The Kennedy Center is hosting some of America’s top female comics this weekend in honor of Women’s History Month at RIOT!, a showcase of some of the best current and up-and-coming female headliners. Each of the three nights — Thursday, March 3; Friday, March 4; and Saturday, March 5 — features a different set of three comics performing two shows each night, at 7:30 PM and 9:30 PM.
RIOT! originated with sold-out performances in 2018 and 2019 — the pandemic shut it down for two years — and has since become a national platform for female artists to explore their womanhood in risk-taking comedy and creative experimentation, with a focus on identity-based intersectionality. Previous RIOT! performers have included comedy giants the likes of The Daily Show’s Dulce Sloan and SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor. All of this year’s selected performers are standouts in their own right.
Thursday, March 3: Cristela Alonzo, Sydnee Washington, Jenny Questell
Alonzo created and starred in the ABC sitcom Cristela, making her the first Latina woman to create, produce, write, and star in her own American primetime comedy show; Alonzo is also releasing her second Netflix special later this year. Washington recently appeared on Comedy Central’s Up Next showcase. Jenny Questell has performed standup at DC Improv.
Friday, March 4: Natasha Leggero, Liza Treyger, Brittany Carney
Leggero is a regular performer in sitcoms for networks including Comedy Central, NBC, and CBS. Treyger recently appeared in the Judd Apatow film starring Pete Davidson, The King of Staten Island. Carney was a staff writer for That Damn Michael Che on HBO Max and performed in Comedy Central’s stand-up series Featuring.
Saturday, March 5: Megan Stalter, Ali Kolbert, Denise Taylor
Stalter has worked as a cast and writing staff member of the reboot of The National Lampoon Radio Hour, as well as a cast member on the Stephen Colbert–executive-produced animated show Tooning Out the News and the sitcom Hacks. Kolbert has performed on A Little Late with Lily Singh and NBC’s Bring the Funny, and has written for The Onion. Taylor, who has opened for comedy greats including Patton Oswalt and Nicole Byer, is also currently a contributor for The Onion.
DC natives to keep an eye out for on the RIOT! stage this weekend include Denise Taylor, Brittany Carney, and Jenny Questell. DC Theater Arts had the opportunity to interview Jenny Questell and Brittany Carney about their career paths, what most fascinates them about comedy, and their views on the state of the industry.
What subjects most interest you and inspire your comedy? How did you develop your style?
Brittany Carney: I think human nature is funny. When I first started, I had a lot of material about history and things I saw or learned working in museums. I still love to wrench historical topics or people into my writing; after all, it’s human experience. Body parts are very silly to me. I’m not sure exactly how I developed my style. It’s something that feels like it formed without my conscious control, though that can’t be accurate. Early on, an experienced DC comic got on stage after me and announced, “You need to be on acid to understand Brittany.” I’d argue that not to be the case — maybe a strong tea. Just kidding.
Jenny Questell: That’s an interesting question because I feel like I’m just now really starting to develop my voice. It definitely has changed as I progressed from my early 20s. I think it’s fun when people can take mundane everyday things that happen to them, and turn an experience like at the grocery store into a really good bit. I still have so much to learn and grow in comedy. Something I’m trying to do is explore my childhood more. I was a pretty anxious kid and I think that led to me getting overwhelmed and handling a lot of situations in really ridiculous ways. I’m from a small town in North Carolina, and I have a lot of pride and fondness for where I’m from that I’m excited to talk about more.
How do you write and rehearse your comedy? What is your creative process?
BC: I always have a notebook with me, in my bag or coat pocket. I’m not as diligent as I’d like to be about blocking out set times to focus and write. Writing feels more natural when something occurs to me out in the wild, and I’m able to jot it down/type a word into my Notes app. Once I’ve written out the beats of a joke, or even just a premise, I will write it over and over, like Nicholson in The Shining. This helps me memorize, tighten, and edit. COVID masks are helpful for reciting bits aloud, incognito. I think I feel more creative at night. I love bringing a notebook to a quiet bar — a touch of wine never hurts.
JQ: I usually have an idea of something I want to talk about, and I’ll sit down and try to write a punchline before I try it out. Other comics will just kind of improvise and figure it out on stage; I’m not really like that. I like to have a plan. Comedy is a live wire though; you don’t really know if something will work until it does.
How do you balance between using comedy to discuss serious issues and purely entertaining your audience?
BC: I find that for me personally, incorporating some inane element into a more serious issue is key. It’s still entertainment, after all. I’ve figured out a few bits on slavery, and for a topic like that to work in front of a sensitive liberal crowd, you’ve got to commit to a silly angle.
I was two years into comedy when Trump won, which brought this question into hyper-focus for sure. I had an old joke about how when he entered office, several of my white exes reached out to me in… chivalrous support? In the joke, I said something like, “Just give me back my Yoko Ono poetry book.”
JQ: A comedian’s primary job is to entertain the audience. I feel very strongly about that. I think if you have a huge platform, the goalposts definitely move; but at the end of the day, your job is to be funny. That’s not to say that those with a large platform don’t have a duty to be responsible with it. I definitely have topics I’ve only scratched the surface in, so I’m excited to challenge myself more. It comes down to asking yourself how can I connect with these people, how can they find me relatable so I can talk about this.
What led you to your career in comedy?
BC: After a show in an art space (vacant apartment?) called the Dunes (RIP), a friend challenged me to try an open mic. Terrified, I signed up in advance to do five minutes at a now-closed vegetarian restaurant in Dupont. I wrote some “‘jokes.” Two weeks later I did my first set. I went back the next week and it steadily took over my life.
JQ: Haha, well, it’s not really a career right now. Like, I’ve had some cool opportunities and sometimes I get paid. A lot of the time I get paid nothing or in chicken tenders. I have a full-time day job. I did a lot of theater and I played the violin growing up, and then I did competitive public speaking at a high level in high school and college… I had recently graduated from college and just found myself really missing performing so in 2016 I signed up for a couple of classes, like storytelling and satire. And then I did my first open mic. I didn’t immediately start hitting the mics every night, I was just like, “Oh, that was interesting, I kind of liked that.” Over the subsequent year, I found myself coming back to it because standup is something that while it’s hard to become good at, it’s easy to start by yourself, like you don’t need a sketch team or rehearsal space. DC already had a thriving comedy scene, so it was pretty easy to find open mics.
What comedians are most interesting to you at the moment?
BC: Some comedians I love to watch/find most interesting include Daniel Simonsen, Yamaneika Saunders, Rosebud Baker, Joe Pera, and Gary Gulman.
JQ: In terms of big names, Anthony Jeselnik is one of my all-time favorites. My sense of humor is much lighter, but I love throwing a mean joke out there. He’s such an incredible writer and his delivery is spot on. I love Ali Wong. She has such a specificity to her delivery. I like comedy coming from anger. I’m also a big fan of Nicole Byer. Nobody crushes like her. She’s just really amazing to watch. One of my favorite comedy writers is Natasha Rothwell. I also grew up watching Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey on SNL so I really appreciate character comedy.
What are trends that you do and don’t like in standup comedy at the moment?
BC: This is small, but bugs me — it’s a body language thing. It’s trending (maybe it always has?) to stand still with the mic in one hand and your elbow in the other. It’s this locked, protective stance that communicates to me: “I’m not comfortable.” I have lots to work with on my own stage presence, so I’m aware of my own body; the elbow thing grinds my gears. Otherwise, edge for edge’s sake is kind of lame. Re: the growing world of anti-PC comedians… I feel if you’re going to be contrarian, cool, but have it come from authentic experience or at least be funny.
I love, love, how more women comics are dressing more feminine telling jokes. I think historically, many women (myself 100% included) felt compelled to dress more masculine/modest on stage. This is for a number of reasons, but I’m noticing trends toward finding power in dressing femmy on stage.
I also love seeing the growing success of Black comedians from all nuanced walks of Black experience — it seems the industry is beginning to embrace/capitalize on the “Blackness is not a monolith” idea and, well, that’s sweet.
JQ: TikTok is a whole other beast that can be challenging. It’s hard when there is so much pressure to constantly be posting on social media to try to build an audience, but we’re lucky we have so many more creative options today. Comedians are pushed to be so much more than just a standup; everyone has a podcast, or they’re writing satire, producing a web series, etc. It can feel very overwhelming because there are so many options, but it does push everyone to be better.
RIOT! Funny Women Stand Up will run from March 3 to 5, 2022, with two shows each night, in Studio K at the REACH at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets ($29), call (202) 467-4600 or go online.
The RIOT! digital program is online here.
COVID Safety: The Kennedy Center Vaccination and Mask Policy is here.