This is the twenty-seventh article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.
“There’s no warmth like the warmth of people laughing at your performance, and no better feeling than lighting a crowd up and delighting them,” said stand-up comedian, journalist, and activist Francesca Fiorentini.
Fiorentini has spent most of her life comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable—from marching the streets of New York with anti-war protesters to documenting environmental issues as a correspondent for National Geographic to hosting political satire on her podcast, The Bitchuation Room.
A “class clown” from a young age, Fiorentini remembered, “M-A was a blast once I was able to find my people.”
“I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman,” she recalled. “I ran track for about half a semester—I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll run track, hell yeah!’ But then, after coming in last place like a million times, I realized that running was not for me, and that I needed to go hang out with the drama kids.”
So, Fiorentini joined an M-A improv club called Lunatics. “There I was, a little freshman, crushing on the senior boys and playing stupid improv games,” she remembered. “I was having such a great time, so I decided to stick with it.”
“We were the drama kids, but we were cool drama kids,” she clarified. “I know nobody is going to believe that, but it’s true.”
Fiorentini performed black box theater with Lunatics on Friday nights, packing an audience of students into room C-16 on campus. “Room C-16 was our jam, baby,” she said. “If that’s not the place where crazy shit goes down, I don’t know what is.”
Fiorentini directed and acted in plays under drama teacher Rob Metcalfe, playing Viola in Twelfth Night, the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Viola in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie. “I was the star of Bye Bye Birdie—no big deal—and had a kiss in the play, which was pretty exciting for me,” she remembered. “I still have stress dreams about forgetting my lines in those plays, though.”
“The Performing Arts Center wasn’t built until a few years after I graduated, so we performed our plays in the gym,” she said. “Our class crushed it so hard at drama that the school was like, ‘Alright, we gotta invest in a Performing Arts Center.’”
As high school progressed, Fiorentini gained street smarts. “I learned how to navigate the crowded hallways of M-A—the strategy was to stand behind a big dude and walk behind him,” she said.
“We ran the mile in P.E. around the backstops behind the track, which I learned how to creatively cut,” she remembered. “If you run left immediately, go through the halls, and take off your P.E. uniform with a regular shirt underneath—so nobody realizes you escaped from P.E.—you can rejoin the run at a cool eight or nine minutes later.”
One of Fiorentini’s favorite classes was history with Mr. Cotter. She explained, “Mr. Cotter always made us analyze historical events through all these different lenses: political, social, economic, and gender. I really appreciated that, and I still use that framework when I think about history and current events.”
“I remember how wonderfully diverse M-A was, but I also remember that there was a lot of inequality and not a lot of integration among students,” Fiorentini said. “I had friends from East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park who had police patrolling their neighborhoods, and I had friends from Atherton whom the police escorted home if they had been caught drunk driving—I’m not embellishing, that’s literally what happened.”
“Sadly, when I was at M-A, the AP classes were filled with students who were more privileged with more access to money and free after-school time—and those students were generally whiter and from the west side of Highway 101—while Latino and Black students from the east side of the 101 were often tracked to the lower-level classes,” she added. “I always thought that was a shame. I was not in AP math or science and I had a science teacher who literally referred to our regular science class as ‘ghetto science.’”
During Fiorentini’s junior year, The Wall Street Journal published an exposé on that particular fact—that M-A, despite being incredibly diverse, was in effect tracking students by their socio-economic backgrounds.
“As a result of that article, I think the teachers and administrators felt a little bit under attack,” Fiorentini recalled. “But the article wasn’t entirely wrong. I think it was painfully, sadly true that the school was struggling with integration—but the article was wrong in that I don’t think there was any sort of extreme animosity. Some of the things I remember loving about M-A were going to different cultural events with traditional Mexican folk dancing alongside the Polynesian students doing the haka alongside kids from all kinds of different backgrounds and experiences. There was a beautiful and creative, and yet a very honest, tension in that school.”
Fiorentini went on to study Feminist Theory and Colonial Studies at New York University. A week after she arrived in New York, the twin towers fell on September 11th, 2001. “A lot of my classmates dropped out of school because it was very traumatic,” she said. “I stayed and became involved in the reaction that our country had to that attack—going to war in Afghanistan, and then using that as a launchpad to go into Iraq, which I felt was very unjust.”
So, Fiorentini joined the NYU Peace Coalition, an affiliate of the United For Peace and Justice Coalition, and marched at protests across New York City. “As a young 18-year-old, I felt ready to take on the world,” she said. “So I would take to the streets and march outside of big banks and against war, globalization, and corrupt institutions. It was a very enlightening time to be an undergrad.”
One of Fiorentini’s favorite courses at NYU was called Ideas and Institutions in American Society. She explained, “I basically, for lack of a better term, found a Marxist professor who was like, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about how capitalism works?’ I, as a 17-year-old, was like, ‘What’s capitalism? I never learned about that in my three weeks of Government at M-A!’”
“I learned about how capitalism functions in the healthcare industry, in the climate, and in the media, and about how we hold our corporations accountable. That was an excellent class and has stuck with me to this day,” she continued.
Three years later, she moved to Argentina with her boyfriend, where she taught English for a living, ate steak, drank wine, and “never learned to tango, because that’s hard.”
“Argentina was incredible,” she remembered. “I urge everyone to try to live abroad at some point in your life. It was really nice to experience the culture of another country that isn’t so focused on money and careers. We in the United States really obsess about that, and I just feel like young people especially need to give themselves a break.”
In Argentina, Fiorentini began exploring stand-up comedy. She performed in a weekly comedy show and started a YouTube channel in her apartment, writing jokes about what she was seeing abroad.
In 2013, she moved to San Francisco and helped start AJ+, a social media publisher owned by Al Jazeera Media Network that focuses on news and current affairs. She went on to work at National Geographic and MSNBC, and hosted a Coachella live stream in 2017 and 2018.
Fiorentini now lives in Los Angeles. She regularly appears on an online news show, The Young Turks, and also has her own podcast, The Bitchuation Room, where she hosts comedians, experts, and activists to talk about political issues. “It’s a way to really drill down on the serious stuff, but then also kind of take it all a little bit with a grain of salt and poke fun at absurdities,” she explained.
Fiorentini is also a nursing mom. Her daughter Carina is named after the Carina Nebula, one of the first images captured by the James Webb Telescope over the summer. “The Carina Nebula is where stars are born and also where they die. I live in Hollywood, so that’s pretty much where my family is—where stars are born and where they die,” Fiorentini explained.
On her favorite books, Fiorentini said, “bell hooks’s Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center is a great book about the ways that the feminist movement in the ‘70s was important but also largely exclusive to a lot of women of color. I also love Another Country by James Baldwin. Baldwin writes so intimately and I just love how much you get inside the characters’ minds.”
Fiorentini’s advice to current M-A students: “Have fun, take yourself less seriously, and hang out IRL. Go hang around Café Borrone, go up to the city once in a while. Call each other on the phone and talk for hours and hours. Talk to your crush or your best friend for hours and hours. Write notes to each other—those are fun as hell. Have fun being a kid because the serious-ass world is awaiting you and you don’t need to be catapulted into that just yet.”
“I believe the dream job you want exists, you just have to make it happen,” she added. “It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna be rich, but you will be happy. I think that being happy with your work and feeling like you can utilize your skills is really critical. If your skills feel weirdly disparate, they don’t have to be. That’s kind of what I’m working on doing with my life right now—melding together two disparate passions: comedy and politics.”
Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them![/vc_column_text][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]