One of the first things you learn in Improvisational Comedy 101 is the phrase Yes, and. For example, a co-performer says, “My, you’re looking mighty yellow.” You say, “Yes, and check out those pink elephants on the lawn.”

Like a clap of the hands or an approving chuckle, it’s affirming, encouraging, forward-moving. Of course, there are other tricks—“tag-outs,” for example, which begin a new scene; or “swinging doors,” which pause the action to launch into a digression; or “endowments,” momentary descriptions of the imaginary set—but none is quite as fundamental
to keeping the comedic ball rolling. So when I interviewed three recent Penn graduates—Aaron Karo W’01, Risa Sang-urai C’00, and Matt Johnson C’99—trying to break into the comedy business in New York, my questions were all supposed to begin with that familiar encouragement. Unfortunately, when I actually asked them, they came out differently: “Yes, but why?”

Why would Aaron Karo quit his job on Wall Street to pursue a career in humor writing and stand-up? In a city with a glut of improv-comedy groups, why did Risa Sang-urai choose to join an upstart ensemble, Dark Champions? What drove Matt Johnson, an accomplished sketch and improv comedian, to shrug off the yoke of both mediums, and pursue a hybrid model with his group, The Royal We?

For all three, the choice to pursue comedy was less a voluntary decision than a compulsion. An itch. The urge to make people laugh was first awakened, for each of them, at Penn. Johnson and Risa went the more traditional route, joining performing arts groups, while Karo got his start online, writing observational rants that he e-mailed to his friends.

From these embryonic experiences, they found that performing for an audience (even a virtual one) was immensely satisfying, and something they couldn’t give up, even if it meant taking conventional jobs to pay the bills. So far, only Karo has transitioned to doing comedy full-time (primarily because his e-mails were collected in a book, Ruminations on College Life, published last August). Risa and Johnson continue to hold down day jobs to support their humor habit.

On a frigid weekend in mid-January, all three performed to packed crowds in Manhattan: Karo told jokes at the New York Comedy Club; Risa’s Dark Champions gave their first show at the prestigious UCB theater; and Johnson’s The Royal We was part of a three-act bill at the Irish Rep Theatre. Afterwards, I spoke with each of them about their contrasting approaches to comedy.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03