When Céline Anderson ‘19 walked onto Swarthmore’s campus last fall as a freshman, she came with a plan to find her place.
“In high school, I wasn’t funny, but I was around a lot of funny people,” Anderson says. “During orientation, I realized that I wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough to make friends off the bat with people, so I had to have something. So, I think my edge was just being like awkward and like weird as f**k, but [owning] it.”
Now, as a sophomore, Anderson is co-president of Swarthmore Stand-Up Comedy Club. The organization’s mission, according to Anderson, is to facilitate stand-up comedy as well as to get people who love it in a weird way to talk about it.
Although she has learned much about comedic style from others in the group, Anderson is very aware of the male-dominated culture of comedy.
“I think one of the things we constantly run into is that the group can become such a sausage fest. It’s always, like, white dudes who are told they’re funny, because people want them to think they’re funny, I don’t know,” Anderson says.
To challenge the dominant state of affairs, Anderson and others in SUCC are bringing American Express, a professional group for comedians of color, to campus.
“We’re working to get away from [the dominant culture] … just to encourage that it doesn’t have to be that white people monopolize comedy,” said Anderson.
In her own performances, Anderson often includes issues of race and gender — a development that occurs both purposely and organically.
“I’m way more likely to say some weird thing that happens in my life that just happens to be funny than to make up a joke out of nothing … [but] I think being a woman of color in white spaces is just conducive to a lot of jokes. At the same time, I feel like there’s the responsibility of representation, and I want people to know who I am,” Anderson said.
In Anderson’s Google Drive, you’ll find a folder titled “index of jokes.” In it, she simply writes down stuff as it comes along.
“Sometimes, I look on my Twitter from high school … sometimes, I rely on certain things I’ve learned to shape just weird, borderline journal entries into comedy,” she says.
Indeed, Anderson’s personal life has contributed to her appreciation for comedy. Along with performing at Swat, she has also had the experience of performing in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia.
“I was really nervous because I was at a house show with a bunch of people there who I didn’t know … Me and my sister were the only people of color in the entire building, out of like 50 people, and I was one of two woman performers out of 13 performers,” Anderson said.
Before her performance, Anderson was worried that her jokes would not be appreciated by her unfamiliar audience.
“I was really nervous … like what’s going to appeal to this audience? All my jokes are about being awkward, like a middle schooler, or something,” Anderson says, “but I think it worked out okay because I think I actually filled a niche.”
Rather than drastically changing her set to fit the audience, Anderson stuck to what worked for her.
“That was braver than I thought at the time. I talked about being in middle school, and being made fun of … I told a race joke that went over pretty well. I think the joke is like because I’m racially ambiguous looking, whatever that means, and you know people, like, nod when they see their people, everyone’s like trying to nod at me, because they think I’m one of them, so I have to walk down the street like a bobblehead, and all these white people laughed,” said Anderson.
Although she is very secure in her own racial identity — Anderson is black and Egyptian — Celine believes other people are often confused by it and that leads to a thin line when it comes to jokes.
“I know who I am … I think it’s cool,” Anderson says, “[but] a lot of people are confused by it, and they see me on stage, and there’s a question of, because of how I look, what am I allowed to joke about. Like, to what degree am I allowed to joke about blackness, and to what degree am I allowed to joke about Arab-ness?”
As a genre, Anderson is conflicted about whether comedy should be called an art form.
“I go back and forth a lot about whether or not I want to call comedy art. I watched this episode of Louis, … and one of the things he was on was that you shouldn’t call comedy art because that brings an elitism to it, when maybe one of the most beautiful things about it is you can get a crowd of, like, different people, all laughing at the same fart joke,” Anderson says.
Despite her reservations about art, she believes that comedy has the capability to enact social change.
“I think it’s also a really good way to engage in discourse, not just on stage but in personal interactions,” Anderson says. “People just feel more relaxed, and I think their ears can be a little more open.”