Try Not to Laugh at TFL Comedy
It’s not SNL. No cisgender white men here. TFL comedy operates as the only comedy club on campus exclusively for women, nonbinary students, and trans men, opening doors and Zoom rooms for these students in the cis male-dominated world of comedy.
The comedy group uses a diverse set of media to perform comedy, including standup and sketches in both video and live formats.
TFL originated on campus in 2016 as Tufts Funny Ladies, a Facebook group made up of students in other Tufts comedy groups who wanted a place to discuss the challenges of being in male-dominated comedy spaces. The group rebranded as TFL later that year, stripping the acronym of its female connotation to better commit themselves to creating an inclusive space for all types of gender minorities that may not necessarily identify as “ladies,” like nonbinary people and trans men.
This change in name was only the beginning. Former TFL president, senior Alex Soo, said that to facilitate more than just a “superficial type of change,“ TFL’s rebranding involved a culture shift within the organization, including who serves on the executive board, and with the content TFL produces.
Jamie Boots, a junior and the Head of Film for Tufts Institute Sketch Comedy, believes TFL has had an impact on the larger comedy scene on campus. “It is really difficult for women and nonbinary people to gain a presence within the community for many reasons,” Boots said. “[TFL] gives people the opportunity to… see what [gender minorities] can add to the comedy community.”
Junior Grace Abe, who is Head of Acting at TFL, said she goes to see other Tufts groups’ shows as well. “I think [the other Tufts comedy groups] are all great… they each provide… a different space [and] a different way of doing comedy that can fit everyone’s interests.”
TFL shows often bring the quirks of Tufts culture to center stage, with recent sketches poking fun at the tacit rule to avoid conversation with people you know while waiting in line in the mailroom, and providing humorous explanations for why students spend so much time in the gender-neutral bathrooms at Tisch. This relatable content keeps audiences engaged. Their show on February 26 attracted a group that is estimated to be their largest yet—both on the stage and in the audience.
“The reason I keep coming back to TFL shows is because the writers often draw from relatable and niche Tufts experiences like the mail room line into their scripts,” sophomore Aarushi Dabas, who attended the February show, wrote in a statement to the Tufts Observer. “The jokes are extremely witty and so unpredictable.”
In addition to jokes aimed at community issues, some TFL members get personal in their comedy, especially during standup sets. “We’re all about breaking the boundaries here at TFL,” said sophomore Casey Weaver, Head of Standup at TFL. “We want to deal with the weird, cathartic stuff, which impacts our comedy… There’s definitely a lot of trauma dumping going on, but at the same time, it is incredibly empowering sharing our experiences to an audience that is listening to us with [so] much attention,” she said.
At the February 26 show, junior Nuria Lizarraga embraced the culture at TFL and poked fun at her own life. “One of [the sketches] is pretty much about my old boyfriends, [whom] I describe in way-too-specific detail,” said Lizarraga, Co-Head of Public Relations at TFL. “I think it’s pretty cathartic and all part of the whole ‘sketches getting personal’ part of TFL.”
Soo previously performed a piece about an ex at a TFL show. “I kind of reclaimed what happened to me because I was able to use it… At least I got material from it [and] was able to make [it] an empowering experience for myself and… translate that into humor,”
The larger world of cis male-dominated comedy often perpetuates prejudice by “punching down,” or making jokes about a marginalized group one is not a part of. In contrast, TFL can act as a safe space for people of marginalized identities to “punch up” towards more privileged people. Soo said, “A lot of other people in the club also [turn personal experiences into comedy] when they talk about the parts of themselves that are [marginalized].”
When comedy draws from personal experiences related to gender and ethnic identity, “it is super important to acknowledge… the fact that one person’s experience of their identity and how they choose to create comedy about it is not going to be universal,” said Weaver. TFL is cognizant that comedy about these topics evolves by engaging in “ongoing conversation of how we talk about our identities through a comedic lens,” said Weaver.
Dabas wrote, “Jokes about the immigrant experience at Tufts don’t really land for me.” She continued, “It’s stuff I’ve already heard (and experienced) before that wasn’t super pleasant in the moment, like mispronouncing my name or my home food being “smelly” to the white kids.” Dabas went on to write that she doesn’t want to discourage other comedians from reflecting on their experiences. At the same time, she wrote, “Some of my friends and I also related to the experience of the name mispronunciation and reflected on the bad times it recalled for us instead of laughing at it in the moment.”
In a written statement to the Observer, Weaver emphasized TFL’s commitment to creating “a safe and comfortable experience for their audiences”—especially when the subject matter is related to “jokes surrounding identity.” “We work to be extremely conscious of ensuring that [the jokes] are coming from a place of the writer/performer’s individual experience with the goal of providing a venue for self-expression,” Weaver said.
Within the club, TFL leaders run workshops and closely mentor members in order to ensure their comedy is as strong as possible. Being a non-audition group, TFL attracts some students who don’t have any experience in comedy or acting or perhaps only have experience from a high school improv troupe. Abe said that TFL’s commitment to running workshops to help their members sets them apart from other comedy groups on campus.
For students who have often already been made to feel “unfunny” because of their gender, the stakes while performing on stage feel higher. “I always, always do my best [to mentor members], and I will never ever let them flop,” Soo said.
Along with close mentorship, TFL strives to build a strong community amongst its members. Soo shared that when she first joined TFL, she didn’t immediately feel welcome. “[My] first semester, some people on e-board didn’t know my name or they mixed me up with another Asian comedian woman, which was really uncomfortable.” In her time as president, she worked to use her leadership skills to improve the club’s culture.
“[The makeup of e-board] is one way representation matters” Soo added. As part of TFL’s e-board, she believes she was able to encourage more people of color to join the group. Junior Sam McQuaid, Co-Head of Public Relations at TFL, credited Soo with “working to diversify TFL racially.” In turn, Soo said she was encouraged by McQuaid’s position on e-board, as a trans e-board member. “Having a wide array of experiences, perspectives, and voices makes us a better and funnier club,” McQuaid wrote in a statement to the Observer.
TFL’s culture now includes many inside jokes, as you may expect from a comedy group. During the interview, Soo texted a TFL group chat asking if she should tell the Observer that TFL is “a cult.” They also like to call themselves “hot and funny”—which started as a bit, but according to Soo has since become “another layer of empowerment.”
TFL also has “lore” gathered from difficult experiences producing content. “We’re banned from the Powder House Dunkin for doing one of our sketches in there, we can’t even enter, I swear,” Weaver said. She added in a written statement for the Observer that TFL had been trying to quickly film a sketch, but got sidetracked when an MIT student musician approached the members about needing a videographer. “Overall, it’s a funny story to consider in the TFL lore, and a testament to the lengths Alex [Soo], and our group, is willing to go for the content we produce.”
Some of TFL’s most inventive sketches included “The First Frat” and “First Local Chapter,” both written and directed by Soo. They imagine how college fraternities would function if they were transported to the 1400s. “They are so well written and every single joke lands for me… the posh accent and ‘old English’ with modern-day slang and phrases is so paradoxical and strange that it’s funny,” Dabas wrote in a statement to the Observer.
While Soo said “[her] goal is never to upset the Tufts community,” she does aim to “say something in a way that maybe people haven’t thought about before and maybe just bring a new voice to the table.” In the “First Local Chapter” sketch, this meant criticizing Greek life.
For Soo, “[making something into comedy] doesn’t take away from the gravity of the situation, it just gives humans the ability to get through it, day by day… so I think that’s something that has helped… You know, life is just too hard to go through without trying to make it a little bit funny.”