Willie Zabar ’16 has always made people laugh, both onstage and off, but there’s a lot more to this senior. Zabar got deep with The Argus, sitting down to talk about the elusive high of performing, masculinity and emotional vulnerability, and his intense passion for archiving.
The Argus: Why are you a WesCeleb?
Willie Zabar: I talk in front of roomfuls of people a lot, and sometimes people laugh at that. And I think that people remember when it goes well.
A: So, you do standup comedy, in other words?
WZ: Yeah. I do standup a lot here, and I also do sketch comedy with Lunchbox.
A: What’s your writing process like?
WZ: Usually, something will just happen, or I’ll connect some words in my head, and I’ll just—I carry around a little notebook—I’ll just grab my notebook and write them down. Every now and again, I’ll sit down and try to compile those notes, and try and make them make sense, and see, ‘Does this one lead to this one?’ Back when I started doing standup, I would kind of just do a bunch of random jokes that didn’t really fit into each other, and would sometimes come back to the same subject matter, not in any kind of controlled or curated way. So it would just be chaos, and it would be hard for me to remember what came next, and it would be hard for the audience to follow along. Then one day, I kind of realized, ‘You will do better if you arrange your set into bits.’
A: Are you funny?
WZ: People seem to think so? With a question mark? I put a lot of mental energy into doing comedy, and I feel like everyone is kind of born an amount of funny, and it’s just about how good you get at converting your thought processes to words. And that’s just something I feel like I’m continuously getting better at.
A: Do you think that if someone admits that they’re funny, or talks about being funny, that makes them less funny?
WZ: Yeah. Well, this is a hard question to answer, because no one is funny all the time. I’m not funny all the time. I’m not funny all the times that I try to be funny. And I just know that I try to be funny more than most people, so when it goes well, people remember those times. I know people that don’t consider themselves to be funny people—or, on the other hand, people who don’t dedicate a lot of mental energy or time to comedy and humor—who are funny. They’re funny people. But they’re not, like, a funny person, or a funny guy—I wish that wasn’t a gendered term; I wish there was a neutral way to say it. But just, like, a comedy person. This campus is full of comedy people. But it’s also, out of that, full of funny people.
A: Is there any topic that’s too serious to be joked about?
WZ: No! I think humor is a defense mechanism. I think it’s how we cope with all the crazy and fucked-up things in our world. And I think that nothing is off limits. The mantra that I’ve always gone with, which has carried me this far, is that you can say anything, but that doesn’t mean you should say anything. And it’s interesting doing comedy here, on a campus that is very—I think socially conscious is a good word. I think when people use the word “politically correct” it’s a straw man statement; it’s saying, “Oh, these people take things too seriously; these people are too sensitive.” It’s not about sensitivity. It’s about mindfulness, because if someone tells a joke onstage, or otherwise, that some people take offense to, it’s often not because someone is saying, “Oh, this offends an abstract concept in my mind—you’ve taken something too far.” Rather, it’s coming from a place of, “You’re not thinking about the impact of your words”….I feel at times it can be destructive if you are dismissing other people’s experiences, or punching down, as they say. I feel like that’s where comedy gets dangerous. I don’t, however, think that anything is off limits. I think that joking about things is how we come to understand them, and I feel like a lot of comedy is just conflict resolution: Traumatic things, on both a personal and societal level, rock our worlds. They make us question everything. They make us say, “Okay, this is how I saw the world,” and knowing that something like this not only can happen, but did happen, it changes the game. The interesting thing is that we are capable of laughing at those things.
For example: joking about something like the Holocaust. It’s something that a lot of people might say, “That’s unacceptable,” or “That’s not a fair thing to joke about,” but if you look back, say, “Okay, when and where did Holocaust humor arise?” it was from the victims of the Holocaust.
It’s how we understand our world. It’s how we come to terms with what is, what should be, and what should not be.
A: Do you ever engage in dishonest laughter? Will you laugh at a new performer, or one of your friends, even if you think that person just isn’t funny?
WZ: Yes. I think that there is a lot of politics to laughter. And it’s very interesting, watching different performances and seeing when laughter comes because it’s a novel idea that catches you off guard, and makes you say, “Wow, I’ve never seen it that way, holy shit,” and then there’s sometimes where you can tell that that was the beginning of the joke, this is the middle of the joke, and that’s the end of the joke! Ha, ha, ha!
A lot of times people want to laugh, and that’s why, to some extent, the more famous a comedian is, the better their shows are. There’s a lot of factors here: If you’re a big comic, you can sell out big theaters, and hold followings of people who have seen your stuff, but these people, they’re rooting for you. The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten as a comedian is that the audience wants you to succeed. No one goes to a comedy show to fold their arms and go, “I don’t want to laugh tonight.”
Comedy, at its best, is a symbiotic relationship between the performer and the audience. The audience gets to laugh, and that’s a kind of high, and the performer gets to make people to laugh, which is a high unlike anything in the world. The first time I did standup comedy, I walked offstage and I felt just physically better than I had ever, and have ever since felt in my life. It was amazing. It was just pure positivity and goodness running through every vein in my body, and I was like, “I want to keep doing this.”
A: So you’re still chasing that first high?
WZ: Yeah. It’s one of those things where, like any drug, it’s never going to be as mind-blowing as that first time, possibly because you’d never experienced anything like it, but every once in a while you walk offstage and you’re just tapped back into it. You’re like, “Wow, this is why I do this.” It’s an incredibly validating experience, because before I started doing standup, I was definitely not anywhere near as confident as a person—I was definitely way more shy. Once I found out this was something I could do, somewhat effectively, it said, “Okay, the way you’ve been thinking and seeing the world has culminated in something that people appreciate.” And that was amazing, because I’ve always been a jokester, I guess you could say. I’ve always liked to make people laugh. If you’re uncomfortable, you make a joke; if you’re proud of someone, you make a joke. It’s just how I operate. It’s how I’ve always operated. But it wasn’t until I really did it onstage, really stepped into the arena of live comedy, that I realized, “Wow, this is a skill.”
A: Do you ever worry that people won’t appreciate you unless you’re funny?
WZ: I used to. I used to think that, even before I did standup, that there was an expectation for me to be funny all the time. And the problem with that is a lot of jokes—not all jokes—come from a character, and that’s true for anyone. Even if someone’s character is perfectly synched up with who they are as a person, it’s still a performance; you’re still putting on a mask.
The great thing about being able to do comedy onstage is that you can compartmentalize it and say, “My job right now is to make this group of people laugh” and be able to walk offstage, and be with the people you care about, and say, “Right now, it doesn’t matter if I’m funny or not; it just matter that I’m myself, and that whoever I’m with is themselves, and we can just be real with each other.” Not that doing comedy isn’t real; I think some of the realest things I’ve ever heard have been from people onstage, but there’s definitely been—a lot of my self-worth has been attached to my sense of humor. It’s one of the few things that I think I do especially well. It’s not the only thing, and I do have a lot of other interests and hobbies, but it’s the only thing I feel I’ve been primed for.
A: Let’s talk about your masculinity. Can you be emotionally vulnerable?
WZ: That’s a turn. This conversation went somewhere different. Can I be emotionally vulnerable? Yeah, I’m definitely capable of being vulnerable. I definitely think that the more we talk about our thoughts and feelings, the healthier of an environment we create to have these thoughts and feelings. There’s a lot of stigma about feeling. Like, one of the reasons I love Mr. Rodgers, and consider him to be one of my heroes, is because he said, “Feelings are natural and manageable.” And I really believe in that.
Life is hard. Like, people go through different amounts of conflict and trauma within their lives, and no two experiences are the same, but life is not an amusement park ride. You’re not just along for it passively. You have to make choices. You live with regrets. You have to participate.
It can be really hard to negotiate what’s going on around with what’s going on in your head. I think a lot of people—and I’ve done this myself—struggle silently and act like everything’s okay, and they’re not. I think that being able to talk about your experience without worrying about judgment is really essential to healthy living.
A: What is something that’s really underrated?
WZ: Archiving. We as humans make a lot of cool stuff, and benefit from having access to cool stuff that people created before we were on this planet. And the only way we get to experience those things is when people save the things they made. Archiving is an ongoing process that I think everyone should be contributing to, and because the fact of the matter is that we are temporary entities, as people. We’re not going to be around forever. Luckily, though, we have language, culture, and productions through which we can pass on our thoughts and ideas….Without the archive, there is no academy. Without the archive, there is no artistic repertoire.
A: Would you want to be famous?
WZ: I’d be lying if I said fame wasn’t appealing, but my prime goal is to make good shit. I wonder if I should have said “stuff” instead of “shit.” It stands to reason that the more people that appreciated that shit, the better I would feel, but the way I see it, fame, if it were to come my way, would be a by-product of the things I like to do. The things I like to do are not an avenue through which to become famous.
A: Let’s talk about your thesis.
WZ: Oh, shit. I’m writing a pilot episode of an original T.V. series. I don’t want to get into it, because I might change my idea a couple times, but I know it’s going to be a half-hour situation comedy.
A: If you had to date a famous person who’s 60 years old or above, who would it be?
WZ: Jane Goodall. One hundred percent.