Kenya Elan Finds The Humor In Life’s Frustrations
Written by Vocalo Radio on October 12, 2023
Kenya Elan is a comedian and writer whose brand of humor channels the exasperations of everyday life and seeks to turn discomfort into laughter. Often, she even encourages her audience to scream with her.
Elan, who now calls Humboldt Park home, had an upbringing in both the suburbs of Chicago and Hyde Park. Growing up as a theater kid, Elan and always wanted to be a writer and director, something more behind the scenes. It was not until years later, about two months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, that her journey into the spotlight as a comedian started. She performed at open mic shows, and took an online class offered by Lincoln Lodge called Femme Com, which offers female and non-binary people the opportunity to try out comedy.
“I got to see how much of an outlet it could be for the frustration that I was having,” she remarked. “All those different things that were going on, and just enabled my ability to process that.”
Between the intersections of diversity and urban life, Elan’s comedic voice resonates with the everyday frustrations of being a person in the world, large and small. She relates working out her comedy sets to therapy, digging deep into her life, but finding a way to find light in all situations. As a cast member at Lincoln Lodge, she feels she has found encouragement and support to continue discovering her comedic style.
“Being given the opportunity to sort of just play around and meet a bunch of really amazing people that also share the same… intense nerdiness towards all of this and towards making people laugh, has been amazing,” she said. “It’s been amazing to find my people, in a sense.”
Elan’s connection to Chicago and its diverse opportunities to create has kept her in the city, and she does not plan to leave anytime soon. For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Kenya Elan discusses how she finds humor in unexpected places, plus making a podcast about failures, splitting time growing up between Hyde Park and the suburbs, and her love for Humboldt Park.
What is your comedy like?
I feel like my comedy is very much like feelings… It’s rooted in frustration. It’s rooted in frustration with the world and what’s happening. Taking the greater sort of overarching issues that are happening, and then boiling it down to like, “Okay, well… this is how it’s affecting me and my life. And how is it affecting your life? Because I’m currently feeling like I want to scream. Anybody else in the room want to scream?” Which is something I do regularly, make crowds do, is just scream. It’s a lot of release. I feel like my comedy is based in release, because I feel like once you let it out, you can move forward in some sort of way. You can take the next steps.
Getting a room… I think my favorite thing to do is to make a room really uncomfortable, and then drop something that … everyone’s like, “Oh, thank God.” Laughter is always the release, it gets something out of there. I mean, if anything, you’re just breathing deeper for a few more seconds than you usually would!
What neighborhood do you live in?
I’m in Humboldt Park, currently. I’ve been there for like the last seven, eight years. Truly one of my favorite places to live, just honestly the energy and just people outside making food and music and just enjoying life. I feel like I’ve lived in other neighborhoods, and it’s just sort of muted and quiet, which is nice, too. And we definitely have those moments, but the energy has always been a draw for me. I’m originally from the suburbs. My mom was out in Lombard, my dad was down in Hyde Park growing up. So a combination. 53rd and Blackstone, shout out! My dad would tell every person, ever, that he ever met exactly his cross-streets. That will forever be burned in my brain, I should get it tattooed on my body! For real. I would say, growing up in Hyde Park at that time, I mean, it’s very different from now. It was an awesome experience, especially having the hybrid of the two, being out in the suburbs and then coming into Hyde Park and having it be so, so much Black life and so many different kinds of Black life all in one space. I was a theater kid and all of that, but I was more so, I wanted to direct. I wanted to direct plays. I was gonna, my plan was to be writer-director, behind the scenes, kind of person. I definitely wanted to be in the arts in some capacity. I was that kid in class that was constantly questioning the teacher. I think I was more so annoying than, I wasn’t like a class clown. I was known to swear a lot. That was my thing. If anybody was gonna drop an F-bomb in class, it was gonna be me. And I didn’t really ever get in trouble for it, because I guess it was warranted!
How did you get into comedy?
I started doing comedy before, right before. Like two months before COVID hit, I did my first
open mics. And I was like, “Okay, this is a thing.” During pandemic, the Lincoln Lodge started offering online classes. So I took a comedy, it’s called Femme Com. It’s for female, non-binary comedians, for people to try comedy and see how they like it. And I got to see how much of an outlet it could be for the frustration that I was having, all those different things that were going on, and just enabled my ability to process that and sort of immediately put it out and get a response, and see if other people felt the same way that I did, whether it was with laughter or just whatever emotions that it would would evoke. It was something that kind of stuck with me. From there. I started doing shows in the park, I started a show called “It Will Be Okay” with a good friend of mine, Holmes. Everyone was so separated and isolated, and obviously, for reasons, but we’ve tried to find ways to safely sort of bring people together and be comfortable in their space and with who they are, and just also process how we were feeling at the time.
And so now I’m a cast member here at the Lincoln Lodge, I have a podcast here called “Failure.” I do interviews with comedians, other artists, musicians, activists, journalists, one, talking about kind of like how they’ve gotten to their current state of life. Career fails to dating fails to just like, “I fell down on the street one time.” Just different things that have happened to them that are just like, that you had to pick yourself back up from and learn from. And also just, as individuals, what we’ve had to bump up against in trying to make our dreams or just life happen. My focus is always just processing what’s happening in the world, because there’s a lot. There’s a lot happening. And I know I’m not the only one feeling insane.
‘What kind of jokes do you tell?‘What kind of jokes do you tell?
I think having a moment to just find funny things, or find moments of humor in things that are not funny, is honestly the most rewarding thing. I don’t want to say that nothing’s off the table. There are definitely things that are off the table to sort of poke at. But at the same time, too … that’s how life goes. That’s how you sort of move forward, you have to find something in there, whether someone’s passing, to losing a job to whatever. There’s going to be weird, awkward moments that pop up, and weird little details in life that it’s like, “Okay, yeah, my boss fired me. But his fly was down the whole time. And he didn’t know!” You know what I mean? Something like that, like, “He came from the bathroom and there was toilet paper on his shoe, and he didn’t realize it. And now I’m, even though I’m fired, I win.” That kind of thing!
A friend of mine was [on my] back porch, and they were really upset. They had just gone through some major stuff and they were crying, and they were going through it. And all of a sudden, in the middle of their tears or whatever, we both sort of look up and see that my neighbor is outside with his son, and they both got their shirts off just doing like, just like flexing at each other. You know what I mean? It was just like, “Is this going on the same …? Is this happening the whole time?” Because, like, everyone’s living life at — I mean, we’re all here on the planet together, right? But everyone’s lives are just so, going in a million different directions. And so it’s just like, I don’t know, it’s just funny. I feel like you start as a comic, you start sort of just looking outside and being like, “What can I comment on and poke fun at?” And then you ultimately have to come back to yourself at some point and be like, “Okay, well, what’s in here that I need to work through?” It is a little bit like therapy. Yeah, they’re like therapy sessions, I guess.
So to be a cast member [at the Lincoln Lodge], they saw something in me that they’re willing to invest in. And I mean, that’s a huge compliment. Whenever anyone’s making any sort of art, you’re just like, “Am I crazy? Am I onto something? Or… should I stop?” I think everyone’s just trying to wait for someone to tell them, “Just stop.” And so it’s nice to have the encouragement of like, “No, keep going.” And here’s a space and an opportunity to be paid for your work, have your efforts be appreciated, and given the time to, once again, figure it out. There’s a lot of different ways that your career can go in comedy, there’s no one way to do it. Being given the opportunity to sort of just play around and meet a bunch of really amazing people that also share the same nerdy, intense nerdiness towards all of this and towards making people laugh, has been amazing. It’s been amazing to find my people, in a sense.
What’s kept you here, in Chicago?
I feel like I’ve always been very proud of the city and proud to be from here. I’ve always been obsessed with being here, the different neighborhoods just getting to understand the different parts of it, all of that. And I feel like there’s so much happening here all the time. And there’s just such a great opportunity to create and, I don’t know, figure out who you are, in a realer way. I don’t know, it’s just a more honest way. In a more rooted, grounded way.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Meija
Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Morgan Ciocca
Written introduction by Blake Hall
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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