1. CONSIDER THE SOURCE or, a Helpful Primer for Reactionaries
Hello friends. What follows are the beliefs a comedian you’ve never heard of. Talking about sexism online can start a lot of arguments so I’d like to open by heading off those most tedious. First and foremost, understand that I’m not telling anyone what they should and should not joke about – life is a series of decisions we make for ourselves, free speech is important, something something Lenny Bruce. Point is, if you’re someone who takes offense at the notion there are things they should not joke about, please take a deep breath and keep your fedora on. No one is telling you that. Keep telling your rape jokes and also your sexist jokes, I’m sure they’re hilarious and original.
Aside from the core motivation of making people laugh, every comic works to accomplish something different with their act. Therefore, everything that follows is only an account of how things work on Earth-Morgan, a place where Batman always sounds like Kevin Conroy and Farscape was never cancelled. Think whatever you please; I assure you worse is true. I have a lot of dumb ideas, am completely full of shit and am probably just trying to get laid, whatever, yes, fine.
Due to it’s utility for inviting the reader to consider ideas in a similar sequence as the writer once did, much of this will be in 2nd person singular, addressed to a universal “you.” This does not mean I’m interested in an argument with “actual you.” Try to remember that. I had the absurd good fortune to have been born with the genes western civilization decided on as favorites for humans centuries before my birth. The United States puts the needs and experiences of people who look like me ahead of everybody else, and this is especially true in standup comedy. It’s super creepy and, to my mind, a situation where Spider-Man’s rule about great power and great responsibility kicks in.
You might disagree. I don’t care.
2. A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SOME HORRIFYING SHIT
Okay folks! Write your loved ones, put a copy of Gloomy Sunday on the Victrola and load a single bullet in your father’s old revolver – it’s time to review some rape statistics. Let’s start with 207,754 – according to the Department of Justice, that’s the number of rapes that occur every year. It breaks down to roughly one rape every two minutes, in case you were curious. 38% of those perpetrators knew the victim. 97% of them won’t spend a single day in jail. 54% of their assaults won’t even get reported. Victims are 6 times more likely to suffer PTSD, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Is that a lot of numbers? Then if nothing else, make note of these key figures for comedians. One in six American women has been raped or has suffered an attempted rape. Some models try to correct for the rate of unreported assaults and put the number closer to one in four. Furthermore, one in twenty college aged men will admit to rape in anonymous surveys, so long as the word “rape” isn’t used to describe what they did. Now, one can never quite know how statistics like this will apply to any given room; I certainly don’t think that if there are forty men and twelve women in a crowd, that means there will be two rapists and two rape victims present every time. But that’s rather the point, isn’t it? You can never know for sure, but you can know where the statistical trendlines are. So, are there six women in the crowd? Are there four? Then it’s worth asking if triggering one of them is the artistic achievement you would like to make with your act. Did twenty guys show up, maybe more? If one of them has committed sexual assault, would you like to be the comedian who helps him to excuse and minimize what he did? Are these the sorts of connections you’d like to make with the crowd?
Comedy does not occur in a vacuum. The stories we tell each other matter and the stories we tell about each other matter. And while everyone knows you’re a decent guy there’s no denying that a lot of guys haven’t been. Like, thousands and thousands of generations of guys, all over the world. Because of the actions of men and the social structures men have created and enforced the world we live in is fucked up and dangerous for women in ways that it is not for men, without question. Providing cover to this multimillenial crime spree is a toxic cloud of stories and ideas about how men are meant to run and benefit first from the world and how women don’t own their bodies or their futures. This is called the patriarchy, which I like to picture as an oily black HP Lovecraft insanity monster with the eyes of a thousand wasps, crouched on top of our reality and sucking out the joy with his horrible proboscis. You might prefer to go with something in a lich or classic tentacle. Point is: it’s real, it’s awful, it’s made of stories and ideas and it hurts real people. It hurts you, whoever you are. The stories and ideas we add to our culture can make this monster stronger or help kill it.
What you need to understand is jokes that minimize rape and jokes that denigrate the female experience in general exist along a spectrum of ideas in our society that tell women that they don’t own themselves. Your body is not yours – it needs to look just so, weigh just so much, must be demurely covered when men say so, must be seen when men want to look at it, must keep a fetus in it should one ever wind up in there, must be made available for sex lest its occupant be known as a frigid bitch. If you wait around for a man to sexualize you on his terms, you’re a “good girl” or a “lady.” If you sexualize yourself on terms of your own, you’re a “slut” and probably had it coming if something bad happens to you on account of how you stepped out of a social compact that no one ever consulted you about. This is why minimizing the damage done by sexism and rape isn’t a great thing. Because we live in a culture that considers women's bodily autonomy not such a big deal, we live in a culture where women are routinely assaulted.
I used to run a regular comedy show at the Royal Lounge in Olympia, WA. In the early days, we had a small, loyal crowd that I watched very closely and solicited for opinions on how to build a better show. Something I heard while asking questions like that really stuck with me. A friend said that even if a woman had never been raped then she still has likely had at least one really creepy experience in their lives that violated their boundaries and made them feel awful for a long time afterward. And on the off chance a given woman has been spared such misfortune, then she definitely knows someone who has not been so lucky. So for those things to be true and to then sit in a room full of mostly dudes laughing at a dude onstage making light of this horrific thing they’ve been through? It doesn’t make for a fun evening out.
One can make the argument that running the risk of triggering a single audience member for the benefit of amusing the rest of them is acceptable but I do not find that a compelling point. Even if one is only practicing comedy for comedy’s sake and not particularly worried about the impact of their words, they will still find that sexism becomes a problem for comedy as an art. I believe that sexism prevents standup from being everything it can be as an artform and that making people feel weird and unwelcome at a comedy show is absolutely counter to the function comedy has served historically.
3. EDGY IS THE NEW BORING
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: there’s this group of people who all know each other, or who are all about to get to know each other. But there’s a misunderstanding! And some hijinx! Some of the older folks help out but boy, some of them sure don't. Gosh, our culture has some weird social mores, huh? Turns out there are some painful imbalances in the community the characters share or are building but they work through it by going through a bunch of dumb shit together. And when the dust settles, they’re so happy that they're One again that the denouement contains at least one wedding.
It sounds familiar because when you boil the meat off most comedy stories, you find similar bones. Shakespeare’s comedies and every corny fart flick an SNL alum ever made share the same driving element: there is a community filled with tension that gets released in a ridiculous way. That done, the attractive young protagonists are free to marry and start a family. I’m trying really hard not to add a million paragraphs about theater to this already long piece so I’ll hammer through this quickly here and if you want to know more, buy me a drink sometime and I’ll talk about this until you hate me.
Before film, there was theater. Before theater there was, well, theater but of a much less formal sort. You can’t really pinpoint when people started performing stories onstage because before that, they were performing stories at festivals or in traveling bands and before that it was just fires and shadows and songs. The performers of the traveling dithyramb festivals inspired Greek theater, which inspired the Roman, which became the Italian. The stock character stories of Italian commedia dell’arte players were Shakespeare’s first comedic inspiration, blah blah blah, Western canon. But it's all one big continuum of story and performance that tracks back to just plain making up stories around the fire because goddamn it's cold out and we're hungry so it's a good thing we're together. Over and over again in classical comedies, the same core idea turns up: these were stories about communities creating and healing themselves. Absurdity shared returns us to our common humanity and the community may again live together in balance.
A standup comedian isn’t precisely a comic actor but they’re still dealing in laughter, one of our single most powerful social bonding agents. Think of the things we say about our favorite comics. “The material was so relatable!” “She said what everyone was thinking!” “The crowd was really with him!” We’re trying to make friends with the crowd and keep them on our side by letting them in our jokes when we’re onstage. It’s this weird simulation of bullshitting with your buddies and saying dumb stuff to each other but with a lot more lights and one of you has a microphone. What we’re doing is working with the raw materials of friendship and bonding. We laugh together; we are together. What we find funny collectively says something about the sort of collective we’re trying to be.
Looking at comedy as a storytelling tradition reveals just how incompatible sexism is with the pure practice of the art. The idea is to get everyone on the same side, laughing about common struggles. Catharsis is achieved and everyone feels a little more human, a little more present with one another. So to use comedy to tell women in that crowd “you aren’t safe here” or “your experiences are less important here” or “we minimize your suffering here” is a direct contradiction of comedy’s most powerful aspect. Shit, even the word “comedy” sounds like “community” said through a mouthful of potluck food. Using comedy to merely prop up the experiences of the privileged and to tear down anyone not conforming to society’s favorite genotype is to miss the point of comedy spectacular fashion. It’s also harmful: to real people in the real world and to the artform itself.
If you don’t believe standup has a sexism problem, go to any open mic and get back to me. Could be you’ll get lucky and go to a show that makes you wonder what the hell I’m talking about. More likely you’ll get to see a little something I like to call the Damaged Male Parade. Comedy is a very attractive artform to people who are in a lot of pain – the rate of catharsis one can achieve through writing and telling jokes is quite high. For my part, I can say I was pretty much a dead man walking when I got into standup. (In fact, that’s a good way to describe my vibe onstage those first few times). Men will vastly outnumber women and the male experience will be the one you hear the most about throughout the evening. A lot of these guys are hurting, a lot of them blame women and at the open mic, they’re working out material inspired by that.
All of which is totally valid, of course! But consider what that means in practice for your average open mic show: dude after dude slouching up to the microphone to say “bitches, amirite?” before extolling all the many ways women are horrible creatures who destroy lives and have silly wants and needs. Now, these are jokes and people should be able to laugh at themselves so “can’t you take a joke?” is a valid but somewhat misleading question. A better one would be “can’t you take an average of ninety jokes in a sitting, one after another?” Or, “can’t you take this protoform of what may one day be a joke but is presently just an intensely off-putting expression of my frustrated desires and unrealistic expectations?” Or, “can’t you take an alternating series of jokes and protoforms that undermine the humanity of your gender told in a dark room by a succession of dudes to dudes for dudes spread throughout an entire evening? Why aren’t you laughing?”
The net result of this is that you don’t see a lot of women in the crowd at open mics. You see even fewer onstage. And when you do, there are better than good odds that the host is gonna treat that like some kind of crazy anomaly and draw all sorts of undue attention to her gender. The intro is often some form of “hey dudes, get ready to male gaze this lady performer that I’m about to bring onstage in a degrading way!” Now, while it’s true that a lot of this bush league shit gets squeezed out of the game the further up in the ranks you look, the consequences of this sexism can still be seen in pro comedy. I’ve seen friends of mine introduced as their sexual organs at shows allegedly run by professionals. I’ve seen paid, ticketed shows where the host made sure to sexualize the bill’s single female comic at every possible opportunity. When open mics are nightmare boyzones, this “as below, so above” situation starts to develop where sexism is considered a normal part of comedy. The idea that women are intrinsically unfunny is still treated as a credible idea in some circles and it’s a goddamn embarrassment.
I’m not sure when it happened, but there’s this idea out there that comedy needs to be offensive and shocking to be entertaining. It somehow got into our heads that standup was exclusively about pushing the envelope of good taste. Master practitioners of the form like Louis CK, Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope, Greg Giraldo, George Carlin and so on show us that it’s possible to make just about anything funny. Here’s what no one tells new comics, though: we’ve all seen CK, Hicks, Stanhope, Giraldo, Carlin and all the rest. They worked for years to get that good. Everyone starts out with this fantasy of being the guy who blows them all away with the stuff he’s willing to joke about; I know I did. But then you get that setlist to the open mic and discover that everyone else wants to talk about jerking off. Everyone else had a bad break up, too. The edge hasn’t been the edge for awhile. The edge has been crowded with untalented assholes ever since Howard Stern went on the air. The edge is boring as shit.
Because comedy culture is so committed to boxing women out on an amateur level, far fewer play the game long enough to rise through the ranks and affect the tone of the form on a professional level. Standup’s sexism is cyclic and self-reinforcing, which is how sexism works in general. As a result, the prime voice one hears in standup comedy is still straight, white and male. Lameness nips close at the heals of homogeny – art that comes from a narrow range of perspectives is not art that’s being everything it can be.
To reiterate one last time, the purpose of this article has been to articulate the thinking behind how I practice comedy and why I think it’s important not to reinforce societal sexism. A common objection to articles like this is that free speech must be absolute and the great thing about comedy is that it can be about anything. Well, I grant that point and throw it right back at you. Yes, comedy can be about anything. Language and story are incredibly powerful tools which can give the savor of experience to mere words, can make true absolutely anything that can be imagined. When you tell a joke – that is, a story – you’re plugging into a practice millennia old. You’re taking part in something that began around cookfires under cold, bewildering skies when all people knew of the world was that it was full of shocks and could kill them in an instant. We told our stories to share our experiences, to better understand and change the world we were in and to reinforce the idea that we were all in it together. When you tell a story, you are adding your unique experience and perspective to that same tradition. Is your imagination so pallid that you can only conceive of propping up privilege with your gift? Is something dull and hurtful all you have to add?