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Abby Feldman and the co-existence of funny and unfunny

Jul 8, 2020
Originally published on July 8, 2020 5:10 pm

Abby Feldman's life has come full circle. After a comedy career that has taken her from Manhattan to Brazil to just within reach of the dark bat wings of the Kremlin, she's now waiting out the coronavirus pandemic in her childhood bedroom in Pittsford. Where her mother, she says, "keeps my supply of avocados replenished."

"It took a pandemic to appreciate this small town that I come from."

As it turns out, not only have avocados survived COVID-19 in Rochester, but comedy has as well. Feldman has a show Wednesday at Comedy @ The Carlson, which has resumed indoor performances. It's a gig in an industry that has been largely shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.

And it is work for a comedian whose heading-for-viral satirical piece highlighting the relationship between white supremacy and the police was removed from TikTok because it violated the video-sharing network's community guidelines.

That full circle has been a rather dizzying trip. Earlier this year, she was contacted by comedian Jim Gaffigan, who knew she had spent some time in Argentina, and asked if she knew of an English-speaking comedian who could open some shows for him there. "And I was like, 'I can!' " she says. "I had no idea when his tour was. I looked at his schedule and it was 10 days away."

Nevertheless, she went, and even took an opportunity to do a Spanish-speaking gig on her first night there. But COVID-19 had already arrived. "It just became apparent that it was getting very serious, and the following day Jim's people called me to tell me the show was canceled," she says. "And then I got on one of the last flights out of Argentina."

Her plan was to head to Los Angeles and poke around for opportunities in acting or writing. But first, she stopped in Rochester to visit the folks. And it was then that the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic hit here as well. So here she remains, waiting it out. And writing material that she hopes is not only funny, but maybe a little edgy.

Comedy is a minefield that Feldman has been working in for a while now. She started a Broadcast Journalism Club at Pittsford Sutherland High School. She was crowned Miss Monroe County Teen at about the same time she was interning at some local radio and TV stations, including WXXI. She went to Argentina on a high-school exchange program, studied broadcast journalism at Syracuse University and landed a Fulbright scholarship to make a documentary on alternative ways of treating mental illness. 

She went to New York City and studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, and began doing stand-up comedy. Fluent in Spanish, she took her comedy on the road. To Argentina, falling in and out of love with Argentine guys in between gigs.

But the internet has been her true path into the biz. Will Ferrell's Funny or Die web channel ran her series "History vs. Herstory." She created an acclaimed comedic advice video blog, "Love Abby."

She had a role on a mockumentary series, "Gringolandia," about a Chilean immigrant in New York. It was named best comedy at the 2014 Los Angeles Web Fest, and was only the second web series to be made available on Netflix's digital streaming platform.

More recently, she wrote for Netflix's "The Fix," a panel show where comedians such as Jimmy Carr and D.L. Hughley attempted to solve global issues through humor. And she worked on an episode of the Adult Swim network's "Soft Focus with Jena Friedman," which combines satirical skits with reporting on difficult issues such as rape. But like many shows, it's not in production as we wait out COVID-19.

"Comedy is often social commentary," Feldman says. "I don't think they're mutually exclusive."

So one idea she brought to "The Fix" is how eating vegan -- and she is one -- is a great way to reduce industrial farming, a key contributor to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. "One solution I pitched was you don't kill the animal," she says. "You just slice little bits off of them, and sew them back up. And you can still eat meat, but you don't have to kill as many animals."

It's a joke, OK?

This farcical eye was sharpened by her 1½ years as a correspondent with "Redacted Tonight." Modeled after "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," its weekly half-hour of political satire is written and produced in Washington, D.C., but remains controversial because it is funded by the Russian government.

"It really wasn't about where the funding for the show was coming from for me," she says, stepping lightly around the issue, although her own contributions didn't seem political. It depends on how you feel about genetically modified organisms. GMO corn, she said in one of her pieces, is so omnipresent in our diets that "burgers are beef-flavored corn patties." And most GMO corn, she asserted, contains so much toxin that it makes insects explode when they eat it.

A similar toxic explosion was looming as Feldman left "Redacted Tonight" at the end of 2015. Fortuitous timing, she admits, with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump emerging as an inconceivable reality. "That would have been very weird, to be there at that time," she says.

Instead, there was time well-spent in India, meditating at an ashram. And doing a few comedy gigs on the side in Mumbai.

"I'm so turned off, I'm so repulsed by so much of what's going on politically, that, you know, I really don't want to touch it," Feldman says. "That being said, I have been making a lot of content lately, and I just kind of tackle those issues that I feel most passionate about, and that I feel need to be spoken about."

In these amazing times, her show is called "Life is Amazing," a blend of stand-up comedy and songs. And among the issues she feels most passionate about is the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Is there humor in a virus that has killed more than half a million people worldwide in just a few months?

"Sometimes it's not pretty, sometimes you're like, 'Well, ugh, that was not enjoyable.' " Feldman concedes. "Sometimes I want to watch comedy and totally feel like it's totally just silly and mindless, it's just gonna make me laugh. And there are other times where I want to be enlightened, and there's other times when I want it to be both. And my favorite comedians do both."

So comedy is in the eye of the beholder. And the gatekeeper. TikTok has been criticized as a platform for racist postings, yet Feldman's TV commercial parody on police brutality was not to be tolerated. The conflict on our streets between protesters and police and Black Lives Matter is another issue that works its way into "Life is Amazing."

"I think this is a systemic issue," Feldman says. "I think we have to put a lot of energy and a lot of funds and a lot of resources and time towards ameliorating our criminal justice system, and really rethinking the root causes of crime and police brutality, of our entire prison system. And I'm not saying I'm the person to do all of that."

So, who… me? Andrew Cuomo?

"I am a comedian, you know, I used to be a journalist, God bless you. I don't envy anyone who has to be a journalist right now, or anyone who has to be a politician. But the people who are journalists, and the people who are politicians, and the people who are legislators, have chosen to do that, and it is their responsibility to do so to the best of their ability and to serve and protect the public. My job is to observe what I see and speak the truth and hopefully to make people laugh. I mean, definitely that's my main goal, to make people laugh. But right up there with that is to say something truthful and meaningful."

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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