“Let’s hear it for all the black women in tonight’s lineup!” Comedian Aisha Brown opened her set with a sarcastic quip that automatically brought attention to the homogeneity of the lineup at All Access Live with Grace Helbig and Mamrie Hart at the 34th annual Just For Laughs comedy festival.
Based out of Toronto, Brown came to JFL for the first time to perform two taped sets. In addition to her All Access Live set, she also performed in Kevin Hart’s LOL Live show. Brown’s set for All Access Live was refreshing, as she dove into her experiences with racism and mental illness candidly and with good humour.
“I went to, for a long time, a predominantly white school; I was one of zero other black kids in my grade,” Brown said. “I was also a terrible student, so at one point, I was 100% of the black kids failing middle school. I did have one supportive teacher who was like, ‘Hey, I believe in you. You’re street smart.’”
Taking her experiences with racism onstage allows Brown to be more accessible to other demographics that are often ignored by the comedy community.
“Even though I don’t necessarily make it my goal to be the black woman on a show, it often is the case,” Brown said in conversation with the McGill Tribune. “Sometimes, I’ll get the feedback of, ‘Oh wow that was really refreshing, I really liked your set,’ and it’s nice to know I’m speaking to audience members who don’t typically feel spoken to.”
In addition to touching upon her experiences with race, Brown also delved into mental illness in her set for All Access Live. In one notable bit about anxiety, Brown recited a sombre satirical poem called Anxiety Hawk, about an an imaginary hawk living on her shoulder. The hawk caws loudly to remind her of irrational fears in daily life, like forgetting to turn off the stove before leaving the house, or being secretly disliked by friends and colleagues.
Brown’s Anxiety Hawk is not the only time she’s discussed mental illness in her stand-up. In both her stand-up and written work, Brown is very candid about struggling with anxiety, depression, and perfectionism. She attributes her openness on stage to her natural ease in articulating her thoughts and feelings.
“If something’s on my mind, I’ve never been a good person at being coy, or [thinking] ‘Hold it in and work it out internally,’ ” Brown said. “I’ve always been kind of a person who’s like, “I should say exactly what I’m thinking at all points’ […] I think maybe a lot of comedians have that same syndrome where it’s like, ‘What’s bothering me, let’s get it out.’ ”
In fact, it was dealing with depression after the end of a long-term relationship that pushed Brown to take the plunge into the world of stand-up three years ago. Not only did feelings of dissatisfaction with her life motivate her to make a change, Brown also found that the feelings of detachment she experienced during a long period of depression gave her a sense of immunity and fearlessness on stage.
“[After the breakup] I [realized] I don’t like anything about my life, I don’t like my job, where my life is heading, I’ve got nothing to lose, why don’t I just try this thing I’ve always wanted to do?” Brown said. “That stage fright—not that it ever really goes away—but it becomes less important when you feel like nothing makes you happy. It was almost like I was a little bit numb. So, I needed that numbness to be able to try something that I found terrifying.”
Fast forward three years to today, and Brown’s comedy career has taken off. I From signing with Yuk Yuk’s, the largest chain of comedy venues in Canada, to releasing a comedy rap album with her comedy collective Runnin’ at the Mouth, Brown’s appearance at JFL this year capped off a year of achievements. To top this list, in June 2016, Brown began writing freelance satirical articles for CBC’s comedy website.
Writing articles online undoubtedly exercises different comedic muscles than writing stand-up material. In her stand-up, Brown strings together short, sharp punchlines; however, writing longer pieces entails developing a story with a cohesive topic and plotline.
“I think when you’re writing something more long form, you’re not so concerned with laughs per minute,” Brown said. “You’re building something almost like one story, one cohesive story, whereas on stage, most of the jokes I do are pretty short, to the point, and yeah they meld together because I make them meld together, but […] they don’t really have a theme.”
Beyond recently expanding and diversifying her comedic skill set by writing more long-form pieces, Brown has experienced a natural change in her comedic style over time. As she has grown more comfortable in her own skin as a performer, Brown’s jokes onstage have become more true to who she is offstage.
“I think now I probably have more of a point [in my jokes], like it’s more real, it’s more about my life,” Brown said. “Whereas before I think I was trying to be more observational than I actually naturally am, and now I’m less afraid to talk about me, talk about my life, and make jokes on that. So, I’d say I’m probably a bit more honest.”
Along with her maturation as a comic, Brown has come closer to self-acceptance. In an industry as competitive as comedy, it’s difficult for artists to avoid comparing themselves to others; however, looking back, Brown has come to accept her own skillset and the niche she creates in the world of comedy.
“Another thing that got me [as I was coming up] was seeing people who I thought were incredible and thinking ‘I will never be that person,’” Brown said. “And the truth, is I will never be that person. But, I can be something else.”
To find out more about Brown and to read her blog, visit her website here.
To hear more of The McGill Tribune’s interview with Aisha, check out our podcast episode here.