn’t a show in Michigan. I hadn’t thought of Lansing specifically, but it had crossed my mind. So when this guy reached out to us on Facebook from Lansing, and we had all these mutual friends in comedy and they were great comedians, it seemed like we could trust this person to do this, because he’s in our network of comedians.
AVC: What role are you two playing, since comedians in each city are helming their individual shows?
EW: We’re facilitating the festival on a national level, and also planning three shows in New York. [You can buy tickets to the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday shows at the links.—ed.] When you first hear about [the festival], it doesn’t seem that difficult to organize everyone, since they’re doing their individual shows. But there’s getting everyone on the same page, using the same assets, using the same graphics, using the same messaging, getting everyone on the same page about where and how to donate, and how to account for all the money that’s coming in. Just figuring out what kinds of comedians [we want to participate] so that we’re doing it at least in some sort of streamlined way, and having some sort of accountability for where the money goes, have been huge jobs.
And the producers in each city are doing so much work. I know a lot of them took submissions to get the best possible lineups for their shows, and have been working with volunteers and really pushing the word out to local media. So they’re doing a ton of work on the local level as well, which is why this can work.
JW: Our role is providing a unified front for the whole thing. You’re not just planning a show in one city on one weekend. We were trying to do the math on the number of comedians who are going to be involved in this, [and we figured out that] we have about 500 performers nationwide who are going to be involved. And that’s absurd. I feel like we’re the glue—it’s not just a benefit show here and a benefit show there. We are presenting a united front by doing it this way on this national level.
EW: I sent a script to all the producers in all the cities we had confirmed at the time, and we put together a promo video that encapsulates who we are and how we’re working together. And I sent the poor producers the longest email, just getting everyone on the same page. And at this point, we’re so tired, we’re like, “We promise we’re doing stuff!”
AVC: Was it important to you to do the festival as a coordinated effort?
JW: For me, it was. Especially in the first 36 hours after the election. When you’re a comic, your Facebook feed is simultaneously the most important thing and the most annoying thing in your life. And my Facebook feed over those 36 hours was just comics from everywhere saying, “I don’t understand what’s going on. I don’t know what to do. What do we do?” And that’s where this idea came together. Yeah, Emily and I can put together a pretty badass show in New York City, but what if we reached out to our network and made it a bigger thing? I think it’s important for people who are liberal-minded in red states to know that they’re not left behind in this, and they’re not to blame for this. That we’re all in this together.
EW: It was such a thrill for me personally when I saw producers reaching out to us in places where we don’t have networks and had not expected there would be interest. Any city in a red state—we have a show in Houston. We have a show in Knoxville. A bunch of shows in Knoxville, actually. And those places in particular, I was like, “Whoa, this feels amazing, because I didn’t expect this to happen.” It made it feel like more of a national thing, rather than just [taking place in] the liberal bubbles.
AVC: I’ve heard a lot of talk about coming together after the election and standing unified against “Trumpism.”
EW: Yeah, I feel like it’s a protest through comedy. And it’s also for a good cause—the ACLU—so I hope it achieves those things.
AVC: Why did you chose ACLU as the beneficiary, when there are so many different areas under attack right now?
JW: I think [for me], especially as a comic, the rights that the ACLU protects are so important. Especially when we have a president going into office who thinks that if you speak up about something, then you’re bad. That’s the mentality of it. In terms of civil rights, the ACLU is for everybody. I don’t want to say it’s more or less important than something like Planned Parenthood, which is incredibly important, but I feel like the ACLU [encompasses] everything.
EW: When you look at the list of civil liberties, it looks like a checklist of things that Trump doesn’t give a shit about. And that’s why it’s important.
AVC: What about people who don’t live in a city where there’s a What A Joke show? What can they do to help out?
JW: If they want to support the festival in some way, we are selling red “What A Joke” hats on our website. Ten percent of the proceeds [from the hats] are going to the ACLU, and the rest is going back into the festival.
EW: We’re working on a zero dollar budget. I’ve thrown in several hundred bucks, but aside from that, we’ve been doing this on nothing, so [that’s why] part of that is going to the ACLU and part back into the festival. That’s the only money we’ve had coming our way.
JW: My dream is that there will be a million women marching on Washington with “What A Joke” hats. Because to me, it’s the ultimate middle finger to the “Make America Great Again” mentality.
AVC: I was going to ask where the name came from.
EW: We were at a Shake Shack, trying to figure out what to call our festival. We were working with wordplay, trying to figure out what applies to comedy and the current political situation, and Jenn said it, and it just hit. “Yeah, that’s it. Right there.”
AVC: This fest is great, but we have a long four years ahead of us. How do you think people should think about going forward? What’s your personal action plan?
EW: My personal action plan is to never accept what’s happening as normal. That’s it. Fight back as much as possible, so that this is not the norm. I know that’s kind of vague, but however that applies at any given moment. The day after the election, I started a Twitter account. It was just taking things Trump has said and turning them feminist, and that made me feel really good. Then this festival took over every moment of my entire life. Both of those things helped keep me from feeling the absolute devastation that I was feeling.
I think just being active is really important, whatever that means to you. Whether that means donating or protesting or getting involved in organizations. There are a million different ways to get active, and it will help you personally as well as help[ing] whatever causes you support. As for this festival, we’re doing it on Inauguration Day weekend, but there are four years of Trump’s administration ahead of us, if he doesn’t get impeached during his first day in office. So we hope that this can be an annual event across the country, coinciding with the State Of The Union or something like that.
AVC: It’s hard not to get fatigued, because every day you wake up and there’s something new to get outraged about. It’s hard to stay active and not be overwhelmed by despair.
EW: I think you have to pick your battles, and then stick with that thing for a minute. You can’t fight everything at once.
JW: And self care. I’m taking a lot of bubble baths. I’m doing a lot of yoga. You have to fight the good fight, and then get out your lavender oil.
EW: Oh my God. That’s such a meme, Jenn.