It isn’t often that watching late night comedy would be considered preparation for an environmental studies senior capstone project, but that turned out to the case for Belle Brown ‘22.
Regular viewing of John Oliver’s commentary on environmental issues helped inform Brown’s upcoming stand-up comedy set about the absurdities of the Monsanto Company. “Belle decided to do the comedy act as her capstone project as a way of presenting research about policy and politics related to big-agriculture in a format that might be more accessible to people. I just saw a preview, and it is hilarious as well as informative,” said Mary Alice Haddad, John E. Andrus Professor of Government and the faculty supervisor on Brown’s project.
Brown has put together an evening called “Wesleyan Tonight,” a take on the late-night genre, featuring music, comedy sketches, and Brown’s own 20-minute standup routine. The event takes place at 8 p.m., April 7 in WestCo Café.
You might characterize Brown’s efforts as serious fun. Yes, the medium might be comic, but Brown has done her research on a subject she feels passionately about. “These kinds of non-traditional, faculty-supervised capstone projects are a great way for students to culminate their time Wesleyan experience and can fulfill major requirements,” Haddad said.
Like Oliver in his work, Brown started with the facts. By researching dense legal documents and writing an annotated bibliography she learned about the impact of the big agriculture industry. The more she learned, the more horrified she became. Brown reacted the way a lot of people do – with a joke. Sometimes it’s a little easier to digest the crazy stuff, as Brown describes it, when it is couched in humor. “It makes it easier for me to process difficult things if I’m making fun of a horrible agrochemical company,” said Brown, a Virginia resident.
Through an internship working on an urban farm during high school, Brown cultivated a passion for sustainable agriculture. Brown started college thinking that she wanted to work for the government but her interests have changed. “I’ve worked on a bunch of farms all around the country and in Mexico. Most of my educational career has been spent learning about problems in the industrial agriculture industry. Most of my favorite books are about that … it’s a field where a small change can make a big impact,” Brown said.
In her own way, Brown hopes that her act helps people become a bit more conscious about the food they eat and to encourage local agriculture. “I’m always surprised at how little people know about the perils of industrial agriculture. It is something that is so much on my mind because when I go to a grocery store, I feel paralyzed because I’m like, oh this company polluted all the rivers in the world and this company kills one trillion cows a day and it’s all just horrifying. So, yeah, raising awareness is just one goal, but my larger goal would be to revolutionize the global food system and burn down Monsanto,” Brown said.
When Brown first arrived at Wesleyan, using comedy to make a larger point might not have been in the cards. She had an inauspicious beginning in the campus comedy scene after transferring from Emory University her sophomore year. “I got rejected from all the improv groups,” she said. “But stand-up is no cut.”
She started attending comedy showcases on campus and was drawn to the energy and openness of the environment. She started working on her own material, found a unique voice, and perhaps most importantly, fell in with a group of likeminded comedians. “It has been so fun when we are having a show to see new stand-ups come in and perform their material. Everyone is nervous and jittery before the show and then every single time they all kill it and I’m so proud of them,” Brown said.
For “Wesleyan Tonight,” Brown has assembled a group of 18 writers and performers to create the show. At a series of meetings at her place – and one sleepover – the team has come up with material and are now getting ready for a four-camera shoot that will take place during the performance. “I very much trust the people I am writing with, so I’m excited to see what they come up with. I know that they are really funny,” Brown said.
In the long term, Brown hopes to find a career that allows her to work at the intersection of comedy and journalism. But for right now, she is pleased that her senior capstone will have a big and enthusiastic crowd. “Hopefully we’ll have about 120 people come and I think that’s like a hundred more people than would read my senior capstone essay, so I am looking forward to reaching a wider audience,” Brown said.