A live Who Made the Potato Salad? show.Photo: Rafael Rautha
Meet the Mind Behind the All-POC Sketch Show Who Made the Potato Salad?
by Jeremy Fassler
The first Saturday of every other month, Xochitl Mayo arrives at the Tank in midtown Manhattan at 8 a.m. with a team of writers who pitch comedy sketches to her. Between 3 and 4, they read sketches. From 4 to 5, they cast actors. From 5 to 9, they rehearse. 9:30 to 10:30 is tech, after which the audience enters the theater. By 11 p.m., Who Made the Potato Salad?, a sketch-comedy show created entirely by people of color, goes live.
Who Made the Potato Salad? gets its name from a common question asked at black cookouts, and the vibe of the show is part cookout and part church. Food and drink are served, and a live DJ encourages attendees to get up and dance when a song comes on. Sketches may feature a substitute teacher whose students include the little girl from The Grudge, a misfit Latino vampire named “Drachulo,” and a Mommy and Me session where someone tries to substitute a cat for a baby.
Xochitl Mayo (whom everyone calls X), the half-black, half-Latina comedian who created the show, grew up in South Central Los Angeles wanting to be a performer, and she would sneak out of her room past her bedtime to watch reruns of In Living Color. When she moved to New York in 2013 with only “$80 and a suitcase,” she hustled as a waitress and a night nanny while going on auditions, but she never thought of doing comedy until a casting director suggested she look into it. “She was like, ‘You should take improv.’ And I was like, ‘What is improv?’” she remembers. But after being accepted to Uprights Citizens Brigade on a diversity scholarship, “I took my first class and it was like getting high … I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s theater, but it’s also comedy. This is what I want to do!’”
After speeding through the program — “I was a menace,” she says — and landing on one of the theater’s house teams, X found herself frustrated with the lack of diversity in New York’s comedy scene and the fact that the shows she attended were not just poorly done, but badly promoted. “Coming from theater,” she says, “I’m not used to seeing stuff that isn’t properly branded and marketed. A lot of comedians don’t run shit properly and they think that is funny. They’ll put up bum-ass flyers and be like, ‘I made this on my phone in two seconds! Aren’t I quirky and funny?’” Another problem X noticed was that shows gave the audience no incentive to participate. Whenever X would get up and dance to a song she liked, everyone else would sit quietly in their seats. “I’d be like, ‘This is a comedy show! Why aren’t people rowdy? Why aren’t they loud? Why aren’t they dancing?’” These experiences gave her the idea for Who Made the Potato Salad?
X, who had experience producing, pulled out all the stops to organize the first show. “Being such a nice, open person,” X’s writing partner Shenovia Large says, “[she] had all this access to people who were also great, so she [started] with so much momentum already.” In addition to this, X had a hand in all the promotion, from working on the flyers to riding carpools to telling other riders about the show. Large calls this “completely different” from the lackluster promotion that had discouraged them at first.
The 24-hour time frame for the show intimidated some of the performers at first. Actor A.J. Dunk remembers that doing the first show “felt like I had to take a shit all day … I knew I had to learn the lines, learn the blocking and perform, and I hadn’t had to [do] anything like that [before]. But X told me, ‘A.J., I picked you because I know you can do it and you have to come through.’”
When asked if X’s leadership has inspired her, Potato Salad producer Maria Luisa Acabado responds, “One million percent … She came into my life at a point where I had zero confidence in myself and my abilities. I was just praying and hoping that one person would see me as I am and say, ‘You are enough.’ That person for me was X.”
All their efforts paid off on November 4, 2017, the night of their first show, when X learned moments before going on that they had sold out. “I was like, ‘What?!’” she remembers. “I’ve been producing since I was 18 and I’d been bad at it for a while! But all my lessons turned into blessings with Potato Salad, and that first show, the audience was wild. I can still hear them roaring, I can hear them yelling, and as soon as they dropped songs they were on their feet, dancing in the aisles.”
In addition to showcasing POC talent, Who Made the Potato Salad? has engaged in community outreach, working with public schools in the tristate area to put on improv and sketch-comedy workshops with teenagers who may not know that these are viable career options. Many of the show’s performers wish they’d had access to these opportunities when they were younger.
Large, who described herself as the class clown of her high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says most schools push their black students into sports or music — “You either pick up a ball or a mic,” she says — and that could feel alienating for people like her who didn’t fit into either box. To her, teaching high schoolers comedy is not just about their future careers, but about community building: “You learn life lessons that apply outside of comedy, and you can take those lessons across industries.”
Since their debut, members of Potato Salad have witnessed a rise in comedy shows created and run by POC. When Acabado was invited to Kutti Gang, a South Asian comedy show at UCB, creator Zubi Ahmed told her afterward that she was inspired by seeing Who Made the Potato Salad? “That’s huge,” Acabado says. “If one person comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, because of your show, I did this amazing thing,’ that is all I want, and it’s already happening, so I know there is much more to come.”
For now, the next step on the show’s agenda is their West Coast debut. On February 23, the group will write and perform a show in Los Angeles’s Leimert Park. X, who is currently writing and performing on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, is excited to bring the show to her hometown, but even after a year of doing it, she still pushes herself to promote it just as aggressively as she did before.
“I get shocked every time we’re sold out,” she says, laughing. “I’m truly terrified every show. I promote it, I market it, I talk about it as if it’s the first show, and I have to get people in seats. If we were selling out in a day, then I might, might be comfortable! Don’t think I’m relaxed now that we’ve had a year. I’m even more reckless now.”
When asked if she has any advice to people who want to do what she does, she says bluntly, “People think there’s a magic potion or a special recipe to get something done. The most annoying thing is to hear the most amazing idea and then that’s all that happens. Everything I have is a result of Who Made the Potato Salad? because the fact that I completed something is very attractive. So the advice I have is, ‘Just fucking do it.’”