A funky hip-hop tune fills the large, darkened space: “White girl, white girl …” goes the snarky voice in the refrain. Caitlyn McNally takes the stage and grabs the microphone: “That’s what they said when I came to this school.”
McNally, a pretty young woman who is somehow both acerbic and sweet, continues: “I’m not a morning person. Actually, you know what? I just don’t like waking up in general. It doesn’t even have to be the morning.”
McNally is one of several student comedians performing to a nearly packed gym at Santa Monica’s Olympic High School. The show is called “Continuation Domination,” a reference to Olympic’s position as that city’s special-needs “alternative” high school. Much of the comedy is rooted in the real experiences of modern, urban adolescence.
Donny Davis, a tall, lanky African-American, talks about driving with his mom while she freaks out over his every vehicular move, even to the point of frantically pumping an invisible passenger-side brake. Worst of all, they haven’t even left the parking lot. Haley Castro, a dark-haired girl with a vaguely Rosie O’Donnell vibe, talks about her hatred of “way-happy people,” and goes into a cartoonish but funny imitation of an overly aggressive Asian swap-meet peddler.
The night is the product of Laughlinks, a nonprofit project of L.A.’s Community Partners, which uses standup-comedy training to reach at-risk youth from various Los Angeles high schools and community centers, often as an adjunct to existing English or drama classes. Laughlinks was brought to Olympic by the Santa Monica Education Foundation as an early step in creating the Eamon Cannon Comedy Fund, named after a standout comedy student and performing prodigy whose life was cut short at 20 but whose spirit seems to live on in the passion and dedication of Laughlinks founder and executive director Susanna Spies.
“I think it’s beneficial for everybody to have a platform to express themselves,” says Spies, a tall, slender actor-comedian with the slightly exotic looks of an Almodóvar leading lady. “But I think it’s particularly beneficial for teens who are not trusting themselves or the scenarios they’re in to feel safe to know where they can share their experiences and where they are in their lives.”
While a blazing talent like Cannon’s is a rarity, it’s the personal transformation of the average student that keeps Spies excited about this work. “I don’t try to groom them to be funny. I’m honestly just encouraging them to share who they are.”
Strolling onstage is senior Jennifer Cagle, a striking African-American with sculpted cheekbones and a slightly otherworldly air about her. “Okay, I know what you guys are thinking,” she says, with irritated nonchalance. “‘She’s a model; what the hell is she doing up there doing standup comedy?’” The audience busts up.
While Spies’ programs are fun for the kids, she wants people to know they’re not just arbitrary, loose comedic rap sessions. “It’s an incredible amount of writing and structure, time management, memorization and oral and written skills.” And if she herself has learned anything, it’s, “Don’t be fooled by a kid who’s failing in school, that they’re gonna be anything short of a genius onstage.”
Last up is Amida Shofu, an L.A.-raised son of Nigerian-English immigrants. “I’m black, but I’m mixed,” says Shofu. “I’m half-black, half-extremely black.” One of his bits explains how the urban street gangs have seemingly claimed every single color and pattern available on clothing, so that when he goes out to get the newspaper at 6 a.m. wearing only his boxers, some gangsta walking by snaps: “Yo, cuz! What does G-A-P stand for?”