Aron Woldeslassie’s journey in comedy took off with satirical writing in local newspapers and his political commentary on the live monthly comedy show, “Minnesota Tonight.”
Woldeslassie wrote jokes and monologues for fellow comedians on the show, exploring Minnesota politics and culture. As “Minnesota Tonight” gained traction and popularity (shows were posted to YouTube), it transitioned to a live stage show hosted at Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre.
The performances at Brave New Workshop featured interviews with politicians and live music. Woldelassie became well-versed in writing jokes for diverse voices, but he eventually decided to step onto the stage and showcase his own material.
However, he vividly remembers the challenges of their last show at Brave New Workshop during the 2016 election when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. The team of comedians had to deliver jokes while anxiously watching the news unfold.
“That’s easily the worst show of my entire life,” Woldeslassie said, still amused by the memory. “It’s like if you want to do terrible comedy, watch everybody get nervous about the future of our nation and try to keep the room up. It was bad.”
Woldelassie’s comedic material reflects his experiences as a child of Eritrean immigrants, the complexities of how his Blackness is perceived, and the ever-changing political climate.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does your cultural background and personal experiences shape your comedic style and material?
I come from a place that was so writing heavy. So, my work tends to reflect that. A comment that I get a lot about about my stand-up is that there isn’t any fat. I just go from joke to joke, while at the same time maintaining a premise. That’s just like a writing thing that I picked up from “Minnesota Tonight” that the best thing you can do is just get there.
Like if you need to explain an idea, use a joke to explain it, and then keep going. In terms of my personal experiences, there are things about me that are inherently different from other people. The same is true for everyone really. I’m sure there are things about you that are different from everyone.
For me, the things that I think I identify and talk about is the oddities or trappings of race in terms of how I’m like perceived or identified, because a lot of times, people will see me and they’re like, “Oh, hey, like, you’re a very silly Black man. We’re not used to that.”
And often, I’ll tell jokes about that and things about race, and I’m like, that doesn’t really qualify, or that doesn’t fully encapsulate how a human being is and like, those little silly misgivings, but also at the same time, I’m also the children of immigrants.
So, I can talk about that experience a lot of what it’s like to have African parents and technically be African, and the oddities that is being Eritrean in America right now. Something I just talked about yesterday was what’s great about being Eritrean is that we’ve got all this great, Eritrean food. But because we were also colonized by Italy, we also have Italian food.
And a lot of times, I forget that Italians make Italian food because I’m just so used to Eretrians making Italian food. It’s funny on set, or it’s funny when I’m on stage.
Does representation matter in comedy? What role do you think local comedians play in bringing diverse perspectives?
Absolutely. What’s really interesting about growing up in Minnesota is that we do get a very homogeneous perspective and people think, “Oh this is a place full of white overweight Midwesterners who are very overly polite.”
There’s a reason it’s super important that we have interesting and diverse voices, because by doing what we do, we’re identifying what Minnesota actually is versus the stereotype. The idea that we’re just a bunch of Midwesterners that are going, “Don’t cha know,” is pretty hacked, and when you go to a comedy club, and you see so many different kinds of people doing the same thing, you can recognize that that concept isn’t true.
People don’t really talk about this, but Minnesota is very much a writing town and because of that audiences really enjoy interesting and esoteric ideas. And honestly, something you’ll notice when you’re on stage is that a lot of audiences, they will give you the chance to discuss something different, or odd or unheard of before. And because of that, a lot of our diverse voices will get a chance to talk about things that aren’t fully understood by the layman, especially in the cities.
A lot of different types of identities get recognized and explored in the Twin Cities comedy scene. It also keeps things fresh. I’m not going to say that the white male comedian is a bad thing because it’s definitely not. But if you see if you go to a show and you see five white guys, you’re probably gonna get bored by the second white guy. Not because they’re bad or anything, but their experiences are going to run over each other. And you’re gonna be like, “Yeah, I heard the other guy talk about this. You guys have to just try a little bit harder, in terms of making this lineup a little bit more interesting.”
So, yeah, we enable the scene to stay fresh and interesting, while at the same time, identifying how diverse the cities are.
Have you encountered any unique challenges or opportunities as a comedian of color in the industry? How do you navigate those experiences?
Yeah, a very small challenge is that sometimes you will have to run into reality that sometimes you’ll be in a space just full of white people. And comedians or producers will think that you’re only there because you are the person of color. Like tokenism does exist.
It’s absolutely not ideal. And if you’re doing the work, it shouldn’t matter as much because if somebody looks at me and goes, “Oh, you’re only here because you’re a Black guy,” and I destroy on stage, they’re gonna know otherwise. They’re gonna realize that what they thought was wrong. Walking into a room and immediately encountering that, doesn’t feel great.
But at the same time, because of the recognition, a lot of the diverse groups in the Twin Cities comedy scene intentionally work together to help one another. Black comics tend to help each other. Native American comics absolutely help each other. Gay comics absolutely help each other. Female comics definitely protect one another, because just like the music scene, the Twin Cities comedy scene is really rough on women. So, they work really hard to work on that to protect one another.
What do you hope to see in Minnesota’s comedy scene moving forward?
Honestly, I’d like to see more national recognition. I’ve been to a few other comedy scenes. I think what we have here is a really interesting blend, both in terms of performers as well as our audiences. And like I mentioned, we’re also very much a writing town. Our comedians do know how to write a punchline on a premise really, really well.
I’d like for people from outside of the scene to think of the Twin Cities as more than just flyover country. I’d like for people to think, “Oh, hey, like, there are two great comedy hubs in the Midwest: Chicago and Minneapolis.” That would feel amazing, because it’s not just stand-up is really good here. We also have a really great theater and improv scene.
Our improv and our theater scene also do a really great job at lending help to the stand-up scene, both in terms of infrastructure, but at the same time, a lot of great stand-ups who are working right now either got training in improv or were former improvisers who decided to do stand-up.