February 27, 2002: On the Campus

Take my professor, please
Campus comics poke fun at student life and themselves in stand-up show

By Zach Pincus-Roth ’02

Caption: Elliot Ratzman GS, top, and Brian Rosen ’00 took the mike at a January stand-up comedy show on campus. (collage: steven veach)

When Dean Andrew Fleming West 1874 defied university president Woodrow Wilson 1879 by planting the Graduate College on the other side of Springdale Golf Course, little did he know that his action would affect Princeton stand-up comedy a hundred years later.

Outsiders tend to be funny. Not only do they observe things that insiders can’t see, but they have a license to make fun of their own quirks. A disproportionately high number of successful American comedians have been African-American, Jewish, or Canadian.

So it’s fitting that four members of Princeton’s own group of outsiders — graduate students — would perform alongside two undergraduates and two recent alumni in the campus stand-up show “Men and Women Are Not the Same (And Other Observations).” The show ran January 17 to 19 in a theater in Wilson College.

“When I arrived here, Princeton only had three of the four major types of comedy — improv comedy, sketch comedy, and transvesticism set to music,” emcee Peter Wicks said to open the show. “Now Princeton finally has stand-up.”

Wicks, a graduate student in the religion department, arrived at Princeton after earning a master’s degree from Cambridge University, where he performed stand-up for the Footlights, the collegiate humor troupe that spawned Monty Python’s John Cleese and Eric Idle as well as other prominent British comics. Hoping to put on a stand-up show at Princeton, Wicks contacted Liriel Higa ’02, my fellow On the Campus columnist and the president of Muse, a student group that stages cabaret shows for students to display nontraditional performance talents.

Higa and Muse artistic director Bridget Nolan ’02 agreed to sponsor the event. Wicks recruited talent and ran a workshop for the comedians who hadn’t performed before. “A lot of people when they first try to do stand-up don’t realize how different stand-up material is from an amusing party story,” Wicks said.

One of Wicks’s goals was to get graduate students more involved in Princeton’s creative scene.

“It’s striking how marginalized the grad community is,” Wicks said. “At Cambridge, because you’re dealing with small communities, there’s a lot more interaction between undergrads and grads.” At Cambridge the 31 colleges are independent institutions, unlike those at Princeton, and graduate students often live alongside undergraduates.

In addition to a large audience of undergraduates — including one who held a sign reading “Peter Wicks for President” — Ph.D. candidates turned out in droves for the show. Said performer Matt Ornstein ’02: “I haven’t seen this many grad students since the day they gave out Prozac at the D-bar.”

Unsurprisingly, precept humor was popular. Adam Ruben ’01, whose hilarious Class Day speech upstaged Bill Cosby last June, is now a grad student in his own right, enduring his first-year in the Johns Hopkins biology department. He described scaring his students on the first day of precepting a physics class, saying in a fake, exaggerated Russian accent, with a petrified look on his face: “Hallo. My name is Alexei. You don’t know physics. I don’t know English. We learn from each other this semester.” The bit won laughs from undergrads and grads alike.

The rest of the lineup contained more outsiders. Musicology grad student Marisa Biaggi impersonated characters from her Italian neighborhood, while Brian Rosen ’00 described how Jewish barbecue consists of ordering Chinese food and eating it outside. Elliot Ratzman, a Ph.D. candidate in the religion department, talked about his experience as a Jew at Harvard Divinity School, where he said there was so much sin and sex that one morning a pastor woke up in her partner’s bed and “did the walk of shame – to church.”

But the most demographically interesting performer was Bosnian Haris Hadzimuratovic, a freshman. He described how Muslims in Bosnia are more progressive than in Afghanistan, because wives walk three steps ahead of their husbands rather than three steps behind. The reason? “Land mines,” he said. Thanks to Hadzimuratovic’s outsider status, a sensitive topic got one of the evening’s biggest laughs.

Wicks hopes to keep Princeton stand-up alive, with possible shows at eating clubs, the D-Bar, and at a larger venue sometime next semester.

“Ask anyone who’s done it,” Wicks said. “Stand-up is addictive.”

Zach Pincus-Roth ’02 writes funny sketches and songs for Triangle.

Abhi Raghunathan ’02 discusses how e-mail is changing the way precepts are taught in ON the campus online.


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