Gaby Dunn and the Pursuit of Comedy: Featured Female Start-Up

It is 12:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday and I am crying. Tiny drops of saltwater keep falling from my eyes no matter how much I wipe them away. I am gasping for air because I cannot breathe. But it’s not that weird, especially since Gaby has always made me laugh this way.

When I first met Gaby Dunn five years ago, she was excessively quoting Anchorman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She had a dry, sarcastic sense of humor and talked like a standup comedian. Not much has changed. Except now she actually is a standup comedian.

Gaby, a senior Multimedia Journalism major at Emerson College in Boston, MA did her first standup show in May 2009 as part of a requirement for a school class, Writing for Standup Comedy, taught by part-time faculty member and comedian Michael Bent. Bent had students develop and perfect four to five minutes of material throughout the entire semester. Outside of class, students had the opportunity to have their performances critiqued by Eddie Brill, the comedy booker for David Letterman. The final project was to perform in Boston’s best comedy venue, The Comedy Studio. “I finished, and I was just like, ‘I love this. I love this,’” Gaby says.

I won’t lie—watching a friend do standup scares me. I’m always hoping their jokes won’t bomb, that there won’t be the awful silence of joke failure that can come with a new standup career. But that never happens when I watch Gaby. Watching a recent show of hers at Yale (on Vimeo), she approaches the light wooden stage, standing close to the audience, and begins her set. She is wearing a black and red plaid shirt, which is her first joke of the evening:

“When I told my mom that I was going to do standup comedy, she was like ‘Oh, wow, that’s great, that’s great,’ and then right before I was coming here, I opened up mail from her, and it was this shirt. Which had a note attached to it that said, ‘Dear Gaby: Saw this shirt, reminded me of your new life path…” She pauses. A wave of healthy laughter rises from the audience.

“‘Wear it at your next show.’ So I’m wearing it, and she’s being supportive. I’m glad she’s being supportive. I think, though, that she heard ‘lesbian’ and not ‘comedian’.” She is greeted with another wave of laughter. She offers a small smile and raises her eyebrows as if to say, ‘That’s mom for ya,’ but I can’t help but think that the smile is really because she’s happy with the way her joke was received.

“It’s an out-of-body experience,” she says to me later. “If something doesn’t go well, my hands shake. If it’s going well, it feels great. You’ve got to act like it’s a conversation even though you’re performing for [the audience].” The lights shine in her eyes and she can’t see the audience but Gaby, who jokes that she looks like Velma from Scooby-Doo, takes it all in stride.

Gaby has been interested in comedy for a long time. “When people ask me how I got into it, I always just say ‘no friends,’” she laughs. While her middle school peers paraded themselves around the local mall on Friday nights, Gaby stayed in, taking in the jokes of comics on Comedy Central Presents and Friday Night Standup.

Gaby actually started performing via sketch comedy, though, during her freshman year at Emerson. A former boyfriend wanted to audition for one of Emerson’s sketch comedy troupes, Chocolate Cake City, but got sick the day before he could. He urged Gaby, who had wanted to audition but was too scared, to take his audition slot. “I knew I wanted to be a writer,” she says, “but I wasn’t really an actor.” Nevertheless, she set out to audition the next day.

That night, Gaby paced up and down the halls of her dorm, sharing the material she had written with anyone who walked by. “Do you think this is funny? What about this? Or this?” But sleep beckoned and there was nothing else she could do. At the audition, reading almost directly from her page of material with hands shaking, Gaby delivered her audition piece. Though the experience hadn’t killed her, she was certain she wouldn’t get into the troupe.

But she did. “People always laughed when I told jokes and stuff, but I never had any real validation that I was funny before then.” Gaby began working right away with Chocolate Cake City (CCC), whose members write and perform their own sketch comedy. “I had to crank stuff out. It was trial by fire. I had never done anything like that,” she says. It turns out that CCC was a good choice—founded in 2002 by Emerson alum and comedian Rob Asaro, the troupe is known state- and nationwide for its clever, intelligent approach to comedy.

Emerson itself, Gaby says, is actually a great “comedy school.” Modern comic greats like Jay Leno, Denis Leary, and David Cross all attended Emerson, and it’s one of the few universities in the country where one can actually study the art. Emerson also gives out a comedy scholarship annually, funded by alum comics, and is home to the American Comedy Archives, dedicated to preserving comedic material.

In a college with a comedy background like this, Gaby definitely found her niche. She’s even picked up a Comedy Writing minor in the process, having taken classes like Sketch Comedy Writing, the aforementioned Standup Writing, and Sitcom Writing.

Though Gaby only started doing standup in May, she hit as many open mic nights as possible when she was working in New York this summer (as a media intern for Comedy Central and The Daily Show during the day, incidentally), sometimes doing three or four a week. That sounds like quite a lot for someone who’s just starting out, but Gaby forced herself to learn. “New York is hard, and it can be frustrating. There are so many comedians, not as many audience members. But on some nights I would be hanging out with people who were talking heads on [VH1’s] Best Week Ever. It was really inspiring.”

So inspiring that Gaby and some of her friends decided to start weekly standup shows at Emerson. “We wanted to make a show where you could come for the first time and you’re comfortable, and you’re treated the same as someone who’s been there before,” she says. Gaby is also part of a standup community outside of Emerson called We Do Stand-Up, a kind of standup collective founded by friend and Emerson alum Evan Fleischer in 2008. “Standup is so individual, everyone is really kind of all about themselves,” Gaby says. “But this is like a standup troupe, a way to create community.” We Do Stand-Up recently performed for a packed house at Tufts University in Boston. “It was me and six dudes,” Gaby laughs.
This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, though. Men tend to dominate the comedy world. In fact, the recent New York Comedy Festival actually had no female comics to speak of and between the five late-night comedy shows nominated for Emmys this season, there are a total of 12 female writers—the rest are men. “It’s definitely a boys’ club,” Gaby says. “But my perspective becomes special because there are so few women trying to do what I’m doing.” It’s even more pressure than one might think. “There’s so many young white guys trying to do comedy. If one of them gets up on stage and fails, it’s like ‘Oh, that guy sucks.’ But if you’re a lady and you get up there and you’re not funny, suddenly all women are not funny. And you only get one shot because there aren’t many women comics in the first place.”

So Gaby mostly keeps her gender out of her act. “If I could go up there and not say I’m a girl, I would,” she says. “They see what I am, I don’t need to tell them.” She stays away from “typical female comedy” like men/boyfriends/husbands, cramps, etc. “My goal is to be able to write jokes that could work for anyone, that a man or a woman could go up there and perform.”

When writing jokes, Gaby found a new way to make use of her writing skills. “Journalism is storytelling,” she says, “so it’s similar to standup. It’s all writing, all talking in a story format.” As much as she loves standup, it’s the writing that keeps her interested. “Doing this helps you with writing. I have a notebook with me all the time, I’m writing jokes all the time. Ultimately I would like to just write, use the art form in a different way.” The big goal, Gaby says, is to find a television show she could write for like her beloved Daily Show, or a slew of other late night or primetime comedy shows like Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Parks and Recreation, or The Office.

For now, though, Gaby will continue with standup while looking for a “real job” when she graduates in December 2009. Worse comes to worst, she says, she’ll be able to tell her children about her comedy career, once upon a time. “I’ll be like ‘look, Mommy used to do standup!’ and they’d be like ‘Uh, we don’t speak English. We’re adopted.’”

How to Be Funny: Advice from Gaby Dunn on Writing Your Own Material

Think about whether you want to be a comedian who tells funny stories (like Bill Cosby) or someone with a distinct set-up and punch line (like George Carlin). Also think about the kinds of jokes you find funny. You don't want to play up to an audience if it's not you - it sounds corny but you'll never be comfortable on stage if you're not being true to what you find funny. Audiences can tell when you're trying too hard.

There are I think two types of comics, there are commercially viable comics and there are comics’ comics. That is to say, there are comedians who play to the average audience (Dane Cook for example) but probably are intellectually the lowest common denominator and then there are comedians that are more respected by fellow comics for being original and quirky and smart (David Cross, Patton Oswalt). One isn't better than the other necessarily and obviously both can get good amounts of work but really it comes down to figuring out who you are on stage and what you're about. - Gaby Dunn

Gaby Dunn
Quick Facts:
Age: 21
Favorite Comedians: Sarah Silverman, Steve Martin, Maria Bamford, Aziz Ansari, Paula Poundstone
Areas of Study: Multimedia Journalism major, Comedy Writing minor

Sources: Gabrielle Dunn, Senior, Emerson College
Emerson College
We Do Standup
MySpace.com/chocolatecakecity