Comedy can make us laugh, and it can also help us better understand our world. And for those who are good at cracking jokes, comedy can be a coping skill. This is something that comedian Elsa Eli Waithe knows very well. For their Narratively essay, Waithe wrote about how stand-up comedy helped save their life when they were suicidal. To round out Mental Health Awareness Month, we talked to Waithe about stand-up, teaching comedy to girls, their Slavers of New York campaign, and their new mental health-themed podcast.
In your Narratively story, you wrote about how stand-up comedy helped you cope with your mental health. How has comedy helped you navigate the pandemic?
I personally stepped away from stand-up comedy during the pandemic. I attempted doing a couple of Zoom shows to varying results, but I always felt more exhausted after doing a Zoom show. When you’re on stage, you got your whole body, and you can walk around a bit, but on the Zoom, I’m concentrating all of my energy into this tiny little space. So I’ve seen [the pandemic] as a break—not to say that I wasn’t still writing comedy—but because there was nowhere to perform.
On the flip side, the pandemic has been excellent for GOLD Comedy school. We first envisioned it as two things: In-person classes, coaching, open mics, things like that, and then some sort of online situation where people can buy the course…it wasn’t really much of a money-making venture at that point, just the passion project. Pandemic hit, everyone had to go back in the house, and wouldn’t you know there is a market for it.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to give stand-up comedy a shot?
Get up on stage as much as possible. Don’t go overboard, because New York is the type of place where you can do four mics in one night. There’s a balance between quantity, and then quality; you don’t want to burn yourself out. But take opportunities, and be open to opportunities. Someone told me ‘you’ll get 1,000 bombs in your career.’ I was like, “Okay let’s just get them out of the way first.” It’s about being a little bit brave. It’s about pushing through.
The other piece of advice I would give is to listen to all advice, and then only take half. Because especially for girls and young women—people want to mansplain shit to you. A lot of people will give you bad advice, try to make you do what they do, even if that may not even fit your style. But it is important to listen, because you might catch something good.
What led you to start the Slavers of New York project, a sticker campaign that indicates which New York City streets are named after enslavers?
Just around the top of the pandemic, I remember doom-scrolling on the phone, and there’s some meme about the street names. It was old census records, and when you look at the chart, and go all the way over to the last column there’s the number of people that they owned. Since that time we’ve seen Ahmaud Arbery run down and shot, we heard about Breonna Taylor, and then last but not least, George Floyd, which really kicked the thing off. I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine, and he was kind of saying that the racism out in these types of places in the Midwest, like, it’s a different type of racism out there and so much more severe. I was like, “Oh, it’s that way here….and some of our streets are named for slave owners….Nostrand was a slave owner.” It was clear to me that people aren’t really engaging with their surroundings.
I queued my girlfriend in on this, and we first had a big idea of manipulating the actual street signs, but that was kind of too big and broad. The first sticker we did was Nostrand, who owned 46 slaves. So it’s just me and my girlfriend at first, and then Maria Robles had seen a sticker, contacted us and was like, “I’ve been doing this exact research.” She came with files and a map she had already created—she was doing this for fun over the pandemic. She was researching her neighborhood and came across the fact that Lefferts was also a slave owner. She was just going street by street and literally googling who these people are when she saw our stickers.
What’s next for you?
I got a podcast I just started with a friend of mine; it’s a comedy and self-care podcast called “You’re Fine.” We try to use humor to take some sting out of mental health issues and things around pain, mobility, addiction, rehab, and child abuse. All these things that are really hard to talk about—and not like we’re making light of them, but we try to take the sting out.