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Inside Jokes: How a prison comedy program featuring Fred Armisen has helped transform inmates’ lives
Author: Hallie Lieberman, The Progressive
Posted: April 17, 2020

"I’m going to cast thy ass on the floor with my fist,” says inmate Benjamin Hall as he sits next to Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen in a cramped classroom in a Portland, Oregon, prison, workshopping his sketch. In the scene, a character named Dave is threatening to fight a wizard who won’t let him sit at a table in the prison mess hall.

The dozen or so inmates in the audience erupt in laughter. “You must yield to my spell,” demands another inmate, who is playing the wizard. Hall clenches his fist and jabs a left hook into his script, simulating a punch, then leans back into his beige plastic chair, wiping his forehead.

“There might be a nicer ending than with you just punching him,” says Armisen affably. The star of Portlandia, Los Espookys, and Documentary Now! is clad in thick-rimmed black glasses, black jeans, and a grey hoodie with a visitor badge dangling from it. The inmate-actor, wearing a blue sweatshirt and blue pants with “inmate” stamped on them, nods in agreement.

“And it’s not even a moral thing,” Armisen adds. “It’s just for the fun of watching. What you want to see at the end of this is that you have a change in character.”

Mark Arnold, a bald, forty-seven-year-old inmate, raises his hand. Armisen calls on him. “It’s a satire on how prison actually is,” Arnold explains. “In prison, you actually have gang tables and places where people can’t sit, so it’s real.”

It’s real, all right. The comedy school program began operating at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland in 2018 as part of the Columbia River Creative Initiatives, a series of artist-run programs offered at the prison. It has brought in comedians including Armisen, an SNL cast member from 2002 to 2013, and led to an ongoing open-mic comedy and variety show at the prison.

“I feel like I learned so much about people and what works with comedy,” he says. “It’s easy to dehumanize [incarcerated people] because there’s a crime involved,” he says. “But then you go and they’re human beings.”

The comedy school was founded by Harrell Fletcher, a professor of art and social practice at Portland State University, and co-created by Roshani Thakore, an artist and student in the university’s art and social practice MFA program. It is possibly the only such venture teaching sketch and stand-up comedy in a U.S. prison. (Other prisons, including Dell’Arte’s prison arts program at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, offer classes in play production, including comedies.)

Starting a comedy program in prison is risky. Comedy is subversive. It’s dangerous. And prison officials as a group are not known for their keen sense of humor.

“The idea of teaching stand-up comedy in prison wouldn’t even occur to me, because I can’t imagine how you could do it with the level of censoring in most prisons,” says Keramet Reiter, a professor of criminology and law at University of California, Irvine. “I often talk about how anything you think is a First Amendment right is probably just not allowed in prison.”

Yet Reiter thinks comedy in prison is a good idea. “I’ve looked a lot at how people survived decades in solitary confinement,” she says. “The people who survive find ways to keep their mind busy often by doing beautiful drawings or writing poetry or learning a new language.”  

Spencer Byrne-Seres, who helped run the comedy program at Columbia River when he was a graduate student at Portland State University, says many of the program’s participants have told him “it’s like the only three hours where they feel like they’re not in prison.”

 

The comedy school at Columbia River began as a weekly three-hour class. Local comedians came to the prison and taught joke writing and performing. The first meetings drew about twenty students. The program is funded by Portland State University and the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

“The advantages to comedy are that it’s something that everybody sort of knows about,” Fletcher says. “It was really easy when we first started doing classes to go around the room and just be like, ‘Who are some of your favorite comedians?’ There were a lot of Richard Pryor fans and people who knew about Andy Kaufman and George Carlin. If we went around the room and asked, ‘Who’s your favorite contemporary artist?,’ most people wouldn’t have an answer.”

Prison officials weren’t exactly hostile to the idea of comedy, but they were hesitant, with good reason. Some of the most revered American stand-up comedians have had brushes with the law, including Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Mae West, who served eight days of a ten-day sentence for appearing in a play called Sex.

When Arnold, a father of two and former Navy man, heard about the comedy class from a fellow inmate, he was surprised: “I’m like, ‘What? Comedy in prison?’ You know, it was one of those things that really doesn’t happen in here.”

Arnold began his comedy career by performing three minutes of stand-up material. As Fletcher recalls, it did not go well: “He would mumble a lot and it was sort of confusing, and nobody really quite knew what to make of it.” Then Arnold got sent to solitary, which meant he could no longer take part. Fletcher wasn’t sure if he’d ever come back.

The first prison program manager wasn’t too impressed by the course, notes Thakore, who helped run the comedy school. “We recorded their rehearsals, sent them to her, and she’s like, ‘I don’t find anything funny,’ ” Thakore says. But the program was allowed to continue.

The first class culminated in a stand-up showcase that was performed in May 2018 and open to the public. The jokes had to be vetted by prison officials.

“There were a couple ground rules that they gave us: no jokes about COs [correctional officers] and police, and no jokes that in any way made criminal life out to be positive,” Fletcher says. “From our perspective, we weren’t concerned about those things, but we [also] didn’t want them to make fun of other people’s sexuality, gender, race.”

The show was a hit, and Fletcher decided to expand the school further by drawing in national comedians. He knew Armisen through their mutual friend Carrie Brownstein, the Sleater-Kinney guitarist and vocalist who co-starred with Armisen on the hit show Portlandia.

It was an easy sell. “When I heard that Harrell does this in Portland, I just wanted to get involved,” Armisen says. As he drove to the Columbia River prison to teach his first course on stand-up in 2018, he realized he didn’t know Portland as well as he had thought.

“I didn’t even know this road that goes all the way out here—a road that doesn’t have coffee shops on it,” he jokes. “It was a good education for me.”

It was Armisen’s first time inside a prison, other than an abandoned prison he had used to shoot a few episodes of Portlandia, but he was not afraid. “It didn’t feel like a dark corner of the world,” he says. “It actually felt like a well-lit corner of the world. The fact that there’s a comedy class going on clearly [means] there’s some sense of civility, you know?” Per prison rules, he left his cell phone in his car and made sure not to wear blue because it’s the color of prison uniforms.  

When Armisen entered the classroom, he was greeted by about twenty students, many bearing gifts they’d made him, such as little drawings and booklets. “Their kindness toward me was one of the most moving things ever,” he says. The correctional officers asked for pictures and autographs. He happily obliged.

“I wouldn’t even call what I did teaching,” Armisen says of the first course. He sees his role as being more of a “comedy helper.” But he did offer feedback on the inmates’ material, and he came away impressed. “Some of them were good stand-ups,” he says. “They take their comedy seriously.”

As the school continued, the prison got a bit more lenient. Thakore says she “never asked [inmates] to shy away from critiquing their experience in a prison. They just had to make it funny.” But there was some self-censorship. “They [knew that] if they’re gonna make fun of a guard, they’ll probably get hell.”

 

In early 2019, an inmate who goes by the name Lil Bubbly is sashaying down a makeshift runway at the Columbia River prison clad in loose-fitting jeans and a T-shirt. He gracefully spins and faces his fashion critics: two inmates and Armisen.

“I love it,” one of them declares. “I want to say I don’t love it,” Armisen replies, in a video of the session. “I found it to be very derivative.”

Lil Bubbly is, in fact, wearing the same outfit as the guy who modeled before him, as are the guys who prance down the runway after him. They are in prison, after all, and dressing identically is the rule. Perched behind the camera, artist Xi Jie Ng (Salty) films the sketch, which will later air on YouTube as part of the first episode of The Inside Show, a variety show and sketch comedy program that she developed with Byrne- Seres and a group of inmates.

“My main goal was for everyone to have fun in a variety show and highlight everyone’s eccentricities,” Xi Jie Ng says. “The fashion show sketch is meant to point to the indoctrination of people and homogenization of prisoners.”  

How did Xi Jie Ng and Byrne-Seres convince prison officials to let her not only film a critique of prison culture, but also air the episodes on YouTube?

It’s a process. All episodes must be reviewed by four prison officials before they’re posted online. Xi Jie Ng, who was in the MFA program when she worked on The Inside Show, says they’ve had only two parts edited out, though she won’t describe them.

James Hanley, the prison’s corrections rehabilitation manager, calls himself “an extremely liberal person” who does not take offense easily. “These are adults in custody in a prison, and it’s not a church group,” he says. His concern in reviewing the episodes was to make sure that “people weren’t glorifying criminal activity or being homophobic or sexist or racist.” One scene he edited out involved an inmate who said he wanted to be President and get his own Melania Trump-type woman.

Both Xi Jie Ng and Fletcher are impressed with how accommodating the prison has been. Fletcher thinks it helps that the program is focused on creating art, not structural change.

“If you entered the prison with an explicit agenda, you’re going to be less likely to be allowed to do what you want to do,” Fletcher says. “If you go in and say, ‘We’re doing a comedy show,’ then it’s a little bit of a Trojan horse. It allows you in and then once you’re in, you can start to mess with those things.”

Six months after the fashion show, Hanley notes, the prison changed its mandated clothing rules. He thinks the two developments may be related: “The assistant director who was part of that decision process had seen that episode.”

 

By the time Lil Bubbly was showing off his prison garb, Arnold had gotten out of solitary and started attending classes again. “He just started to improve dramatically,” Fletcher says. “It just got funnier and funnier. He became a better public speaker, more confident, and kind of just transformed.”

Arnold improved so much that Xi Jie Ng asked him to co-host The Inside Show, six episodes of which have now been filmed. (Two are currently online; the rest will be posted after a review by prison officials.) Armisen joined Arnold as co-host of the first episode.

Arnold, who was released from prison in September 2019 on transitional leave, says the comedy program “gave me self-confidence and a chance to get away from the [prison] environment, and express myself in, you know, a way that’s positive.”

Another inmate transformed by the program is Christian “Scotty” Freeman, who appears in a cooking sketch called “Microwave Magic” that Xi Jie Ng developed with Byrne-Seres and several inmates.

“The main idea behind ‘Microwave Magic’ is that we wanted to show people that like, you don’t have to be stuck eating this disgusting shit that they serve to you at the chow hall,” he says, mentioning mashed potatoes that he had to empty an entire salt shaker on.

A twenty-one-year-old with dark hair and perfect teeth, Freeman has been in and out of jail or prison since he was a teenager. He was reluctant at first to be a part of the arts program.

“I’m totally camera shy, and I don’t do good in front of groups and stuff like that,” Freeman says. But when Freeman first made his way down the hallway to the classroom, it was in the middle of a session and Xi Jie Ng was working so intently that she didn’t even notice that he had entered the room. Freeman saw a board at the front of the room with scrawls from a brainstorming session. “Do you guys have a host for the cooking show?” he asked. Xi Jie Ng’s “eyes just lit up,” he recalls.  

In “Microwave Magic,” Freeman narrates as his fellow inmates cook items in the microwave (the only cooking tool they have access to), using ingredients from the commissary. During the filming of the first episode, Freeman was scared. “I started sweating bullets,” he recalls. “I remember just looking at everybody like, ‘Oh my God, I gotta perform in front of all these people. Hopefully I don’t do something super embarrassing.’ ”

In the episode, Freeman narrates as an inmate makes a rameritto, a burrito stuffed with ramen, Tang-marinated pork rinds, Cheez Whiz, and refried beans. (It’s actually quite tasty.)

As he shot more episodes, Freeman began to feel more comfortable on camera. “I start warming up to everybody. It starts getting funnier,” he says. “The Inside Show has really opened up this big door for me.” He still gets nervous but now knows how to work through it.

Hanley agrees the program has changed inmates’ lives.

“I’ve seen people performing their stand-up act,” he says. “They walk a little taller and prouder and more confident.” He thinks it may have improved behavior as well. “If they were going to be confronted by a situation in the past which could have resulted in punching a person, they’re like, I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to risk [being kicked out of] this program.”

Armisen’s perspective has changed, too. He considers teaching at the prison to be one of the most satisfying experiences of his career and wishes he’d started volunteering earlier.  

“I feel like I learned so much about people and what works with comedy,” he says. “It’s easy to dehumanize [incarcerated people] because there’s a crime involved,” he says. “But then you go and they’re human beings.”

And that’s what The Inside Show is trying to do: allow inmates to be seen as normal people and not be defined, as Hanley says, “by their worst moments.” And what better way to humanize prison than through comedy: the least pretentious art form around, one that accepts outlaws and weirdos into its ranks. As Armisen says, “If you’re into it, we’re already in the same club.” 

Read the original article at progressive.org/magazine/inside-jokes-lieberman

More about the Columbia River Creative Initiatives program at www.crci.art