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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

A Kansas City comic wants to give herself the joy and laughter she once saved for her audience

A woman wearing a black jacket and with braided hair stands smiling outside a restaurant at night.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Open-mic nights are back at The Rino in North Kansas City, and Ameerah Sanders is in on the action. Here she stands outside the club on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

Ameerah Sanders is returning to Kansas City’s standup scene after going through a breakup, political disillusionment and a solo cross-country odyssey. The experience taught her how much more she has to offer — not to others, but to herself.

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At a little bar called the Rino in North Kansas City, indie comics donning hoodies and jeans file in for Wednesday's weekly open-mic night. Ameerah Sanders glides around with low-key confidence in a sleek outfit: black fitted turtleneck, black pants, black fannie pack.

Her magenta lipstick and pink hair beads pop. She laughs a lot.

Like everyone else here, she's getting ready to work out new material. This a room full of friends.

After a quiet pandemic for the comedy scene in Kansas City, open mics are back, and Sanders is back, too. Her standup dance card has filled up again, with three shows scheduled this weekend alone.

Sanders has been a fixture in the comedy community since she moved to Kansas City in 2018, and to the casual observer, it might look like she hasn't missed a beat.

The Sanders I remember from before the pandemic was a young performer with an old soul, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a serious expression, unshakeable in her deadpan — even when telling jokes that made everyone else laugh.

That fit her material: She performed material about anxiety and depression, pacing the stage slowly and pensively.

This night, though, she's laughing too.

The pandemic, Sanders says, forced her to grow quite a bit, a process she describes as "largely frustrating."

"I left Kansas City for like three months," Sanders tells me. "I just was not happy where my life was at all."

 A woman wearing a long-sleeve, black shirt and with long red braids holds a microphone while talking on stage and leans on a stool. The silhouette of audience members can be seen in the foreground.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ameerah Sanders at the weekly Wednesday night open-mic at The Rino on Feb. 23, 2022.

In her early adulthood, Sanders committed herself to activism as much as she did to comedy — most recently, the housing crisis, fighting evictions, working in a shelter for homeless people. The constant hitting up against layers of bureaucracy left her burnt out and jaded, and she officially called things off last January.

"I just don't have the emotional bandwidth for it," she confides. "I've been doing it since I was 18."

That left a void, at a time when her personal life was shifting, too. She needed to break up with her boyfriend.

Instead, this past summer, Sanders packed up her things and went off to live and work on organic farms all over the country, saving the breakup for her return. She remembers a stint on a sheep farm in Idaho with particular fondness.

"I had no idea Idaho was so beautiful," she says dreamily. "It's gorgeous. It was a place where I could walk and 'Oh look, there's an apple tree, let me just pick an apple real quick.' There was wild chamomile growing that I was able to pick and make tea out of. It was a wonderful place for me to gather the strength to come back. Because I didn't want to come back."

In hindsight, Sanders says she left Kansas City to start a new relationship — with herself.

"I realized I need to learn how to be my own anchor and not rely on someone else to do that or hope that someone will give me the attention and love that I want. I have to learn how to give that to myself, and like —"

Here, she pauses before delivering the punchline: "I kind of hate that for me."

This has been a lifelong struggle for the comic, now entering her late 20s. Sanders grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, where she arguably first discovered the power of comedy in her childhood home, when a fight between her parents left her mom crying.

"I remember thinking, 'On TV, when people cry, they give that person tissues and they stop crying.' So I went to the bathroom and I got some tissue, but I didn't rip it off the roll. I just dragged the whole thing to the bedroom and I gave it to my mom and she saw that and she started laughing," Sanders recounts. "It made me feel good."

Three little pieces of paper that were torn by hand are scattered on a table. The one in the middle reads "Ameerah."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
At the open-mic night, names are drawn to determine the lineup for the evening. Ameerah's up second.

This impulse to comfort and entertain others became an even bigger part of her personality after her parents divorced.

“My personality just became like, what do other people need me to be?" she explains.

As the oldest daughter, she'd focused on her parents and her siblings as they all muddled through the divorce. "Oh my mom needs a good little Muslim girl overachiever?" Sanders says. "Hell yeah, I can do that. I'll wake up early and read Quran."

A scholarship brought Sanders to the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she got a more formal introduction to comedy. She joined the improv group — where she was the only Black woman.

"When you first start out, you kind of have a crutch character that you fall into, and most people fall into like an angry character," Sanders explains. "That's just the easiest thing. The conflict's already there. I'm angry, you know? You don't have to think more about it."

The angry-character-for-beginners is one she tried out, like everyone else. But when she tried to hang out with the other people in the group, her overtures went blatantly unrequited. After she finally expressed her disappointment, someone messaged Sanders privately: They didn't include her because she was "aggressive."

Sanders was hurt — and puzzled. How could people who never talked to her outside of improv games have any idea what she was like? Then it clicked: They thought she was the same as her character.

"So then I left," she says. "I'm funny on my own."

Sanders took her first standup set to an open mic night at a bar in Columbia.

"I f–––ing killed," she states unequivocally. "Like, my first set ever. I f–––ing killed."

Suspecting I might not believe her, she adds, laughing, "I have witnesses you can contact to confirm."

Sanders says the call-and-response of joke and laughter made her feel powerful in a whole new way that night — like she belonged. That's a feeling she's still chasing, even as an increasingly established comic in Kansas City.

 A woman wearing a long-sleeve, black shirt and with long red braids holds a microphone while talking on stage. She is looking up and her arms are crossed.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A pensive performer, Ameerah Sanders keeps her audiences on their toes.

In one bit, Sanders confesses that most of what she knows about white people comes from horror films, before launching into a Muslim perspective on Catholicism: "I have some questions, concerns. Great aesthetic, but very creepy." Of communion, she notes that watered-down wine and flavorless crackers constitute "a lost opportunity."

She talks about the strange experience of having people comment extensively on her posterior — a part of her body she can't see, because it's behind her. And she makes a joke about the unspoken understanding that if you're a young woman dropping off your friend at the end of the night, you wait for her to get inside before you leave. "In case a Republican walks by," she slips in.

A room full of people getting it can be a reprieve from loneliness. That's the beauty of hearing laughter.

But even more meaningful to Sanders is when the people in her crowds come up after her shows to say they identify with how she thinks or feels, to say they've been through something similar. "I kind of want to be that for people," she says.

She missed those kinds of connections in 2020, when comedy briefly switched to Zoom. "It's just like, oh, now I really feel like some schmuck just saying things to a microphone."

Now that Kansas City's live scene has returned, Sanders says she feels right at home.

"Coming back now, it's been awesome," Sanders says. "You can come to Kansas City and get good at comedy because there's stage time, but it's not oversaturated like New York or Chicago or LA, where you have hundreds of people on a list at an open mic or whatever."

In the short time she's been in Kansas City, Sanders says the scene has expanded: "There's more. And it's a good more. There's more women, there's some people of color and queer people doing standup. I have my white male friends, but it's not just them any more. And that's nice."

Sanders even feels safe enough in this community to risk not being understood sometimes.

"I'll have other POC comedians come to me and be like, 'How do I get these white people to understand where I'm coming from?'" she says. "And I'm like, 'You don't, you just tell your story.'"

As the Rino begins its open mic, the host lays out some ground rules. She informs the participating comics that if they are white, they should not use racial slurs — something she acknowledges she shouldn't have to say.

"But then I don't," the host says, "and I end up with egg on my face — racist egg, which is the worst kind of egg." She also tells the comics not to blame the audience when their jokes don't land.

Sanders goes on second, spraying sanitizer on the mic. She looks out at the crowd. And before she even speaks, she smiles.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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