I recommend you speak to the colleges you booked to ensure they are okay with your show. You crossed the line many times with the graphic description of sex and pointing out the female’s breasts in front of me. Appropriate for a bar, but not for a college. Some would have stopped you, but I was caught off guard and let it go on. If you are new to the college scene, you will find out quickly how far you can go.
This is an email I received from a college activities board advisor at a community college just outside Amish country in Pennsylvania. I am a working comedian. I also happen to be a lesbian. Unlike most comedians touring the college circuit these days, I’m not concerned with the growing fear of the “PC police”. Most people are aware that if they go to a comedy show, they’re going to hear “some shit”. In more technical terms, provocative content is encouraged and expected. I’ve heard from producers that clean comedy (comedy without obscenity, graphic sexual descriptions, etc.) is the one true path to success in comedy, but I disagree. Comedians from diverse backgrounds discussing provocative content have been hugely influential on mainstream audiences; they include Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, and today’s reigning king, Louis C.K.. However, all these comedians have two critical things in common: they are straight men.
This isn’t to say that women and gay comedians are not broadly embraced. Amy Schumer, for instance, is extremely popular, and Broad City is one of the most critically acclaimed comedies on television right now. But I’ve witnessed a phenomenon which is more troubling than the “PC police”. For whatever reason, stand-up comedy featuring female or gay comedians has become a genre of comedy: Amy Schumer is still considered a “female comedian.” One of the few female or gay comics to circumvent this trap is Ellen Degeneres. However, Ellen is known for her squeaky clean observational humor and rarely includes queer content in her act. While the episode in her sitcom “Ellen” where her character came out of the closet was critically acclaimed, the sitcom was later labeled as being “too gay” and was subsequently cancelled. It appears women or gay comedians can become comedy legends, as long as they don’t talk about being gay or being a woman. Whereas straight male comedians can make provocative content normative just by virtue of what they look like. Something about being a straight, male comic can make even the least accessible topics accessible to the masses.
When the host of a comedy show points out that I am a woman it makes me nervous
I am passionate about the material I perform on stage. It is important to me, and that level of passion is what makes me a good performer. But there is a part of me that wants to be a clean comic. I don’t want to be known as “the female comic”, or “the lesbian comic”, I just want to be funny. In early September I performed a stand-up routine on television for the first time. I was the only woman on the show where five comedians performed their routines live. My introduction made my status among the men very clear: “You know we gotta have a woman’s perspective on this show. Am I right, ladies?”
One thing all female comics loathe is the way they are so frequently introduced on stage. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced as “the lovely Ashley Gavin.” Comedians are not lovely, and they aren’t supposed to be. Would anyone describe Louis C.K. or Chris Rock as lovely? Would you even want to see a lovely comedian? Lovely is a word your great aunt Tabitha uses to describe embroidered napkins. Which is the loveliest part of my act? Is it the detailed description of a man coming on a woman’s face, comparing him to a human sprinkler? Or suggesting that we rename hurricanes scary things like “Prison Grade Anal Gang Rape” because people flee hurricanes based on their names?
When the host of a comedy show points out that I am a woman it makes me nervous. I wonder if the audience thinks I am only there because I am a woman, or if a home viewer has changed the channel before I can pick up the mic. But my biggest fear, as I also happen to be gay, is that the audience is internally groaning, fearing a ten minute set rife with period and man-bashing jokes. I want to be funny because I am funny, not because I have a gimmick or that I am a gimmick.
For a long time, I associated my queer content and feminist commentary with hack. Early in my career I performed on the same show as a very seasoned veteran, whom you have probably heard of. He asked me about my set backstage before the show. I told him that I mostly talked about queer issues. He quickly interrupted me and told me it was “Hack…. Ellen doesn’t talk about being gay.” To this day he’s never seen my set.
I’ve tried to find humor in other things, but activist style social commentary is motivating. It’s not that I don’t see comedy in everyday situations. The other day I was in a store and I saw a chocolate bar brand called “Ritter Sport.” Ritter Sport. That’s funny! Are any consumers actually tricked into thinking this is the Gatorade of candy bars? Is this LeBron James’ first choice chocolate bar to shove into his face when he’s on the bench? But then a woman with enormous breasts walked by, and something far more important came into my mind. This woman is like me, she has feelings, hopes, dreams, aptitudes, a job, interests … but she also has fantastic breasts.
I had a new feeling: a complex, interesting feeling that needed to be explored. As a self-proclaimed feminist, women’s college attendee, future Hillary voter, etc., I did not want to be drawn to this woman solely because of her breasts. But I was. That was the sole reason I had noticed her to begin with. And while there was a part of me that wanted to find some sort of hint or clue as to who she might be as a person, something deeper than the chasm between her bosom, there was a much, much larger part of me that wanted to motorboat her.
Of course, I did not motorboat her. I didn’t stare either. To quote Jerry Seinfeld, a clean comedian, “Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don’t stare at it. It’s too risky. You get a sense of it and then you look away.” The tension between my natural attraction towards women and being a staunch feminist doesn’t just feel funny to me, it feels important.
Many straight, male comedians (the bad ones, not the good ones) joke about the “fine line” between chivalry and sexism, and how hard it is to “tow the line”. This point of view is obviously flawed, but even as a well-read feminist I have trouble arguing against it. When I go on stage and state to an audience member that if I weren’t such a feminist I would probably be motorboating her right now, and then proceed to give the microphone a big wet raspberry while violently shaking my head on stage, the fallacy that the line between attraction and objectification is razor thin shatters.
At the end of the day when I go through my joke notebook, searching for the most joke-worthy ideas, the ones that stand out the most to me have the deepest emotional truth. Emotional truth is imperative for a stand-up. If you don’t believe in the material, an audience member certainly won’t. I’ve learned that my best jokes extend from deep confusion or anger, or better yet both. So when I see “Ritter Sport Chocolate” in my notebook along side the phrase “DO NOT motorboat that woman”, the choice is obvious. For a straight white male comedian the “Ritter Sport Chocolate” observation might be the most deeply emotional thing that happens to him that day.
I hear a lot of people complain about how female comedians like Amy Schumer talk about sex all the time, or that gay comedians only talk about being gay. Obviously this is a gross exaggeration, but there is some truth to it. Female comedians spend a lot of time talking about being women, I spend a lot of time talking about queer issues, and black comedians spend a lot of time talking about race and class. From my perspective it’s not really that we want to, it is because we have to. The primary reason we talk about these issues is that we encounter them on a daily basis. I can’t avoid sexism and homophobia, so they find a way into my act. The most covered comedy topics are relationships and family, which should be obvious given that they are the one thing virtually every human on the planet has in common. More importantly, family and relationships are laden with emotional potential, so of course they make for incredible jokes. Everyone has had a family member or lover who has pissed the fuck out of them. However, relationships and family aren’t considered “white male” topics in the way cat-calling is considered a “female” topic.
At the end of the day when I go through my joke notebook, searching for the most joke-worthy ideas, the ones that stand out the most to me have the deepest emotional truth.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, society has attempted to apply genre to stand-up based upon how a comedian looks and not upon the voice of the comedian. An agency I had rescinded an application from had an entire section of their website dedicated to female comedians, which at first was empowering, but then I came across a blurb on the page describing female comedians as an “increasingly popular genre of comedy.” I’m sorry, what? Genre of comedy? Does the presence of breasts on stage changes the entire genre of the comedy being consumed? If you had asked me, “What various genres of stand-up are there?” at the beginning of my comedy career, I probably would’ve come back with phrases like “Observational”, “Deadpan”, and “Social Commentary”. “Gay” and “Female” never would’ve entered my mind.
But this is how comedy is generally consumed: straight, white, male comedy is considered comedy in its purest form. It doesn’t have a qualifier: it’s just comedy. The emotional truths that straight white men encounter in their daily lives (e.g., the Ritter Sport Chocolate observation), are ones that affect the entire population, regardless of background. There is no learning curve when it comes to chocolate bars or relationships; we get it. Even though the straight white male experience isn’t universal, the things that piss them off, make them sad, or make them confused are universal. Its universality makes it “comedy.” My brand of comedy, lesbian comedy, well, it’s mostly comedy, it’s just also a little gay. Jerry Seinfeld and I both have jokes about staring at cleavage, but his joke is a joke, and mine is a gay joke. His joke just works, no assembly required. Most importantly, that joke is considered clean. The motorboating joke I told at the community college is not about breasts, it’s about the relationship between sex and feminism. But because I am a “lesbian comic” the advisor decided it was about breasts, and that it was inappropriate.
Despite being introduced as “the female comic” on TV, it really was one of the best experiences of my career. The show was uncensored, billed as “raw”, and I was allowed to talk about whatever I wanted. I decided to do a relatively clean set because a mentor of mine told me the tape could be used for late night TV submissions like The Tonight Show. I practiced my TV set at clubs a few dozen times. I substituted words in various places to ensure that the joke could be done without using obscenity. In the original set I had used four curse words. I was able to replace “fuck” with “bang” in two places and found that the joke worked just as well if not better. However, I found that “there’s a shit floating in the pool” is funnier than “a crap” or “a turd”, in a joke I tell that describes the differences between teaching girls and boys to swim. At the top of my set I introduce the audience to the world of lesbian stereotypes. I shrug and ask the audience if they’ve heard the stereotype about lesbians loving the Home Depot. When I shift gears to my most serious face and voice and proclaim “I fucking love the Home Depot,” I get one of my biggest laughs. It just doesn’t work unless I say “fucking.”
I was proud of the set. It was smart; not overly obscene; just obscene enough; and really, really funny. The taping went about as perfectly as you can get with a live audience. I sent a copy to everyone in my family, including my most conservative cousins, one of whom is some sort of minister, or something. . . . Okay honestly I have no idea what exactly he does, but this was his response:
“Awesome! Proud of you and not sure how you do it, cannot imagine anything more frightening. I like the lesbian angle and think it goes over well in today’s culture, but think you could appeal to a broader audience, if you wanted, if you toned down some of the language. Just my 2 cents from your cousin in ministry who is fairly conservative and cringed a few times :) Really great! Love you!”
But this was my clean set. This was the cleanest set I could possibly do while still being as funny as possible. The email didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t understand what part of the set bothered him the most. He said to tone down the language, but also blamed my “lesbian angle.” The “lesbian angle,” by the way is either 69 degrees, or any angle at all because sexuality is a spectrum.
It occurred to me after reading this email that the only way for a female comic or gay comic to be clean is by avoiding issues of sexuality altogether. There is no possible clean, normative set that includes discussion about sexuality unless it is being told by a straight man. I will have to be okay with having my comedy labeled as either alternative, or take the route that Ellen has and not discuss sex at all.
In the original set I had used four curse words. I was able to replace “fuck” with “bang” in two places and found that the joke worked just as well if not better.
One of the best jokes I’ve ever written discusses a statistic that states that you are twice as likely to die in a female-named hurricane than a male-named one, because people are twice as likely to flee male-named hurricanes. The insanity of that statement isn’t enough to trigger laughter, so I follow it up with “The female-named hurricanes are taken less seriously than their equally qualified male counterparts. They’re only getting 77% of the FEMA. This means that during Hurricane Katrina some dude was like ‘Katrina? Nah, just that time of the month!’” To top off the joke I come up with names that would be too horrifying to ignore, such as “Hurricane Prison Grade Anal Gang Rape.” What if you turned on the Weather Channel and heard: “The eye of Hurricane Senior Citizen Circle Jerk is hovering right above Ft. Lauderdale”?
This joke has nothing to do with sex in and of itself, and everything to do with feminism and our deepest sexual fears. Despite that, I’ve been told that it’s not clean, even though the joke contains no obscenities. If I’m worried about doing a clean set, I replace the hurricane names with things from current events. A few months ago I changed one of the names to “Hurricane White Boy With A Bowl Cut And Conservative Flag” after the Charleston church shooting. I wondered if I had been a man if I would’ve been allowed to tell the original joke, and why I was permitted to discuss a heinous act of real-world violence and racism, but not hypothetical sexual acts. Is a woman discussing sexuality so openly on stage more violent than and obscene than a hate crime that ended eight lives?
Now back to the letter that I received from the college advisor regarding the motorboat joke I got in trouble for. It’s not a joke about breasts. Just as Jerry Seinfeld’s joke comparing cleavage to the sun is not actually about breasts. My joke is about feminism; how one can claim to be both a feminist but also have sexual feelings towards women. A topic that, frankly, college students should be exposed to regularly. Neither joke is obscene, but both jokes could be misconstrued as being about breasts. However, Seinfeld has the advantage. Audiences give male comedians like Seinfeld the hidden authority to declare what material is too obscene for comedy, and what material is just obscene enough. Until there a shift in the eyes of the general public, my material will always be “alternative”, “lesbian,” “female,” “queer,” or the all too often used, “edgy.” All comedy is edgy. It’s supposed to be. And lines in the sand about what is too edgy should be based on content and delivery, and not on the gender or sexuality of the comedian who delivers the joke.