Mary Jane French knows a thing or two about making someone laugh. Whether you have seen her stand up at open mics or showcases, or have seen one of her recent shows around town with her comedy production team, Traverse Comedy, I’m sure you’ve laughed at at least a few of her jokes. And by a few, I mean all of them.
Comedy itself is a very intimidating art form, and isn’t always the most inclusive and welcoming for anyone not already in the circle. Traverse Comedy hopes to change that by offering classes to anyone who has had “Learn Comedy” on their to-do list. It’s their hope that they can help make comedy in the area at least a little bit easier to get involved with. While at one time, French held the opinion that comedy classes were questionable and it was better to just get out there, she realized that getting out there isn’t always an option.
“In the intervening years since I held that opinion, I have come to the conclusion that it is not as easy for every person to just go out and do open mics, because those can be iffy to downright hostile environments for some folks,” said French. “I wanted to be able to offer something that gives people an accessible pathway into doing comedy. And so it’s not a class that pretends like, ‘Hey, we’re going to make you the funniest person in the world.’ But you’re going to have an instructor who’s been doing this for a long time, who makes for a good mentor and has a lot of knowledge that they can impart on you. You’re more likely, when you go out into the greater Richmond comedy scene and the open mic scene, to feel more sure of yourself, instead of just getting chased off by the first asshole you meet.”
At the end of their six-week courses, Traverse Comedy promises to leave you with headshots, video of yourself performing, five minutes of material you feel confident about, knowledge of what to expect in an open mic, and experience doing said open mics.
Traverse Comedy is not necessarily doing anything new. Standup classes have been offered at various venues around the city, including the Funny Bone in Short Pump and Coalition Theater Downtown. However, the way Traverse is breaking ground is with their emphasis on making a more welcoming space for marginalized communities, such as folks who are LGBTQ and/or BIPOC. As an openly trans woman, being the only one in the room was something French got used to for a long time in Richmond comedy.
“Me winding up in comedy is just me having a very intense compulsion to do it, and I don’t think that that should be the bar for entry,” said French. To her, Traverse’s goal is “to create more opportunities for people to come into the scene. Another part of it is looking across the scene, seeing some of the things that I wish could be better, and realizing my ultimate goal and hope with these classes in general is that they will have a fundamental effect in changing the landscape of the scene, having more people, and making the scene more diverse and more inclusive to more people with different backgrounds. Right now, it can be hard.”
She also adds that right now the scene is better than it has been in a long time, with an increasingly more supportive environment, which if anything should encourage anyone who has had trying comedy on their wish list.
So far, the folks signing up are a mixed bag of sorts. Some have done comedy in some fashion, such as improv, while others just couldn’t hold themselves back from trying it any longer.
Naturally, the six-week courses end with a live performance. The inaugural class, which was an Intro to Comedy for Queers, just wrapped up, and will have their graduation show this Thursday, May 19 at 7pm at Strangeways Brewing’s Dabney Road location. Ticket sales will go toward Diversity Richmond, who donated the use of the classroom where the course was held. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the door.
For more information on future classes, such as the Intro to Standup for BIPOC Folks, taught by Richmond comic Francesca Lyn, as well as other upcoming shows produced by Traverse Comedy, visit their Linktree at linktr.ee/traversecomedy.