Much pressure lies in preparing a stand-up comedy set. The jokes must land. The audience must stay engaged.
But the stakes are even higher for Santa Ana resident, activist and comedian Sandra De Anda.
Her performances also raise money for important causes. De Anda donates profits from her performances to the Orange County Rapid Response Network, an activist organization which aids undocumented immigrants and those who sit in detention centers.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her show online, further complicating what can sometimes be a tense comedic atmosphere. Yet she makes it work, according to friends and activists.
Her performances are “unique to her,” said her friend, Kristen Huizer. “But I think there’s some element of relatability, because we all have those awkward moments. Or moments where we we’re just, like, ‘I don’t even know how that happened, how I survived that, or how I got to this point.’”
De Anda is in the process of planning her next fundraiser show with the Rapid Response Network, as well as with the Orange County Justice Fund, another group with similar goals.
She attended Reed College in Portland. There, she joined the school’s Reed Comedy Club, primarily run by students of color in a school that was largely white.
Throughout her time at the club, she organized shows with line-ups of sometimes 10 comedians every month.
She also headlined all of them.
De Anda lived in Oregon for six years and continued to perform at comedy clubs in Portland. Upon returning to Santa Ana in 2017, her comedy career came to a temporary halt. She avoided performing sets at downtown clubs despite being invited, wanting no part in what she and other activists describe as the longtime gentrification of this historic section of the city.
“I think that we need more people who, you know, go off,” Huizer said. “They go to college or whatever, but they come back into the community and enrich the community with things that they had learned … experiences.”
Rather than “escaping” the area she came from, Huizer said, De Anda came back to give back.
De Anda works at OC Justice Fund as the program coordinator, where some of her responsibilities include coordinating the bond release of ICE detainees. She also volunteers with the OC Rapid Response Network.
Eventually, De Anda was ready to do stand-up again and put together her own comedy show, “Mi Vida Loca,” through Zoom. The show was performed on her birthday in October 2020 as a means to catch up and laugh with friends during the social isolation brought on by the pandemic.
Even with the unusual format, De Anda found Zoom to be a good medium for her — a way to perform in the comfort of her own space.
It was her first time performing since coming back from Oregon.
Encouraged by the success of her birthday set, De Anda wanted to do it again, this time with proceeds going to a cause she cared about. She pitched the idea of a comedy show fundraiser to the OC Rapid Response Network and the group loved the idea.
In December, an audience of around 70 people tuned in to hear De Anda’s jokes. She raised around $1,000 for the organization by the end of the performance.
Performing online isn’t without its own difficulties. “On Zoom it’s a little bit harder to interact with your audience, because it’s hard to see all of the faces laugh or hear all the laughs. It’s just a lot more different,” De Anda said. “It was pretty nerve wracking. But I honestly just was like, ‘People came out on a Saturday to watch this show, I have to give it my best.’”
Most of her material is inspired by recent experiences like life during the pandemic.
But she also draws from the past 27 years of her life — specifically her upbringing and the culture shock of growing up as a person of color in Santa Ana and then attending a private boarding school in southern Virginia thanks to a scholarship.
“It was really intense because it’s like, ‘Why do I have to leave home in order to have the opportunity at a good education?’” De Anda said. “I always felt like an outsider because I was on a scholarship and very different from all the girls who wore pink polos, and … I also faced a lot of racism at the institution, and I feel like it was never dealt with properly. I just kind of had to suck it up until I went to college.”
That isolation is where she found new interests like foreign films and literature. Specifically, she got into writing short stories. De Anda said these things opened her eyes to what it means to be “beautiful and unique … to be an outsider.”
This understanding helped her to see stand-up comedy as an outlet for her clinical depression. “It provides me an outlet to let out some, just, funny feelings that I have no control over,” she said.
While most of her work with OC Justice Fund and Rapid Response Network deals with serious issues, De Anda’s comedy shows have become a place for refuge for her audience.
“A lot of our members are really looking forward to the comedy show because they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, like, we need a break. We need to decompress.’ And I think that we need more of that in the activism community,” De Anda said.
Historically, stand-up comedy has been dominated by white men with unoriginal material, she said. But seeing other women of color dominate the spotlight, receiving roars of laughter, sharing their stories and becoming center stage means more to De Anda.
“To hear stand up from women is really empowering, because it’s like a lot of women deal with harsh realities,” she said. “But they’re able to spin their lives into these jokes. But it’s jokes that they have power over.”
De Anda’s last two shows have only been live online events (no recordings are available to for future viewings), so if you don’t want to miss the next punchline, follow De Anda on Twitter and Instagram for updates on upcoming shows.
Kristina Garcia is a writing fellow for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.