“Hang On Tightly, Let Go Loosely”: Protecting Oberlin’s Comedy Scene


Talia Barton

Sammie Westelman, OC ’19, performing a standup audition in 2019.

During my first week at Oberlin I mustered up the courage to attend an improv comedy showcase completely by myself. Applying to colleges in my senior year of high school, I prioritized schools with a prevalent comedy culture. When I decided on Oberlin, I was worried that I would lose my ties to improv and comedy performance.

Oberlin’s student body is not known for having a sense of humor; the popular media loves to cover our scandals of “free speech” and excessive wokeness. Naturally, when I got to Oberlin, I thought the improv troupes would fall victim to these stereotypes; I expected safe, if not slightly dorky, humor.

But as I sat in the back of the Cat in the Cream, I watched the four troupes’ multidimensional characters navigate kooky situations and quickly realized that our student body’s intelligence and self-awareness created an environment where aspiring comedians could take risks and innovate.

When I auditioned for the coalition in 2018, I was terrified. Even with my prior experience, I couldn’t imagine making any Oberlin student laugh. And at first, I didn’t. I was ridiculously nervous, and I flopped during my Primitive Streak audition. But when I auditioned for Kid Business and the Sunshine Scouts the following day, I found my footing and bonded with the captains. A few days later, I received an email from the Sunshine Scouts that read, “Unfortunately, we had to make a decision about who to accept this year, and we’ve agreed that you will be an excellent addition to the family!” Thank you for the mini heart attack.

After the initial adjustment — awkward performances, bad jokes — I was so grateful that I had the Sunshine Scouts. I spent four hours every week chatting, joking, and performing with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I was surprised by how well we all got along — how well we all complemented each other. Outside of rehearsals, we went to brunch and held game nights. I knew about their lives and they knew about mine. My troupe made me feel safe and happy; improv made me feel cool. And as a first-year, it was great that after one month, I already had an automatic, built-in group of friends and mentors.

As I begin my fourth and final year at Oberlin, my feelings have not changed, but our circumstances have. In spring of 2020, the improv scene was in full swing. My predecessors were organizing and finalizing the logistics of our annual improv conference when the student body was asked to leave campus due to COVID-19. Since then, none of the four improv troupes have held auditions, rehearsed, or performed. Even worse, one of the troupes, Neurotic Fiction, completely dissolved after all the members graduated.

Now, as the College loosens restrictions on clubs and performances, I’ve been tasked with reviving one of the most important and pivotal parts of my Oberlin experience. Sunshine Scouts, Kid Business, Primitive Streak, and Neurotic Fiction are not household names anymore, but I’d like to change that. With any luck, the Oberlin College Improv Coalition and its three affiliate troupes will survive the pandemic.

Performing comedy at Oberlin — whether it be improv, sketch comedy, or stand-up — is not the challenge many might suspect. The students here attend comedy shows ready to laugh. Even during my worst performances, I can happily say that I got at least one impressive laugh. And when you’re working with a group, like in improv, you are completely supported by other members — it’s their job to make you look good! Everyone in the equation wants to see you succeed.

Doing improv at Oberlin has taught me valuable skills that extend beyond the rehearsal space. Performing with a group of people whose success is your responsibility taught me how to listen, watching more experienced players helped me focus on what’s funny, and I’ve become smarter and more creative from in-scene problem-solving. Bottom line: I wouldn’t be the confident, funny person I am today without the Sunshine Scouts. And for that, it is my duty to protect the legacy of improv comedy at Oberlin. I’d like to thank Imke Hart, OC ’19; Brian Weaver, OC ’19; Jonah Fox, OC ’20; Will Axelrod, OC ’20; Ezra Andres-Tysch, OC ’20; and Marie Romanelli, OC ’21, for their unconditional love and support.

The three troupes are performing in a joint show this Sunday in Craig Lecture Hall at 7:30 p.m. Auditions for new members will occur on Monday and Tuesday of next week, from 9–11 p.m. in Warner Center. Email [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected] if you’d like to know more.