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Singing for Ukraine

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Alex Chambers: When Iryna Voloshyna started a Slavic Choir at Indiana University in 2021, she didn't realize it would be a local expression of a global political situation. But then, in February of '22, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Iryna Voloshyna: All of a sudden we became in high demand, which was good, so we narrowed our program to only a Ukrainian repertoire.

Alex Chambers: We'll hear how the choir turned into a mission for Voloshyna after the invasion, about a choir she was in during Russia's last invasion, and more. Then, comedian E.J. Masicampo tells us how his divorce made him a comedian. That's all coming up after this.

Alex Chambers: Welcome to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. The Indiana Slavic Choir, based here in Bloomington, performs folk songs about Ukrainian cultural integrity and sovereignty over their land. Producer Violet Baron sat down with its founder, Iryna Voloshyna, this past summer to hear how cultural heritage becomes a point of contention in war.

Iryna Voloshyna: Physically I was, like, not able to sing. I just shut down, you know. I thought that, well, I'm here, I cannot physically be there in Ukraine and help people the way that they might probably need it more, but if I have this opportunity to reach international audiences and they listen to me, then I'll do this. Then this is my mission. It's all I can do and somebody has to do it.

Indiana Slavic Choir: [SINGING] [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]

Iryna Voloshyna: Hi, my name is Iryna Voloshyna and I'm a third year PhD student at the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. I call myself a founding artistic director of Indiana Slavic Choir.

Violet Baron: And actually we know each other. We were both students in the folklore department and we've been friends since that time.

Iryna Voloshyna: I came to Bloomington. I joined IU in 2020, so that was during the pandemic. I did meet some people, but I felt like I really needed the community of people who like to sing together. I wanted to sing Ukrainian or Slavic folk music and I understand that we are in Indiana and we probably don't have that many people who know that tradition well, so I thought, well, I'll then teach people how to do that. We have songs that have between two and five parts. My method of teaching is we don't use sheet music. I teach the way I was taught by elderly people in the villages in Ukraine, so they did not have music education at all. I learned that music by ear and now I teach it by ear as well.


Iryna Voloshyna: So, we sing a cappella, mostly polyphony, and also the timbre of voice is very specific. So, it's called open throat, in Ukrainian it's sometimes called bilyi holos, like, "white voice."

Indiana Slavic Choir: [SINGING] [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]

Iryna Voloshyna: And now we have, like, a solid group of about 20 people, 20 members. We decided to call it Indiana Slavic Choir to make it more inclusive, because we know that we have students and faculty who are interested in the entire region of Eastern Europe and it's in fact diverse.

Violet Baron: Iryna started the choir in 2021. In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. It was shattering for Iryna who watched the events from Bloomington.

Iryna Voloshyna: I remember on February 25th, we were supposed to have a performance with an Estonian group, but the invasion was just so shocking to me, I just could not imagine being on the stage or even around other people. So, I remember, I took some time off from ensemble, because just physically, well, obviously I was just devastated, and I could not sleep, you know, so that was just too painful. And I remember that, well, a few weeks passed and I realized that I have a responsibility. I have a community of people who, like, respect my state but also, like, they rely on me. The only genre that I found that was, like, relevant to me at that moment was the folk sounds, so they are religious songs that are sung during the land and that was essentially the appropriate moment. It was, like, March and April.

Indiana Slavic Choir: [SINGING] [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]

Iryna Voloshyna: So, these songs are essentially about repelling, about the mortality of people. Like, they give the space to think about sins, how we are sinful and what we can do for salvation of our soul.

Indiana Slavic Choir: [SINGING] [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]

Iryna Voloshyna: It spoke to me at the time and I remember, I came back. I announced that, okay, we are going to have a rehearsal and I brought one of the songs to that rehearsal. So, it sounds kind of like a prayer, really beautiful. We learned it and we've been using it a lot since then.

Violet Baron: Another thing that happened after the war started was a new awareness of an interest in Ukrainian culture. Suddenly, people in the U.S. wanted to support Ukraine in whatever way they could. One way was by highlighting its culture and its music.

Iryna Voloshyna: All of a sudden, we became in high demand, which was good. So, we narrowed our program to,like, only Ukrainian repertoire and that sound, that prayers song was one of our key songs, also a few patriotic songs and a few, like, lyrical songs too. There were a lot of events at REI on campus, conferences, receptions, or some other events where we would be invited to sing. I also hosted a singing workshop with Lotus Arts Foundation. We collected some donations that I then sent to my friend from Khmelnytskyi, from my home town. She is a cellist at the Symphony Orchestra and one of their members of the orchestra was going to war, so they were raising money to get equipment for him. So, it's just another, like, really recent example of how I can not only raise awareness with my music, but could also raise money for the good cause.

Violet Baron: In those early months, the choir felt like a way to resist the invasion from far away.

Iryna Voloshyna: It's a really good community of people who gathered around this idea of singing together. Several people told me that it's the highlight of their week and it was just so good to hear that, that it's other people actually, like, who have jobs and families and other responsibilities just are willing to come on Friday afternoon and sing, or sometimes other days when we have shows. I felt that people really saw the value in what we're doing.

Violet Baron: Iryna also helped with an emergency effort to preserve and protect Ukraine's archives of heritage and culture, another thing that was at risk once Russia invaded. If you want to share, what was life like for you in those two months? You said you were not sleeping well and I remember partly it was because you were staying up all night, right, talking to people over there, helping people connect with each other, connect with a safe place to go.

Iryna Voloshyna: I also was in touch with my friends and colleagues, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists and museum and heritage scholars. So, they reached out to me and they were really worried about their archives, the digital archives of traditional music and heritage for Ukraine. So, together with the American Folklore Society that is based at the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at IU, we created a Google folder where people could upload their archives so that they are safely stored there in case the archives are damaged or destroyed or attacked in cyber-attack or hacked, and that also happened, or looted or anything happens, then at least a copy would be in a safe place.

Violet Baron: Why is preserving the heritage, the digital heritage, so important? Why would that be something that you need to protect now?

Iryna Voloshyna: Well, as we all know, one of the justifications of Putin's invasion was denazification of Ukraine and it's kind of old news to us. Empires attempt to call national liberation movements, like, aggressive, ultra-nationalist and all that, right? So, that label has been on Ukraine for centuries and just physically destroying culture, and by that I mean artists, musicians, writers, clergy, intellectuals, scholars, so that has been a practice for centuries. And the fact that he phrased that, "We need to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine," so denazification means erasing a national identity of Ukrainians by destroying people physically and by destroying the heritage sites also, like museums, churches, theaters and other places, libraries too, schools, right? Many people felt that that was a direct aggression against Ukrainian identity, Ukrainian culture. So, preserving archives felt like a very important mission and still does.

Violet Baron: Right. Yeah, I think it goes back kind of again to what was beginning to happen in the present day with the Euromaidan, right? But it was in your generation, and the slightly younger generations where they moved as a country to Ukrainian as the only dominant language, right?

Iryna Voloshyna: Well, I grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking family, so I know Russian because Ukraine has been russified for centuries. The Ukrainian language was banned multiple times by Russian empires, U.S.S.R. The fact that we are bilingual is just a colonial legacy. It was not by choice for many people. But, yes, especially after the Euromaidan revolution, many people switched to Ukrainian again as a political act because they realized the reason why it happened so that they speak Russian, even if it's a language in the family.

Violet Baron: The songs are evidence of Ukraine's national identity and sovereignty as a people. Throughout its history, there's always been this character and this fight.

Indiana Slavic Choir: [SINGING] [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]

Iryna Voloshyna: Actually, one of the songs that we have in our repertoire, [FOREIGN DIALOGUE], which means that Ukraine has been asleep for a while. So, it compares Ukraine to a bird that was asleep and then it woke up and it remembered that it was once free.

Indiana Slavic Choir: [SINGING] [FOREIGN DIALOGUE]

Iryna Voloshyna: So, it spread its wings and united Ukrainian people under its wings. A really beautiful song. What's interesting about it is that it is about 100 years old, so we are talking about, like, 1920s maybe, 1910s, 1920s. And it's a song from the Ukrainian insurgent army, so, that was a military unit who fought against Russian occupation of Ukraine, so, that was in the period between fall of the Russian empire and the U.S.S.R. So, this song itself, among many others, is a living proof of how long this war has been going on really for many centuries. So, I and many of my fellow Ukrainians agree that this is not Putin's war. Like, he is just a product of his, I don't know, nation, empire, but this has been going on for centuries, for centuries.

Iryna Voloshyna: So, if that's what we can do to give the arguments from the oral tradition from the songs, that, hey, here is what people were singing about 100 years ago and we are singing about the same enemy, literally. So, that in itself says something about the importance of this Ukrainian resistance that's happening now.

Violet Baron: Mm-hmm. And in all of the different forms that it takes. It's almost as if folklore is significant.

Iryna Voloshyna: It totally is. It's also very applicable.

Violet Baron: Mm-hmm.

Iryna Voloshyna: Even if we have older songs about the war between Cossacks and the Turks or the Poles, or we have these genres of soldiers' songs, right, or conscripts' songs, they are very relevant. We learned a song about a mother who is sending her son to a war. How relevant is that, you know? And that song is several hundred years old from Sumy region, that is bordering Russia and is under constant shelling. So, yeah, folklore is relevant.

Alex Chambers: All right, it's time for a break. Producer Violet Baron is talking with Iryna Voloshyna, who started the Indiana Slavic Choir, which has been singing in support of Ukraine since Russia's invasion. This isn't Voloshyna's first time singing for Ukrainian independence. When Russia invaded in 2014, she was part of a choir in Ukraine that raised money to fight for independence. We'll hear about that after the break.

Alex Chambers: Welcome back to Inner States. Producer Violet Baron is talking with the founder of the Indiana Slavic Choir, Iryna Voloshyna. Let's get back to it.

Violet Baron: From what you've told me, there's often been a political dimension to when and where you sing. I remember you telling me around the 2014 war, you would go around and sing with your group. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Iryna Voloshyna: Absolutely. So that Euromaidan Revolution was really shocking to all Ukrainians. It was just unheard of to see how civilians were being shot on the main streets and squares in Kyiv. Then the annexation of Crimea happened, and then the invasion of the Donbas region, so that's really the beginning of Russian invasion to Ukraine. A lot of people volunteered to go and fight, or were drafted. There were lots of needs in society. Some people I know went to war, so it was a common practice to raise money, and to help people with ammunition, with life-proof jackets, helmets, and other things, just to essentially save their lives and protect them.

Iryna Voloshyna: Our ensemble, just like many other musicians and artists I know, we would raise money, doing some charity events, and it didn't have to be something extraordinary. We would just sing on the main street in Khmelnytskyi, and just have a box for donations, and raise money. We had a guy in our ensemble who sang with us for a while, and then he went to Donbas to fight, so we raised some money for him, too. We also went to some festivals to sing, and we would donate our compensation to this cause, so that was not uncommon.

Violet Baron: Why do you think that the singing could be a tool for raising money? Why was this something that you could give, and people wanted to receive for Ukraine?

Iryna Voloshyna: Well, because we sing Ukrainian traditional music, and the lyrics talk about the heroic past of Ukrainians. We have religious songs; we have songs from traditions that were banned by the Soviets and the Russians. This music is, in itself, an act of resistance, so it feels very natural to connect this music with the ongoing resistance that's happening in Ukraine.

Violet Baron: So Iryna found herself singing in choirs as a means of protest, both in Ukraine in 2014, and in the U.S. in 2022, but she says they felt like worlds apart.

Iryna Voloshyna: Here it's very different, because in Khmelnytskyi, people understand that it's their homeland, and they are protecting their own homeland, or donating money to protect those who protect it. Here, there's so much propaganda everywhere. We don't have a political agenda necessarily, but the music becomes political, right? I think it's very important to do that in places like Indiana.

Violet Baron: This summer, Iryna went to Ukraine for the first time since the war began.

Iryna Voloshyna: It was really emotional to me, because until then my experience of living through the war was online, essentially. Reading the news online, watching the news online, or talking to my family online. It was very important for me to go and just-- well, see my family, of course, but also see what life is there. The war that started in 2014 was in Donbas region, so it was very localized. This time, you cannot ignore the war. I flew to Krakow, in Poland, as we cannot fly into Ukraine now because it is too dangerous when the missiles are flying, and also many airports are bombed or destroyed, and unsafe.

Iryna Voloshyna: I flew to Poland, and I took a bus to go to Ukraine. I crossed the border in the middle of the night. All the lights, everywhere, are off, just to prevent being bombed and hide any movement of traffic. When I was on the bus going to my hometown Khmelnytskyi, we were passing by smaller villages and towns. Usually in Ukraine we have cemeteries outside villages and towns, and often along the highways, but nowadays when a hero falls, they are buried in the cemetery, and their grave is marked with a Ukrainian flag. It was really heartbreaking to see new graves with new flags waving, and even in small villages, you definitely see one, or two, or three, or five. In bigger cities, it's a much bigger number.

Iryna Voloshyna: Air raid sirens are very scary, because you know that the missile is flying, and somebody will probably die. This is a really, real experience that I could not have imagined until I experienced it. I had to hide in bomb shelters several times. Just the week after I arrived, I woke up from loud explosions, and my house was shaking. At 4 a.m. we had a missile strike to one of the objects in my hometown, Khmelnytskyi. It was very scary. You cannot describe it. You know that you can die at any moment. That's a very strong feeling.

Iryna Voloshyna: Overall, I was just astonished by the resilience of the Ukrainian people, how despite everything; all the horrors, all the losses, everything, they are trying to live a normal life, they are trying to enjoy life, and this joy for life, it comes alongside the fear to lose your life. So, that was something incredible, really, how people are still trying to look pretty, or just really value every moment, or they are trying to really, truly enjoy the time with family. The meaning of very routine things has changed. That was really important to feel, I guess.

Iryna Voloshyna: So now that I'm back, after my trip to Ukraine and a few other places in Europe, I just want to keep this feeling of solidarity with my people, and it has re-inspired me to keep talking about it, because it's kind of fading out in the news. People are thinking, "Oh, yeah, that war? Still happening? Yeah. Okay." But this is the life for millions of people affected. I don't have any solid plans for the future, but I'm just still digesting my emotions from the trip.

Violet Baron: In late April, I watched the choir perform in a collaboration with another Ukrainian folk music ensemble, who came to town for the event.

Iryna Voloshyna: Women's Bandura Ensemble is very unique because it's the first women's ensemble, who play Bandura in North America, I think, and its members are from all over the place. We had people drive or fly from Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, New Jersey, New York, Toronto.

Violet Baron: And these are all places with diasporic Ukrainian populations?

Iryna Voloshyna: Yes, yes.

Violet Baron: They partnered with the ensemble to host a open rehearsal, so that the public could learn about both groups and raise awareness for Ukraine.

Iryna Voloshyna: People were able to ask questions, to touch an instrument if they wanted to, and just to observe this rehearsal in a more informal setting. And then the next day, on Sunday, we had a performance at a church in Indianapolis. Also, people came from Ukrainian community or not, and that was also a way, as usual, to raise awareness and raise the money for humanitarian help.

Iryna Voloshyna: It was this synergy of just emotions, and an exchange of energy. We do work in slightly different styles, I would say, but that just showed the diversity of Ukrainian culture.

Violet Baron: Do you know what's next for the choir? Is there any succession plan for the leadership? Do you think it will continue?

Iryna Voloshyna: I think it will continue, because I value the community that was formed, and it's really hard to build that connection with people, and it's really easy to lose it. So yes, I have some travel plans for this semester, but also,I'm sure that we will figure something out. We'll take turns leading the ensemble. I think it would be a great practice for some of our members. I don't have a concrete plan yet, but I'm sure that we will figure it out.

Violet Baron: You can follow the choir on Instagram at @iu_slavic_choir.

Alex Chambers: That story was produced by Violet Baron. Violet recently moved on from WFIU to become the Executive Director of Long Island Traditions. That's a non-profit, supporting folk and traditional arts and artists in New York. Wishing you luck in your new role, Violet. Hope it goes great.

Alex Chambers: Okay, it's time for another break, and then we'll hear from a comedian about what he really meant when he told his future wife he loved nature. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers: So, I've done a number of stories on Inner States about marriage. There was the story about the couple who had been married for 72 years and just had a really nice life together. There was also the story about the couple who, also, has been married for quite a while now, and decided, when they had their wedding, to get married using puppets. These are happy stories, but they're happy marriage stories and, you know, I think, usually, when we think of marriage stories, we think happy.

Alex Chambers: Divorce stories, on the other hand, we don't tend to think happy, and I've been wanting to get some good divorce stories on the show as well. But happy divorce stories are, apparently, a little harder to find. But I am determined. One of these days we are--

Avi Forrest: Alex, Alex, I've got your story finally, I had to go all the way to Prague, but I have a story on divorce.

Alex Chambers: Oh, my god, Avi, that's great.

Avi Forrest: Yes, it was amazing.

Alex Chambers: Wait, so you went to Prague, how was it?

Avi Forrest: Oh--

Avi Forrest: Ooh, my favorite part was the Metropolitan Area, which was 192 square miles.

Alex Chambers: Wow, sounds lovely.

Avi Forrest: Yes, it was amazing. I know it was a massive expense, but, really, it was the only way I could properly do this story about divorce, and about EJ.

Alex Chambers: What do you like about EJ?

Avi Forrest: Honestly, he's just a really cool dude. He's a research psychologist but also a comedian. He is divorced, but he has kids, and he just has a lot of interesting reflections on comedy.

Alex Chambers: Cool. Let's get to it.

Avi Forrest: Awesome, let's do it.

Avi Forrest: Hey there, welcome to a small series called The Comedians, where we sit down with various funny people and talk about things from their perspective.

EJ Masicampo: Whenever I write a joke I've, basically, got a hypothesis, which is that this is going to make people laugh, and if they don't, well, that was not a supportive hypothesis.

Avi Forrest: This time, we have comedian EJ Masicampo, who's a researcher, a dad, and just a really cool person.

EJ Masicampo: I'm a psychology professor by day, and I'm on a research sabbatical this semester so I was in London. And, on top of that, I decided to do some traveling while I'm out here, doing a bunch of shows all over Europe. So, yes, I've been, you know, doing psychology writing during the day and then hanging out and doing comedy shows at night.

EJ Masicampo: I feel like the divorce is one of the best things to ever have happened to me.

EJ Masicampo: And, it was her idea, like, I did not see it coming at all.

EJ Masicampo: And, I would never have left her, but I'm so grateful that she ended it.

EJ Masicampo: I mean, I started comedy pretty late in life, I'd been a professor for close to ten years, and I was married, and she and I had two kids together, I was very enmeshed in, you know, family life, and, I didn't know at the time, but we were going through the process of splitting up, so we started spending a lot more time apart, and, obviously, I was just needing a new hobby, because I suddenly found I had a lot more time on my hands.

EJ Masicampo: I'm a real passive, I tend to put other people first.

EJ Masicampo: So, I spent the whole 12 years of our relationship doing what she liked to do. We used to go hiking all the time because she loved the outdoors, which, early on in the relationship, I told her I also loved the outdoors. But, you know, I meant from like a nice deck or, you know, looking at the outdoors from a cool brewery window or something.

EJ Masicampo: I haven't gone camping or hiking once in the three years since we divorced.

Avi Forrest: And, you said you're glad she ended it?

EJ Masicampo: Yes, I mean, for one, I would never have started comedy if she didn't end it.

EJ Masicampo: So, yes, something that bothered me was, I had that same experience of getting divorced and feeling like people felt sorry for me, or looked down on me because I got divorced, like I was lesser than for not being in my marriage anymore, having, like, failed at something. So, I'm very motivated, I talk a lot about how much this is actually a success, and how staying in a marriage, or just how marriage in general is not for everyone and it's a bad idea in a lot of cases.

Avi Forrest: Do you still work with your wife, or your ex-wife?

EJ Masicampo: Yes. She's also a psychology professor, and our offices are, I want to say, ten or 15 ft from each other. We work together, we're on committees together. We see each other all the time. I mean, we were really good friends before we split up, so we already shared a lot of common interests. I mean, before we were even dating we were good friends too. Yes, I've gone to, like, work happy hours where it ended up just being me and her because no one else showed up. So, we're very much still in each other's lives, we get along great. She comes to my comedy shows and sees me, you know, talking about her and our split. So, I mean, she keeps coming to the shows so she must like it and find it entertaining. I mean, she'll give me notes afterwards, you know, she'll just kind of jokingly tell me, "Well, you know, it was a little bit like this," or "Don't worry, I won't tell people how you actually felt about that thing," or whatever.

Avi Forrest: And you have kids together, right?

EJ Masicampo: Yes, we've got two kids, six and nine.

Avi Forrest: What's it like just turning, what we would perceive as negative things, into comedy?

EJ Masicampo: Honestly, I feel like that's the best part, taking something that people see one way, or people see as negative, and flipping it on it's head and getting them to laugh about it, because it feels like agreement, getting people to move a little bit.

EJ Masicampo: Because that's what I like most in comedy, is when a comedian can get me to look at something differently, or feel a different way about something, in a way that is expanding my perspective more.

EJ Masicampo: And, if I can do that, yes, that is the best part of comedy, to me, is to get people to see things in a new light, and to get that sort of agreement through laughter is great.

EJ Masicampo: Yes, when you're going against what people typically think, yes, you've got to find the right angle, the right wording, so it's really easy, but yes, when you nail it, it's a fun process and very rewarding when you figure it out.

Avi Forrest: What's the hardest negative thing you've turned into a joke?

EJ Masicampo: There are a lot of things I am still in the middle of having not figured out. I talk about race a lot. And, there, you know, I had to try a lot of different things to really get it right. I think there, a lot of that I haven't figured out yet. People don't realize this, but, like, we aren't really a community. The Asian community is so diverse, I think it's 49 different countries in Asia, and people expect us to be this community. We get along, but we're not a community, we're an alliance. Honestly, we're together because we [LAUGHS] need each other. It's, sort of, a survival tactic. But, I haven't found the right way to talk about that. It feels bad to, like, reject the rest of the Asian community and say, "We're natural enemies," but we are. I mean, you know, our history is conflict, not, you know, having these potlucks on campus together that we're supposed to be having.

Avi Forrest: And, I saw that joke about hecklers, and especially, like, racists, that, like, "Go back to Beijing!" And you said, like, "Thank you."

EJ Masicampo: [LAUGHS] I've gotten everything, I feel like. Yes, I've been told to go back to China, I've had people do the mocking, sort of, Chinese-sounding voice to me. Yes, it's not happening every day, but every once in a while I get a crazy, crazy, out-of-nowhere racist comment like that. Usually, when it happens, the first thing is just shock. It's so unexpected, you're not insulted, you're just confused. You have to, sort of, walk away and be like, "Did that person actually say that thing?" And then, later realize, yes, they did. And then, I feel like being insulted or angry is like the fourth or fifth emotion you feel, and then much, much later I feel like you can start to make jokes about it, after you've felt okay about it.

EJ Masicampo: People can tell when you don't yet feel okay about something. I've seen people, or myself, I tried to tell divorce jokes the next day, and the jokes were fine, but, I think it was so raw, people just couldn't help but feel sorry for me. They're like, "There's no way. Yes, you're clearly in pain." So, yes, it does take processing it and becoming okay with it, I think, before you can really make it funny.

Avi Forrest: How does your experience with psychology, sort of, interact with all of this, if anything?

EJ Masicampo: Yes, in so many ways. I've already said that social psychologists just analyze, you know, everyday life, and a lot of observational comedy is that. But also, as a research psychologist, I'm just very used to experimentation. I mean, I have, like, a lab where we run experiments on people, and we test hypotheses, and we gather data, and then we revise our studies based on the incoming data. So, joke writing, honestly, feels a lot like that.

EJ Masicampo: Whenever I write a joke, I've, basically, got a hypothesis, which is that this is going to make people laugh. And then, it's nice because I get my data right away. I get to tell the joke, I get to see people laugh. And, if they don't, well, that was not a supportive hypothesis, so then, I get to revise the joke and try again.

Avi Forrest: I'm just imagining you, like, on a magazine cover, in a lab coat, analyzing a rubber chicken or something.

EJ Masicampo: [LAUGHS] That's good, that's good.

Avi Forrest: Like this idea of 'joke is hypothesis' or something.

EJ Masicampo: You know, being a teacher too, effective teaching is a lot about, you know, knowing how to communicate these complex ideas in a way that people are going to understand. For me, joke writing is a lot like that, too, it's like you've found something funny. If you think it's funny, you're never wrong, there is something funny there, you've just got to communicate what you're experiencing to the audience, and whether they can also see it. So, it's all about finding the right way to describe exactly what you're seeing is funny about this thing. So, I feel like teaching has helped me a lot with being able to communicate as a comic.

Avi Forrest: And, honestly, I think that's hilarious, it's like a weird alternate universe. Batman, it's like his parents weren't murdered and he wasn't a superhero, he just did like stand-up comedy and psychology.

EJ Masicampo: [LAUGHS]

Avi Forrest: Do people ever find that out and just, I don't know, think that's hilarious?

EJ Masicampo: It's an interesting combo, for sure. Yes, they usually have questions about it. I don't know that they find it hilarious, it would be nice if they did. But, it's a pretty natural, sort of, transition, as I put my stand-up comic uniform on at night and go out into the darkness.

Avi Forrest: I did some research on your Google Scholar, it is not boring, I am a massive research nerd. You have a link tree that says 'Not really funny' Google Scholar.

EJ Masicampo: Oh, right, right, right.

Avi Forrest: I don't know, I see studying, like, behavior, and talking of thought process, but also secrecy, the burdens of secrecy.

EJ Masicampo: Yes.

Avi Forrest: And also, how thoughts relate to action.

EJ Masicampo: I have published a lot on, like, self-control, like, how we manage our behaviors and our temptations, which is a very social thing. I mean, most self-control comes down to, like, taking all your animal impulses and forcing yourself to be a civilized person in society. That takes a lot of effort.

EJ Masicampo: I've done a lot on morality, like how do we decide whether someone, or their behaviors, are good or bad? And, yes, I've studied secrecy a lot, just how secrets affect people, just the felt burden of secrets, how it actually feels burdensome and, it kind of, weighs us down in interesting ways.

EJ Masicampo: I'm a social psychologist. Did you go to IU?

Avi Forrest: Oh, I'm a junior at IU right now.

EJ Masicampo: You're going there now? Have you ever taken any psychology classes there? There's a great psych department.

Avi Forrest: Yes, I took a psychology course one-on-one there, but, I think I've had a couple of friends who are studying psychology.

EJ Masicampo: Yes, all right, yes, there's a great social psych group there, and that's what I do. You know, it's just the psychology of everyday life and how people relate to other people, and comedy is a lot of that, observational comedy is just, you know, looking at how we live, looking at relationships.

EJ Masicampo: So, we're analyzing them and breaking them down. And, yes, I feel like I focus on a lot of the same things in the classroom when I'm teaching as I do on stage.

Avi Forrest: In all of this, you said that the marriage ended well, and, from what I have heard, the relationship with your kids is going well. It feels weird for me to say, because I'm basically still a stranger, for some reason I know so many details about your life through your comedy, just listening to your stand-up.

EJ Masicampo: I've definitely had friends or acquaintances, or coworkers, or whatever, learn about me by coming to, you know, like, an open mic or a show where I'm talking to a bunch of strangers and they're, as a friend, learning things about me that I'd never shared with them before.

Avi Forrest: What's the deepest thing you've shared on stage?

EJ Masicampo: I mean, yes, I've gotten pretty vulnerable about my divorce. My divorce has been great, that's what a lot of my comedy is about. I'm very pro-divorce, I think just because, yes, that's not something I've often talked even to my family about, that has felt like one of the more vulnerable topics.

Avi Forrest: So, which ends up being harder, being a psychology professor or being a stand-up comedian?

EJ Masicampo: [LAUGHS] Oh, I mean, they're both hard. You know, another thing that's similar about both of them is there's so much rejection in both, because, as a scientist, it's rough publishing, I don't know if you've heard the phrase 'publish or perish' but, you know, to be a good scientist, you're supposed to be running these innovative studies and writing these papers that you then publish in these journals. And, we go through this peer review process where usually, what happens is, they send your paper to these other scientists, and they just completely destroy and tear apart your work. They say their job is to say everything that's wrong about it. I just got one of these the other day, it's just 12 pages of single spaced, just line after line, "Here's what's wrong with this study, and here's why your ideas are bad." And, it's so painful. And, I mean, it's similar in comedy, before any joke really gets to the place where you're seeing it in a special or on late night, it's just crashing and burning. People aren't insulting you to your face, but they're just giving you these blank stares and just not laughing at all at these jokes that you thought were so funny. And that is equally painful. Comedy's nice because the feedback's immediate, [LAUGHS] and, in psychology, you'll work for years on a project and then have it be torn apart to shreds.

Avi Forrest: And so, I'm going to ask some closing questions that are a little more open-ended, just more in general, like what's something people don't see when you're performing?

EJ Masicampo: Oh yes, I mean, there's the long history of the joke before I got there, all the times it failed and all the times you tweaked it.

EJ Masicampo: And then, every comic when they're performing too, they're in their heads adjusting all the time. That's another fun thing about comedy is you're constantly adjusting your set. If you're doing it well, you're adjusting based on what's happening in the room, based on what's getting a laugh, how people are reacting. You might notice certain things aren't working so well, so you might, in your head, start dropping these jokes that you were planning on doing later, or deciding to do new ones that you think will work well, based on how people are reacting.

EJ Masicampo: Yes, and then, you know, just paying attention to what's happening in the room, responding to it in kind, preparing to respond to it later. There is a lot of that happening.

EJ Masicampo: Yes, it's a crazy mix of being prepared with jokes that you've written and know verbatim, and then, being able to change those on the fly, based on what's happening in your set.

Avi Forrest: Thank you so much for talking with me.

EJ Masicampo: Thanks for talking to me, this was a lot of fun.

The Indiana Slavic Choir

The Indiana Slavic Choir performing at Indiana University's First Thursdays Festival, April 2023 (Courtesy of Iryna Voloshyna)

When Iryna Voloshyna, a PhD student in Indiana University’s Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, started a Slavic choir at IU in 2021, she didn’t realize it would be a local expression of a political situation halfway around the world. But then, in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and suddenly the choir was in high demand. Since then, they’ve been performing folk songs about Ukrainian cultural integrity and sovereignty over their land. Producer Violet Baron talked with Voloshyna about the choir, about the importance of archives, and about how cultural heritage becomes a point of contention in war. You can keep up with the IU Slavic Choir’s latest events on Instagram at iu_slavic_choir.

Then, we go back to a story Avi Forrest produced in the summer. Comedian EJ Masicampo describes his good divorce, how it led him to comedy, and what he really meant when he told his future (ex-)wife that he liked nature. You can learn more about EJ at his website.


Inner States is produced by me, Alex Chambers, with Jillian Blackburn and Avi Forrest.

Special thanks this week to producers Violet Baron and Avi Forrest.

Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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