House lights dim, the audience hushes, stage lights go up. Andy Ofiesh, a middle-aged man, walks out, grinning. All normal for a comedy show, except that Ofiesh is completely naked.
I once took a standup class (clothed), and the teacher encouraged us to tell a joke about how we looked to dispel any tension from the audience’s expectations. When you’re naked, there’s definitely some extra tension to dispel. Ofiesh said his equipment was “huge, but most of it is inside my body.” We laughed, loudly.
The Naked Comedy Showcase has been running for nearly 15 years at ImprovBoston (which is actually in Cambridge). On the first Thursday of each month, the bravest of the brave reveal not only their (figurative) souls but also their (literal) bodies.
Ofiesh created the show, which has an unusual origin story: he’d first performed standup at a clothing-optional retreat’s talent show. “It was terrifying, but then it was wonderful.” The experience of a crowd’s acceptance, and making them laugh, felt like “being kissed for the first time.” He hosts the showcase, in part, to introduce other comics to that joy.
It’s hard to say words, any words, more interesting than the sight of a naked body, on a stage, under lights.
I love live standup, local shows as much as seeing the sets of celebrity comics, so I have a control group to compare this show to. It’s a very different experience. Usually, after a show, I remember a few of the jokes that made me laugh the hardest. At Naked Comedy, though, I listened to the jokes, but couldn’t fully hear them. That’s not a comment on the comics’ skills, but on the fact that it’s hard to say words, any words, more interesting than the sight of a naked body, on a stage, under lights.
It’s not that the audience ogled the performers. There was a lot of energy in the room, but none of it sexual. Less prelude to an orgy, more dinner table at a nudist colony (with some kind of food no one can eat tidily — ramen noodles or a whole lobster). But I, at least, couldn’t stop staring at the comics’ bodies. It’s an extremely intimate, and totally singular, way to see somebody naked.
Most of us don’t usually see naked bodies besides our own, our partners’ and strangers’ onscreen (always curated and edited, though towards various ends). Naked Comedy shows regular people’s bodies, moving in nonsexual ways. That’s what Kendra Dawsey, a comic who’s done the showcase a handful of times, likes about it. “I should be allowed to have my body in its natural state in a nonsexual context,” she says. Performing in the showcase provides her with that opportunity.
“I should be allowed to have my body in its natural state in a nonsexual context."Kendra Dawsey
There’s even an opportunity for audience participation: Ofiesh invites audience members to walk up to the stage, undress behind the curtain, and tell a naked joke onstage. (That would have been a nerve-wracking moment for me had there been a possibility of me accepting the invitation, but I was not tempted). That night, two people did. They fumbled their jokes (understandably!), but the crowd cheered anyway. Then, they dressed backstage, walked back out, and rejoined the audience.
Some people compare standup to being seen naked. I think, though, that (traditional, clothed) comedy is more akin to standing onstage in lingerie. The fact of a standup set makes implicit declarations: this is the best material the comedian has, and they think it’s funny enough to work. The delicate part, the potentially embarrassing part, the dramatic part (because it is a kind of theater) is not only how much the comics reveal about themselves. It’s how visibly they’re trying, and whether or not those efforts succeed: if they get laughs, or not.
Trying, taking the risk of telling a joke onstage, creates a dramatic moment: will the joke work, or will it bomb? A joke bombs when the connection between comic and audience breaks. The comic loses the crowd’s interest.
But nakedness overpowers that drama. A naked body onstage is infinitely interesting. Well, maybe not infinitely — an audience might, eventually, get bored of looking — but I’d guess it would take hours for that to happen, or at least, a lot longer than the length of a set. It’s like if you took a page of a coloring book and poured a can of paint on it. Sure, you’re still putting color on a page, but the subtlety that usually attracts people to the art is eclipsed. The performance art of nakedness screams so much more loudly than the subtleties of jokes. I experienced Naked Comedy less as “naked comedy,” and more as “nakedness, and the performers tell jokes.”
“We are comics getting naked, not nudists telling jokes.”Andy Ofiesh
Ofiesh doesn’t envision it that way. “We are comics getting naked,” he said, “not nudists telling jokes.” He sees establishing that parameter as part of his job as host: “I let the audience know that by having solid joke structure, doing the kinds of jokes that people recognize as standup comedy, and not alternative creative expression, performance art.”
Talking to me about it, he inhabits the self he brings to those first few minutes of the show. He gets indignant. “I’m a standup comic! You listen to me, I’m a standup comic!” The “you” here isn’t “me,” the person talking to him; it’s “me,” the audience member at the show. “We’re not fooling around here,” he says, “just because we’re naked.”
I don’t think my inability to hear the jokes came from a judgment of the comics’ ability. Their nakedness was just louder. That response to the show might frustrate Ofiesh, but the show’s working to erode the taboo of nudity. It succeeds at that for those who do it. The comics I spoke to said their nervousness about being naked onstage dissipated after a few shows. Maybe I just need to come back every month.
Whether or not you get used to the nudity, the Naked Comedy Showcase is a vivid, memorable, intense experience that will jolt you out of thinking about taxes and politics and what’s for dinner. It snaps you into the present moment. You watch the show.
The next Naked Comedy Showcase takes place at ImprovBoston in Cambridge on March 5.