Meet the Gay, Multicultural Improv Team Bringing Diversity to NYC’s Comedy Scene

(L to R: Zak Sommerfield, Daniel Lempert, Zeke Smith, Bowen Yang, Jason Sweetenis, and Jose Cagigal. Not pictured: Jay Malsky)

The New York City comedy scene is extremely white, male and hetero centric. This is not news as it’s been discussed ad nauseam that the comedy world has (for lack of a better word) a diversity problem. Arguably, things are looking up. To the point that Deadline had to complain about “ethnics” taking over television. (Yeah, we are. Deal with it.)

As the diversity in comedy “battle” rages on, I wanted to contribute to the conversation by going behind the scenes in NYC’s hella competitive comedy world and highlighting some of the up and coming diverse talent rising in the ranks. First up is Judith, a diverse, gay, male improv team that hosts one of NYC’s best improv jams, Good Scene, at The People’s Improv Theatre.

Judith was founded by members Jason Sweetenis and Zeke Smith in the summer of 2013 and currently includes performers, Zak Sommerfield, Jose Cagigal (from Teziutlán, Puebla, México), Daniel Lempert, Jay Malsky, and Bowen Yang.

Tell me the story behind Judith.
Jason: Zeke and I met at a storytelling class at UCB, not improv. Then I just sent him an email and said, “Hey! Let’s start a team of gay improvisers.” I didn’t really know a lot of people…

Co-founder Zeke Smith
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What prompted you to do that?
Zeke: There were a couple things. They had just put an all women’s team on Llyod night called Detroit. And there were a lot people making identity based teams and also I have always had gay friends and I didn’t have gay friends in NY so the idea of hanging out with gay comedians was appealing to me.

Jason: Part of it was that there was another gay team. At first I heard it was like a practice group and then when I found out it was a team I was like, “Oh.” I didn’t know any of them so I couldn’t just join the team. So that was a prompt. If someone else can make a gay team, then why don’t we start a gay team.

Zak: (to Jason) Then you contacted me.

Zeke: I contacted a guy who’s no longer on the team who was in a class of mine and yea… it was a lot of “ I know a guy, I know a guy, I know a guy.” And we kind of hit it off. We would practice on Fridays and then we’d all go drink together on Friday night after practice and we all bonded pretty solidly. And we started having good shows. We worked as a team, we were funny. And at least for me I was doing better improv with these guys than I was doing with anybody else.

Co-founder Jason Sweetenis
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Zak: I had the same experience as Zeke. The very first practice we had was amazing. I’ve done some practice groups and teams and they’ve always felt like, “Well some of it’s good, some of it’s not.” The first practice we had, everything we did was just fun. And then this is the first team too that I’ve had a show where I was like “Omg, that was a really good show.” Like people were running up to me afterwards being like “Wow”….and all that stuff and you’re like “Wow, that’s what I wanted to do. That’s why I started doing this.”

Jason: I hadn’t had someone come up to me after a show ever until I was on this team. Group mind is hard to find… I think that has helped. I think that was a short cut for us.

What do you hope to accomplish with Judith?
Zak: I think it’s funny cause everybody, as we’ve been together, has grown in their own careers, you know breaking out, trying to do other things like filming, shakespeare, a production company, Jason’s a big writer all the time, everyone is doing all sorts of other stuff, so it’s interesting because it feels like it gives you sort of like a…

Zeke: A creative homebase.

Jason: It does feel like a home. I just want to keep practicing, keep working. I may never achieve improv success and be on a house team and that’s OK. I like what we do and I want to keep doing that.

Founding member Zak Sommerfield
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Zeke: We are all trying to write and produce and be actors and you know have separate careers and it’s like with all the things I need…rejection…I think one natural experience is…it’s very comforting to have people to come be funny with and even if you are not funny, it’s okay to not be funny. Have people you feel are kinda like your family.

Zak: Yea, you have a team. You have an actual team. People who support you no matter what.

Jose: I think we all look forward to coming and hanging out each week.

Member Jose Cagigal
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What are your thoughts on the comedy scene here?
Zak: I think what Zeke said earlier about all these teams that are identity based appearing is actually really important. I mean I think it’s both caused by there being a culture where people are trying to change the culture of misogyny, homophobia and racism, but it’s also that there is a better environment that allows these teams to now exist. I’ll tell ya, one of the reasons I’ve loved improv is because I have almost never seen shows where people have been super racist, super anti-women. It happens pretty rarely but there’s generally this consensus when you are with a group of people that if you make a move to just be completely nasty, it’s not going to really work. Whereas my experience with stand-up comedy has always been “What the fuck, why are these people allowed to say these things?” and “Why do they stand in front of a mirror and come up with these horrific jokes?” It’s still okay to say fa*** and all the things in comedy clubs and stand up clubs but I feel like in this world, it’s not okay.

Member Bowen Yang
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Jose: No, improv is more of a celebration of life it seems to me than like, not all the time, but standup can sometimes just be a pity party where the comedians trash themselves and everyone else. Not always, there’s a lot of exceptions but improv is a little more welcoming I’ve felt. It takes a while to find the right group and a good group.

Zeke: I think that is a lot of it. I think what made Judith work is that we were very proactive in seeking out our people you know. We wanted to feel like we belonged and the way to feel like you belong in an improv community is to have an improv team. And we wanted to have our improv team. I feel like that’s why you see these other teams crop up that are women, women of color, people of color, you know. It’s both about finding a place where you feel like you can develop a comedic voice and being like we are just an indy team that’s gonna come to a show, we’re just like the gay dudes that come to a show and being like “We’re here.” We’re here for other people.

Zak: I think the fact that these things exist is helping change that whole culture. A group of eight guys who are all known to be gay who show up and put up a good show, it’s less likely that people are gonna be homophobic. I assume the same thing for women or at least I hope so. A big thing to learn is you can very aggressively seek out people that you want to be with and then it ends up working.

You can see Judith every Thursday night at The People’s Improv Theatre and every third Friday of the month at The Brit Pack.