Tag Archives: sexism

The A/A Meeting #44 – Katherine Williams

2 Apr

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Note: At the beginning of the episode we’re commenting on a painting in Alex’s apartment done by his grandfather of a woman on a bicycle.
We get dirty on this one. Katherine and Angel talk a lot about sex, and Alex gets uncomfortable with how into it Angel gets (not “into it” in a creepy way, but in an overenthusiastic, “hirsuit Dr. Ruth with bigger tits” way).  We talk relationships, vibrators, going to Catholic school, responding to sexist heckles, and balls balls BALLS! Listen to this one with the lights down low and a few candles.

Things That Have Been Bothering Me

11 Mar

As a comedian, I really want to stand by the idea that nothing can’t be joked about, that no word should be off-limits, that anything can be funny and should be allowed to be examined from a humorous stand-point. For my world to function, it’s something I NEED to be true and I NEED to believe in.

There’s still something, though, that gives me a sick, unpleasant feeling when I hear someone use the word “faggot,” “nigger,” or “cunt,” in a joke and then say, “You shouldn’t be offended, a word is just a word” when the comedian happens to be  white, male, and heterosexual.

Now, I know a bunch of you are rolling your eyes right now thinking “Oh, a white, heterosexual male who’s going to tell other white, heterosexual males how to act so he can ease his own guilt.” Please understand that, yes, I have heard the Louis C.K. bit where he talks about “nigger,” “faggot,” and “cunt,” and I laughed and enjoyed it. I am not about to call every white, heterosexual male (let’s just use WHM from here on) comedian a vile, racist, homophobic misogynist. I just want to ask where we get off telling other people that they shouldn’t be offended.

I was at an open mike where a guy was on stage had a joke about hipsters (already he’s losing me with a hack topic) and he had the line “looking like a faggot doesn’t make you hip.” There wasn’t much set-up or pay-off, that was just supposed to be the joke by itself. I, feeling like he had crossed a line, made a loud scoffing noise, prompting him to indignantly respond “Oh, really?” like I was being some prude and I was insulting someone who was being as much of a virtuoso as C.K. himself.

Now, just think about it this way: If you are a WHM, and someone calls you a nigger, faggot, or cunt, those words can never hurt you or dehumanize you the way they can when directed at a black person, gay person, or woman person. None of those words attack fundamental parts of your being, rather, they’re insulting you by comparing you to those inferior groups, and you always have the luxury of shrugging those insults off by saying “hey, I know for 100% sure my skin’s not black/I like women/I indeed have a penis.” A black person can never escape being black. A gay person has the luxury of hiding his gayness from other people, but he can’t escape from the truth of his reality. A woman may have to squat over a mirror to SEE her vagina, but she knows it’s there, and can’t pretend it’s not.

That’s why we WHMs have the luxury to view those words as just words, because to us that’s the only thing they’ve ever been. You can’t expect somebody else to just as easily view them as harmless and meaningless when they’ve actually experienced what it’s like for those words to have destructive meaning.

The bottom line is, it’s not US who gets to grant people permission to use those words. We don’t decide when it’s okay, because we’ve never been hurt. It’s like a guy making a rape joke. You’ve never had the experience of walking down the street in fear simply because of your sex, and having to deal with the reality being that who you are makes you a potential victim at any moment. So when your joke triggers a bad response from someone, how do you possibly have room to say “Hey, it’s YOUR fault you got offended?”

The honest truth is I don’t hang around a lot of people of color in my circles of the comedy world. I tend to hang around people who are typically white, college-educated nerdy types, and venues like UCB and the Creek and the Cave which are mainly populated by those types. I think this actually allows some open-mikers to talk in a pretty cavalier and insensitive way about race and sex (and class, as well, but that’s another post) because they know nobody in the audience is going to make them answer for it. So the only people I see jump to chastise people for being offended by words are people who can’t come from a place of empathy, and emphatically refuse to acknowledge it.

I have seen a few gay comics sign off on the word “faggot,” but as far as “nigger” goes I just don’t get the chance to really witness a black audience member’s reaction to it, and frankly, I think a lot of the comics who throw the word around on stage wouldn’t have the integrity to actually try it in front of one. I would be more comfortable with all this casual use if I did see a sign that it was actually okay, and it wasn’t just us deciding that being sensitive was too much of a burden on us and we didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Talking about words like “cunt” and “rape” leads me to something else that’s been bothering me this week: The way male comedians casually talk about women’s bodies in a degrading way. For example, I was at an open mike where a comedian was telling a joke about going to finger his girlfriend, but then she said “no, you don’t get to do that yet.” He then got indignant and asked why she should say “get to” when she’s the one benefiting from it when all he gets are “smelly fingers.”

I physically cringed at the joke because all I could think was, if I was a woman in the audience, I would be thinking “My God, what if my boyfriend or any guy I’m with just thinks of my vagina as a disgusting thing that he only touches out of some Herculean feat of selflessness? Am I really that gross?” It made me think of how many male comics tend to do jokes where they talk about going on a date with a particularly ugly girl or particularly fat girl and basically go on to shame that person for committing the crime of being a woman who’s not sexually pleasing to them.

To tell you the honest truth, I don’t have very much of a “type” when it comes to women I find attractive. I’m dating a very skinny Asian girl right now, but my last girlfriend was a dark-skinned Greek who was probably heavier than I was at the time (this was in high school), and I have been strongly attracted to people who have been heavier than the norm. When a comic tells a shaming story like that, it doesn’t make me feel bad just out of sympathy for women or out of a need to be a white knight, but it makes me personally feel ashamed for not having the super-discriminatory taste in women that supposedly makes a man a real man. It makes me question if it’s simply a function of my low self-esteem that I don’t seem to view any sexual encounter with a woman as me doing HER a favor for letting her be with me, or if it is what it really is, that I don’t think a woman’s external appearance is her most valuable trait and that the onus isn’t on her to earn the privilege of my intimacy.

If my moral stance on the issue doesn’t convince anybody, then maybe I can get you from a creative viewpoint: As my friend Reid Faylor said when I was talking to him about it, it’s simply lazy comedy to just use a shocking word or to make fun of someone else for a laugh. The C.K. bit about nigger, faggot, and cunt, was about examining those words, and his own lack of self-awareness in how he used them in his life, and the examination was done artfully. That’s the thing, anything can be funny and anything can be joked about, but only if done artfully, with skill and thought. If you want to write a joke that has those words, or to describe your own taste in women, it should be written well enough that you won’t need to clarify it by saying “listen, it’s just a word, no need to get upset about it,” because it will be self-evident in how thoughtful and creative the presentation of the joke is.

So to the open mike-er who bristled at my disapproval of him saying “faggot,” I say, yes, really, because I’m not saying that the word you used is off-limits, I’m saying that if someone is going to use that word in a way that’s productive and actually funny, you’ve proven it’s not going to be you.

Re: Eddie Brill

17 Jan

In summary, for you guys who aren’t comics/following comedy news: Veteran comedian Eddie Brill, who was the stand-up booker for The Late Show with David Letterman, stepped down from his position following a shit-storm of criticism over comments he made in an article profiling him in the New York Times that seemed sexist/dismissive of women comedians.

Now, as when any issue around something like gender or race comes up, people on one side are characterized as hyper-sensitive whiners who want any excuse to act like a victim, and the other side are characterized as ultra-reactionary assholes who interpret any plea for consideration or sensitivity as entitlement. I’ve seen people attack Brill for the fact that not that many women comedians have appeared on The Late Show, despite the valid argument that women are still a minority in comedy, and that comedians who make it to The Late Show are THEMSELVES a minority, so Brill could just be a simple victim of statistics. Then I’ve also seen other people blast anyone who takes umbrage at Brill’s comments as people who have a “everyone gets a trophy” kind of mentality that are just bitter that THEY haven’t made it onto TV.

Frankly, I think both sides have missed the point a little. People’s knee-jerk reactions have yielded just as much noise as signal, if not more. What should be discussed, I think, has nothing to do with who gets booked on Letterman or whether or not Eddie Brill is a decent human being, but instead we should take a break from yelling “SEXIST!” or “FEMINAZI!” at each other and maybe consider there are some problematic attitudes implicit in what he said and how that can reflect on the comedy community as a whole.

I take the following quote as my case in point:

“There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said. “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

I have a whole lot of problems with the phrase “act like men.”

See, I grew up with a mom who basically did everything physical around the house. If something needed fixing, Mom got out the tools and got it done. Something needed moving? Mom was helping you out. I can’t remember a time I ever went to Home Depot without my mom. In fact, even the last time I was in Miami, she was, despite being a sexagenarian cancer survivor, still putting in the elbow grease around the house, taking out pipes to unclog the kitchen sink.

This is why the show “Home Improvement” was a particularly confusing premise for me as a kid, because it tried to establish tools and doing anything with your hands as an exclusively male domain. So was my mom “acting like a man” when she did all those things? Was she being insincere and inauthentic when she lent me her drill set when I needed it to build robots?

In middle school, before I got into wrestling, my predominant interest was cooking and watching cooking shows on TV. My sister often asked me for advice when shopping for clothes. Most of my friends were female. Other guys didn’t call me “inauthentic,” they just called me “a faggot.”

Maybe I’m being a little extreme, but that goes to show what kind of problems there can be with saying that there’s a certain way men or women should act. What KIND of comedy behaviors is Mr. Brill assigning as being “like men?” Being dirty? Talking about sex? Being mean or insulting? What is it about a Y chromosome that makes those behaviors somehow more inborn? Any way you slice it, the very statement sets clear boundaries that there are certain behaviors that are only okay for men and others that are only okay for women, and that is the very definition of sexism. The remark wasn’t made out of malice, I’m sure, but it’s a naked admission of the fact that he doesn’t believe there is (and possibly shouldn’t be) a level playing ground.

What ensues from that is the fact that female comics are also trapped in a serious “damned if we do/damned if we don’t” scenario. If a woman tries to make an attempt to relate to male audiences, she gets called insincere; however, I’ve also heard (non-comedian) people complain that female comics do “nothing but period jokes.” Meanwhile, a friend of mine who does stand-up recently showed me his notebook, and there was one page that simply said “my penis.” Nothing else. This wasn’t even the last page he had written on and simply failed to write more notes on. There were notes on the page afterward and notes on the page before, but “my penis” stood alone on this page as, I guess, a necessarily large chunk of material, which is perfectly acceptable and natural.

Then there’s the whole question of how this mentality applies to any kind of queer comedians. Should a gay man act more like a man to compensate for his transgressive nature? Or should he actually act more feminine to fit with the already established perception of people of his sexuality? I have friends who are transsexual, meaning they already struggle with people criticizing them in their ordinary lives for being insincere or inauthentic just because they’re not acting in the way prescribed by their biological sex. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be if they were comedians and had to deal with that criticism in their professional lives as well.

(Maybe I’m full of liberal arts BS and am just white-knighting. That’s also a possibility.)

Should Brill have been fired? No. When you simply look for someone to decapitate just so you can put his bloody head on a pike and dance around it, you don’t get anything done. It’s kind of like what Louis C.K. said about the Tracy Morgan situation. A lot of anger on both sides is just anger with no productive result. There needs to be both acknowledgment of something potentially destructive AND a level-headed, reasonable approach to correcting it.

Women are still a minority in comedy, and the problem is we have not decided if we want to admit that comedy for women by women is its own unique culture that should be recognized and given its own space or if we should measure female comics and comedy that appeals to females by the EXACT same rubric as that for males, and I think Brill’s remarks show that very confusion. The truth is, comedy is subjective, and while comedy that caters to a certain audience is just as valid as any other, there still happens to be a persisting perception that the only comedy that can be a “mainstream” success is that which plays to a white male audience.

Maybe it would be easier for women comics to get ahead if they actually knew what it is people wanted from them.

Wrong

20 Oct

New York is a haven for liberal beliefs and progressive politics. That’s saying nothing new. Despite this, though, in the last couple of months I’ve witnessed two separate incidents at open mikes where two different guys went up on stage and said the dumbest, most artlessly inflammatory and insensitive things possible under the guise of “comedy.” Both of them went up before it was my turn to perform, and both made me feel provoked enough that I had to respond. Conveniently enough, though, both comedians left before I got up, denying me a direct confrontation. I’m going to share those incidents here so you can decide whether my righteous indignation was, indeed, righteous, or if I’m just trying to play comedy PC police.

First time was at Broadway Comedy Club a month or so back. The Slut Walk had just happened. For those who don’t want to click the link, the Slut Walk is a series of protests where women dressed in various scanty garments march with the basic argument that, no matter how “slutty” they’re dressed, there’s no excuse for sexual assault, and that saying it’s a woman’s fault for getting raped because she dressed a certain way is victim-blaming and making excuses for criminals.

So this comedian gets on stage and begins to completely miss the point of the protest, bashing it, asking, “What’s wrong with just covering up more if they’re so worried about rape?” There was no punchline, just him shrugging and saying what was tantamount to “Guys are just going to rape, why can’t women deal with that?” and expecting the guys in the audience to be like “Yeah, brother, preach!”

I had to grab onto the edge of my seat to not shout something out at him while he was on stage. I wanted to still respect his right to have his seven minutes that he paid for. When it was my turn, I decided whatever material I wanted to work on was not as important as me just expressing how fucking mad he made me, even if he had left. My response was to try and phrase victim-blaming in terms that everyone can relate to, because not everyone can see it from the woman’s point of view, so I put it in terms of something everyone likes: pizza.

What do pizzerias like to do with their pizza? They like the show it off. They put it right there in front of you, showing you how hot and bubbly the cheese is, how savory and greasy the pieces of pepperoni and and sausage are, just dripping with flavor, and they even go far as to say “Come to our restaurant and eat our pizza!” They actually ARE asking for it!

However, if I steal that pizza and eat it without paying for it, it’s still a crime. If I told the cops “They should have covered that pizza up! It needs to be wrapped in tinfoil so I’m not tempted by its deliciousness to steal it and force it into my mouth!” they would STILL throw me in jail because there’s no such thing as slut-shaming a pizza.

Second incident was at the Creek and the Cave. A comedian goes on stage and starts by saying “Transexuals make me mad!” Now, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and think he was going to go into a story about how some transexual was mean to him, but no, he just proceeded to talk about how a woman who “pretends” to be a man (he used the word “pretend” a lot in reference ot people’s sexual identity) is “wrong,” and “You have to have a penis to be a man, am I right?” Once again, a guy asking the audience to be a part of his shitty intolerance, with no actual comedy behind it. Luckily, the audience gave him no such support, only silence. Near the end of his rant (I’m not going to dignify it by calling it a “set” or “material”), people began to laugh, but Alex interpreted it as them laughing at HIM, not his jokes, which I hope was the case.

This time it hit me more personally, because I have friends who are transsexuals, both MTF and FTM. People I value and respect. And this guy went on stage and dehumanized them. I felt hurt, and I felt sickened, so much so that when I got on stage, I fucked up my own material and bombed because I was so incensed I was in no condition to perform. Everything I said came from a place of anger, so much so that even my pre-written jokes just sounded mad.

My response to him (again, after he left), was that since he seems to view women as only useful to him if they have sex with men, transsexuals shouldn’t bother him so much, because if a woman wants to identify as a man, even if you forced her to physically remain female, she still wouldn’t want to fuck you! So why let there be one more useless woman walking the world frustrating your desires when you can have another man who you can vent all your petty grievances about women to?

This comedian was Black, by the way. I am always struck by the irony of one marginalized group attacking another. What I REALLY wanted to say, but didn’t, because he was gone and I didn’t want to offend any people who wouldn’t get the context, was “Don’t you hate it when Blacks try to pretend like they’re PEOPLE? …Yeah, you’re fucking angry that I said that, aren’t you? Well, that’s how a trans person would have felt hearing your shitty ‘joke.'”

As Alex put it, “That guy has probably seen way too many trannies and gotten boners, so now he’s angry about it.”

I felt kind of shaken and distressed after I was done. I was even angrier then because not only did a guy go up on stage and be stupid, but he was so stupid that it negatively affected my ability to do comedy. He was aggressively stupid so much that it DAMAGED me.

Now, what I think keeps these instances from me just being the PC police was that I was totally willing to hear them out if there was an actual JOKE behind it. I am totally willing to admit that something is funny, even if I disagree with the principle behind it. Greg Proops would say that willingness is called “sophistication.” But in both cases there was no attempt to actually spin it into something interesting or clever. They both subscribed to the idea that simply by virtue of standing on a stage in a comedy venue, whatever they said instantly became comedy. The hoped that just saying “bitches be tripping, am I RIGHT?” would elicit laughter from those sympathetic to the phony plight of the victimized man.

That, also, made me even angrier: the implicit expectation both “comedians” had that everyone in the audience agreed with them. Beyond the fact that no, I don’t agree with them and I don’t think they’re right, I look at it this way: It’s one thing for a comic to say something politically incorrect and to present it honestly as “This is my point of view. I know it’s different from yours. Let me show you why I think that way.” One the other hand, to be say, “We ALL think that way, right?” is just saying “I’m going to say something ugly because I feel safe saying it.” It’s the equivalent of looking from side to side to see if any black people are around before you say the n-word. It’s cowardly. Just like leaving before anybody can answer you back.

I say to the perpetrators: You are what’s wrong with stand-up comedy. You are the reason it’s so hard to get people to come to shows people are giving away for free, because the main stream idea of what stand-up comedy is looks a lot like you. Get someone not involved in the comedy community and say “stand-up comedy” and they think of some asshole in front of a brick wall telling you to go fuck your mother, because there are too many people who just try and say ugly, base, dumb things with the hope of commiserating with an audience of equally ugly, base, dumb people, with no attempt to explore the thoughts behind what they say or engage in any kind of thought process at all. I once told a friend of mine in college that I was a comic, and she said “The very idea of stand-up comedy is to be offensive, right?”

The shitty thing is that there’s nothing I can really do about it. To lecture other comedians on how to use their talent to heal and not to hurt is pretentious at best and censorship at worst. But it boils down to this: If I’m able to spend so much time in my own head analyzing my words and actions trying to be self-aware and sensitive, how is it that other people don’t have this same impulse and can gleefully go through life being boors? I don’t get it.

But I can just keep saying what I say on stage, and hope that perhaps my ideas will have as far and deep a reach as the destructive, hurtful ones. I’ve actually incorporated references to these incidents in my act, and have gotten compliments from other comics (just women so far) saying it’s neat to see a man talking about sexism and feminism on stage. People see me and realize that some men can actually be allies instead of enemies. So, I have, at the very least, accomplished that mission, and like with any other bit of pain in my life, comedy will be my path to catharsis.