Meet the Women Behind What A Joke, the National Comedy Event Taking on Trump

Emily Winter (left) and Jenn Welch are the comedians and organizers behind What A Joke Fest. A local edition of the festival will be held Thursday, January 19, in downtown Phoenix.EXPAND
Emily Winter (left) and Jenn Welch are the comedians and organizers behind What A Joke Fest. A local edition of the festival will be held Thursday, January 19, in downtown Phoenix.
Phil Provencio

The last place Emily Galati expected to be this weekend was her home state of Arizona. Instead, the Chicago-based comedian had planned to travel to Washington, D.C., in anticipation a very different inauguration weekend.

“I had originally thought this weekend I would go to D.C. and watch Hillary get inaugurated,” the Phoenix native says. “I cleared this weekend so I could go do that.”

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump received 306 electoral votes on election night, effectively winning the presidency. (Trump's final count, in December, stood at 304.) He will be sworn into office at noon EST on Friday, January 20.

But rather than keep her Capitol-bound itinerary to march or protest the incoming Trump administration in person, Galati is fighting back a different way — through jokes.

Galati is headlining the Phoenix edition of What A Joke Fest, a national collection of comedy shows that are adding some laughter and levity to a weekend many never expected to witness.

The Phoenix event is one of more than 32 events across the country and the U.K where hundreds of local comedians and nationally known favorites will perform, poking fun at the notoriously thin-skinned president-elect while hoping to lighten the mood. Shows will take place almost simultaneously starting Thursday, January 19, and running through Saturday, January 21. (The Phoenix show will be held at Valley Bar starting at 8 p.m. on Thursday night. A Tucson show will take place the same evening.)

Thursday’s stand-up set is one of a handful of like-minded protest events being held across the state this weekend. Both Phoenix and Tucson are hosting “sister marches” in collaboration with Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington in D.C. Locally, there are poetry workshops and spoken-word events, like “Cast Your Voice” at Wasted Ink Zine Distro and art shows like “Nasty, Noisy, Knitting, Naked Women” at Fine Art Complex 1101 in Tempe and “Nasty Women” at Grand ArtHaus in downtown Phoenix. The latter, another simultaneous “sister” exhibition happening nationwide from Nebraska to Rhode Island, is donating all art sales to Planned Parenthood of Arizona.

And across the country, from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, comedy shows are being coordinated by local organizers under the What A Joke umbrella. Coordinators are tasked with creating a lineup that is part political, but fully funny. Though the festival is not affiliated with any group, proceeds from each show will be accumulated and donated directly to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that works in communities and court systems to defend the legal rights of all citizens. Tickets for the Phoenix show are $20 and all proceeds will go directly to the ACLU.

This national network comes courtesy of New York comics Emily Winter, a writer for Fusion and TV Land who is also known for her parody Twitter accounts, @Feminist_Bro and @TrumpFeminist, and Jenn Welch, an improv performer and instructor who has performed at Second City LA, the iO West, and The Peoples Improv Theater. The duo started the festival as a three-night New York City event to speak up and raise money, and before they knew it they were in cities — and swing states — they hadn’t considered, like Lansing, Michigan.

“This festival would not be what it was if it weren’t for our producers jumping on board and doing such a great job organizing their local shows,” Welch says. “That’s how the festival grew, because producers heard the idea, liked the idea, and put us in contact with other producers they know.”

Comedian Emily Galati, a former Phoenician, will headline the city's What A Joke Fest stand-up show this Thursday.EXPAND
Comedian Emily Galati, a former Phoenician, will headline the city's What A Joke Fest stand-up show this Thursday.
Courtesy Emily Galati / Bird City Comedy

Local comedian Genevieve Rice, the mind behind Bird City Comedy Festival and co-creator of the Thank You for Being a Podcast: The Golden Girls Podcast, is organizing the Phoenix show. (Rice says she heard about the event from Tucson What A Joke coordinator Alex Kack and knew she wanted to sign on.) Rice will also serve as the evening’s host, telling jokes of her own and introducing a stacked lineup of local comics.

“I assembled a bunch of comedians that are not only great comedians, but they’re also people that are very active politically and very smart,” Rice says. “I not only wanted to put on a good show that would raise money for the ACLU, but I wanted people that were definitely not happy about the inauguration.”

Her selected stand-ups include Galati, a semifinalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing who has also appeared on FOX’s Laughs, as well as local comics Tony Behinfar, Jason Hill, James Hoenscheidt, Michael Paul Kohn, Ernesto Ortiz, and Ronnie D.

Though the underlying theme is one of politics and protest, don’t expect many Alec Baldwin-ian-style impressions. Not all of the jokes will feature a Trump punchline. Some might not even mention him at all.

“In terms of coming up with a Trump joke, you have to be selective. The jokes are there for everyone. You better know it’s a good and unique one to tell it,” Galati says. “There’s so much of him to talk about and things to take a stand or discuss that, if you have a forum, I hope you’re digging deeper than just saying he’s orange and has got small hands.”

People assume comedians will have plenty of material with a guy like Trump holding the highest office in the land, Rice adds. That isn’t exactly the case.

“The things he does are more ridiculous than you can think of, Part of comedy is taking a hyperbolic view of life and it’s hard to exaggerate with Trump,” she says, laughing. “Really, it’s hard to go even further.”

Instead, she describes What A Joke Fest as a night of comedy with a dash of politics, keeping in theme with the group’s bigger mission.

“We just want comedians to talk about whatever they want to talk about,” says Winter, What A Joke’s co-creator. “The festival in itself is a political act, but the content doesn’t need to be 100 percent political — or any percent political. Every show will be different.”

Stand-up comic Genevieve Rice is the coordinator of Phoenix's edition of What A Joke Fest.
Stand-up comic Genevieve Rice is the coordinator of Phoenix's edition of What A Joke Fest.
Leslie Barton

New Times called Winter and Welch in New York City to talk about their vision, the future of comedy under Trump, and how they expect this weekend will go.

So far there’s been some pushback on national social media pages for the show, Rice says in a separate phone interview, but nothing that would keep her or anyone else from speaking out and laughing it up.

“It’s unfortunate that that’s probably to be expected,” she adds. “I just want people that are happy to be there and happy to laugh. We’re going to need it that weekend.”

New Times: The day after the election, a lot of people found themselves grappling with a very real sense of anger and despair. What was your reaction? Was creating What A Joke Fest your response to how you were feeling?
Emily Winter: The morning after, I had to go to work in rush hour and I was very depressed. Everyone on the train is sad, we’re all tired and hungover and you could feel the mood. [It] was so sad and helpless. I felt that way for a couple of days until Jenn and I figured out exactly what we were going to do. When we figured out we were going to do What A Joke and that it was going to be a national festival, that really helped me get out of that depression.

Jenn Welch: I woke up that morning and I remember thinking to myself, ‘If I just stay in bed, it’s not real.’ But that’s obviously not a productive way to exist.

I teach improv classes at a theater here in New York, Peoples Improv Theater, and I had to teach an improv class that night, a bunch of grownups coming together to play make believe, and I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I brought them cookies and brownies and we just sat and talked about it before class.

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Sometimes you feel like, ‘Maybe I’m just being dramatic [because] I spent all day alone in my apartment working on stuff by myself.’ And then you get there and you see that people actually are feeling this. Just the feelings that people were having, teaching that class that night was a big eye-opener. By the end of the class, I got them moving, I got them running around. We talked about our feelings and then we shared, but by the end of the class everyone just felt relief. What we do as comedians, it’s not frivolous. It serves a purpose. Those 10 people left that room that night — including myself — feeling like there was some hope.

I think that feeling of hope is resonating with a lot of people, in terms of the response What A Joke Fest is getting all over the country and the U.K., too. You’re in more than 30 cities. You have big names like Janeane Garofalo and tons of local comedians. Are you two surprised by the response at all?
Winter: The response makes sense. We all needed to get together and do this; there was something inside all of us that needed to unify and come together. But the fact that all of this has happened makes me feel shocked in such a good way. I see where the need comes from, but it’s also just so beautiful that it brings me to tears every time I think about the scope of this festival.

Welch: It’s just really humbling. Emily and I got together and put some wheels in motion, and now on this weekend we have 500 comedians, if not more, participating in 85 shows. And not only the comedians — the people in the audience will have this opportunity to get out of their own heads and feel like they’re a part of a community. I feel like it’s really isolating right now, especially if you’re in a red state. To have a place where you can come together and know that you’re supporting a good cause and laugh and let go a little bit — it’s just really humbling to think about the number of people who will participate in some way on that weekend.

In Phoenix, there’s a lot of inauguration-related protest events that weekend. This, being a Thursday show, is kind of the start of that. But even though it’s tied in with the inauguration, this doesn’t end that weekend: We have four years of this. Are you considering making the festival an annual thing?
Welch: A lot of people are being put in high-ranking places in government that are not looking out for civil liberties and are voting to take away major access to health care, building walls. All of this stuff is just gross. Trump going away isn’t going to change that. Trump going away isn’t going to change the fact that enough of a movement got behind him to vote him into office. That mentality is still out there, that somebody so openly misogynistic and racist and ableist and just kind of a big, gross, grossy-head — [that] somebody that blatantly gross can get voted into office shows that this is bigger than just this inauguration, and it’s bigger than him. It’s the issues behind him that need to be counteracted. Our hope is that this will become an annual thing.

Winter: Can I just say, Jenn, that ‘big, gross, grossy-head’ is like my favorite thing that you’ve said? [laughs]

We’re having all of our producers really be accountable for how much money they’re making for the ACLU and information about how the show(s) went. So hopefully, next year we can give all of this to the ACLU and make it even bigger and better and get more support. That would be a really wonderful thing, that this year would raise a lot of money for the ACLU and next year would raise even more.

Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Phoenix. Trump traveled to Arizona multiple times during the campaign season.EXPAND
Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Phoenix. Trump traveled to Arizona multiple times during the campaign season.
Miriam Wasser / Phoenix New Times

Why the ACLU specifically, and have they responded to the fest at all?
Winter: We talked to the ACLU, and while they were excited that we’re doing the festiva,l they couldn’t give us their official support [because] What A Joke would have to become incorporated. [And] within the time frame of getting this together for inauguration weekend, we didn’t have [the] time. Hopefully, if we do this next year, we can get an official endorsement.

Was there a reason that you chose specifically them as opposed to multiple organizations or a different one?
Winter: There are so many organizations that need help right now, but to us when you look at the list of civil liberties they’re all things that Trump doesn’t give a shit about. He isn’t protecting [them], he’s doing the opposite: He’s attacking our civil liberties. That goes from freedom of religion to freedom of the press to freedom of speech — these are all things he’s blatantly attacking. The ACLU is doing great things already, and they’ve been very aggressive with not letting him do things that are illegal, [saying] ‘We will sue him.’ And I think that that is a message that gives people hope.

How else do you two plan to fight back and what do you recommend for people who don’t have the same kind of comedy platform that you both do?
Welch: I feel like whatever your skill is, is how you fight back. If your skill is crocheting little Donald Trump voodoo dolls and giving donations from those sales, then that’s how you fight back. My gift is my voice and my ideas, so that’s what we’re using here.

And don’t get complacent. We can never accept anything that’s happening right now as the new normal, especially when we’ve had such progress on what normal was over the past eight years.

Winter: So many businesses are donating for our silent auction here in New York; that’s a way to give back without being in comedy. My mom is a potter, and she’s sending us mugs to auction off that say “Keep Your Tiny Hands Off My Pussy.” I have a lawyer friend who’s looking over some of the legal stuff that we’re sending our producers. Even outside of this festival, there are ways to use your expertise. And if you’re not an expert in anything and you don’t know what you’re good at yet, there are always organizations that need volunteers to just go and flier and get the word out, and those are incredibly valuable.

The festival is going to be a major way for me to continue working against Trump. And also just being an outspoken woman [laughs] unfortunately is like, a revolting thing to the Trump administration, so I’ll just keep doing that.

With Trump, the jokes basically write themselves — which has made for some lazy comedy, like people just reading Trump tweets. Do you think a Trump presidency will be a creative challenge for comedians? Or are we in for four more years of late night hosts railing against fake tans and tiny hands?
Winter: There’s always going to be lazy comedians, there’s always going to be hack comedians, and unfortunately there are some audiences that like that, so I think that you’re going to find that no matter what.

Leading up to the election, the late-night issue was really interesting. Everyone loves Jimmy Fallon, he’s like on top of the world, but then he got too chummy with Trump and people didn’t like that. And I think he took a lot of shit for that, rightfully so. Then, Seth Meyers, who has been like, I feel like the least popular late night host, started doing really, really smart, political jokes and sort of rose as this dark horse. I think good comedy is sort of winning out here and that makes me really happy.

Welch: If you’re making fun of his appearance, you’re not really paying attention. There’s so much to pull from. If you’re making fun of his hair, at this point — making fun of Trump’s hair is so 2008. [laughs] That was before we knew quite how awful he was.

Trump protesters were out in full force during the Fountain Hills rally last March.EXPAND
Trump protesters were out in full force during the Fountain Hills rally last March.
Melissa Fossum / Phoenix New Times

This week, after Buzzfeed released all these documents, every comedian on my Facebook and Twitter feeds were making golden showersjokes — but almost no one dove into what else was in the dossier and why that was important. How do we strike a balance between these endless comedic opportunities and the entertainment they provide and awareness about what’s actually going on? How do we make sure that being funny doesn’t overshadow the fact that he’s putting people like Jeff Sessions in this administration?
Welch: That’s a big question. You know, there are different types of comedy, there are different types of comedians, and there are people who do comedy for different reasons. Part of the reason why I do comedy is to explore things, to follow the logic of what’s happening, and to take it a step further and actually look into it and question it. For me, you hear something like this and then, what does it actually mean? How can we call that out?

I posted something on Twitter that was like, “Call me when the election prompts men to install copper doodads in their genitals because they fear they’ll lose reproductive rights.” There’s so many things that we just kinda accept as normal. 'Oh, Trump’s president, we’re all going to get an IUD now.’ That’s not normal! It’s not normal for women to feel they have to insert metal in their bodies because they’re scared they’re going to lose access to birth control because of the government. That’s absurd.

Winter: I’ve been dealing with the IUD issue, too. This is crazy that I have to think about this!

There are so many comedy shows that do news really, really well. We didn’t have Last Week Tonight four years ago, and that show is really amazing. I don’t think all is lost in the new era of Twitter and whatever. There are dumb, "he’s number one!" pee jokes, but there is a place for that. I think there’s also great work being done.

Welch: I’ve been thinking all day about Seth Meyers' interview with Kellyanne Conway and the way that he handled that. I feel like he, in that moment, was picking up the ball that was dropped when Jon Stewart left. He doesn’t let her get away with it, and it’s awesome to watch and it gives me a little bit of hope.

What A Joke Fest, a cross-country comedy festival, plans to poke fun at the thin-skinned president-elect with events throughout inauguration weekend. Phoenix's edition takes the stage Thursday, January 19, at Valley Bar, featuring headliner Emily Galati.EXPAND
What A Joke Fest, a cross-country comedy festival, plans to poke fun at the thin-skinned president-elect with events throughout inauguration weekend. Phoenix's edition takes the stage Thursday, January 19, at Valley Bar, featuring headliner Emily Galati.
What A Joke Fest / Cryssy Cheung

Along those lines, do you think that comedy’s job — I mean, it’s always been to entertain, and always will be. But with what you both are talking about, has its role kind of changed, where now comedy’s job is to hold more people, like this administration, accountable?
Welch: I feel like comedy’s job is to be funny. That’s it. I don’t want to be giving TED Talks, I want to be telling jokes, that’s why I do this. If somebody is coming to a comedy show, they’ve made that choice to leave their house and sit in a room with a bunch of strangers and to experience the feeling of laughing. First and foremost, our job is to be funny.

Winter: We have to be cognizant of the fact that our words are being heard by a lot of people when we talk into a microphone. You have to be okay with what you do, at the end of the day. It’s not being funny at any cost, you still have the responsibility of your beliefs behind you. It’s mixing those two things.

I think that it’s always comedy’s job to take a mirror to society. There’s always big, major, horrible things going on in the world — and this one is right in front of our face.

The Phoenix What A Joke Fest event takes place at 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 19, at Valley Bar, 130 North Central Avenue. (The basement bar is tucked away in the alley off of Monroe Street.) Tickets are $20 with proceeds benefiting the American Civil Liberties Union. See details and snag tickets online at whatajokefest.com/project/phoenix or whatajokefestphx.brownpapertickets.com.

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