Justin Cascio elucidates the performative similarities between stand-up comedy and sex.
Being a successful comedian, as with other performing arts, is not one of those “glass ceiling” situations that can easily be remedied with policy or law. Like sexy or beautiful, funny is in the eye, ear, or other ready orifice of the beholder.
My favorite comedienne, Sarah Silverman, specializes in the rape joke. Whether you are the kind of person who laughs in between cringes and comes back for more, is a matter of taste. I like humor that points out my own hypocrisies and delusions. Sure, it takes me down a peg to laugh at my own expense, but I’m a better man for it. Not everyone wants to be made uncomfortable. For me, if a joke points out something about myself that I don’t approve of, I like that kind of stimulation and prefer it to the easy feel-good of more vulgar entertainment. I like to feel like I earned my enjoyment because I’m sensible, broad-minded, and can laugh at myself as well as at the foibles of others, and the comedians I like best encourage me to feel that way during their routines. Dig up my deeply held beliefs and laugh at how ridiculous they are. Go ahead: I’ll thank you for it. Not that every guffawing drunk at a comedy club will.
Christopher Hitchens is not funny enough in his essay on why women aren’t funny to compete with “Jokes for the John.” As well as being both boringly heteronormative and sexist in his 2007 Esquire article, “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” he seems to hate men, too, calling warfare the work that men do which is most comparable to childbirth. So while women are smart and possess the miraculous powers of the uterus, they are not funny, while we men, because we have dicks, are stupid, and kill. It should be funny but it’s not, and Hitchens is apparently serious. Is he this boorish and tendentious because his audience of Esquire readers, presumably straight men, aren’t the ones he wants to seduce?
Sex and comedy are not dissimilar. They’re disreputable, performative, and bring the low into intimate contact with the elevated. Both have their share of death imagery: a successful comic “kills,” while an orgasm in French is the “little death.” Jesters could say anything to powerful figures and have their words taken seriously, a power still found on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. The dismissal of women as unfunny is more than a personal slur: it’s a barrier to real power. In Hitchens’ world, nice girls don’t have any “corresponding need” to be funny; it’s enough that they are pretty and laugh at our jokes.
I’m a bisexual, transsexual man in my late 30s. When I was still living as a self-identified lesbian (with closeted bisexual tendencies) in my early 20s, and I would bring home a straight man, there were two things I wanted to do with him. One was that I wanted to get it on the old-fashioned way: missionary-style. Where I lived at that time, “real” lesbians never seduced men in bars, so that was transgressive enough to be kinky. The second thing was partially an oral performance.
Hitchens and Johnny Carson both explain their “women ain’t funny” position perfectly well; they will happily receive the pleasure of looking at a woman, or perform to make a woman “relax and change expression,” but are uncomfortable with the reverse. They will open up for other men, suspend disbelief in talking horses or blind, golfing firefighters—but not to women. Not this way. It’s hard for me to imagine that either Carson or Hitchens would ever let a woman penetrate him in any other way, either.
There’s something even a very straight man will let a woman do, if he is sufficiently distracted and finds this even a fraction as rewarding as I found it to do to them. The second thing that it was my particular thrill to do, while “changing a man’s expression” through my oral capacities, was to work in a little “sign language interpretation” of the secondary audio track of my desire. Morphologically speaking, the prostate is the male G-spot, and I aim to please in more ways than one. I wasn’t just there to cushion the blow; I wanted to do him as much as I wanted him to do me. This guy was going to be inside of my body, in one way or another; why shouldn’t I get to be inside him just a little bit, too? Sometimes he asked me to stop and I would, but most times, he clearly enjoyed it, even though he would never have consented to it if I’d asked him in advance.
I could write screens full of Silverman/Hitchens slash fiction, and not only would it be hot, it would be funny. They’d start with Hitchens seeing Silverman in a comedy club; she makes him laugh. Surprised, Hitchens waits until after the show to meet her, and a torrid sexual escapade ensues. She dominates him, and he loves it: takes it every way she gives it to him and begs for more. And it all starts because she makes him laugh. To make someone laugh is to seduce them and make them receptive. They become warm to you; the boundary between you is erased. When a speech starts with a joke, it’s called an “icebreaker.”
Silverman takes up space somewhere uncomfortable in the psyches of old-fashioned men like Carson and Hitchens. Comedians who shock are like the sun and the wind in the fable, both trying to make a man take off his coat, though our wind is surprise, not force. What makes some men uncomfortable with girls like Silverman is that she desires and then occupies, with terrifying deftness, the unguarded, base realms of your most private self.
All of us performers, public and private, need to take up that kind of space in order to affect one another because communication is more than just words. It’s the beats in between words, tone, expression, and body language, and while it might have started out being about what I look like, eventually, what I say and do is the most important part and what I want you to remember about me. I’m talking about the performativity of comedy, and the way comedians just want to tease you open, any way you’ll let them. Relax into my capable hands, and let go; it’s what we want from you. It’s the way your body can’t lie about our effects on you that we love, and gets us turned on.
When there’s just two of you, all that matters is one face, one body. But when you do it on a well-lit stage, it’s like making love to everyone at once. I’ve performed standup comedy in a New York club. This is a brag that I share about twice as often as I share my old sexual kink in conversation, which is to say, not that often. In both cases, I really wish I had a videotape of it. Since I was old enough to realize my power to do so, I have loved the thrill of leading a collection of skeptical individuals along where I want to go and making them glad I took them there. I want to show them a good time, make them laugh, then laugh so hard their sides hurt. I want them to touch themselves where they’re sore the next morning from maybe having partied just a little too hard, with a rueful wince and a fond smile, and be glad they did it: all of it. Because a lot of life sucks, is painful and hard, and doesn’t please you and doesn’t care about your pleasure. Comedians and lovers, at least the good ones, sometimes we sting a little, but mainly want you to love us and let us inside, if only for a little while.