TEDxEmory Experiments With Comedy

A stark black background. Big red letters. One speaker, centerstage. This is the classic recipe for TEDxEmory speeches. However, none of these elements were present at the quiet, intimate setting of the social justice organization’s inaugural “roasTED” event, held on March 29 at the Media, Literature and Arts Outreach (MLAO) House.

Hosted by TEDx member Jake Perl (21C), the event lasted only 90 minutes but packed in three speeches punctuated by original material from Perl. Roughly 60 people traversed through torrential downpours for the event. TEDxEmory President Mackenzie Aime (18C) said this was the first time TEDxEmory decided to host a comedy-focused event.

Perl warmed up the crowd with a few jokes about his bar mitzvah before diving into his main bit on the 2013 Comedy “Grown Ups 2.” He poked fun at the movie’s casting of former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal and its abysmal 7 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Although the crowd was apprehensive at first, Perl soon had the room chuckling just in time for the night’s first speaker.

Abbey Kelly (19B) wasted no time getting to her first punchline. Kelly was born deaf on her right side due to a Grade Three Microtia, a condition which left her without an external ear. At a young age, she underwent surgery to reconstruct her ear with skin from her backside. She now affectionately refers to her right ear as her “butt-ear.”

Despite the reconstruction, she is still left half-deaf, which has posed problems for her as a college student. But as she detailed what life was like with her disability, her stories often made the crowd whoop with laughter. One night at Maggie’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill, she couldn’t quite hear a guy very well so she turned to face him. He thought she was turning for a kiss.

“It was my story so it just felt very comfortable talking about it because that’s what I do everyday anyways,” Kelly said.

In true TEDxEmory fashion, Kelly tied her talk back to the more serious topic of living with a disability. Her brother lives with a severe neurological disorder and she said that he has helped her learn to laugh at the things that are not usually perceived as funny.

After Kelly’s speech, Hallie Lonial (19C) took the stage to discuss popular dating app Tinder and its bizarre culture. Lonial had previously spoken at the TEDxEmory Passion Pit event in the Fall, but she had never performed any kind of stand-up.

Her talk explored everything from receiving gross messages from prospective dates to the anxieties she felt when finally planning to meet up with someone. At one point, she described a time when meeting her brother’s beautiful Italian girlfriend drove her to re-download the app after previously deleting it in frustration.

“Even if the audience wasn’t laughing, I was laughing at myself,” Lonial said. “It was a really good first-time experience, too, because it was kind of a low-pressure situation.

Following Lonial, Hannah Montgomery, an exchange student at the Goizueta Business School from the University of Manchester for the 2017-2018 school year, talked about one of her biggest pet peeves — slow walkers — which elicited an affirming groan from the audience.

She detailed an experience of rushing to class only to be stopped by someone moseying down the middle of the sidewalk. Montgomery jumped around the stage mimicking the different types of slow walkers and her strategies for getting around them. Her frantic physical movements kept the audience engaged during the last stretch of the evening.

Unlike the other speakers, Montgomery had experience performing stand-up in England, but had never attempted it in the United States.

“I was kind of worried about performing in front of an American audience, because my sense of humor might be a little bit different,” Montgomery said.

However, with the help of Perl, she said she felt much more confident about the material. After Perl wrapped up the event and brought up all the speakers for a final bow, audience members arose looking energized and upbeat. Some said they were pleased with the night’s mix of serious and silly content.

“[The event] makes [these topics] more real and relatable,” said audience member Dani Reisbaum (18C). “It’s important to be able to laugh at things that seem hard or embarrassing.”

Perl echoed Reisbaum’s statements just after getting off stage.

“I really believe in the ability of comedy to give new life to things that might not be so interesting to talk about — to recontextualize tragedy and discomfort,” Perl said.

Prior to the event, audience members had climbed the stairs to the attic. A string of Christmas lights provided the cozy room with an amber glow. As the night came into focus, this intimate setting gave way to Perl’s vision for the evening.

“A lot of our talks are serious — obviously they are able to be fun and humorous but we wanted to have an event solely focused on spreading ideas through a different medium,” Aime said. “We thought that it would be a new and interesting spin off of ‘ideas worth spreading.’”

Varun Gupta contributed reporting.

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