Comedy, Mental Health, Writing: Stuyvesant Hosts Guest Speaker Nat Towsen

English Teacher Annie Thoms invited Nat Towsen to speak to her English class, Writing to Make Change, on November 14.

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English teacher Annie Thoms invited Nat Towsen to speak to her English class, Writing to Make Change, on November 14. Towsen, a Stuyvesant alum (’03), writer, actor, and stand-up comedian, brings the discussion of mental health into his writing and comedy. Suffering from seasonal depression, Towsen incorporates this into his comedy and writing to destigmatize mental health in the views of his audience.

Thoms hosted the presentation to further aid her students in their final project due at the end of the semester. “[I’ve known Towsen] since he was 15 years old as I taught him at Stuyvesant, so he was easy to contact. I asked him to come and speak to my class about comedy writing,” Thoms said. “The main project of this semester is that every student is writing or creating something that is going to go out in the world in some way. The proposals are varied where some students are doing an op-ed in different kinds of places, but there are also infographics, poems, videos, documentaries, and animations.”

Alongside a presentation about comedy, many other students were interested in writing about mental health for their final project. “I have a number of students in this class who mentioned from very early on that they were interested in writing about mental health. One of the things that I wanted [Towsen] to come and talk about was how he brings [...] discussions of mental health, depression, and anxiety into his stand-up comedy and writing,” Thoms said.

Towsen primarily discussed the use of comedy to normalize mental health. “There is a stigma about mental health, and having someone on stage with a microphone acting [like] it is a normal thing is positive,” Thoms said.

Towsen also discussed how the structure of a joke is important to normalize mental health.

“Every joke has a setup and punch line, but he also spoke about how a joke has an assumed cultural belief. He [believes] that you can set up a joke where the cultural belief that you are assuming is a socially progressive belief,” Thoms said. “You can present the[se] beliefs as prescriptive, implying to a whole audience that the certain belief about mental health is what we should be believing.”

Towsen’s presentation resonated with many of the students, as they found it helpful for normalizing conversations regarding social issues like mental illness. “One of the biggest takeaways I had was that in order to be able to open up a discussion of mental illness, we can’t just say ‘mental illness is important, and we must talk about it.’ When we do that, it doesn’t get anywhere,” senior Morgan Hesse said. “We have to put it in a way where other people see their own opinions. By doing that, comedy can be a means of opening up a floor for discussion.”

Many students plan to implement some of Towsen’s advice in their own writing. “He broke down the basic formula of how jokes work: setup, universal truth, then [...] misdirect the brain [with the joke or punchline]. I personally am playing with the idea of writing a magazine to distribute to my [former] middle school, [and] a humor section is something I would like to implement,” junior Carina Lee said.

Other students added that his advice for comedy could also be extended to writing in general. “Even if I am not writing comedy, I have a big problem with showing and telling. His advice of including more details because it brings more people into your story really spoke to me, and I will definitely use that [toward] my assignments and writing,” Hesse said.

In addition to giving advice on writing and comedy, Towsen informed students on the practices of comedy and stand-up. “[Towsen] gave us some tips on being funny and how he comes up with pieces for comedy shows. He said that he always carries a notebook with him and whenever he thinks of something, he writes it down. He tells a joke during a performance, watches how the crowd reacts, and finds a way to improve it for the next audience,” junior Aishwarjya Barua said. “I found it really cool that he receives immediate feedback and is able to incorporate it into his art.”

Thoms created the Writing to Make Change class to further her interests in the craft of writing and the interests of many of her students. “After taking three and a half years away from Stuyvesant to take care of my three kids, I gave up my electives. When I came back, I was teaching core freshmen and core seniors, and that was a challenge, but I felt like I wanted a new challenge as a teacher. I knew that I wanted to create something that would fill a need for a number of students at Stuyvesant,” Thoms said. “I knew that I wanted it to be a writers’ workshop because I was always interested in the craft of writing, and I wanted to incorporate the aspect of social issues. There are so many that affect us at the individual and societal level. Seeing many of the protests and walkouts [that were] directed by students, I [saw] that many were interested in social issues, so I wanted to create a class that would allow students to voice their opinions about those issues.”

Students of Writing to Make Change have found that the class provides a middle ground between analytical writing and creative writing while also giving its students flexibility. “Writing to Make Change is by far my favorite class I've taken [at] Stuy[vesant]. It's great for kids [who] aren't into reading lengthy novels and writing boring analytical essays about them. We have a lot of creative freedom with our assignments,” Barua said. “Our lessons [also] range from being discussion-based to work periods. Sometimes we talk about the books that we read. Sometimes we do writing exercises, where she reads prompts to us and we write based on a topic that we individually [choose]. Sometimes we color coloring pages for the entire 40 minutes.”

Lee agreed with Barua and added that the class and its practices have made her more aware. “Writing to Make Change is a wonderful class. It has forced me and my class to be more present in our day-to-day lives through our assigned Daily Diaries and by doing so, notice and hone in on pressing issues because our final project is to publish something into the world to make change,” Lee said.

Despite Writing to Make Change being a new course, many students feel that the environment the class provides gives them the freedom to voice their opinions on certain issues. “The Writing to Make a Change course is incredible. Ms. Thoms creates an environment where I feel free to express all of my thoughts on sensitive topics such as child trafficking, abortion, and gay rights. Being able to speak about these social issues at such a high level [with] highschoolers definitely allows us to share our thoughts and how it influences our view of the world,” Hesse said.

Thoms described the importance of having guest speakers like Towsen share their stories to her Writing to Make Change class and the Stuyvesant community overall. “An important aspect of the class is the guest speakers [who] are involved in making change in society in different ways. I think it is important for Stuyvesant students to see alumni out in the world, who have gone through what they went through, using writing in real world purposes. [Towsen] is a great example of this. His visit was wonderful and incredibly funny; I love it when he comes and visits,” Thoms said.