INSIDE JOKES: How a prison comedy program featuring Fred Armisen has helped transform inmates' lives.

AuthorLieberman, Hallie

Editor's note: This story was conceived, assigned, and completed well before the coronavirus pandemic. The program it describes was suspended prior to the outbreak. Nevertheless, the story remains relevant as an account of how comedy can provide not just an escape but an opportunity for personal growth.

"I'm going to cast thy ass on the floor with my fist," says inmate Benjamin Hall as he sits next to Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen in a cramped classroom in a Portland, Oregon, prison, workshopping his sketch. In the scene, a character named Dave is threatening to fight a wizard who won't let him sit at a table in the prison mess hall.

The dozen or so inmates in the audience erupt in laughter.

"You must yield to my spell," demands another inmate, who is playing the wizard.

Hall clenches his fist and jabs a left hook into his script, simulating a punch, then leans back into his beige plastic chair, wiping his forehead.

"There might be a nicer ending than with you just punching him," says Armisen affably The star of Portlandia, Los Espookys, and Documentary Now! is clad in thick-rimmed black glasses, black jeans, and a grey hoodie with a visitor badge dangling from it. The inmate-actor, wearing a blue sweatshirt and blue pants with "inmate" stamped on them, nods in agreement.

"And it's not even a moral thing," Armisen adds. "It's just for the fun of watching. What you want to see at the end of this is that you have a change in character."

Mark Arnold, a bald, forty-seven-year-old inmate, raises his hand. Armisen calls on him. "It's a satire on how prison actually is," Arnold explains. "In prison, you actually have gang tables and places where people can't sit, so it's real."

It's real, all right. The comedy school program began operating at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland in 2018 as part of the Columbia River Creative Initiatives, a series of artist-run programs offered at the prison. It has brought in comedians including Armisen, an SNL cast member from 2002 to 2013, and led to an ongoing open-mic comedy and variety show at the prison.

The comedy school was founded by Harrell Fletcher, a professor of art and social practice at Portland State University, and co-created by Roshani Thakore, an artist and student in the university's art and social practice MFA program. It is possibly the only such venture teaching sketch and stand-up comedy in a U.S. prison. (Other prisons, including Dell'Arte's prison arts program at California's Pelican Bay State Prison, offer classes in play production, including comedies.)

Starting a comedy program in prison is risky. Comedy is subversive. It's dangerous. And prison officials as a group are not known for their keen sense of humor.

"The idea of teaching stand-up comedy in prison wouldn't even occur to me, because I can't imagine how you could do it with the level of censoring in most prisons," says Keramet Reiter, a professor of criminology and law at University of California, Irvine. "I often talk about how anything you think is a First Amendment right is probably just not allowed in prison."

Yet Reiter thinks comedy in prison is a good idea. "I've looked a lot at how people survived decades in solitary confinement," she says. "The people who survive find ways to keep their mind busy often by doing beautiful drawings or writing poetry or learning a new...

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