by Elyse Wild • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
The Grand Rapids comedy scene is booming. Events like LaughFest and the Grand Rapids Improv Festival have helped create awareness and establish an audience for local talent, and on any given night, you can enjoy improv, sketch comedy or stand-up. Unlike other cities with established comedy markets, the emerging Grand Rapids scene is being influenced by a new set of voices. Among these voices are the women of Funny Girls troupe and one-woman performer Nardos Osterhart.
“What is unique is that females are quietly taking the lead,” Eirann Betka said.
Betka is a local comedian and show organizer with her hands in many pies; among other things, she is the director of Comedy Outlet Mondays at Dog Story Theater, is the captain of No Outlet Improv troupe, the producer of Comedy Outlet Underground, and teaches classes at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. She also co-founded the Grand Rapids Improv Festival. Last year, Betka was vetting applications for the festival and noticed there was a lack of participating women. “There was no single, all-female troupe, or even a troupe that had a predominately female cast,” Betka said.
“I wanted to be around people that make me laugh everyday, and also to make people laugh everyday.” – Eirann Betka
Betka acted quickly and called the funniest women she knew, including Amy Gascon and Lis Hatfield, both who are active members of the local sketch and improv comedy scene, and formed Funny Girls. The troupe, which is now comprised of around a dozen women, performed at the festival using material from their teenage years as inspiration. “It started with taking our diaries and notes and things we wrote when we were kids and improving off of those,” Gascon said.
The audience reaction to the women using humor to share their private, often embarrassing moments from middle school and high school was positive. The troupe now performs twice a month and has expanded from just improv to include sketches, poetry and music.
“There is something really powerful about giving voices to our younger selves and reading things just as we wrote them, laughing at them, and then using them as inspiration,” Hatfield said.
Both Gascon and Hatfield became involved in comedy after college. Gascon had been working in non-profits for a few years when she was starting to feel burnt out. “I wanted to be around people that made me laugh everyday, and also to make people laugh everyday,” she said.
Gascon signed up for improv classes at Second City in Chicago and commuted from Grand Rapids once a week. There, she learned the art of improv, writing and directing. Gascon brought her gained knowledge back to Grand Rapids and wrote and directed her first show at Dog Story Theater in 2014. She has since produced three more shows. Along with being a member of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s improv troupe, Rapid Delivery, Gascon mentors improv and sketch writing groups and recently started teaching improv skills in corporate settings. Hatfield performs with and works as the assistant director of Rapid Delivery, and also performs with local improv group SALT.
Like Betka, Gascon and Hatfield are committed to fostering the Grand Rapids comedy scene and making the city a place where performers can learn, stay and succeed. They, along with other members, intend to implement youth education into Funny Girls and empower young girls to see the humor in their experiences.
“[We want to] create an opportunity for them to participate in comedy, not necessarily in comedy as a career … but there is so much value in participating in comedy and improv,” Hatfield said. “It’s an empowering activity, and we would love to be able to use that in youth outreach.”
They also want to emphasize that Funny Girls is open to the community, and anyone who identifies as a woman is welcome and encouraged to participate. “You don’t have to be perfect to be part of it. You don’t have to have it all together before you jump in. We all have different experiences and viewpoints and different things to offer. We make a place where it’s okay to take a bit from all of that,” Hatfield said.
Nardos Osterhart is another woman taking the lead in the Grand Rapids comedy scene. Osterhart started doing stand-up in 2011 as a way to practice public speaking, one of the expectations of her demanding day job at Spectrum Health. Her first set was at the Riverfront Hotel’s Sunday Night Funnies. She spent two months preparing material and testing jokes out on her husband, who readily gave her constructive feedback. When she finally took the stage and performed her five-minute set, the positive reaction from the audience encouraged her to keep going. “That first experience was a relatively reasonable experience,” Osterhart said. “It didn’t kill me. People clapped at the end, and clearly I was nervous, my voice was shaky and I froze at times, but I got it all out.”
Osterhart continues to hone her craft and regularly performs around town. Her hard work paid off; in 2013, she won Funniest Person in Grand Rapids. She continues to perform one or two times per week and tours around the Midwest. This February, Osterhart debuted her 60-minute one-woman show, Halfrican, to a sold-out crowd at Wealthy Theatre. With Halfrican, Osterhart shares her experience as a child moving from Africa to America by way of Germany. She will bring the show back to Wealthy Theatre this month for a special LaughFest performance.
As a married, working, mother of twins, Osterhart is aware that she is a unique voice on the comedy circuit, which tends to be comprised of younger men.
“I didn’t know if people would initially label me,” Osterhart said. “But I have consistently gotten feedback from experienced comics that have said ‘just be yourself. Be original, and then no one can argue with that. No one can argue with who you are. That’s your voice.’”
Working full-time and raising twins doesn’t leave her with a lot of free time. Osterhart strives to find humor in something everyday, jotting down ideas on sticky notes, napkins and any available surface throughout the week, reserving weekends for writing and fleshing out her ideas.
Like Betka, Gascon and Hatfield, Osterhart would like to see Grand Rapids become a place where comedians can grow and stay as opposed to having to move to larger markets to achieve a certain level of success. “It would be wonderful if more people chose to stay and get paid work,” Osterhart said.
Osterhart is committed to her craft and plans to take the stage for some time to come. “I want to never leave the stage … I want to see who I can become in ten years. Everyone says it takes at least that long to find your voice. I want to present a female voice and inspire other women to do it.”
These four women offer only a glimpse of how comedic performing entertainment is shaping and the role women are playing in the comedy scene in Grand Rapids. During LaughFest, support women in comedy by seeing these women, as well as many others, perform. Visit www.laughfestgr.org for a complete list of events. Keep up with Funny Girls by following them (@weRfunnygirls) on social media, as well as Nardos Osterhart (@NOsterhart) on Twitter.
“Be original, and then no one can argue with that. No one can argue with who you are. That’s your voice.” – Nardos Osterhart
See These Women Live at LaughFest
Amy Gascon and Eirann Betka: Performing with Rapid Delivery/No Outlet, March 17, 7 p.m. at Dog Story Theater
Eirann Betka: Comedy Outlet Mondays with No Outlet Improv, March 14, 8 p.m. at Dog Story Theater
Lis Hatfield: Performing with SALT improv troupe, March 12, 7 p.m. at Dog Story Theater
Nardos Osterhart: Performing with Laugh Riot Dolls, March 12, 9:30 pm at the Waldron Public House; Semi-Pro Standup Showcase, March 14, 9 p.m. at Dr. Grinn’s Comedy Club; solo stand-up show Halfrican, March 16, 8 p.m. at Wealthy Theatre
Elyse is a freelance writer in GR. She contributes to Grand Rapids Magazine, is on the editorial board of Caffeinated Press, is a lead editor for The 3288 Review and is the owner-operator of personal biography service Your Story.