MDC Takes the Stage for ZooDystopia

By FINNE MURPHY

MICHAEL O’HARA
Students perform “Panda Porn” with Middlebury Discount Comedy.

At 4:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, Proctor Lounge is not exactly a raucous venue. I was sitting in my usual manner — quiet repose and decided neutrality — as I waited to speak with Shannon Gibbs ’18. When she arrived, joined by Greg Swartz ’17.5, the atmosphere of the room shifted. A few minutes later, Peter Lindholm ’17.5 hurried in, and soon their animated and eager voices filled the lounge as they told me about Middlebury Discount Comedy’s (MDC) upcoming show — ZooDystopia — which ran with free admission in the Hepburn Zoo from Feb. 23-24.

I began, after admitting my near-ignorance of the show, by asking them how MDC got started.

“I started [MDC] because I saw a need,” Gibbs, the founder and current president of the troupe, said. “There were only improv groups on campus. [The nature of sketch comedy] brings a lot of intentionality to the work. We know what we’re saying when we say it, rather than improv groups who come up with it on the spot.”

“Every member of the group serves as a writer, actor, director, collaborator,” Gibbs went on, alluding to the fact that everyone in the fifteen-person troupe dabbles in at least one or two areas of the production.

“One thing we pride ourselves on,” Gibbs said, “is shedding a light on … and projecting the Middlebury community back at itself so that we can all laugh at it. We also have political sketches, feminist sketches, lots of social commentary [and] religious satire.”

Having heard and read a little bit about the troupe (I said I was near-ignorant), I knew MDC often toyed with in the audiences’ comfort-levels during their shows — both in their visual and verbal statements. 

“We like to make people feel uncomfortable sometimes,” Gibbs told me.

“Very much,” Swartz jumped in.

“On some level, the whole goal of a comedy show is to get laughs,” Lindholm added. “But the method by which you go about getting laughs is not always the same. Laughter can be an expression of discomfort as well as [an expression of] finding something funny.”

“We like to push boundaries,” Swartz said. “But it can be tough. There are different crowds on campus. People have very different ideas of what is okay and what’s not. People have very different boundaries. You have more [politically correct] culture, and you have people who are against that.”

“One thing we’re trying to do is fuse those two cultures,” Gibbs said, “by talking about big issues in a way that is accessible to the masses … I think this need to feel safe when you want to feel safe is an important new development, but there is a lot to be gained by not feeling comfortable and not feeling safe every once in a while.”

She was probably referring to last spring’s show, “Much Love in this Air,” which was met with some confusion and displeasure due to a number of violent and offensive sketches.

“One thing that we’ve really committed ourselves to [since the Mar. 2016 show] is making sure that it is the best writing that it can be, making sure that the ending of the sketch isn’t unnecessary, isn’t coming from left field, isn’t cheap or easy. [We are] continuing to push the envelope but in ways that exhibit good writing.”

“We’ve found our comedic voice much more in [ZooDystopia],” Lindholm said.

I posed the question of how — or if — MDC knows when their message has successfully been received by their audiences.

“People are laughing,” Lindholm said simply.

“People talk about the shows for a long time after,” Gibbs replied. “That’s something I really like and I think it’s something specific to sketch comedy. I’ve heard football players … discussing the orgasm gap [after our shows].”

“It’s going to hit people in different ways,” Swartz said. “If people are laughing, having a good time, it’s a good environment — then we feel that we’ve done a good job. We’re comfortable with the show so if people like it, talk about it, engage with the material, then that’s positive for us.”

The conversation left me keen to see what they had in store, and I worked to keep an open mind going into the Feb. 24 show in the Hepburn Zoo. 

MICHAEL O’HARA
Liana Barron ’18 sings into her vibrator, exemplifying the peculiarity of MDC.

However, many others were also eager to see the show. By the time I got there well before the doors closed, more than a handful of people were already being turned away because the Zoo was at capacity. 

After waiting in much anticipation, the audience was greeted by Gibbs herself. She gave a series of trigger warnings for sexual content, nudity, references to male sexual underperformance and “turtle dick” — something I and probably most audience members did not think warranted a trigger warning until we were finally forced to see it.

Shortly after, Roger Dai ’20 performed a short stand-up segment on growing up in China “without any talents” and finally realizing his penchant for comedy and joining MDC.

Then began the sketches — 24 bits lasting as long as five minutes or as briefly as a few seconds and covering topics from binge drinking to sexual frustration, from party culture to academic culture.

Last year, MDC garnered attention for their risqué, violent and — to some — unnecessarily disturbing or offensive content. ZooDystopia — while remaining unquestionably out there — took on a goofier tone.

A sketch titled “Up” introduced the audience to one of the most prevalent themes of the show: female sexual dissatisfaction. While Gibbs’s character clearly portrayed her frustration with her partner’s lack of knowledge of female anatomy (at one point she pulls out a large diagram), the show went on to cover the same idea again and again.

In “Les Midds, Part 2: ‘On My Own,’” Liana Barron ’18 sings a parody of a song from “Les Misérables.” After her apparent hook-up leaves for more partying, Barron’s character sings about her vibrator.

By the third sketch covering the theme, “BYOV,” the joke felt overdone, but its bizarreness still drew laughs and looks of demure shock from the audience.

Most of the sketches lampooned Middlebury and its students. “Spring Break in Iraq” cleverly commented on the way Middlebury students tend to spend breaks in hot, sandy locales — only this time, four friends find themselves in a war zone. “Discount Daily,” poked fun at students in the form of a news broadcast, covering topics such as academic stress, the milieu of socio-economic disparity, “biddy” culture and more.

A great deal of the jokes relied on shock-value — something for which MDC is known. In “Les Midds, Part 1: ‘Who Am I,’” Sebastian LaPointe’s ’18 character wakes up and vomits. The unsuspecting audience members sitting in the front, however, were shortly met with a spray of puke when he slapped his hand into the puddle.

“Naked Club” similarly utilized the cast members’ willingness to push the envelope (if only for the sake of pushing the envelope) when they took the stage fully nude — yes, fully. 

The final sketch of the night proved to be the most mystifying. While discussing the ‘team’ dynamic of a recently finished threesome, the characters suddenly change tone and subject. The scene darkens and becomes a parody of the Netflix show Stranger Things.

It, and pretty much every other sketch of the night, left audiences laughing and shifting uncomfortably — but mostly it left us wondering if stranger things had happened on the stage of the Hepburn Zoo.