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'People do want to hear what we have to say': Fargo man helps represent LGBT community in comedy scene

Jan Syverson's goal is to bring people together and make them laugh with his comedy. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Fargo-based comedian Jan Syverson performs in 2018. Forum file photo2 / 2

FARGO — There’s nothing like grabbing a cool, refreshing drink at the end of the day and enjoying a long and loud belly laugh.

Jan Syverson, one of Fargo’s local comedians, thinks of comedy as a bridge. And although it may feel as if the country is divided at times, Syverson’s goal is to bring people together and make them laugh.

After years of performing, Syverson is no stranger to the limelight. And as transgender man and a member of the LGBT community, the space he occupies on stage is a meaningful opportunity for representation in a conservative area of the nation.

Syverson, 31, grew up in Callaway, Minn., and is an enrolled member of the White Earth Tribe. Despite his lifelong flair for making people laugh, it wasn’t until his early 20s that he got involved in the comedy scene at a Fargo coffee shop.

“I walked by the Red Raven open mic and a friend was like, 'You’re funny. You should go,'" Syverson said. “I tried it and I was terrible. But I did it for many years and I got better.”

Since then, Syverson has honed his skills as he’s traveled to perform for audiences across the Midwest. Aside from local venues in Fargo, he's performed in Minneapolis as well as throughout Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska.

A fan of comedy his whole life, he is inspired by comics like Wanda Sykes, Ellen DeGeneres and Dave Chappelle. Syverson also draws inspiration from local comics who perform regularly at the open mic nights around town.

“We have a really great comedy community,” Syverson said. “It’s filled with a lot of love and great people, and we have women in our comedy community; Jenni Lou Russi has been a mentor to me.”

Syverson is constantly writing and coming up with ideas for material. He takes experiences from his life and finds ways to make them into jokes, and he’s come up with sketches and pilots for show ideas.

Making stage time

His knowledge of the importance of representation is nothing new. After moving to Minneapolis in 2016 and getting involved in the Twin Cities' comedy scene, Syverson approached Rana May and Shelly Paul, two comedians who perform at the Comedy Corner Underground. The comedy club was in search of a show to fill space for the second Thursday of every month. Syverson pitched a monthly show headlined by people who identify as women, femme or female to May and Paul.

The comedy scene, nationwide, is dominated by white male voices. Syverson wanted the new show to offer women, people of color and members of the LGBT community a chance to perform and get much-needed stage time.

“I started comedy a little over six years ago, and I've seen hundreds of shows, and barely any of them represented my group: women, trans persons, persons of color, queer persons,” Syverson said. “I never saw it on a regular basis and I thought it’d be cool to see it on a regular basis.”

Thus PSSY CTRL, named after the Prince song, was born.

“We had been toying with the idea of some sort of women’s show, but didn’t want it to be just women,” May said. “And Jan came in at the exact right time.”

PSSY CTRL stood out in Minneapolis as the first showcase to specify identities when creating a lineup as well as making a public disclaimer that racist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic and sexist material wouldn’t be allowed.

“We would never consider ourselves a safe space,” May said. “But we want those people, like us, who love comedy in theory but who rarely saw a show without feeling punched down on, to see comedy that they relate to better.”

“I have many friends who swore off going to comedy shows because of bigoted, predictable jokes that they had to sit through,” Paul said. “A lot of people have learned over the years that 'comedy isn’t for them,' (but) the more people see themselves represented on stage, the more diverse the audience and talent pool can become, and the more captivating the shows become for a wider audience of people.”

PSSY CTRL, hosted by May and Paul, is still going strong three years later.

“It’s one of the proudest things I’ve been a part of,” Syverson said. “For all the things people have said about women or LGBT in comedy, it just goes to show there is space for this, an audience for this and people do want to hear what we have to say.”

In Fargo, Syverson performs at the Red Raven Espresso Parlor and Front Street Taproom open mics. He’s been involved in charity showcases for the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center and Planned Parenthood, and he recently performed at the Tri-State Transgender Gala.

For being a smaller “big city,” Syverson thinks the Fargo-Moorhead comedy scene is pretty diverse and believes that a show similar to PSSY CTRL is possible there if enough people want it. Because Fargo is one of the most liberal cities in the state, he said further diversification of the comedy scene would add to the good qualities in town for people who are a part of the LGBT community.

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