I used to spend Monday mornings in eighth-grade homeroom doing impersonations of whatever character Cecily Strong had played on that weekend's episode of "Saturday Night Live," much to the dismay of my classmates. She joined the cast of SNL right around the time my parents started to let me watch the show in its entirety. Her comedy was something that my dorky, eccentric 14-year-old self identified with. I adored and admired her from the start of her career on the show.
So, you can only imagine the nauseating mix of excitement and nervousness I felt while she squinted to see me across a packed theater as I asked her a question.
Cecily performed to a sold out Wilks Theater last Thursday. By the time doors opened at 7:30, the line of students wrapped through the Shade Family Room and back outside the Armstrong's East Wing exit.
Rashida "Sheedz" Olayiwola opened for Cecily. Her name had been absent from all advertisements for the event, so her performance came as a surprise. And she killed it. Rashida's stories of her own family members had the audience in stitches, and her commentary on online dating resonated particularly well with a crowd of college students.
Rashida's easygoing delivery made her set feel more like a casual conversation between friends than stand-up. She played to the college audience well and knew how to follow the fun of a joke while staying authentic to her voice. My only complaint is that her set should have been longer. I could have watched her for another hour.
When she was done, Rashida introduced Cecily. She demanded the audience get on their feet to welcome Cecily to the stage.
I had intentionally not done research into Cecily's stand up going into this event. Knowing her mainly from SNL, which is primarily sketch comedy, I was excited to see how she approached stand-up and wanted to be surprised.
But Cecily informed the crowd that what she was doing on stage was storytelling, not stand up.
As her set moved on, this became more evident. Cecily shared stories from her life with the audience. She talked about her family and childhood in Chicago, her anxieties and her travels.
What stood out about Cecily's set was how, rather than performing a polished and seamless show, she spoke to the crowd with honesty. Almost right away, she admitted to being nervous about performing and kept a stack of loose papers on the stool beside her that she referenced throughout her performance, turning pages as she moved along. Her sincerity was disarming, and the audience happily served as a sounding board to her thoughts and reflections.
This is not to say Cecily wasn't hilarious because she was. Her side comments and comedic timing had me cackling, and everyone around me seemed fully engaged through her whole set.
Cecily's performance twisted the norms of what constitutes a comedy set, and it was exciting to gain insight into her thoughts and personal life. She was vulnerable while still in charge of her crowd and her story. Cecily's openness bent the line that divides a performer and their audience.
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When she was done with her set, she asked the audience if they wanted to do a Q&A, something I had never seen a comedian do before.
Audience members asked about Cecily's experience auditioning for SNL, her advice for young performers and where inspirations for some of her most well-known characters came from.
My hands were shaking so bad when I was handed the mic to ask my question that I thought I would drop it. The MAP representative informed the crowd it would be the second to last question asked.
"Better make it good," Cecily joked. "No pressure."
"Yeah, thanks," I blurted out. My nervous brain was firing on all cylinders, and I immediately panicked, thinking the remark had come across as rude.
"You're welcome," Cecily responded back. "Let fear move you, girl."
I asked Cecily if she preferred sketch, stand-up or improv, knowing she has a background in all three. She quickly reminded me she didn't do stand-up, but storytelling. She went on to say it was hard to pick and talked about how she enjoyed getting the opportunity to do college shows.
"It would probably be sketch because I am a nerd," Cecily finally said. "It's not that cool."
Cecily moved on to the final question, but I was still thinking over the final part of her answer. I couldn't help but smile to myself thinking of how the 14-year-old dork who was inspired to pursue comedy by this self-proclaimed nerd was definitely cool.