Wake the Giant: How SPB held its biggest event of the year amid act cancellations and budget cuts

Ashley Pelletier and Katie Langley

After over 1,000 days of remote classes, COVID-19 guidelines and virtual events since the last Wake the Giant, Quinnipiac University students expected “Impractical Jokers” comedian Sal Vulcano to take the stage in the People’s United Center and bring back the school’s biggest event.

 However, in an email sent five hours before Wake the Giant, the Student Programming Board announced that Vulcano had canceled due to testing positive for COVID-19.

SPB first found out around noon that Vulcano would not be performing at Wake the Giant, SPB president Shannon Flaherty said. The senior communications and media studies major said when her faculty advisor pulled her away from preparing the stage to tell her that Vulcano canceled, she thought it was an “impractical joke.”

“I was shocked,” Flaherty said. “I thought it was a joke. It was kind of mind-blowing. I plan for the worst, always. I’ve learned from SPB, ‘What will go wrong? What can go wrong? What will go wrong?’ But that’s just something you never think about.”

Zack Iwatsuki, the mainstage chair of SPB and a sophomore in the entry-level master’s physician assistant program, already had a majority of the event set up at the time.

“I found out right in the middle (of setting up),” Iwatsuki said. “The stage was about 75% done. All the tables had been set. The merch table was already set up, the water bottles already out. Everything in the lobby was pretty much set up besides the 360 camera.”

Jamie Manley, a third-year 3+1 film, television and media arts major, was helping set up Vulcano’s dressing room when she and the other volunteers learned he wouldn’t be performing.

“I was actually in shock,” Manley said. “I thought that was an April Fools’ joke. I don’t know why I thought that. I was really upset because I was gonna print out a shirt. I was gonna print out a picture of me and Sal when I met him in 2015 so he could see it. It would be fun, so I was devastated.”

Amber Hill, a sophomore law in society major, highly anticipated Vulcano’s performance.

“I was very excited when Sal was announced as the performer as I had been keeping up with the clues posted by SPB and knew that it was going to be him,” Hill said. “I have listened to his podcast as well as watched him on ‘Impractical Jokers,’ so I was really looking forward to seeing him perform.”

SPB offered full refunds to everyone who purchased tickets to see Vulcano perform. However, Hill was one of many who said they were upset by the sudden change.

“I was very disappointed when he canceled,” Hill said. “I had even taken off of work to be able to attend, so hearing that he was no longer performing was a big letdown.”

Iwatsuki knew that the reaction to the sudden change in plans would not be received well by the Quinnipiac community.

“In my head, I was like, ‘I know this is gonna be bad,’” Iwatsuki said.

In the three hours between Vulcano’s cancellation and SPB emailing the Quinnipiac community, the club managed to snag two “Saturday Night Live” featured players, Sarah Sherman and James Austin Johnson.

Flaherty said that the organization adapted so quickly to the work of her team and an “S.O.S.” from SPB’s agent, who has connections to SNL cast members. Sherman and Johnson responded to the call for any Boston or New York-based comedian available to do a show last minute.

“We’re really lucky, because if we were a school in Maine, we would have been so out of luck,” Flaherty said. “Because of our position in between New York and Boston, our agent was able to be like, ‘Hey, S.O.S., any comedians in the area, literally, show tonight. You’ll sign the contract as you walk in the door.’”

According to SPB, an estimated 500 people attended the free event, based on the number of T-shirts taken, while around 1,500 tickets were originally sold before Vulcano canceled. Hill was among the students who decided not to go to Wake the Giant because she did not know the comedians.

“Although I commend SPB for being able to put something together on such short notice, I had gotten my hopes up about seeing Sal perform, and I didn’t particularly want to go see two comedians I had never heard of before,” Hill said.

While the show still had a decent turnout, the table full of free merchandise, including T-shirts, water bottles and drawstring bags all featured Vulcano’s name. However, Iwatsuki said that people still took the items, leaving none of the black and purple T-shirts.

“All my merch said Sal on it, like everything,” Iwatsuki said. “I mean, my credentials had Sal on them, everything I had said Sal on it which was super awkward when I was giving out T-shirts, hats, which was stressful, but at the end of the day, we’re in college. Free things are free things.”

Previous artists that have performed at the show include Kesha (2011), Khalid (2018) and O.A.R. (2012). Traditionally, Wake the Giant has been a concert, which is what many were expecting out of this year’s show. However, SPB flipped everyone’s expectations by focusing on comedy.

Mateo Rodriguez Barrantes, a sophomore law in society major, said he would have rather seen a musician at his first Wake the Giant.

“The whole setting up Sal instead of a musical artist, I thought it was kind of dumb,” Rodriguez Barrantes said.

However, Rodriguez Barrantes had a positive outlook on the changed performances ahead of the show and said he would “make the best of it.”

“After they said Sal’s not coming, I didn’t know the two other comedians so either they bomb and it’s funny, or it’s funny and it’s funny,” Rodriguez Barrantes said.

Iwatsuki said Wake the Giant has featured comedians before, including Pete Davidson and Mikey Day in SPB’s series of virtual events to replace the show last year. He said that a comedian was the best way to get an act people would recognize.

“Yes, Wake the Giant is traditionally a concert, but we have had (comedians) in the past and the decision was made that the students would like it more if we had a well-known comedian over a lesser-known, one-hit artist,” Iwatsuki said.

According to Iwatsuki, the budget for Wake the Giant was cut down by around 50% from what it used to be.

“I don’t think people understand how expensive artists can actually be, and in today’s world we just try to cope,” Iwatsuki said. “The artists who are very popular know that the universities are going to want them and because of that, they’re going to jack their prices up. In normal years we were able to get some people, because it was a norm. However, with COVID, budgets have gone down.”

Students like Rodriguez Barrantes were already on the fence or unhappy about a comedian performing. When Vulcano canceled and was replaced by SNL members who aren’t household names, even fewer people were happy.

Some also noticed a discrepancy in comments from Vulcano and SPB on Instagram, where Vulcano said he “asked to reschedule” while SPB said he “couldn’t reschedule.” Iwatsuki said that both parties attempted to reschedule, but couldn’t find a day that worked.

“Essentially, what happened was that the timing didn’t work right … We both offered (to reschedule), we just couldn’t come to an agreement in the middle,” Iwatsuki said. “There’s so many moving parts and so many things that have to get approved … (If) even one thing doesn’t work out, it just doesn’t work and we knew that.”

However, Iwatsuki said that those who have planned shows like Wake the Giant before realize the difficulties SPB faced.

“We’ve had a lot of backlash,” Iwatsuki said. “The thing that makes me feel better is that the people who know how shows run and how much time the process takes, they understand the decisions that we had to make from the beginning.”

For some students, the switch in the lineup provided an opportunity to see the show after SPB opened general admission to anyone with a valid QCard. 

Haley Wynne, a first-year communications and media studies major, originally did not plan on going to see Wake the Giant.

“I actually got the email (from SPB),” Wynne said. “I didn’t have tickets in the first place, but I heard that this was happening and I want to support SPB. I know they’ve been working really, really hard, setting up a nice event for everyone. So I figured we’d come and show support.”

Sherman took the stage first, sporting a Halloween dress, checkered leggings and a mullet. She referred to herself as being “dressed like a basketball.” She kicked off the night with a set about Long Island, being Jewish and more than a few descriptive bodily jokes. The comedian didn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics, giving students “the finger” or pointing out the elephant in the room: Vulcano’s absence.

“The best joke the Impractical Jokers ever told is not showing up,” Sherman said during her routine.

Known by the moniker “Sarah Squirm,” Sherman joined season 47 of SNL last year. The current “Weekend Update” guest came into her own in the comedy scene doing absurdly surrealist performance art in Chicago.

Sherman described her style of comedy as “outrageous and violent,” recalling a bit where she impersonated Tony Soprano which involved raw meat.

“You want to create an experience that can only be experienced live,” Sherman said. “You want to give people an experience that’s uniquely different from watching a YouTube video or a Netflix special.”

Sherman’s comedy was certainly an unexpected experience for some, but the crowd filled somewhat uncomfortable gaps of silence by responding to the comedian’s questions about college majors and “campus gossip” surrounding YikYak, parking and food.

Throughout her 45 minutes, Sherman delivered impressions of her father and Bernie Sanders. She also shared her opinion on beaches and moving away from New York, punctuating her jokes with, “If you don’t laugh at that, you hate women” or “If you don’t think I’m funny, you hate Jews.”

Sherman also poked fun at the audience by asking, “No one is fucking and sucking at Quinnipiac?”

Johnson is known for bipartisan comedy, impersonating both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Johnson said the response to his impressions from Trump supporters hasn’t been exactly what he expected.

“I think (Trump supporters) just really hated Alec Baldwin, and they have no clue who I am,” Johnson said. “So if I become a very powerful actor and they care about me because I’m a gazillionaire person, then I think that they’ll be tweeting it about me all night.”

Besides having opposite performance styles, the two comedians both struggled to pronounce “Quinnipiac” at the start of their set. Sherman and Johnson’s camaraderie from performing on SNL was visible through their interactions during the show and backstage.

“I think for a free show, (the comedians) were lovely,” Flaherty said. “I think people who came out came out for a comedy show, and that’s what they got. They got two very drastically different versions of comedy. Sarah’s was a little more vulgar than I expected. But I think a lot of people were entertained by her style of comedy.”

Johnson agent’s asked him to cover Wake the Giant around noon Sunday after both headliners shot SNL the night before. Despite a long night of comedy and an after-party that ended at 4:30 a.m., Johnson contacted Sherman, and they drove to Connecticut together to headline the event.

“I was like, ‘Sure, I haven’t slept in like two weeks, no problem. I’ll get behind the wheel of a car and drive,’” Sherman said.

Johnson said that performing in areas like Quinnipiac’s People’s United Center is particularly difficult for comedians.

“I perform at a lot of colleges and colleges are in big cavernous, open spaces that are really hard to hear any laughs in,” Johnson said. “It’s like if you’re a mechanic and you’re working in a garage and it didn’t have any lights, and you’re with a wrench and you’re banging on the bottom of a car and you’re like, ‘Wow, normally I have lights to tell me where to go next and stuff.’”

Despite cancellations, sudden hiring and mislabeled merchandise, Iwatsuki and the rest of SPB did what few could, pulling together an entire event in just eight hours.

“What made it better was that I knew I could trust my team and I knew that we were working really hard and, ultimately, we pulled it off,” Iwatsuki said. “I’m super proud of it and I’m super proud of all my volunteers.”