By Jessica Abel
In a small, low-lit classroom at UNC-Chapel Hill late on a Monday night, a group of women are gathered in a circle of desks, typing fiercely. Each one is focused on the script in front of her, not thinking, just writing.
They are here for a comedy workshop hosted by We the Ladies, a student comedy group devoted to increasing gender diversity in comedic writing and performing. The project is led in part by Shea Stanley, who began her college comedy career her first year on campus with the group False Profits.
Now a junior, Stanley splits her time writing for False Profits and guiding both amateur and established comedians with We the Ladies.
Tonight, she’s helping writers create colorful character scenes through a free writing exercise. The click-clacking of fingernails on keyboards carries down the hall as everyone spills their last ideas onto their pages.
“OK, that’s time,” Stanley says.
She looks up and surveys the room.
“Who wants to go first?”
There’s a moment of hesitation as the writers make eye contact and smirk at one another, holding back their thoughts.
And then, shyly, someone gives it a try.
“Angry astronaut at a strip mall.”
The room fills with giggles. Then come thoughts of how to make a full scene out of a bitter Buzz Aldrin type. It would have to take place in Florida, the writers agree. The only place where astronauts, strip malls and anger overlap is Florida.
This continues with dozens of ideas.
“Goofy dentist on a rooftop.”
“Bored zookeeper in Sacramento.”
“Envious therapist at a church.”
Stanley leads the group through their thoughts, crafting dialogue and scene ideas to help make art out of the creative skeletons. She offers advice, patience and laughs as the women collaborate into the night.
Finding her comedic footing
Before Stanley founded We the Ladies or began college comedy, the Charleston, South Carolina native first tried stand-up in a smaller venue. It was at her high school’s version of a talent show, a coffee house-style setup where students could jump on stage and try out new material.
Stanley chose to mock her childhood YouTube channel by flipping through a PowerPoint of her hairstyles in the videos.
“My hair was just really bad in it,” Stanley said. “Everyone was shocked. They were like, ‘Where’s your part? What’s happening?’”
She walked offstage to laughs feeling good about her performance.
What she didn’t realize was that she’d taken nearly half an hour to finish the joke.
“My teacher came up to me and said, ‘That was great. You were up there for twenty minutes,’” Stanley said.
Now, her comedy takes a much different approach. She’ll sit down with an idea, almost always the end of a joke, and work through the script backwards. She’ll write 30 percent of a scene, leave it, and then come back with an entirely new idea. She’ll stop what she’s doing to help another writer complete her vision before returning to her own work, re-inspired.
Stanley and Ellie Rodriguez, We the Ladies’ other co-founder, hold office hours at Linda’s bar on Franklin Street. The formal name is contrasted by the relaxed way Stanley treats writing. She’ll scope out a booth, order some fully-loaded Tater Tots and sit with whoever shows up to write and exchange ideas.
“It’s a good environment to pitch ideas, especially ideas that aren’t necessarily super funny to men,” Stanley said. “False Profits is pretty collaborative, and I love all my male friends in that, but there are some things that go over better in an all-femme group.”
Mary Amos, the comedian who pitched the angry Floridian astronaut sketch in Stanley’s workshop, agreed.
“I just haven’t been in a lot of groups that are all-femme. Other than, maybe, my household,” Amos said, laughing. “I think that’s why this is so nice.”
Funny off the clock, too
Though Stanley doesn’t use her housemates as a tester audience often, her friends got to know her comedy style quickly.
Katie Otto, who shared a suite in Koury residence hall with Stanley her first year, remembers meeting her future friend for the first time.
“It was funny from the beginning because Shea was under the impression that she had met me already, but she’d really met someone else who she thought was me,” Otto said. “She was so confused. She was like, ‘Who’s this stranger in my suite?’”
To this day, they have no idea who the impostor girl could have been, or if Stanley simply forgot what Otto looked like.
“Maybe she met my mom and thought it was me? I don’t know,” Otto said, smiling. “It’s our mystery.”
Otto was also there when Stanley first discovered False Profits. They went to a stand-up comedy workshop hosted by the group during the first week of school.
“We played improv games and just chatted,” Otto said. “And even from that, I could tell Shea had such a strong ability to create comedic timing and make others laugh.”
Stanley carried that lightheartedness back to the suite where she made their home a bit of a fun house.
On the windowsill of their bathroom, she kept a copy of the Communist Manifesto for decorative purposes. She referred to the suite as “The Commune” and to all her housemates as “Comrades.”
She kept a fish as the suite pet and mascot and named it “Fishgerald.” Once, over break, she forgot to bring Fishgerald home and panic-texted Otto and her housemates to be sure he was still swimming.
Before Stanley left to study in London last semester, she gave her housemate and best friend, Mary Beth, a semester survival guide as a Christmas present. It included Stanley’s best decision-making advice and tips to living without her comedian roommate.
Safe to say, her friends and fellow comedians are happy to have her back.
Punchlines with real impact
As Stanley gets ready for senior year, her priorities are to make We the Ladies as diverse as possible, and to raise more money for local charities. She chooses a different organization to benefit from every show. Last time she collected toiletries and money for the Compass Center, a non-profit committed to supporting victims of domestic abuse. This year, she’s hoping to collect diapers and funds for a rehabilitation center in the Triangle.
The combination of charity, diversity and comedy has resonated with the Chapel Hill community. For her last show, over 100 people came to support Stanley, We the Ladies and the Compass Center.
“The day of anything I’m hosting, I always think, ‘Well, no one’s coming. I’m going to show up, and it’s going to be pathetic,’” Stanley said. “But people started showing up early. They packed the place. It was amazing.”
This, no doubt, had to do with the great cause Stanley was supporting. But it was driven by the impact she’s personally had on the Chapel Hill community. People are captivated by her self-described loud laugh, her thoughtfulness, her ambition. It’s the key to We the Ladies’ success and her legacy at Carolina.
“Shea is so funny and has so much confidence,” Otto said. “She is great at making people smile. I’m so glad I got to live with her and get to know her.”
Edited by Lily Stephens