These days, it can feel impossible to bring up hard issues without coming off like a hard-ass. But there are ways, and actor/comedian/podcast host/writer Keisha Zollar can attest to that. That should come as no surprise: coming off of a guest spot on Orange Is the New Black, the UCB and PIT alum is in the process of producing a documentary named, appropriately, An Uncomfortable Conversation about Race, in addition to performing alongside four other comedians in a benefit for police reform. We had a chat with Keisha to hear her thoughts on where comedy fits into uncomfortable conversations—from your local club, to SNL, to Twitter, to your office and back again—and asked for a demonstration. (By which we mean jokes. Not a die-in.)
Paste: Do you find that a lot of comedians are, like you, motivated to support social justice with their comedy?
Keisha Zollar: I find there are more and more comedians who are similarly motivated; the selfish part of me always wishes there were more. I wish there was a glut. I wish it was a glut that was a problem—that so many comedians felt the need to be able to stand up, say something, take action and do something very powerful. Because the more voices that can be lent to causes they believe in—it would be amazing. I think comedians are doing it more than I thought. However, I still want more.
Paste: You were the UCB’s diversity coordinator for a while; what was your goal there?
Zollar: I wanted to make myself as open and available to students of color and other diverse students, like the LGBTQ community. I want people to feel like their voices are valid. And just to stick around, is the easy way to say it—I want so many comedic voices to be around. And I wish I had more time than I actually do to talk and engage with them.
Paste: How do you negotiate creating a space for minorities to talk amongst themselves creatively, and making them heard amongst the mainstream?
Zollar: A lot of what I look at in comedy is based on my personal experience, and the people who talk to me about their own personal experience. And I try not to share those experiences that might be uncomfortable—because I really value when students share them, because I really think growth can happen there. Part of it is giving them room to fail. There’s a lot of pressure within minority communities—it’s like, “psh, you get one shot at tackling this, and it better be damn good.” And, well, that’s anxiety-inducing. It’s important for someone to say to these students, “I value what you’re doing. I’m appreciative that it exists.”
I think paying attention to the mainstream—there’s an importance there. And I know some people, they say, “fuck the mainstream. We don’t need it. Let’s stay in these smaller communities and figure shit out.” And I wanna ask: how can we do both? How can we do it all?
Paste: How do you feel about the way mainstream comedy, like SNL or The Daily Show, has tackled recent issues?
Zollar: Not to dodge the question, but it’s easy to pick apart any one show who’s trying to tackle these issues because not enough shows are tackling these issues. I’d rather the few shows that are trying to tackle those issues go ahead and tackle those issues—when the reality is that there’s not a fair and accurate representation around issues of race and diversity being tackled, period. The numbers from real life to entertainment life aren’t equivalent.
So I get upset because it’s like, SNL is at least trying. There’s a lot more other shows that should be trying. I don’t enjoy that SNL is being held up to an unfair standard, because they’re not the end-all be-all; there just should be such a diversity of representation of these issues that SNL is just one of many voices instead of being the voice. At that point we’re tokenizing how much diversity we can talk about. “Well, SNL did it, so the rest of us don’t have to do it.” We end up tokenizing Key & Peele, or SNL, or Black-ish, because in reality there just should be more shows. If there were more shows, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation, because it would be just a show in the sea of diversity, versus, “Oh boy, Key & Peele better get it right,” or “SNL better get it right,” or “Black-ish better get it right.” That’s just an unfair expectation of all of those shows, because those shows are just going to be whatever they’re going to be, and I love the fact that they’re just trying to be. So why do we have to limit those shows to represent everything?
Paste: Do you see the UCB and the PIT more as local theaters dealing with subjects and issues from their own backyard, or speaking more to the broader comedy world?
Zollar: They’re all trying to connect to comedy. What’s so interesting is that comedy theaters don’t exist in a void. And I think all of them are trying to figure out what that means. I think it’s really powerful that comedy theaters realize that they’re there to serve comedy. [That’s why] we call them comedy theaters and not just theaters… A world surrounds them, and I think each theater is in the process of negotiating that. UCB is negotiating that, and it’s ongoing; so is the PIT. It’s hard to put the pressure on a single theater to be like, “Well, you better fix it”—because it’s an easy thing to say: UCB, PIT, the Magnet, The Annoyance—fix diversity in entertainment. I think it’s also incredibly unfair. They’re trying to pay attention to the fact that there are inequalities out there as well. However, if you just pay attention to the inequalities, then you’re just a social justice institution that dabbles in the arts. I love what UCB does, and I hope they keep doing what they do; they’re attempting to create spaces for the rest of it. Same with the other theaters.
Paste: Does comedy’s power lie in changing people’s minds, or rallying the troops?
Zollar: A good message, when presented comedically—I love how much it lingers with people. People repeat it—it becomes infectious. It can become viral. Comedy has that power—that it can kind of stay with you, in a different way than drama. I think comedy also creates micro-communities that are amazing, that can then merge themselves into larger communities. I think it’s dope. Dope as hell. We can do some really impactful, meaningful stuff. I think comedy serves those two purposes—but I’m not saying that comedy will fix the world. I don’t think there is any single solution that can fix the world. There’s a number of steps that we can take, and the thing that I have to offer the world is comedy. There are people who work in social justice who have different things to offer. There are people who have drama, people who have words, people who have music.
I’m working on a solo show called “Casual Radicals”—I think there’s something important to the idea of small steps to social change. There will always be the people who are radical, and I’m not minimizing their efforts—however, I think there’s a lot of people who feel like, “Well, if I’m not radical, why do anything? That plays into a level of apathy that I think is dangerous, versus: What can you do today? Is it correcting someone at work for their abusive language? Or posting an article on Facebook that really speaks to you? Or joining a rally? Or just checking in on Black Lives Matter? What will bring about the world that you want?
I love the term “micro aggression” for small acts of racism and bigotry. I don’t have a term yet for micro positivity. How can you be positive on a smaller scale every day towards the things you believe in? How can we spend more time and energy creating language around that? I want to see people making small, impactful positive steps towards an equal and fair world.
1. A uniformed police officer aggressively hit on me in Herald Square. He thought a stop and frisk joke was a cute way to try and get my number. Even my dating life needs constitutional protection.
2. I’m tired of hearing people get happy about an indictment of a police officer during Black History Month. That’s like the Ghostbusters catching a ghost on Halloween.
3. Mayor DeBlasio omitted any mention of police reform during the State of the City conference. Later that day, DeBlasio tweeted “My bad, #BlackLivesMatterWhenIt’sConvenient”.
4. Hugging Black Stacy at work isn’t donating your energies to the Black Lives Matter movement. And stop calling her “Black Stacy”—she’s the only Stacy in your office!
5. Putting body cameras on police officers won’t fix police brutality; it’ll make for some very uncomfortable Vines. How much police brutality can you capture in six seconds? Too much.
6. Cops in Miami thought it was rational to use young black men’s mugshots for target practice. Just think: Someone in that police station had to go through photo after photo, saying “too fat, too tall, not black enough… Oh, I like this one. I mean, I want to beat this guy, but do I want to shoot him?”
Then someone had to find a coupon for large prints and waddle down to FedEx Kinkos and make some choices: matte or glossy? 8×10 or poster size? Black and white, or color? Clearly those cops choose colored prints—that is, prints of color—because nowhere in that complex decision-making process did the racist-ass cop think, “I could spend my energy doing my fucking job instead of being racist.”