How does one woman go from doing stand up as way to combat fear to running New York’s most diverse comedy festival for a second year? Hard work, receiving death threats and a great sense of humour, explains comedian Coree Spencer.
In 2015, the comedian set herself on a path to creating Cinder Block Festival, a comedy festival that was both diverse and welcoming. Spencer has been involved with comedy since the early 2000s, when she was a sketch comic in film and won awards in writing and filming. Her sketches have been featured by numerous websites, perhaps most notably “Funny Or Die.”
The name “Cinder Block” came from a story about Coree's first few months in N.Y.C. when a freight truck drove past her on the Pulaski Bridge and a large cinder block fell off and hit her in back of the foot, tearing a hole in her heel. The large block, had she been a few steps behind, could have hit her directly in the head and been fatal. But thankfully, she sustained only a minor injury.
We met in a diner in Midtown, the Wednesday before opening night. It was raining and gloomy outside but Coree, dressed in a floral green blouse with bright red lipstick, brought her joyous and fun spirit to the whole restaurant. We sat in a booth along the window. When the waiter asked if we’d like to order Coree declined. When he walked away, she explained, “Oh, I’m broke, so broke,” an early indicator of how much time and resources she has put into this festival.
So how old were you when you got into standup?
I’m woman and you ask my age? No, I’m just kidding! Well, I started stand up when I was 30, as a way to combat stage fright. And I thought that would be the way to cure that. I had been doing film sketch comedy for a few years prior. There was a new sketch I had been filming. I won an editing award. I directed, did a lot of producing, I just never really thought that i could be on stage. So, I was working with some stand up comics doing video and they were all like, "You should just do it!" and they told me where to go, and i just got the nerve to do it one day. I talked about cheese for about 5 minutes. Got heckled on my first time.
Of course I have to ask you the golden question, are you a feminist?
Well, I’m alive, aren’t I? It’s funny because I think in my earlier days of comedy, if you were to ask me that, I probably would've said, “No, I’m a humanist!” or something stupid. Because I do believe that people are equal and all that stuff, but that's exactly what feminism is, so… At the time I think I was just afraid of the word, and now I love to just shove it down everyone's throat!
Well, it’s just unfortunate that the word "feminism," for many, had a bad connotation of “man haters."
Hey, it’s okay to hate men! You just gotta do it peacefully. Organize quiet militias, don't go crazy. There are ways to destroy the patriarchy that are not in their face, for example creating a festival.
What exactly, if not destroying the patriarchy alone, inspired this comedy festival?
Originally, the festival was supposed to be for women because I wanted a place where we could all network and all that, because a lot of stand up girls don’t know each other. Girls! Women! We don't know each other because we're not really booked on the same shows. We meet at open mics, but there's only ever one, maybe two, girls in a lineup, so we're not really meeting each other. Then I started thinking... I think the word isn't feminism, but white feminism, and that can be really dangerous, and people don't realize what they're doing. So that's the reason why my festival isn't just for women. It's not just women who don't get stage time, it's minorities, it's LGBT people, it's people with disabilities, people over 40! These people aren't seeing the exposure as much, and there's less of them and you kinda have to ask yourself why. The truth is that they don't feel welcome. And comedy isn't necessarily welcoming but you can kind of make it that way.
Well, standup comedy is an overwhelmingly male-dominated field...
Of course, it's welcoming to them! You know, I get asked in interviews, "Why do you think there's such a lack of these people at comedy festivals?" I didn't have an answer, I didn't know the answer, but I don't really care, because I think I already know that it's all about feeling welcome. When we did this last year, we had a couple people who were upset because they thought we were trying to discriminate against white men! Which we weren't!
And the way our submission fee works is we have an early bird period and the regular submission. And everyone has that, it's just people who get their tapes in early and they pay a little bit less. It's just that our early bird open to just minorities; women, POC, LGBTQ. That's who I open it up to. And then after the early bird period, that's when anyone could submit all for the same price. When the first regular submission period came around, I thought, "Okay, here comes the straight white men!" But I was really surprised to see that it was much more diverse group of submissions again. And then I realized that it's not about the price, it's never been about the price. These people just want to be able to perform somewhere that's welcoming and get their time, and that's priceless.
What was the hardest thing to deal with in putting together this festival? What was the biggest challenge you had?
It's changed from last year. I received death threats. Last year, I was legit afraid that someone would hurt me. And so I had to make certain changes, like last year I had to veto a show that was totally in the dark because someone threatened to hit me with a cinder block, multiple people threatened to hit me with a cinder block and "finish the job," they said. So I could not have a situation where we put out the lights out. I couldn't have a situation where we put our performers at risk. And none of those cowards showed up.
Where was all the hate coming from? Social media?
Well, a lot of the hate came last year from a Breitbart article. Because Breitbart wrote an article saying that we were charging a higher admission fee for white men (which is illegal) — we didn't do that. When they posted it, we didn't even have a festival yet. We were just taking submissions. So we didn't post our prices yet, and we didn't even know what we were gonna charge people. So the comments went crazy and we actually used them for marketing material. Which is hilarious.
Interesting how fake news has seeped its way into affecting your comedy festival...
Well, no press is bad press. And for us, people saw, “Oh, Breitbart hates you so, we love you!” So it helped us out. A lot of people reached out to us and volunteered their help and volunteered their venues because they didn’t like the hate we were getting.
What are you looking forward to most this festival? Any specific events you are looking forward to?
I’m really looking forward to Friday night’s event at Bar Matchless with our headliner Janeane Garofalo, who I am so excited to have at our festival this year. I am also really excited for a few of our charity shows. I’m really looking forward to SpeakOut LaughOut, a set of abortion stories.
The Cinder Block Comedy festival is running from September 7th - 10th with events in Bushwick & Williamsburg. To see the entire festival schedule and for more information visit their site.
Top photo: Founder Coree Spencer at 2016 Cinder Block Comedy Festival, photographed by Mindy Tucker
2016 Cinder Block Comedy Festival photos courtasy of Mindy Tucker
Other photos via Cinder Block Comedy Festival
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Lianna Remigio is a twenty-year-old Editorial Intern at BUST and studies communications at City College in Harlem, currently living in the Bronx. You can find her on twitter @lillypads_ tweeting out dank memes and political news. In her free time, Lianna is a writer of short stories and essays as well as poems. Originally from Rockland County, her music taste can be described as a cross between a sad suburban, indie kid and a 30-year-old Bronxite. Tune in to WHCR 90.3 FM Mondays from 3 PM to 4PM to hear her talk about trending topics on "The Grey Area".