Robber Barons: a Divine Comedy

“ROBBER BARONS ARE the best liars,” says Annabelle.

While "liar" is a strong word, it’s clear from the get-go that members of Robber Barons, Stanford’s only sketch comedy group, are colorful storytellers. Caroline, the head honcho, explains that two people won’t be able to make it to the interview because of a hurt knee from too much dancing and an extended lay in bed after a night out. Both seem like acceptable aftermath of a Friday night, but the knowing tone in Annabelle Beecher and Caroline Doyle’s voices suggest a slight alteration of the truth by their missing colleagues. I get the sense that the Robber Barons are a close-knit group that know how to have a good time.

For a comedy group, the name "Robber Barons" – defined as an ‘an American capitalist who acquired a fortune in the late nineteenth century by ruthless means’ -- is an interesting choice. Brandon Silverstein, the group’s founder, chose the name as an homage to a student vote in 1975 to have ‘the Robber Barons’ be school mascot. This, of course, being a way for Stanford kids to poke fun at Leland Stanford’s unscrupulous business dealings. However, the university administration refused to implement the vote and now the name is aptly repurposed by the sketch comedy group, who expose the irony and comedy in current affairs and Stanford life – the latter tending to draw the most laughs.

“Stanford kids LOVE jokes about Stanford,” says Caroline, the mellower of the two. Annabelle cuts in with zing and pep, showcasing her performative personality.

 Caroline Doyle

Caroline Doyle

 Annabelle Beecher

Annabelle Beecher

What’s the process of writing a sketch like?

Caroline: We do a lot of it independently or in pairs outside of meetings. People have different approaches to it. In meeting we read through sketches together and collectively give feedback and suggestions.

Annabelle: We keep lists in our phones of funny ideas that we notice… ‘look at that lonely bike, all those other bikes have friends!’ You’ll sit down with a person, open up your notes and be like ‘okay, I had the idea to write a sketch about someone that has rabies!”

Do you ever notice someone pulls out their notes and it’s the same idea? Like, ‘oh I had the rabies idea too.’

A: Yeah, we all love rabies! Rabies is the best.

How do you tackle the problem when people have different senses of humor? When rabies isn’t a shared value?

A: Our shows have twelve or thirteen sketches -- you’ll see such a range of styles of humor. You can tell which sketch Caroline wrote or which one I wrote. But when we do edits or table reads, everyone’s voices come together and it becomes more rounded out.

C: There’s also a group sense of humor that has been created over the course of how long Robber Barons has been in existence, and it shifts a little bit over the years depending on who’s in the group.

A: And you know there are certain restrictions on what you can say.

On that note -- I was on your Youtube page and went ‘oh wow, they’re actually making these jokes.’

A: Yeah, we’re edgy!

C: We take down the people who need to be taken down.

A: Yeah, I feel we have a duty to society to take down…

C: … babies!

A: No! Don’t quote that. We love babies!

Babies and rabies. There’s the title!

C: Seriously though, if there’s something we’re tackling that’s maybe crossing the line, we try to do it in an intelligent way that’s going to make a statement.

A: Yeah, and make sure the heart of the joke is making fun of the thing that should be made fun of and not at a person or group of people. Sometimes we think we’re on the right side of a joke and perform a sketch and people are like “uhh not so much, you were kinda walking the line with that one.”

C: Every time The Daily reviews us they call us ‘irreverent.’ “Another irreverent show by the Robber Barons.”

A: They haven’t reviewed us in a while...

Coming back to your Youtube page, are you guys thinking of moving more towards web content?

A: You’re actually talking to the face of our new Youtube presence! We’re making Caroline the face.

C: We are trying to increase our Youtube presence. We have a sophomore named Punya who has his own really successful Youtube channel. He’s noticed our lack of made-for-Internet sketches and trying to help with that.

A: In the past, if anyone wrote a sketch that clearly couldn’t be performed on stage and was dubbed a ‘video sketch’, there was an inside joke that it was the kiss of death because we never got around to filming any video sketches. And we had no good video editors. They were all filmed on iPhones. It never had high production value, which really helps.

Nowadays, people always joke about how politically correct you have to be, especially in California. Do you feel like sometimes you have to walk around eggshells?

C: We’ve gotten feedback that Robber Barons shows are the one place you don’t have to walk on eggshells. I think that it’s because we put so much effort into making sure that we’re not bringing up topics in the wrong way.

A: And comedy is held to a different standard than classroom discussion or what you talk about on the street. People recognize that it’s a realm where more racy topics are allowed. [Historically] comedy enabled people to talk about things they weren’t supposed to talk about -- for women to talk about their sexuality, or minorities to get a voice in any way.

C: Like Lenny Kravitz getting arrested in the 60’s.

A: Lenny Kravitz?! American womaaaaan!

C: I mean Lenny Bruce! Sorry, Lenny Bruce.

So do you guys think that comedy is an effective way of tackling political issues and societal truths?

A: I’ve always thought that way. Especially recently… thinking a lot about comedy’s role in this election, SNL’s depiction of the candidates, how maybe poking too much fun at something can do it harm...

C: What I really like about comedy is that it’s a platform for opinions and views that you wouldn’t be allowed to express in other ways without being taken down for it. It’s a really good way of dealing with tough issues.

In the present moment, considering the state of the Nation, we need comedy more than ever. With a reality TV star sitting in the highest office -- a B-movie plot come to life -- the role of the comedian is now even more vital: to inform the general public of the absurdity of certain policy decisions and state the underlying truth without compromise. All of this, of course, can be achieved through laughter -- something we're sure the Robber Barons can attest to.

By: Paolo Vera
Photography by: Ashley Watson


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