On a Monday afternoon in June inside an unassuming facility in downtown Los Angeles, 10 women sit in a semicircle, notebooks in their laps, pens at the ready. They gaze at the two instructors, comedians Gerry Katzman and Samantha Jacks, who ask the women to introduce themselves: their name, where they’re from, an interesting fact about their lives and the crime that sent them to prison. Most of the women are quick to describe their crime but skip the interesting fact.
“I said to them, ‘We’re going to do this again, and now you have to tell me something about yourself,” says Jacks, who, in addition to teaching this class, is an improv instructor at the Groundlings. “Your crime is not who you are, it’s something that happened to you.”
The second time around, one woman admits to being a reality television fanatic. Her favorite show: The Bad Girls Club on the Oxygen Network. Another student tells the group that her nickname is “Cupcakes.” She loves everything about cupcakes and has more than 10 cupcake tattoos.
The 10 women have gathered for orientation in advance of a therapeutic comedy course at Amity Foundation, a rehabilitation center in Los Angeles that houses about 150 people recently released from prison who have nowhere else to go. The curriculum at Amity is meant to reconnect the formerly incarcerated to their communities by helping them build emotional intelligence. The nonprofit offers everything from GED classes to instruction on healthy eating.
The July comedy class, which 19 women ultimately joined, consisted of three days of stand-up and improvisation exercises, with students putting on a show the last day. At a recent final-day performance, student Geraldine Williams nailed it: "Look, ladies and gentlemen," she told the small crowd. "I've been shot. I've jumped out of windows. I've been cut. The most scariest thing is falling in love."
The idea is to help the women learn to speak publicly, work cooperatively, solve problems, cope with negative feelings and find their voice through humor.
These can be invaluable skills for women in prison or transitioning from prison, says Lara Everly, a director who brought the comedy class to Amity as part of the web series Gratitude Revealed (part of Louie Schwartzberg's inspirational Moving Art project), which was released on Oprah.com. Everly’s episode, about the women at Amity, touches on the power of creativity, a concept she’s exploring further in a short film, Free to Laugh. She’s interested in the healing power of comedy post-prison.
“I wanted to show a community that didn’t really get a chance to be creative,” Everly says. “We need rehabilitation in order to change the cycle. We need these workshops and we need education.”
Humor and prison are rarely discussed together, unless the topic is the Emmy Award–winning Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. In season three, episode three, “Empathy Is a Boner Killer,” new prison guard Berdie Rogers, played by Marsha Stephanie Blake, conducts a theater and improv class.
“I don’t want a performance,” she says to protagonist Piper Chapman, who’s reluctant to take the stage. “I want you to listen and react. Show me some emotional honesty.”
In one of Amity’s improvisation exercises, Jacks asks each woman to describe something she’s afraid of — and asks everyone else in the group who shares that fear to step forward. With each shared fear — “I’m afraid I’ll never be happy,” “I’m afraid I’ll die alone,” “I’m afraid of losing my kid’s love” — the women find they have much in common with each other, even outside of prison.
Many of the women said they're afraid of getting locked up again, a legitimate fear considering that, nationally, 50 percent of women released from prison return. What’s more, the majority of the women at Amity are batting severe addiction issues. “I think three or four women said they realized they could laugh and have a good time sober,” Everly says, “and don’t have to be on drugs to have fun.”
During the end-of-class performance, which took place in front of friends and family members, several of the women drew on the darkness of addiction.
One woman, Pat Flanigan, quipped, “You stop doing your psych meds because you really want to stop doing drugs completely, but then you wake up in the middle of the night with flying camels in your room.”
Another student, Andrea Underwood, joked: “When I wasn’t sober, my intimate times used to be like an Herbal Essence commercial.” She stroked her hair sensually. “Now that I’m sober, it’s more like a dandruff shampoo commercial.”
The stand-up bits addressed addiction, crime and prison life. It’s this approach — taking the “ugly” and turning it on its head — that Katzman explores in the stand-up comedy portion of the three-day course. “The thing that makes therapy effective is, many times, the same thing that makes stand-up effective,” says Katzman, who's been teaching stand-up comedy for 13 years. “You confront the truth, you neutralize the shameful effect on yourself, then by turning it funny you disempower the shame about it.”
Katzman recounts the process of creating a stand-up bit with a student, Evette "Dani" Mullens, who struggled to come up with material. The two met up after the group session, and Katzman asked Mullens to tell him something about herself he wouldn’t know.
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“Prison will turn you into an expert negotiator,” Mullens said.
“Sort of like being a diplomat,” Katzman replied.
And with that, the two started to form a bit about how she could solve the conflict in the Middle East with a pack of cigarettes and a roll of toilet paper.
Correction: This story has been changed to reflect that the orientation for the therapeutic comedy class took place the month before the class itself.