Doctoral student Joey Richards is a stand-up comedian who researches performance studies, teaches in the department of communication in the College of Arts & Sciences, and serves on the Graduate and Professional Student Federation. Richards is interested in the ways we can use comedy to create community and share queer identities. In celebration of both Arts Everywhere Day and Graduate and Professional Student Appreciation Week, we asked about Richards’ comedy background, classroom adaptations during COVID-19 and research interests in comedy studies.
Q: How did you become involved with stand-up comedy?
A: I think I was always involved with stand-up in some way. I grew up when Comedy Central was just getting started. But personally, comedy comes from a place of joy and pain. My brain always notices the joke, or the potential for a joke, the just slightly askew perspective from what life appears to be. Joking was a way for me to avoid being bullied (not that it always worked), to size up and cut down with a quick comment, and to mock myself or the situation to relieve some pressure. The first time I ever performed a stand-up routine was in an undergraduate class at Georgia College & State University. It was terrible and inimitable. I remember feeling both the laughter of my classmates, the rhythm of a well-timed pause and the taste of profanity in my mouth.
Q: How have you adapted your performances since the start of the pandemic?
A: The last time I performed a stand-up set on stage was an open mic at the People’s Improv Theater in Chapel Hill the week or so before everything shut down. The host was putting hand sanitizer on the microphone if that tells you how early in the pandemic we were. Lots of comedians are performing at online open mics. I’ve attended some as an audience member, and I’m fascinated with how queer-friendly the spaces have been and how the rhythm of stand-up shifts, adapts, fails and succeeds in online formats.
Q: How you have transitioned to remote teaching?
A: Any classroom changes I’ve made have not been in a vacuum, but because of the incredibly critical, curious and caring grad students in the department of communication. A lot of what I have learned about how to teach in this moment has come from critical disability resources online and pedagogy during times of crisis workshops. I have a policy of trust, flexibility, direct comment and accessibility. I’ve also tried to figure out how to use what we’re talking about in the class to address the situation we’re living in. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the absolutely wonderful, caring, passionate students in the class have been willing to build together, to challenge and share concern for one another. Teaching is always the best part of my week.
Q: Tell us about you research interests, which include stand-up comedy, performance, disability studies and queerness.
A: I’m really just getting into the field of comedy studies and feminist comedy studies, so I don’t know where I’m going to end up. For now, I’m drawn to the stuff that bothers me. I’ve performed stand-up off and on since around 2009, so I have to try to examine what I assume about comedy. Part of that process is thinking through the stand-up stage as a social space and asking what bodies can appear on that stage or around that stage. Who do we picture when we picture a comedian, and which comedian can tell which jokes? How does comedy move differently in, through and around different bodies? I’m really drawn to asking that question in a global context. What does comedy and laughter and humor tell us about who can make jokes, who can laugh at them and what are the consequences (or not) of those actions?
Q: In the spirit of Arts Everywhere Day, how do your performances reflect your own life experiences?
A: I had a friend who told me I should take a break from the odd, surreal comedy I was doing and try to be personal for a bit. That led to me first sort of really coming out as bisexual and nonbinary to a crowd during a stand-up set in San Francisco as part of a showcase. I’ve seen comics talk about themselves and their struggles and use comedy in the way they want to, and I never really thought I could do that. But once I started, I realized that is what I wanted to talk about. For me and so many others, it’s collaborative work. My partner makes all my jokes better, and so do my friends and classmates and just anyone willing to listen.
Interview by Lauren Mobley ‘22, College of Arts & Sciences