One of the stand-out features of the Whangārei Fringe Festival is Laura Yakas and her show Miss Anthropy – ‘a pageant for the people-averse.’ The professor and hobby singer talks to Capsule about turning world pain into comedy and why comedy can be so healing.
Like so many good creative journeys, Laura Yakas’ one begins with a divorce. “The first song I ever wrote was my divorce song – it was called ‘My Unwedding Song’, and it was a silly song about how I should have waited until my frontal lobe was formed until I got married,” Laura laughs. “I made a silly observation, I wrote a silly song and I sung it at my divorce party – and it was really healing.”
Laura had long been a fan of not only comedy itself, but comedy as a way to get a message across. As a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work (she works remotely from Whangārei), Laura has long been including educational excerpts of stand-up comedy in her classes. But it was after ‘My Unwedding Song’ that she realised she also had the skill of writing comedic songs – and that they were also a great way of making an audience both laugh and think. That led to a successful YouTube channel, now with over 150 videos, and then eventually her first one-woman stand-up comedy musical show at the Whangārei Fringe Festival in 2020.
“I charged $5, because I was like, ‘Well, I’m not a real artist… I’m a professor! And I’m funny, and an excellent singer, don’t get me wrong – but there’s a difference between being all of those things and being able to deliver an hour-long stand-up comedy.’”
The show was Slut Songs – “about non-monogamy… and horniness!” – and it did very well, with Laura also taking it to Auckland’s Fringe Festival earlier this year. And now, for this year’s Whangārei Fringe Festival she’s bringing out her new show Miss Anthropy, “a satirical pageant, where instead of competing for ‘most conventionally beautiful’, contestants compete for ‘most articulately and comedically misanthropic.”
“What I usually do when I want to create a show is I think back through my very vast repertoire of songs and I’ll see if there’s a theme, and then once I have the theme, the rest of the song writing comes quite easily.”
“Some of my funniest songs are about being desperate, and horny, and a slut – and I started there, but then the show became a lot more than that,” she laughs. “I do write a lot of dark, sad songs – but that’s not what I want to perform. I want people in the audience to be laughing, not waving a lighter in the air and crying. I’m not Jeff Buckley singing Hallelujah! I can be vulnerable – but with comedy, it’s on my terms.”
Social justice had interested Laura as a kid, and she says she found it the way most people involved in the field do. “It was a combination of witnessing the world with an intelligent and observant eye, but also experiencing oppression myself,” she says. “It’s hard not to notice it when you’re being targeted, and growing up neurodivergent and also queer, there were multiple ways I was targeted by the systems of oppression in our world.”
It was discovering the subject of anthropology later on that took that interest to the next level. “I grew up in Dargaville – there was no child in Dargaville growing up in the 1990s that knew what anthropology was, I’d be willing to stake my life on that,” Laura says, pointing out that the topic showed her that so many of the hierarchies that controlled the world had literally been invented (or “socially constructed” as anthropologists would say) along the way. “Anthropology helped me understand the world and the more you can understand the world, the easier it is to navigate it.”
One of the aspects Laura teaches about is “weltschmerz” the German (of course) word that translates as “world pain. “I am a very sensitive person, so that feeling of ‘world pain’ is, for me, very real. But we live in a culture where there’s no real way to talk about that other than to say ‘well, you have a mental illness!’ And this can be invalidating – it made me believe the problem was me, when the problem was that the world had harmed me.”
Laura says that while embracing student’s emotional reactions to the world was less common while she was studying, it is becoming more common today. Gen Z are incredibly switched on to the world around them and are often going through the emotional wringer as they look to inherit a world balanced on a climate crisis, war and pandemic, as well as long-term systemic injustices.
“When I was studying, at that time it was not considered the professor’s responsibility to take care of the emotional health of their students,” Laura says. “The problem with that is that you teach people painful facts about the world – you assign them a book on slavery, you assign them a book on the Holocaust – and that’s the point of education, in particular the Social Sciences. But there has to be a recognition of what’s called ‘vicarious trauma’ – the fact that there will be grief, sadness, anger, as students process the content.”
“So these days, it’s becoming more common to invite in that awareness and create a safe space to discuss the emotional impacts of learning about our world. And the best way to heal from collective traumas is collectively.”
She applies this same principle to her show Miss Anthropy. “I’m not the first person to say this, but humour is healing, comedy is unifying. When I hear something that makes me both laugh and feel seen, and I’m in a room full of people who are feeling the same way, it’s magical.”