Inaugural ComEx! Festival celebrates comedic arts

When the comedic arts major was created two years ago, Emerson comedy majors and troupes traveled to events in Boston like the “Boston Comedy Arts Festival” held every year. But when comedic arts professor Erin Schwall joked about Emerson having its own comedic arts festival,  students asked how they could make it happen.

ComEx!, also known as “Comedy Extravaganza,” is a two-day comedic arts festival held on April 5 and 6 in Tufte Center’s Greene Theatre. Schwall serves in the faculty committee that created the new event alongside Matthew McMahan, assistant director of the comedic arts department, and Martie Cook, the founder and department chair of comedic arts.

The event will showcase student-created sketches, stand-up performances, alumni shows, and a special event—the Jess Illias Clavelli Competition, or “The Jess”—an annual event with cash rewards totaling up to $2,000 given to a junior or senior comic. The award is dedicated to the late Jess Ilias Clavelli, the 6-year-old son of Emerson alumnus Chris Clavelli ‘83.

This will be the first year “The Jess” will be performed, judged, and awarded live. Clavelli will also be attending as a judge. Winners will be announced on April 6 at the ComEx! Tonight show, a late-night show with comedic skits, and sit-down interviews with guests.

Schwall said she noticed a need for comedic arts students and troupes to connect with each other.

“Right now, the comedic arts department doesn’t have a vessel for its performers to show what they’re learning in the classrooms and go perform,” Schwall said. “I would hope that this festival becomes that opportunity in many ways.”

Cook said students and faculty collaborated to plan each ComEx! event, from approving the performance material to setting up the stage design and providing any costumes the performers needed.

Senior Noa Johnson, junior Brandon Ratcliff , and sophomore Alyssa DeVries are the head student producers of ComEx!, and started working on the project in October 2018.

Johnson, a comedic arts major, held various roles for ComEx! such as social media manager, head writer of the Comedic Arts Revue—an event where students in the Comedic Arts BFA program showcase their sketches–and led castings and auditions for the Emerson Student Stand-Up showcase. Both the Comedic Arts Revue and the Emerson Student Stand-Up showcase are on April 5. Johnson said that working on ComEx! created a learning experience for faculty and students.

“Whenever we write a sketch as a group with all of the comedic arts [students] and the ‘Revue’ people and then we’re able to show that to the faculty—it feels like a great moment,” Johnson said. “It’s what they’ve taught us and then we’re able to go to actually implement it and prove to them that we’re all here for a reason, and they’ve made the right choice and they’re teaching us the right things.”

Johnson, Ratcliff, and DeVries will also host ComEx! Tonight interviewing alumni: Jon Rineman ‘05 , writer for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Stefani Robinson ‘14, writer and producer for Atlanta, Hailey Chavez ‘15, writer for Grown-ish, Eric Drysdale ‘93, writer for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Val Kappa ‘00, stand-up comic.

“If we’re gonna have alumni here who are successful in the industry, it’s really important for the students to learn how they got lucky, but also what they did to get those writing or stand-up positions,” DeVries said. “The whole festival is just honoring the comedic arts major and it’s a lot for the Emerson students to learn ’What is this?’ and ‘How can I get involved?’”

McMahan helped students workshop their sketches and material for each of the events. He said he hopes that ComEx! represents the faculty and students well.

“We really wanted a landmark event that would represent comedic arts, and really contribute to the fabric of Emerson College,” McMahan said. “There’s this real desire to stake a claim in comedic arts.”

Nine comedy troupes will be performing at ComEx!: Flawed Comedy, Swollen Monkey Showcase, Emerson Comedy Workshop, Jimmy’s Travelling All-Stars, Chocolate Cake City, Police Geese, Stroopwafel, Derbyn, and The Girlie Project. Each group will perform three or more sketches or scenes of improv at the Best of Troupe Show.

Junior Brian Roque, the president of Police Geese and member of Emerson’s first comedic arts class, hopes that ComEx! will recognize the collaborative efforts made between students and faculty to improve the major, and provide more opportunities for students.

“[ComEx!] will almost be like a sending off- point to comedic arts majors five, 10, 20 years from now who can look back and see that these people helped form what the major became,” Roque said. “By focusing on performance, I think it’s a really special thing because it allows people to see, as opposed to read the progress [of] what the comedic arts students have accomplished.”  

Senior Nina Rodriguez, founder and president of Flawed Comedy, a comedy troupe of women of color, said Schwall’s decision to include comedy troupes helps comedic arts students officially show their creations.

“I’m excited that the comedic arts students will be able to showcase their work,” Rodriguez said. “VMAs, they have their capstone projects, performing arts students have EmStage, but we have a really cool community to celebrate.”

To wrap up ComEx!, Emerson alumni will be answering questions about how they got into the comedy industry, and will share advice to prospective students.

Hailey Chavez ‘15 writes for Grownish and will be featured on ComEx! Tonight. Chavez said she hopes that the show will provide a different perspective for students who want to pursue the same or a similar career path, but worry about not knowing how to get there. She said Emerson prepared her for the career she wanted, and cannot imagine what it has to offer now, especially with the existence of ComEx!.

“There’s no one way to do this career,” Chavez said. “That can sometimes be the frustrating part but also the inspiration part.”   

Cook said ComEx! will become an annual event and may also expand to Emerson’s LA Campus. She also plans to launch an award next year to recognize those who use their comedic talent to highlight social justice issues.

To celebrate ComEx!, a mixer will be held at Tuft Center’s Greene Theatre to talk with participants and alumni from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. on April 6.

“We sort of live in a world that tells you that your voice isn’t enough, or right, or interesting,” Schwall said. “I feel like it’s my job as a teacher and advisor to help students develop their voice and their identity in their writing or performing, so that when they graduate they are the best version of themselves. There’s so many voices in comedy, but you’re the only you.”

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