by Michelle Jokisch Polo | photography by Kevin Huver
Growing up in an ultra-conservative town in West Michigan wasn’t always easy for Eirann Betka-Pope, who identifies as queer and non-binary, but making light of feeling like one of the few queer people in their hometown is what kept them afloat in an isolating environment. Since then, they always knew they wanted career in making people laugh while also changing the world. Today, they have taken their talents as a comic and a teacher to transform the Grand Rapids comedy scene from a homogenous space to one that includes and prioritizes women, LGBTQ+ people and people of color.
Betka-Pope says the first time they used humor was when they were a kid and a stray cat they had been caring for died.
“It was my very first experience dealing with death and comedy, and the way I dealt with it was by creating limericks,” they said. “I remember reading them out loud to my family and everybody laughing and crying.”
Although Betka-Pope did improv while they attended Aquinas College, it wasn’t until several years after they graduated that they decided to turn comedy into a career.
At the time there were only three improv troupes in Grand Rapids: River City, Pop Scholars and No Outlet Improv Troupe. Through No Outlet, Betka-Pope started the Grand Rapids Improv Festival and Comedy Outlet Monday.
“Comedy Outlet Monday is a variety show at the Comedy Project for anybody and everybody who is doing stand up, sketch, improv and they get the opportunity to go on stage and try their set out in front of an audience.”
Comedy in Grand Rapids, according to Betka-Pope, is the second-fastest growing industry in the city, after beer of course.
“The amount of people who are coming to the shows and being exposed to our local comedy community has grown more in the last year than it had in the past six years,” Betka-Pope explained.
They say this is all because of The Comedy Project, Grand Rapids’ first comedy theatre. The Comedy Project, where Betka-Pope works as the theatre manager, features improv, sketch and comedy variety shows as well as a comedy training center. For Betka-Pope, the Comedy Project allows them to create a space where anybody and everybody can learn to be funny, if they are not already.
“Unlike New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, comedy here is very supportive,” they said.
At the start of their comedy career in Grand Rapids, Eirann Betka-Pope contemplated moving to Chicago.
“I knew I could move to Chicago and press the reset button and be a small fish in a big pond, or I could stay here and instead of wishing that something existed, try to make it here for other people who don’t have the means to move to Chicago, or don’t want to move to Chicago and still want to do stuff in Grand Rapids,” Betka-Pope expressed. “I figured I wasn’t the only one and it turns out I wasn’t — there are other people who want to do comedy in Grand Rapids.”
For a long time, the city’s comedy scene has been overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white, but Betka-Pope saw this as an opportunity to foster a space for women and minorities in the comedy world.
“I kept noticing there weren’t a lot of female stand-ups, or spaces where they felt support in the stand-up world and so I called up my funniest female friends to play together at the Grand Rapids Improv festival and we read our old diaries and our old notebooks to the audience and we improvised and after that we decided we wanted to keep doing it,” Betka-Pope explained.
After the Grand Rapids Improv Festival in 2015, with fellow comedians Katie Fahey, Kristin Hirsch, and Jenna Pope, Betka-Pope started an all-female comedy collective called Funny Girls.
Today, Funny Girls hosts weekly rehearsals that are always open to the larger public with no requirement for past experience but a willingness to use comedy seriously. Funny Girls has performed in 28 different shows since its inception. For 2020, Betka-Pope has big plans for the all-female collective.
“We want to actively figure out how to continue to co-create a group that is a more diverse and representative group that includes people of color and nonbinary individuals,” Betka-Pope added.
Historically, Betka-Pope says comedy has always been about turning a mirror on society. They say it’s a way to help society at large figure out how to be a better person, neighbor, leader or community member.
“It’s not pointing a finger and saying you are doing something wrong,” they said. “It’s mimicking what’s wrong and having somebody discover it for themselves or laugh at it.”
And once they laugh at it, says Betka Pope, they are thinking more about it.
This article appeared in the April 2020 edition of Women’s LifeStyle Magazine. Click here to read the full edition.