By Published: April 5, 2024

‘Stand Up for Climate Comedy’ unites CU Boulder student performers and professional comedians in a show that encourages the audience to laugh together and then work together

The Green Bachelor was not impressed with Oceana Sea and her 2 million followers—despite her name, she hates the water and doesn’t know how to swim. Nor was he impressed with Petrolina Exxon and her daddy’s helicopter. They clearly weren’t there for the right reasons.

Not to spoil the true-eco-love ending, but the Green Bachelor, a marine biologist, was smitten with the contestant who rode her bike to the Green Bachelor mansion and knows the flow of her local watershed.

Pause scene.

Stand Up for Climate Comedy flier

"Stand Up for Climate Comedy" is at 7 p.m. April 15 at Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St. Admission is free.

“I think we should say, ‘What is your local watershed and what are you doing to support it, hmm?’” says Elizabeth Smith, a junior majoring in environmental studies.

This followed discussion of defining Oceana as someone who obviously doesn’t know her bodies of water, and advice from Beth Osnes to remember that the sketch is “a physicality thing, so get it up on its feet as soon as you can.”

It was a Tuesday morning in the Climate Change Communication class, and students were laughing at climate change.

Not the reality of it, of course—it’s the defining issue of their generation and there’s nothing funny about it—but in preparation for Stand Up for Climate Comedy April 15 at the Boulder Theater. The show, which is in its ninth year, will feature comedians and science communicators Chuck Nice, Rollie Williams and Kasha Patel, as well as students from the Climate Change Communication class, who write and perform either solo stand-up or group sketches that they create together with support from Osnes and Ben Stasny, a PhD candidate in theater and teaching assistant for the class.

“Comedy has always taken on serious, heavy, depressing social issues,” explains Osnes, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of theatre and dance who teaches the class. “Instead of people just yelling at each other about these issues, approaching them through comedy makes engagement with the issues not only positive, but helps us process them in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming or hopeless.

“Comedy relies on double meaning. I think it’s easy for us to get stuck in binary thinking, things are one way or the other, and once you get locked into one thought, you’re stuck. Comedy can help us get unstuck, and the gorgeous thing about it is when it works, our response is involuntary, that burst of laughter, and all of a sudden everybody’s having that same response and we’re having it together. It’s golden. When we’re talking about climate change, we need things that are going to help us burst through our set ways of thinking and that we do together.”

Laughing together

Stand Up for Climate Comedy is the brainchild of Osnes and Max Boykoff, a CU Boulder professor of environmental studies, who also are two of the project leaders for Inside the Greenhouse, a collective effort that aims to creatively frame and tell the stories surrounding climate change through video, theatre, dance and writing.

Osnes and Boykoff figured that people might have a better time carrying or reframing the burdens of guilt and despair that shadow climate change if they were laughing together rather than shouting at each other. It’s not so much “laugh to keep from crying,” she says, but more “laugh and get moving.”

The first year of Stand Up for Climate Comedy “was basically Max and me downstairs (in the Theatre Building) with a $250 budget,” Osnes says.

Not long after, however, they were approached by representatives from the Argosy Foundation “who came to us and said, ‘We’re so sick of people screaming at each other; if we gave you $25,000, what would you do with it?’” Osnes recalls.

Beth Osnes and students

Beth Osnes (center) works with Lief Jordan (left), Jayden Simisky and Taylor Gutt as they prepare their stand-up comedy performances. (Photos: Rachel Sauer)

They would make the show bigger, they would organize events across the country, they would bring in luminaries of comedy who also know their science and they would integrate students as a key part of the show. That last part—student involvement—is especially key, Osnes says, because students have deep knowledge of the issues of climate change and are demanding action.

Hence the environmental hostility.

‘The seas are rising, and so are tensions!’

“My best bit is, ‘I’m sick of all this environmentally friendly shit. I’m environmentally hostile now,’” says Taylor Gutt, a senior in environmental studies.

“That’s a good bit,” says Lief Jordon, also a senior in environmental studies. “Environmental hostility is funny.”

They’re sitting with Jayden Simisky, a senior in environmental studies, and Cate Billings, a senior majoring in creative technology and design, at the top of a staircase in the Loft Theatre, workshopping the stand-up routines they’re writing.

None of them has performed stand-up before, “but why not, right?” Jordan says with a laugh. “If you’re going to go down, go down big.”

Billings is taking her stand-up in a multimedia direction, complete with a PowerPoint presentation “so it’s a little educational,” she explains. “I have a slide of coral bleaching and I say, ‘Up here on the surface we bleach our assholes, but coral is way ahead of the trend.’”

That earns an appreciative laugh from her classmates. Meanwhile, Simisky is thinking out loud about how to make carbon dioxide funny.

“The biggest thing for me with CO2 is they’re always saying, like, ‘7,000 tons of CO2,’” he says. “So, there’s this whole-ass neighborhood of carbon dioxide in the sky. Maybe something like, ‘There’s so much CO2 in the air that they’re starting to weigh it in terms of cruise ships. I’ve started to live in fear of a boat falling out of the sky.’”

Skyler Behrens

Skyler Behrens (foreground) times her group's comedy sketch on a practice run-through.

That’s good, his classmates agree.

Elsewhere in the theater, Skyler Behrens, a sophomore studying engineering and education, and Claire Grossman, a junior in creative technology and design, are considering what contestants on a climate change-informed “Love Island” would say.

“What if he just says, ‘Wow, that’s hot’?” Behrens suggests.

“That’s perfect,” Grossman says, and soon Behrens is running through the sketch introduction again: “Welcome back, everyone, to the most exciting season of ‘Love Island’ yet! The seas are rising, and so are tensions!”

Nearby, Marcus Witter and Jake Mendelssohn, both seniors in environmental studies, and Austin Villarreal, a junior studying environmental design, are working with Osnes on their sketch involving three guys on a chairlift deciding who has to jump off.

“I don’t really like murder,” Osnes observes. “I think it’s funnier if an act of God knocks you off.”

Many of the students have not done this kind of performance before, and certainly not on a stage the size of Boulder Theater’s. They admit to nerves and to thinking about jokes so much that they stop being funny, but they’re excited, too.

“It helps that we’re doing it together,” notes Danielle Harris, a senior in environmental studies who plays Oceana Sea on “The Green Bachelor,” and her comedy partners nod in agreement.

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Amari Bhalla and Ollie Szabo

Amari Bhalla (left) and Ollie Szabo practice their sketch about the Green Bachelor, complete with markers for stand-in microphones.

Marcus Witter, Jake Mendelssohn and Austin Vallarreal with Beth Osnes

Marcus Witter (left), Jake Mendelssohn and Austin Villarreal discuss their sketch with Beth Osnes.

Skyler Behrens and Claire Grossman

Skyler Behrens (left) and Claire Grossman work on dialogue for their sketch playing on "Love Island."

Ben Stasny and students

Ben Stasny (left) works with Allison Falco, Paige Queen and Tyler Marge on their comedy sketch.

Students stretching in a circle with arms overhead

Before students began working on their performances for "Stand Up for Climate Comedy," they began class with stretching and vocal exercises.

Amari Bhalla with marker behind ear

Markers (like the one behind Amari Bhalla's ear, right) stood in as practice microphones.

Whiteboard with brainstorming writing

The results of a character and plot brainstorming session for a comedy sketch playing off of "Love Island."

Will Plummer, Beth Osnes and students

Will Plummer (standing, black shirt) takes notes for his group's comedy sketch while Beth Osnes (white sweater) hands out markers as practice microphones.