“We let our comics have complete authority,” Alysia Hush emphasized over the phone. “If they want to get onstage and take off one shoe, that’s perfectly fine.” Hush is a co-founder, along with Marisa Riley, of Comedy Ugly, a stand-up show that happens monthly-ish at Easy Lover in Williamsburg. The twist? Their evening of curated comedy is also a body-positive strip tease.
How it works: each comic selects a song to be played at some random, un-premeditated intervals during their set. Every time the music starts, the comic must pause and remove one item of clothing. Once it stops, they return to telling jokes as usual.
These musical interruptions happen a handful of times for each comedian, but the resulting raunch level, like the styles of comedy Hush and Riley aim to assemble, varies widely. “The cool thing about it is how comedians interpret stripping,” Riley explained. “We’ve had people get down to their lingerie and dance…we’ve had people come in and take off nine socks. We had someone play the trombone!” The strip tease—which, like telling jokes, is one of the most vulnerable things a person can do onstage—becomes whatever you need it to be, in a supportive space like this one.
Diversity and encouragement have been big parts of the Comedy Ugly mission statement from the start. Before founding the event, Hush and Riley had been working gigs all across the New York comedy scene: they experienced their share of awesome inclusive shows, ones “open to very diverse lineups,” as well as ones featuring the “same kind of person,” where “mild sexual harassment” was not uncommon. “People would talk about our bodies and the way we looked, like, please welcome to the stage … a hot woman,” Riley recalled, of those unpleasant gigs (“Working in the comedy scene can be really good, if you know your people,” she made sure to emphasize).
That invalidating dynamic was top of mind when, just over a year ago, she and Hush came up with the idea to introduce a Coyote Ugly-style strip show—a sexy, giddy, totally body-affirming environment—into the stand-up world. “[We felt] it would be cool to claim ourselves, to present our bodies and claim our bodies before anyone else could,” Riley said. “So Alysia and I just got together, and made our own rules.”
Jeena Bloom echoed these sentiments from a performer perspective. The first time she appeared in Hush and Riley’s lineup, she was extremely new to stand-up: “I hadn’t been booking all that much. It was [only] my second or third actual bar show,” she recalled. “You can’t get over stage fright faster than taking your clothes off in between stand-up bits!” When Hush and Riley asked her to appear in Comedy Ugly for a second time a few months later, Bloom tracked an evolution in both her stage experience and in her self-image. “It is a very, very supportive environment,” Bloom described, of Comedy Ugly. “I was a lot more confident in both my comedy and my body [the second time around], and it was even better.”
For their upcoming show this Thursday (which Hush previewed as “definitely a Brooklyn show: fun, inclusive, and the best kind of weird”), audiences can expect a characteristically wide-ranging lineup out of Comedy Ugly’s robust regular rotation. “Having people from different backgrounds brings a lot to the show,” Hush said. “We’re trying to book people of color, nonbinary people and people of different sexualities…[but also], people who are just really funny, who deserve to have people ogle them. That comes in many forms.”Highlighting all who “deserve” to be ogled—regardless of identity, body type, or strain of comedy—is a guiding principle for what Riley and Hush curate every month, and it’s what likely contributes to the ever-increasing sense of comfort for comics like Bloom. “[Helping comics] feel good about themselves is especially important because it’s vulnerable,” Hush summarized. Especially for those who have long felt less-than-worthy of the spotlight, vulnerability and empowerment—not to mention the power of laughter—all “go pretty strongly hand-in-hand.”