WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman kicks off the Toxic Comedy Contest at Monty Hall on July 29. Credit: Cole Goins

“A guy with lead poisoning, a guy with respiratory disease and a guy with polychlorinated biphenyl exposure walk into a bar …”

Thus began the first-ever comedy event dedicated to environmental contamination. It was a stand-up night with a special twist: On July 29, 12 comedians each performed original material at WFMU’s Monty Hall in Jersey City inspired by tales of toxicity in the Garden State.

It might seem like a depressing theme for an evening of comedy, but that was part of the challenge. WFMU and The Center for Investigative Reporting launched the event series, Toxic Comedy, to spotlight the very serious ways that toxic contamination affects communities across New Jersey through fact-based stand-up.

It’s all part of Dirty Little Secrets, a collaborative investigative journalism project involving media and arts partners across New Jersey exploring the state’s toxic legacy. For the past year, CIR has helped coordinate this extensive series, with partners uncovering everything from the health effects of diesel exhaust to the hundreds of contaminated sites with no cleanup plan in place.

CIR and WFMU convened the July event as a pilot for the Toxic Comedy concept. We invited local comedians to try out their own pollution-themed humor, competing for cash prizes and the chance to perform at our (one-stop) Toxic Comedy World Tour on Saturday at Monty Hall.

Comics each delivered 5-minute sets poking fun at everything from New Jersey’s distinction as the state with the most Superfund sites to the PJP Landfill fire. Chrissie Mayr managed to squeeze in a Pokémon Go joke.

“What’s the difference between a Superfund and a PokéStop?” Mayr asked. “With a Superfund, that is actually what the animals look like.”

Several comics adopted personas to channel the issues. Ryan Rummel, the evening’s runner-up, performed as his own lawyer, pitching the audience on a law firm that would fight for the litter bugs and other minor polluters. Tabitha Vidaurri, the contest winner, created her own puppet with an origin story that involved a swim in the highly contaminated Passaic River.

Here’s a highlight reel from the evening:

Why are we using stand-up comedy to talk about pollution?

A few reasons. First, a key part of our Dirty Little Secrets collaboration explored creative ways to engage New Jerseyans with our reporting. WNYC invited residents to contribute information about local contaminated sites through an interactive map, Rutgers University and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University hosted a student reporting contest on environmental issues and George Street Playhouse staged an original play with CIR, “Terra Incognita,” inspired by the now Emmy-nominated reporting of NJTV.

Toxic Comedy is our latest experiment with new creative outlets for in-depth journalism. Investigative reporting is serious business (often cast as the news equivalent of eating your vegetables), so projects such as Toxic Comedy and “Terra Incognita” seek to incorporate factual reporting in an entertaining and community-based setting.

Second, a growing body of research shows how socially engaged comedy can help spark impact. Take John Oliver’s thoroughly researched comedic rants. Or a segment on “The Daily Show” that recently was cited in a federal court ruling striking down North Carolina’s voter ID law.

We’re collaborating with Caty Borum Chattoo of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University on a research project that will help us understand how the Toxic Comedy shows we’re hosting affect attendees’ understanding and attitude toward the issues. Borum Chattoo is completing work on a three-part investigation of the role of comedy in social change, The Laughter Effect.

Third, the idea was born from the Garden State community. In April 2015, CIR led a design session with stakeholders from media, arts, community and environmental organizations that formed the genesis of Dirty Little Secrets. Convened by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the group met to discuss inventive opportunities to inform New Jerseyans about underreported issues, including local pollution. Credit goes to Joe Amditis from the Center for Cooperative Media for brainstorming the original concept, which involved having stand-up comedians perform material about Superfund sites at the actual sites themselves.

While we didn’t think contaminated areas would be the best draw for a comedy show, the idea stuck. After a conversation with WFMU station manager Ken Freedman, a seasoned comic himself, we decided to give the idea a whirl and received generous support from the Dodge Foundation to make it a reality.

Fourth, we’re treating Toxic Comedy as a true experiment, and we’re hoping to learn from this process in ways that can help inform future comedy/journalism collaborations. Our next event, the Toxic Comedy World Tour, involves a more concerted creative process with the comedians to help infuse fact-based reporting into their material.

We’ll share a more detailed breakdown of our Toxic Comedy framework and lessons learned in the coming weeks. In the meantime, tickets are on sale for the World Tour, featuring Dave Hill, Jo Firestone, Aparna Nancherla, Gregory Joseph and Tabitha Vidaurri.

If you want to learn more about the Toxic Comedy project, email me at cgoins@cironline.org or Freedman at ken@wfmu.org.

Cole Goins can be reached at cgoins@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @colegoins.

Cole Goins is the director of community engagement for Reveal, where he cultivates partnerships that blend in-depth journalism and creative public engagement. He has built and supported distribution networks, spearheaded arts-based initiatives such as the Off/Page Project, led social media and audience strategy, and facilitated statewide media collaborations. He was a senior fellow in the 2015 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowships, mentoring five journalists on approaches to community engagement. Previously, Goins was the engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, where he led audience development initiatives and multimedia features for award-winning investigative projects. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he worked as music director for WXYC, the student-run radio station. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.