Dascha Polanco is a "warrior," and John Mulaney is better than his TV show

Review: For two Hollywood stars visiting SU's campus, one proves that strength is essential to success, and the other that sometimes talented people get mired in talentless shows.

Sitting on the Hendricks Chapel stage, she could have been another member of Syracuse University's Xi chapter of the Omega Phi Beta sorority. Comfortable and conversational, Dascha Polanco, one of the stars of the Emmy award-winning Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, spoke to an intimate crowd of about a hundred (mostly women) on Wednesday night. She spoke of her upbringing, her family, her views on body image and success and the success of OITNB.

Photo: Sarah Hope
Dascha Polanco, who stars on 'Orange Is the New Black,' gave a candid interview in Hendricks Chapel on Nov. 19.

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn by way of Miami, Polanco was told early on by an acting teacher that "making it" in Hollywood would be hard for a Latina like her. Still, she was never discouraged - only inspired to work harder.

"Even though I didn't see anybody like me in the media, I still felt like I was going to make it," she said.

Though she hoped to pursue acting at NYU, Polanco became pregnant before graduating from high school. She was used to doing "so much at the same time," between acting, school and her social life (she said she used to play Chinese jump rope as a kid, though no one in the Hendricks crowd seemed to know what that was). For her, the pregnancy was never an excuse. She pushed on, graduated high school and went "the safe route," pursuing psychology and nursing at Hunter College.

"I don't want to be a statistic," she said.

Polanco was working as a hospital manager in the Bronx when she got the call for the role on OITNB. She said she always had confidence that she could do great things, but life didn't play out in a way she could have imagined. She is happy to be a part of the OITNB cast. She says the show has been successful because it is truly realistic. "People identify with the characters, with these stories."

When asked about how she feels about being a full-figured Latina in the media, Polanco expressed a inspiring point of view: You are only as limited as you let yourself be.

"When you look at yourself in the mirror, and we all do that … society affects us, and makes us believe [our bodies] are an obstacle," she said. "But it's how you feel about yourself that matters."

She said that she does often "comment creep" and she has learned that everyone has something to say. If she takes a picture of her knees in the bathtub and posts it on Instagram, someone will make a negative comment. She says women are trained to focus on the negative and make excuses. However, Polanco believes these are just justifications for not doing what we want to do.

"If I did that, I wouldn't be where I am today," she said, to cheers and applause.

Mulaney makes up for canceled appearance

Across campus, another television star was slightly less at ease at the start of his performance. John Mulaney, a writer for Saturday Night Live, performed stand-up in the Goldstein Auditorium at the Schine Student Center, and said he expected a cooler reception.

"I thought you'd be mad at me," he said, referring to his cancellation of a previously scheduled performance in October. He said he had to cancel because he was busy with another project.

"I have this new sitcom, Mulaney," he said. "If you haven't seen it, you're not alone."

But in spite of his sitcom's poor ratings and impending cancellation, Mulaney delighted the Syracuse audience with his stand-up Wednesday night. In a tailored suit and skinny tie, the cheeky-smiled Mulaney could have been just another student in the crowd.

"I have to wear a suit when I go to college campuses," he said. "Otherwise everyone thinks I'm just another English major."

Mulaney made jokes about a trip he took to Destiny USA to buy a coat Wednesday afternoon, since he came unprepared for the cold. There, he met an Eastern Mountain Sports employee who didn't know where to send him for dinner because, she said, she never leaves the mall. Comedians always have a great time poking fun at snowy, chilly, desolate Syracuse.

The 32-year-old comedian also made jokes about smoking weed legally in Denver, getting heckled at a campground performance, religion, pets, marriage and the ever-present Millenial touchstone: hanging out with your friends' kids.

One of the highlights of Mulaney's performance was his improvisation based on conversations with audience members. He called out to several in the audience, asking them their majors and riffing off their answers. Then, halfway through the hour-long set, he bounded into the wings and grabbed a set list off the wall, which he said was distracting him. The list was left over from a dance performance. Mulaney proceed to improvise jokes about each of the dances listed, including the "bum dance" and "tiburón" (shark in Spanish).

Opener Seaton Smith, who co-stars with Mulaney on Mulaney, was equally as funny, if a bit edgier. Of the 150 colleges at which he has performed, he said, he has been banned from 11. His half hour performance focused on race and politics, comparing murder rates in Syracuse and Smith's hometown of Washington, D.C., and joking that this audience was a little too white for a sickle-cell anemia joke (he was not wrong).

After Smith's warm-up, it was smooth sailing for Mulaney, who by the end had the crowd so won over, they were laughing at the awkward pauses in between his lame but chuckle-worthy improvisations.

Here's hoping John Mulaney can stay in the game and move on past the train wreck of his failing sitcom. If you're so inclined, there are eight more episodes of Mulaney due to air before its final cancellation early next year. Watch it Sunday nights at 7:30 on Fox - then go on YouTube and watch Mulaney do some stand-up to cleanse your palate. If Wednesday's performance is any indication, that's where this comic's real talent lies.

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