2013 WASN'T BARON VAUGHN'S first time at the Bridgetown Comedy Fest, but it was the year we saw him go from good to great. At showcase after showcase, the LA stand-up was charismatic, quick on his feet, and dapper as fuck, with jokes about black nerds, racist mosquitoes, and the irresistible scent-combination of cocoa butter and Old Spice.
This year, Vaughn's making his mark on the festival in a different way: He's organized two all-black showcases called Baron Vaughn Presents: The New Negroes, a name borrowed from the Harlem Renaissance, to showcase the range of black comics appearing at the festival.
"I always tend to look for faces of color," says Vaughn. "When I focused in on the black people [at Bridgetown], I saw such variety that I jokingly said to myself, 'An all-black showcase would probably have more range than any regular show this year!' So I took it upon myself to see if I could make that happen. I guess I want the audience to not only expand their vision of black comedy, but also blackness."
You'd have to be really committed to being a racist to walk out of Vaughn's showcases thinking all black comics sound the same. W. Kamau Bell, who headlines one show, has an affable demeanor that stands in sharp contrast to his pointedly political material; Reggie Watts, who headlines the other, is a comedy-music-wizard-genius whose improvised flights of looping comedy are like nothing you've ever heard before.
Vaughn isn't the only one at the festival who's undertaking this sort of experiment.
The incomparable James Adomian (Comedy Bang! Bang!, Last Comic Standing) is hosting the Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name, a roster of gay comics—male and female—appearing at the festival. "Comedy seems to have been pretty homophobic, coming out of the 1980s," Adomian told the Mercury in an interview a few months ago. "If you look at the big comedians' material, there's an unfortunate amount of faggot jokes and AIDS jokes. That was just kind of considered normal. And I think in response to that, a lot of gay people—who are very funny, humor is one of the defense mechanisms that gay people have latched on to for decades and centuries—stepped away from what was happening in comedy. [These days] there's a sort of... I don't know if I wanna say 'movement,' but a sort of burgeoning phenomenon of gay male comics who are out of the closet, finally, and also not just performing for gay audiences—also able to affect comedy at large."
Among the comics on the bill for the Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name: David Smithyman, who describes his Australian homeland with a sedate, nature-documentary-narrator delivery ("Do you want to hear a fun fact about Australian animals?"); San Francisco comic Casey Ley, who turns a bit about how he doesn't scan as gay into a frenzied pantomime of simultaneous blowjobs; and Austin comic Caroline Bassett, whose anecdote-heavy material features both grammar shaming and ChristianMingle.com.
Rounding out the identity-politics trifecta, Portland's All Jane No Dick comedy festival—an annual affair dedicated to, you guessed it, celebrating the diverse range of styles and voices found among female comedians—is hosting a Bridgetown showcase. The lineup includes the excellent Janine Brito, formerly a writer/performer on Totally Biased, and Kyle Mizono, whose commitment to high-concept weirdness is hard to match.
It might seem counterproductive to throw shows that are "segregated" (to pre-emptively quote a future internet commenter; and while we're at it, there already are "all white" comedy showcases—it's most of them). But Vaughn sees The New Negroes as a way to showcase the range of comedic voices found among comics who are too-often defined by one attribute.
"I think if you're not a 'straight white male,' you're classified as a niche comedian," explains Vaughn. "It's also expected that you'll talk about nothing else and find your 'market' that way as well. I know plenty of comics that have plenty to say outside of being gay/trans/black/Indian/Latino/Chinese/female, as well as finding new ways to address and subvert issues they face as a part of those groups."
This year's uptick in identity-based shows doesn't mean that Bridgetown suddenly has a political axe to grind. Vaughn wanted to make an all-black showcase, so he did, and the festival supported him. This reflects the flexibility and open-mindedness in programming that's earned Bridgetown a national reputation as a performer-friendly festival.
And when the performers have fun, audiences do too.
Bridgetown Comedy Festival
Thurs May 8-Sun May 11, various locations, see bridgetowncomedy.com for details, $99 for weekend pass or individual show tickets available at the door (space permitting)
The New Negroes: Hawthorne Theatre, Thurs 10 pm; White Owl Social Club, Fri 10 pm
The Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name: Analog Theater, Sat 11 pm
All Jane No Dick: Curious Comedy Theater, Thurs 8 pm; Hawthorne Theatre Lounge, Sun 7 pm