Bringing laughter to the racism issue seems almost illegal these days. And yet, that was the point that comedian Richie Byrne wanted to make — that laughter disarms the most uncomfortable topics — when he founded the “United We Laugh” comedy show, coming to the Southampton Cultural Center on Thursday, November 21.
“There’s a lot of anger in this country today — a simmering hatred that has become pervasive and dangerous,” he said. “Going back to the days of the jester, the role of the comedian has always been to acknowledge and talk about issues that no one else would dare confront. In today’s society, though, that role of the comic, to be cutting-edge and to break all boundaries, has been dramatically curtailed.”
He should know. Byrne’s a veteran of stand-up, who sports a string of A-list credits including Dangerfield’s, Caroline’s on Broadway, the Gotham Comedy Club, Carnegie Hall, and Radio City Music Hall in New York City; and the Tropicana in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
Comedy TV credits include Comedy Central, “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” and “Good Day New York.” He’s been the warm-up act for “The Dr. Oz Show,” “The Rachael Ray Show,” “The Chew,” “The Jane Pauley Show,” “Murphy Brown,” and the Miss America Pageant, with high-profile turns in “Sex and the City” and “The Sopranos,” as well as the feature film “Good-bye Baby.”
In today’s world, Byrne said, comics “can’t achieve their main purpose, which is not only to entertain but to provoke thought.” However, he doesn’t like it when comedy is used “as a hurtful weapon — for example, when comics use offensive racial stereotypes for shock value alone. But being able to talk truth when it’s staring us all in the face is a critical component to stand-up.”
So, he thought, “‘How do I bring everybody together in the room?’ My idea was to gather different comics of varied ethnic backgrounds and have them address racism and bias onstage during their acts. Not to shy away from these issues but to actually delve in.”
Then he had what he called “an epiphany. I thought, ‘Let’s break the fourth wall and bring the audience along for the ride.’ Including them in the discussion brought a whole new dynamic to what we’re accustomed to from stand-up comedy.”
So that’s what he did. The tour features Byrne and a diverse mix of A-list comedians. Mark DeMayo has an interesting take on racism based on his 20 years with the NYPD. Then there’s Gina Brillon, who grew up in a Puerto Rican home in the Bronx, and James Goff, who is African-American.
The first act follows the format of a regular comedy show. The comedians will perform their acts, infusing the evening with hilarity and intelligence as they spotlight thought-provoking racial issues.
But Act II unfolds with all four comics onstage discussing “hot button topics” about racism in America. In a safe and friendly environment, the audience becomes a critical part of the show’s diverse canvas. However, audience participation is not required.
This isn’t Byrne’s first rodeo on the East End either. “After every show, including at the Hampton Bays Senior Center and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton, there has been a line of people asking to bring the show to their community, their town, their church or school,” he said.
“There is a hunger for discussion, for the healing, for the talking. People want to be heard and ‘United We Laugh’ gives them that chance, in a place that’s safe and where there is no anger. Just people sitting around laughing and talking, like they would around a dinner table as friends. That’s where the real change is realized.”
Before the first shows, Byrne and others involved met with community stakeholders to get a sense of the unique issues on the East End.
“We met with Lucius Ware of the LI-National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He came to the Hampton Bays show and afterward he called it ‘tremendous.’ I was really proud of that,” Byrne said.
“We spoke with Minerva Perez of Organización Latino-Americana. James Banks of the Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force was in our first audience and he was so moved and energized that he wanted the ABTF to host the event; he volunteered to act as moderator for the discussion portion, a role he has embraced.”
The main goal, Byrne pointed out, “is to entertain. The audience needs to sit and relax and realize they are among good people who basically are of a like mind,” he said.
“I think people of all races feel like they are not being heard, when in reality, I think it’s hard for someone of a different culture to relate. The most honest discussion you can have with someone of a different ethnic background than your own about race or bias is when you are among friends. Friends know you, friends understand you, and friends aren’t going to take something you say out of context because there is a bond, a trust, a love. That bond, that trust, that love begins and ends with laughter. That is the one component that can take the edge off the discussion and help us to really open up and, hopefully, begin to heal,” said Byrne.
“If we can’t point out that people are different, and laugh at those differences, we can’t come together and realize that in the end, we’re all really the same.”
Presented by Southampton Village, the Southampton Anti-Bias Task Force, and the Southampton Cultural Center, the event begins at 7 PM, with doors opening at 6. Tickets are $20; $10 for students under 21.
To get tickets, call the SCC at 631-287-4377 or visit www.scc-arts.org.