Braving the world of stand-up comedy

Photo by Cecilia Piga

After getting out of a bad relationship where she felt powerless, and dealing with health issues consisting of debilitating migraine attacks, Diana Gerasimov found herself in a very dark place. For months, she felt that there was nothing that interested or captivated her. 

One day she was scrolling through Facebook when she saw a post calling for people who wanted to try stand-up comedy. She signed up, feeling reckless and thinking that this would be a one time thing. Turns out, she was wrong.

“No one was expecting me to do this. I didn’t expect myself to do this and I didn’t really care if it turns out bad,” she said.

The process of getting ready for her first show helped change Gerasimov’s outlook. “I didn’t feel motivated by anything, as one does when their mental health is poor,” she said. “This gave me a sense of purpose that I hadn’t felt in a while.” At the end of her first show at Barfly in Montreal at the start of the year, she felt extremely proud of herself.

Gerasimov finds inspiration for her jokes in many places. For one, she was raised by her single mother who is a Russian immigrant. She was always able to make people around her laugh by imitating her mother’s accent or pointing out her superstitious ways. She built jokes around what her friends thought was funny about her cultural background.

I exploited the stereotypes against me, and now I’m reclaiming them,” she said. Gerasimov also gets inspired by her environment. “I’m a big eavesdropper, on transportation especially, and I try to build a context around whatever joke or punchline I’ve written.”

Gerasimov is a Concordia student, studying communications and cultural studies. Even though she works hard on her stand-up, she doesn’t find that it really interferes with her schooling.

“Juggling school work and stand-up feel pretty easy,” said Gerasimov. “They both compliment each other, where stand-up kind of feels like eating a greasy poutine and school is like eating a jar of pickled beets.”

Being a 22-year-old woman, there aren’t many comics like Gerasimov. Comedy is a male-dominated space and can often feel intimidating; because of this, Gerasimov didn’t expect to find such a feeling of togetherness through this craft.

“I found a sense of community and support. People are inviting you to shows and people want you to meet other comedians,” she said. But it was more than that for Gerasimov: she noticed that people are interested in specifically seeing her do stand-up. She says that most people that do stand-up are 35 years old and over, and are typically male. She loves surprising people on stage because she doesn’t look like your typical stand-up comedian.

Gerasimov explained that this surprise comes from a lack of representation. “You are constantly put in a box as a woman,” she said. “You’re either smart, pretty or funny. You can’t have it all. You can’t be multidimensional and complex. You have to be one thing.”

“During my last set, a 50-year-old guy came up to me after and was grazing my arm for four minutes,” she recounted. “This was before he gave me advice on how I should go forward with my set and telling me that my tone was too monotone. He also said he found me to be extremely hilarious.”

Her routine often includes men and sexism, although not without repercussions from the audience. When she does certain jokes, she sometimes gets bombarded by unwanted suggestions at the end of her shows.

A few times, Gerasimov has been heckled or cat-called during a performance. While this can be quite alarming, she explained it’s important to try and tie the comment into her joke somehow. If she’s doing a bit about how men are frustrating and a man yells “I love you,” she can use this to help her own joke and make her point. This helps her regain control, because problems can arise when she lets something like that destabilize her.

One of Gerasimov’s favourite times performing was at LadyFest, a female-run comedy festival in Montreal that’s been going on for five years and showcases female performers. She attended as a guest and didn’t expect to be performing, but then received a last minute opportunity.

“I think it went well because I didn’t have so much time to psych myself out, which I normally tend to do,” said Gerasimov. “I analyze a joke for so long it becomes unfunny to me.”

Sometimes Gerasimov suffers from imposter syndrome; she often questions if she is even allowed to call herself a comic.

“Men don’t have a problem calling themselves comics after a few times performing, and women constantly have to prove they are funny to an audience,” she said.

If Gerasimov could become very successful, she would do comedy as a career, but otherwise, it is a difficult thing to pursue professionally.

“It’s either you’re doing comedy and several other things to keep you afloat or you’re super successful,” she said. Gerasimov is also interested in script writing. She’s written a few episodes for a web series, and hopes to continue to develop skills that she’s learned from writing stand-up routines.

“[Comedy has] given me so much more confidence in day-to-day interactions, networking, approaching people and putting myself out there for different opportunities,” said Gerasimov.

She also explained that comedy can be terrifying because it’s so vulnerable. It’s not like a music show where it’s polite to clap whether a performer is good or bad; it all comes down to audience responses. It’s automatic, and you don’t have any control over it. You are truly at the mercy of your audience. “It almost seems pathetic to be like, ‘let me make you laugh’,” she said. “I’m basically on stage begging for people to laugh at me.”

“If you really must joke about something that might offend, be ready for the commentary,” said Gerasimov, noting that accountability in stand-up is becoming more of a priority. “But to be quite blunt, if you feel as though you have nothing to joke about because ‘everyone is so sensitive,’ then you’re just a lazy writer.” She explained that this doesn’t mean issues shouldn’t be addressed in comedy.

“There are ways to write jokes that offer a commentary on the state of the world, I think it just comes down to intention,” she said.

This past week, Gerasimov performed twice at the Diving Bell Social Club. Keep an ear out for her next show on Facebook – it might just be the study break you need right now!

Photo by Cecilia Piga

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