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‘Big Ugly’ Comedy, on Campus and Beyond

By Matthew McMahan

For the past year, four Emerson College students have spearheaded something called The Big Ugly Show, an uncommon and unforgettable collection of stand-up events, including students, faculty, and professional comedians from Boston and Los Angeles. 

According to Benjamin Zieper ‘21, who formed The Big Ugly Show with David Potashnik ’21, Jessica Apatow ’21, and Aaron Axelrod ’21, the original concept behind The Big Ugly Show was “to give students a chance to perform unique forms of comedy alongside working Boston comics. We wanted to create pop-up shows with varying themes every time, to deviate from the standard sketch or improv show.” 

mande photo in ice cream cone outline
All posters designed by Natalie Bartlett ’20.

Potashnik credits the genesis of the idea to a talk given by Iliza Shlesinger ’05 to Comedic Arts students last fall.

“I asked how many years of the open mic circuit she had to go through before she started noticing opportunities for herself,” Potashnik said. “She and her own friends just started their own shows and traded spots with each other. We originally were going to just do dorm shows, but after that talk we just figured we might as well make it real.” 

blue figure eating ice cream sundae

From there, the show and the concept just got bigger and bigger. After initially starting out with 30 students in a dorm room, last spring they performed a late-night show with special guest President Lee Pelton in front of a sold-out crowd. Building on this growth, these entrepreneurs continued to take risks, creating events held at unorthodox locations.

Over the summer, the Big Ugly producers hosted The Big Ugly Show with Sprinkles, held at the Ample Hills Creamery, an ice cream shop in Los Angeles. There, the students hosted a pop-up stand-up show with local talent, including Beth Stellings, Joe Mande, Whitmer Thomas, Ayo Edebiri, Addie Weyrich, and Caleb Pitts. 

The process of setting up the show in LA, according to Apatow, was not unlike producing stand-up in Boston. Because Potashnik worked part-time at the shop, it was easy to secure a venue. After that, the team needed to accrue some talent.

“We started to message tons of comics who were LA-based and that we looked up to, respected, or had met during our time there,” says Apatow. “Lots of people didn’t respond, some did positively but denied, and then some [said] yes. We were extremely lucky with the amount of comics that wanted to be a part of our show and we ended up working with professionals.” 

purple figure in gown

Shortly thereafter, the Big Ugly producers were at it again in Boston, hosting The Big Ugly Fashion Show at Ouimillie in Beacon Hill.

“We walked around Beacon Hill asking around to see where we could hold a show,” said Apatow.

Zieper added they must have asked more than 50 local businesses before the fashion store agreed to collaborate. From there, they got some of Boston’s most highly-regarded comedians to perform, including Tooky Kavanagh, Sam Ike, Janet MacNamara, Tom O’Shea, Patrick Doran, and Ryan Ellington.

Apatow said that “going outside the bounds of Emerson has really taught me that if you work hard and connect with people, you can make what you want happen. People will respect what you do if you are passionate.  Everything is about trial and error and trying new ideas.”

Zieper agreed, adding “We’re very proud of the work ethic having our own show has forced us to have. We get to create potential business prospects in a fun and creative way.”

For Potashnik, the goals for the show remain large:

“I hope in the future, we start having a reputation amongst not only the local comedy community, but as a show that touring comics want to be on.”

Matthew McMahan is assistant director of the Comedic Arts program.

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