In the past five years, Lafayette’s stand-up and improv comedy scenes have grown, attracting crowds to see national acts like Brian Posehn and Kevin McDonald at smaller, more intimate venues including the Wurst Biergarten and DoubleTree Hotel.
Still, there is room to improve when it comes to diversity.
How to tackle the scene’s lack of diversity was one topic discussed during last week’s video chat, “Who Made the Potato Salad.” Members of Silverbacks Improv Troupe, Lafayette Comedy, Comedy for Lizard People and Sometimes Y Comedy hosted the online conversation. Included in the discussion were local, Black stand-up comedians — among them Ken Edwards and Mike Honore. Monique Morton Derouselle, an ensemble member and producer with Silverbacks, organized and led the event.
Having a frank conversation about the lack of diversity in Lafayette’s improv and stand-up comedy scenes has been one of Derouselle’s goals for some time.
“With everything happening in 2020, this is the time to talk about it,” she says. “We wanted to let people know this is something that’s always been on our minds. [Lack of diversity] is something we recognize. We want to try to fix any issues that we have in our [improv comedy] community.”
Before the pandemic slowed activity to a halt, Silverbacks Improv Troupe had started discussing community outreach programs, and providing diversity and need-based scholarships. Derouselle, who studied at the Second City in Hollywood, Calif., says it’s important to show that improv is an option for different crowds.
“You walk in and think [improv] might be a fun thing to do, and you see there’s nothing but a sea of white people. You’re immediately taken aback,” she says. “That’s something we have to overcome with our community.”
Silverbacks ensemble member Sarah Brown agrees that the Lafayette company must do more than the bare minimum in attracting diverse company members and crowds.
“It’s not going to be acceptable to just say, ‘Hey, it’s out here, and anyone can come,’” Brown says. “If we want more diversity in our community, it’s going to take targeted, specific work over the lifetime of our business to continually have that happen.”
One thing Lafayette comedians could agree on during last week’s discussion was how the scene strives to be inclusive.
“We do a good job of gatekeeping the scene,” Lafayette Comedy’s Jason P. Leonard says. “No matter who you are — if you are a good performer, we’re going to encourage the hell out of you.”
However, Leonard says the biggest obstacle is getting local audiences to pay attention. The task is even more difficult without a traditional comedy club.
“Without having a traditional comedy club, it’s hard to get a good mix of people at these shows, and you’re dependent on the venue,” he says. “For the most part, people really aren’t that much into comedians. You’ve got to be a huge star for the majority of the public to pay attention to you.”
Though he tries to book diverse comedians, Leonard says that stand-up is a world dominated by “white dudes with beards.” Putting together diverse lineups is a tricky balance, too, because of the limited number of comedians overall in the Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas. Still, he wants to attract diverse performers and audiences. One idea that came from last week’s discussion was bringing back all-Black comedy open mic night called “Soul to Soul.” Another idea was setting up mentoring programs. Diverse comedians bring “fresh air,” Leonard says.
“You’re not hearing the same style of jokes,” he says. “It’s a different perspective, a wider menu for your audience. It makes your scene better. It makes people grow.”
While last week’s discussion was fun, hopeful and full of jokes, participants pointed out a bigger problem in the community — Lafayette’s segregation.
“Even in a city that celebrates its culture so heavily, it’s still very segregated in certain aspects,” Derouselle says. “I don’t know if that’s because of the acts these places bring in. I don’t know if these places try to appeal to Black people. It’s definitely a more segregated city unless it’s Festival International or Mardi Gras.”
Brown agrees, and her attitude on Lafayette’s culture bounces between pessimism and optimism. On one hand, she sees great things happening Downtown. On the other, she sees the clear divide. It wasn’t a conversation that Brown and local comedians were “terrified to have,” she says — it was a necessity for progress.
“This is what we wanted to happen,” Brown says. “It’s not enough to just love Black culture. We have to love Black people.”
Derouselle’s goal is more simple — she doesn’t want to be the lone Black woman on stage.
“When you’re a minority in any scene, you’re always searching for someone that’s like you,” she says. “I want to not be one of the only black people in the scene. I want it to be more equal. I want to get the word out to everyone, and I want them to be as amazed as I was the first time I saw all these Black people doing improv. I want them to come back and stick around,” Derouselle continues. “Once we’re able, I want to start an all-Black improv troupe. That’s definitely at the top of my list — to get all the Black improvisers together in Lafayette. Let’s be visible. Let’s be loud.”