Can Williamsport, Pa. be funnier? This New York comedian and cartoonist wants to try. – The Philadelphia Inquirer
The St. Nell’s Humor Residency will soon be accepting applicants to stay in its Williamsport home for March 2023.
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Funny people were sleeping in on a rainy Sunday morning, in an old, red house Emily Flake never expected to own, in a city she never really thought about until recently.
Flake, 45, is a comedian and a cartoonist whose work regularly appears in The New Yorker magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, where artists abound, and owns the St. Nell’s Humor Residency, 200 miles west on Route 80, in a small city known more for Little League and lumber than laughs. The residency, according to St. Nell’s website, is open to “women+, non-binary folks, and other people of marginalized genders working in any humor-related field.”
“I feel like everybody who lives in New York has a dream of opening an artist or writer’s residency or moving upstate and buying goats,” she said. “I don’t think I’d be good at goat husbandry, so writer’s residency it is.”
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Flake, her husband, and their daughter were looking for a little breathing room in a less-populated area. She wasn’t the only one. Some ads promised COVID-free rentals in the Poconos, and rural Pennsylvania towns offered remote workers free housing to come visit. A hotel in downtown Williamsport lured Flake and her family in with some weekend specials.
“Basically, it was pretty affordable and it had a pool,” she recalled. “The more I started coming out here, the more I started noticing the arts scene, the great bookstore, and I realized that I wanted to have some sort of permanent connection.”
While most writer’s residencies are nestled in silence and seriousness in deeply rural areas, St. Nell’s Humor Residency is on Rural Avenue, just a few blocks from downtown Williamsport and a mile from a Wegmans. It’s a simple, sturdy house, built in 1903 with tall ceilings and stunning pine floors, in a real neighborhood. Flake swooned when she first saw the housing stock in the city on repeat visits. The lumber industry infused Williamsport with millionaires and mansions a century ago, but even the more modest, American foursquare houses featured fireplaces, hardwood floors, and ornate railings.
“It’s just hit after hit around here,” she said. “People had money to build these beautiful houses. This house is 120 years old and it’s one of many beautiful, graceful places here.”
Flake raised $54,000 via a Kickstarter campaign to help purchase the house.
“St. Nell’s will be a writing space, a respite, and a community for the 51% of the population historically branded as ‘not funny,’ ” the Kickstarter promised.
The sale price — $125,000 — could have been triple the amount or more in suburbs of Philadelphia and New York. The two-week residencies are free and open to families, she said, but St. Nell’s accepts donations. It also hosts classes, panels, and comedy shows, both in person and on Zoom. The residency will soon be accepting applicants for March 2023.
On Oct. 1, Flake hosted a comedy show in a former pajama factory in Williamsport with a mix of comedians from New York and local talent. A crowd of about 100 filed into the industrial space, drinking craft beer and local coffee. The scene had all the aesthetics of a big-city comedy show, save the occasional camouflage or Penn State jacket. Comics, including Kenice Mobley and Jess Salomon of Brooklyn, spoke on issues of race, religion, and sexuality.
“I do comedy to meet white people,” said comedian Gastor Almonte, surveying the audience. “Another successful night.”
Williamsport, population 28,437, is a small pinprick of blue in sea of red in terms of voting, and in the Vallmont neighborhood, where St. Nell’s is, Joe Biden won 66% of the vote in 2020. Around the corner from the residency, a home with a “Black Lives Matters” sign in the window is next to a a home with Doug Mastriano signs on the lawn.
‘‘I feel like this town is a purple spot,” Flake said.
Purple places mean the local comics can joke about rural roads, how poorly lit they are, and how many dead animals you’ll see as you drive along them.
“It’s dark, it’s raining, and I cannot see anything. That part of me is over. It’s all a smear,” Flake told the crowd during the show. “This is really the first time I’m feeling middle-aged.”
One comic talked about the limited radio stations in rural Pennsylvania: Christian or country.
Like Flake, Mark and Suzanne Winkelman, owners of the Pajama Factory, commute to New York City from Williamsport regularly. Winkelman, an architect, said the former factory now includes residential lofts, artist and event spaces, and room for the comedy shows Flake is hosting.
“It’s a good crowd,” Suzanne Winkelman said. “This is what we want to see in Williamsport.”
Flake said the residency has hosted screenwriters, cartoonists, stand-ups, and more.
“The idea is to get away from your regular routine and be around other people who like to laugh,” she said.
Flake’s goals for Nell’s is to promote comedy and Williamsport, and give women a safe, quiet place to get some work done.
“Without burning the house down,” she said. “Please don’t do that.”