Calling out, Calling in: Making a safe space for queer audiences in comedy
Stand up comic Lisa-Skye explores the Melbourne comedy room scene. She IDs as a queer, polyamorous, non-cis Femme Daddy & safe/sane/consensual BDSM advocate.
‘Yesterday, my wife asked me what I’d do if I were a woman for a day. What I’d do if I were a woman for the day? I’d clean this kitchen, for a start!’
I was at a popular comedy night. More popular than most in Melbourne – about 60 audience members, who, to my disappointment (but not surprise) ate up the bullshit the headliner was coughing out.
This was no open-mic comic, no green first- or second-timer. He was a seasoned international act. And the crowd loved it.
Two weeks later, when I was the only female-seeming performer on a bill, the MC introduced me like so: ‘Who here’s a feminist?’ [one tiny, tentative ‘woo?’ from the back] ‘Ok great anyway here’s a very funny little lady…’
It’s not unusual for me to be the only non-straight, non-cis male on the lineup. Which lesser MCs love to point out with intros like this pearler: ‘And now, the only comedian on tonight’s bill I’d fuck…’
I’ve had to burn material (and my audience goodwill) straight-up because the dude before me in the line-up turned me into the elephant in the room by ending his abuse-apologist laff-a-minute set with, ‘Chicks, eh?’ I’ve been ignored backstage at open mic nights because the awkward newbie comics don’t know how to stop talking about wanking for one hot second and talk to a weirdo-looking girl-appearing entity. I’ve sat through dead sex worker jokes, angry lesbian jokes, make me a sandwich jokes, this rape joke is funny (not) jokes.
A very famous, straight, female-IDing comedian I know never rises to the bait. She sits with a rictus grin, sometimes uttering a good-natured, oh-you-cheeky-boy-style ‘aww!’ and a hearty chuckle. She’s one of the guys. She’s a chick comic, but hey, she’s cool, man. Not like those uptight feminist chicks, you know? Comedy is a brotherhood, we have to support each other!
Fuck that noise. When my work colleagues go after my chosen family, I don’t belong to that brotherhood.
It’s 2015. I can pretty much do all the shit Sandra Bullock did in The Net: this proves we live in the god damn future. I’m not going to sit quietly and let Fuckstick McWifeandkids and Dammo Jeans von Teeshirt treat my gender display or my queer community as punch lines.
But you catch more flies with honey. Some jokes are so off, so completely, utterly filled with hate that I’ve just booed until my colleague stopped talking (eh, it was a room full of comics, no paying punters, I was angry, this dude had been doing it for 20+ years and stood by his hateful, violent and harmful joke later so I’ll let myself slide on that one).
I’ve found that respectfully taking comics aside after the show (in person, or if I was too mad/had to run before the end, with a time-sensitive email/Facebook message) oftentimes does wonders. Comics, like most artists, can be extremely sensitive, but a lot of them are good people who genuinely don’t mean to kick down, or go after lower status people. Most times they make excuses as to WHY the joke WASN’T bigoted – hey, come on, I love gay people! It’s just a fun stereotype! – but with patience and kindness, I’ve turned them around. And fuck it feels good.
Sometimes you get the lost causes. Last year I did a gig with a comic who’s since sunk without a trace – let’s call him Guy Generique. He ended a joke about his ex with, ‘but she was fat, anyway, so whatever’. Afterwards I took him aside and gave him the sandwich: ‘I loved joke x, joke y was unkind, loved your delivery of that other line in joke z…’ And he didn’t get it. I tried again: ‘Do you see why “she was fat” is an unkind way to end the joke?’ ‘Yeah nah, but the joke’s on me, since I DATED a fat chick!’
Yeah ok mate. I wasn’t getting through. So as we spoke, I took out my phone and got out this picture of Va Va Boombah, the Fat Burlesque group for whom I’m Co-Artistic Director (with the kickarse Aimee Nichols).
Photo credit: Georgia Laughton Photography
I showed it to GG. ‘See this picture?’ ‘Yeah!’ he said, eyes wide, taking in the fucking resplendence, ‘Well, I just tweeted your joke. And now, none of them are ever going to fuck you.’ ‘Awww, why’d you do thaaaat?’ he whined, like a toddler whose Tonka had been smashed by the station wagon. ‘Because the joke was on you, buddy.’ I sighed.
Did it make him change his ways? Who knows. Like I said, he soon sunk without a trace. But man, it felt good.
I’ve created a Facebook group dedicated to kicking up: it’s a safe space for performers to respectfully ask each other, ‘hey, is this racist/transphobic/cultural appropriation/etc?’ It’s a new group but it’s helping, in increments, tease out these questions of when tropes and stereotypes are funny because of shared experience, or harmful because they rely on perpetuating negative stereotyping or kicking down.
As far as comics in the wild go: I can’t ever guarantee a comedy room is going to be a safe space unless I’m running it. There are some rad feminists running rooms out there (Ange Thompson chief among them), and they do what they can to ensure smart comedy is on their bill, with dodgy fuckers swiftly getting blackballed. The excellent Clayton Steele ran a room last year, Private Bin, at the wonderful Butterfly Club, which focused on new material. Beer started at $5. Any time anyone said anything bigoted, beer went up one dollar (as determined by the amazing Butterfly Club staff). Beer rarely went up in price, to the comics’ credit: once they had a meter for accountability, they really scrutinized what they said.
So there is hope.
Show-bos and muggles alike, we’ve all said stuff off-the-cuff that we regret, especially in high-pressure situations. For comics, this can unfortunately be in front of an audience. God, I’ve had awful stuff just spring out of me, in those situations where brain/mouth weren’t connected but for the knowledge that I was losing the audience/forgot my place/was tired, stressed or more nervous than usual. So be kind to comics. If they say something you object to, a friendly word after the show, or a friendly email might change the ways of a clueless, sheltered cis person who genuinely has no idea that the word ‘tranny’ is offensive (I’ve been there. 2011. As soon as a friend gently pointed it out, I dropped it from my joke like a hot hate-tato). It feels good in the moment to boo, to disrupt, to heckle, to sting them like they’ve just stung you. Then take to social media rather than actually engaging the performer. But if you have it in you, if you have the spoons, respectfully and gently educating them is much more effective.
Sadly, it is our job to educate. As not-straight, or not-vanilla, or not-monogamous, or not-cis, or whatever ‘other’ you identify with, we have to. It’s fucking exhausting, but it’s the only way people who’ve never met anyone like us will come to understanding our experiences. And if they won’t accept it, even after you’ve explained yourself, if they bite back without the kindness, patience, sensitivity and respect you’ve extended to them, then burn the fucker to the ground, or call them out in whichever way you see fit.
So, how do we make comedy a safe space for queers? Besides all this, I have no idea. Short of setting up our own comedy rooms. And hey, if you need an MC or headliner, Papa Skye is always available.
I’m trying. In rooms, online, from page to stage, I’m trying to get fellow comedians to be better, and do better. Wanna join me?
First published in CQ2: Comedy
Lisa-Skye is Melbourne’s favourite sparklepuppy muppet dominatrix comedian. Her uniquely positive and inclusive humour and her glitter-bomb high-energy delivery have made her a favourite on the International arts festival circuit. This pocket rocket has to be seen to be believed. Find more of her at thelisaskye.com