In 2010, while accepting the Mark Twain Prize, Tina Fey quipped that “only in comedy, is an obedient white girl from the suburbs a diversity candidate.” Nearly a decade later, the scene looks ready to change. Case in point? Nanette, the genre-breaking comedy special on Netflix from queer Australian Hannah Gadsby, is sending tremor waves. But is Gadsby the exception rather than the start of a new rule? We spoke with four comedians, all at different points of their careers, about where they see things. Along the way, we talk about groundbreakers they admire, the difference between playing to straight versus queer audiences, and how being niche results in the pressure of representing an entire group.
How did you get introduced to stand-up?
At 13, I came out of the closet to shockingly little fanfare. My parents were very progressive and exposed me to a lot of interesting and fringe-y art and culture, which is how I found myself permitted to rent Margaret Cho’s I’m The One That I Want. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I laughed so hard I cried, and I empathized with her openness around her struggles with food issues, misogyny, racism, and family.
Until that point, I hadn’t realized you could be crude, honest, vulnerable, funny, and smart on stage. I had assumed all stand-up was like Seinfeld. Margaret Cho was WAY ahead of her time. I’m not sure if her early material has aged well, but it was certainly groundbreaking. Nowadays “confessional” comedy is very much in style; it certainly informs my own comedy.
I always loved comedy and paid attention to it: Mel Brooks, Monty Python, SCTV, Joan Rivers. I did my first jokes at my first year law school cabaret. I got laughs immediately. I’d tried to make similar points in the classroom with less success and much less fun. I got closer to live stand-up that summer when my college friend, actor Phil Lamarr, took me to one of the first UnCabaret shows in Los Angeles at a performance art venue. UnCabaret created alternative comedy and it blew my mind.
Joel Kim Booster:
I started experimenting with stand-up in Chicago. I moved there to do theater, to write plays, and to act, and the great thing about the arts scene in that city is it encourages you to try on as many different hats as you please. I knew I could write and perform, and stand-up felt like a natural thing to try. Slowly, it just sort of became more fulfilling to me than the very limited spectrum of roles I was auditioning for at the time.
Zach Noe Towers:
When I moved out to LA, I became discouraged with how heartless the acting side of the entertainment industry could be. I let a friend sign me up for a spot on a stand up show, and I fell in love. There’s such a community, and it’s all centered around how beautiful and specific all of our voices are–it’s really special.
How is the bar different when you’re not a straight white man? We contain so many multitudes: how does that intersectionality affect your work, and reception to your work?
The world for the most part was built around those guys as the default protagonist. So everyone on some level is working with or against that narrative and perception. Now, should the room be majority something else, the vantage points and, sometimes, value systems and defaults shift. It can be a real comedic leverage point to translate yourself and your people to the room. Paul Mooney’s genius album Race showed me how you can use that comedically coming from a life experience different than the rest of the room.
Because my identity of gay, Korean, and adopted is a very specific one, people expect everything I say to be very niche, but I love to make my experience universal. I think every stand-up comedian does that. On the flip side of that, it can be very frustrating to be asked to represent a large group of underrepresented communities. If I do poorly, the automatic response is “oh, see, gay Asian comedians aren’t funny.”
In comedy there’s a numbers game that is, to a certain degree, out of your control. The easier people find you relatable, the more likely you are to get a laugh. Not everyone is going to relate to my particular brand of comedy. It’s not an excuse for not pushing yourself to be funnier or connect more easily with audiences, but knowing that you’re in the minority is just that, being in the minority.
I fear stand-up comedy will always be a bit dominated by straight white men, and that can really work against someone who’s queer: bookers may not book you, audiences might be filled with bros there to support bros, fellow comics may not even care to listen to your set or defend you if the tone of the room sours. Comedy is tough for everyone but when your voice contains an unpopular opinion it’s truly an uphill battle to be heard.
What’s the difference between playing for a straight and queer audience?
The difference between performing for a gay crowd versus a straight one can be STAGGERING. When performing for predominantly straight audiences, I sometimes have to hand hold, explaining stuff we gay guys just know: if a crowd doesn’t know what a “top” is, a joke could fall horribly flat.
So in some ways I’ve caught myself watering down a “gay joke” in order for a straight crowd to enjoy it. Conversely I risk making a bit that a gay crowd would then find incredibly boring. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but these days I’m just trying to listen to my gut and do what I think is funny.
Queer and other marginalized people have practice reading rooms and code switching. Now that the room can extend on social media and can talk back, comics hear more about it if they’ve pissed off some audience, hurt people, or if their bit bombed with some people. Lesbian comics have an enormous amount of experience with this.
When Seinfeld said he thought it was harder now to do comedy in “PC” college campuses, I thought: man, you haven’t played a lesbian room have you? If you aren’t aware of some things, identities, life experiences and you get it wrong, they are going to let you know. Our community has valued this stuff a long time. In fact I can feel the emails coming to me right now for not being inclusive enough by saying “lesbian” a few sentences ago.
There can be a kind of pathologizing that goes on when audiences see my set. If I tell a certain kind of joke, people will automatically want to put me in a box. “Oh, he leans too much on his sexuality and/or race as a punchline.” My last Conan set, I literally talked about dating. I can’t even talk about dating without people telling me the set is too gay? I think a lot of what I talk about hits universally: my material hits well in places like New York and LA, but it also works in Grand Rapids and Charleston too.
There’s also the struggle of representing people who don’t want to be represented by me. Some of my biggest trolls online are gay men or Asian men. And I get it! It’s frustrating when you’re only given one option (although Bowen Yang, Jon Wan, Andrew Law, Tommy Do, Peter Kim all spring to mind). I wish there were a thousand gay Asian comedians out there, because we are all very different people and it must be annoying to be told “this is for you” when it very much does not feel like it is. Nobody asks Mike Birbiglia or Chris D’Elia to represent all straight white men.
It can be a lot harder to play to a queer crowd, especially a gay male crowd. At comedy shows, there’s typically a certain level of audience hostility at the start of every comedian’s set—people want you to quickly prove that you’re relatable and likable. When I share my experience on stage, there are inevitably guys in the audience who, consciously or not, will have their guard up, arms crossed, and searching for anything that might point to the differences between us as opposed to what we have in common. This is yet another form of internalized homophobia, and it always points back to the scarcity mentality that marginalized groups are made to endure.
Lack of representation, like all other forms of scarcity, makes us critical of ourselves and others, and hypersensitive to public identity: who gets to speak “for us,” and why? This is an impossible knot to untangle, and the only solution is to fight for more representation, more diversity, and more stage-time, so that queer performers can be whoever they want to be on stage without having to feel the pressure of speaking for an entire community.
Joel Kim Booster has performed on Conan and Comedy Central, and his debut comedy album Model Minority is now available.
Henry Epstein recently taped his first stand-up set for a show on Amazon, coming out soon.
Heather Gold has hosted Austin Gay Pride, written for actor Alan Cumming, and starred in her debut solo show–“I Look Like An Egg, but I Identify As A Cookie.”
Zach Noe Towers was named by Time Out Magazine as one of their 10 Comics to Watch.