The greatest philosophers have long pondered over the evolutionary purpose of comedy. Theories about necessary cognitive shifts from serious to playful have emerged, as well as a theory about it being a defense mechanism for depression. Others say it is merely to inflate the ego, and making fun makes us feel superior to others.
While comedy’s evolutionary purpose may be speculatory, its benefits are shared by the whole of society. For comedian Kenny Ortega, he says the purpose of comedy is simple … it’s to make people laugh.
Ortega (winner of Season 4 of Last Comix Standing) wasn’t always into comedy. In fact, his brother worked on the Saturday Night Live set and while he would visit him there, he didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until comedy played a truly healing place in his life that he began to understand its value.
After losing both his brother and father in 1995, things seemed pretty bleak. Ortega was not in a good place emotionally. But then one night, his friends dragged him to a local watering hole where there was stand-up comedy going on. The comedians “started to make me feel better,” says Ortega. “And I was like, ‘I want to try that.’”
And that’s been his sole mission ever since. To make people feel better. To make people laugh. Ortega performed in Connecticut last November, to do just that. He says he has been to Connecticut many times. “I love Connecticut,” he says. “Connecticut people come out to laugh.”
The Comedy Craft Beer Tour that sponsored the event at Still Hill Brewery, has been doing shows in Connecticut for over 3 years and Ortega loves being a part of it.
Ortega’s approach, his style if you will, does not carry a political agenda. He does not lean on stereotypes of being Latino either. “Even though I am proud, I am very proud to be Puerto Rican,” Ortega explains, “I am a comedian first. Instead of people thinking of me as a Puerto Rican comedian, I want them to think of me as a comedian that just happens to be Puerto Rican.”
He explains it like this: “When you start to do the race jokes you put yourself in a box. I don’t want to be put in a box. … It’s important for me that the audience laughs, but it’s more important to me that they laugh together.”
Being labeled, or “put in a box”, as a comedian can limit your audience. Isolate them even. Ortega learned this early on. He says when he first started out he would do shows where they would require that you bring people. So he would bring friends and family who knew him and would laugh at all his jokes. He eventually graduated to doing shows where he wasn’t required to bring people, and he experienced bombing for the first time ever.
“After that, I didn’t want to do comedy anymore,” he admits. “But then I just realized I had to explain my jokes to the audience. Like when I talk about growing up on government cheese, and the block of cheese being so big you can’t even slice it with a knife, I have to explain that in a way that the whole audience can understand the humor in it, not just the other Latinos that grew up on government cheese.”
It’s not like he doesn’t talk about being Puerto Rican, or use race-based comedy, it’s that he uses it in a way to get the audience to understand what it is to be Latino. To understand what it is to be Kenny Ortega and to see the humor in his everyday life. No matter what shoes he has walked in and no matter what shoes the audience has walked in, he finds a way for them to walk together for a short time, at least while he is on stage.
“We did a show not too long ago,” recalls Ortega, “and it was a Latino show, and one of the comedians of the show was like, ‘The audience is white.’ And I was like, ‘What did you expect?’ And he was like, ‘Latinos.’ And I was like, ‘No, you’re the Latino. They came to see the Latino show, the audience doesn’t have to be Latino.’ … And this is a big thing for me: you should be able to perform anywhere.”
And that’s what makes Ortega universally funny. He walks the audience through his comedy where being a Latino doesn’t become an inside joke, it becomes an explanation, an understanding and a way for the entire audience to laugh at the absurd nature of things … together.