In a classroom on the second floor of the McCormick Foundation Center, dozens of students gathered for a meeting that, two years ago, would’ve only had a small fraction of the turnout. The group leaders promised to get a bigger space next time.
The students were there to plan for The Blackout, Northwestern University’s late-night comedy show. The group's live show features skits, interviews and even student group performances. Though the first of the three live shows of the school year isn’t until the end of Fall Quarter, students of many years and majors convened at the meeting to discuss possible guests and to plan taped segments. (Since then, The Blackout has booked Boomshaka and singer-songwriter Debbie-Marie Brown.)
“This is the biggest crew that we've had by far, which is incredible,” said Lauren Berkman, Blackout social chair and a taped segment producer. “We have a lot more capability this year and we’ve gotten better status as a club.”
The Blackout’s growth shouldn’t be understated. With participant numbers surging from around 40 last year to this year’s 150, the group has more than tripled its membership. Communication junior and Blackout taped segment producer Max Kliman said the group rose in status from being an unofficial group funded by a Media Arts Grant (a starting grant from the RTVF department) to a B-status group. This new level of status means it's now an official ASG-recognized organization.
“We've gained support from the RTVF department, becoming an official RTVF student group and gaining funding and equipment cage access from the department this year,” Kliman said. “With this increased RTVF status and ASG money, we've been able to acquire better equipment – we've purchased a tripod, lav microphones, and a steadicam as examples – better props and costumes for our content.”
He noted also that the biggest reason the group has gained popularity is due to their visibility around campus and fan base.
“The Blackout has grown from a fun little thing that people may check out every once in a while to a relevant show on campus that people get excited for every quarter,” Kliman said. “Our audience has grown significantly from around 100 per show in 2015 to 225 at our 2016 fall show to over 350 for our 2017 spring show.”
To put this newfound talent to work, The Blackout's leadership announced at the meeting that, for the first time ever, it will host a Quarterly Update, reminiscent of an infamous Saturday Night Live segment. The new segment would be an outlet for more monologue-style jokes and would give more members a chance to get involved in both the acting and production sides of the organization. Avery Powell and Gabi Leibowitz will host the Update, with Emma McCormick, Ross Turkington and Jake Wallack as character guests.
The growth of the crew and new projects aren’t the only major change the organization has seen this year. Communication junior Grace “Graque” Dowling is taking over as host of the live show (from current Medill senior Ryder Chasin), and she hopes to alter it with her voice – which is something she says every host should do.
“For me, this means changing the style of the monologue to be a little bit more stand-up like,” Dowling said in a text. “I love the show’s last season so I’m not looking to radically change the format.”
In addition to logistical changes, Dowling, as a feminist host, wants to make sure The Blackout is always an inclusive space.
“I’m also trying to get a greater range of voices involved in our show, both on- and off-stage,” she said. “I’m interested in getting more women/non-binary/femme people involved. Film and comedy are dominated by men, which often means that the content produced is less inclusive and less funny than it could be.”
New member Sarah Springhorn, a Communication freshman, attended the first few meetings of the year and is eager to get more involved in the organization.
“I think it’s really exciting to be involved in a new group and to have more influence over how the process goes,” she said. “When you join a group that’s been established for, like, 20 years, things are kind of already set in stone.”
Springhorn is currently part of the marketing team, but hopes to try her hand at writing sketches eventually. At The Blackout, there are no limits on the number of teams a member can join and no requirements for experience.
“I was surprised by how collaborative it was,” Springhorn said. “When we went to our first meeting, they were just like, ‘Yeah, just shout out any ideas that you have. We have the set-up for the joke but we need the punchline, so just give your ideas.’”
In The Blackout's meeting, members old and new submitted guest ideas on slips of paper, and some took turns reading out parts of a sketch in progress, with someone doing an impeccable pirate impression and another offering to translate a line into Japanese for comedic effect. The playful atmosphere was balanced by the technical discussions of times to film segments and costume logistics.
There was decidedly no "us versus you" mentality from the group leaders; everyone needed to bring costumes, sign up for assistant directing positions and come with ideas for the show.
“I do really think there's nothing else quite like it that kind of has, like, a hand in like every type of entertainment,” Berkman said. “So I just think anyone looking to get started or [anyone] with a lot of experience can find a place to be really helpful here.”
The Blackout's live show takes place Dec. 2 at 9 p.m. in Harris 107.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to an audience of 350 at The Blackout's spring 2016 show, which is incorrect. It was the spring 2017 show. NBN regrets the error.