Stand-up comedy has paved the way for conversations to develop around movements like gay rights, civil rights and women’s rights and now it’s time for transgender rights to take the mic.
Sometimes during his shift at Starbucks, Avery Sanders, 28, gets questions more personal than a request for a double shot of espresso. On his nametag for work, it lists Avery’s pronouns: he/him/his. For customers who notice this small detail then look at Avery, it prompts them to ask another question: “Why does your name tag say he/him/his?” To this, Avery said, “Oh, you know, just born in the wrong body.”
Avery can tell when people are uncomfortable by his response because they become stand-offish. During one of these occasions, he recalls breaking the tension with a joke by saying, “I know the boobs. You’ll get over it.” When he isn’t working at Starbucks or at his other job as a chef, he’s probably writing jokes.
Avery is a stand-up comic, and his process of transitioning is often a subject of his comedy sets, which gives him an outlet to talk about being a transgender male.
“I always want to make sure it’s (being transgender) mentioned and then like I will always want to make sure I have a joke that talks about what I deal with,” he said.
Stand-up comedians are not always silly jesters on stage, some are advocates and alleys — advancing social change through their jokes. Their approach is no less powerful than the marches or rallies associated with social progress. Comedians have long used the stage to subtly (or not so subtly) advance narratives for social causes like civil rights, gay rights and women’s rights. Over the last few years with pushback against transgender people, with the proposed bathroom ban and the military ban which took effect this year, the proposed headliner of late: transgender rights.
History of Comedy:
Jesters and clowns can be traced all the way back to the middle ages. American Vaudeville was adopted in the late 1800s and lasted until the early 1930s. Vaudeville painted towns with burlesque dancers, actors and comedians.
The genre of Vaudeville comedy often left out moral intentions, and comedians’ words were often enhanced or followed with fantasia-like compositions to help with the storytelling of the joke. However, for stand-up comedians, the laughter they receive is a response to them and the way they artistically construe words, and not aided by costumes or music. The first stand-up comic, scholars attest to stand-up is Charley Case, an American vaudeville performer. Case had apparently got up on stage in New York and performed comic monologues without props or costumes.
In season one, episode two of their podcast, “The History of Stand-up,” Wayne Federman and Andrew Steven highlight stand-up comics like Will Rogers and Mort Sahl as critical to the history of comedy because they added, “current events and politics,” to their comedy. When talking about prohibition, Rogers said, “The American people will vote dry as long as they are able to stagger to the polls.”
History of Comedy’s Commentary on Social Movements:
For decades, the art of stand-up has allowed conversations regarding controversial issues and current events to be accepted.
Matthew McMahn, assistant director of comedic arts, sees comedy as a mode of discourse.
“Comedy’s about communication. It’s another lens of analysis, it’s another way we analyze the world we live in, it’s another way of thinking about issues from a different angle, and it’s about creating an emotional reaction to things,” he said. “Half the time when you laugh at something its cause you’re agreeing to some part of the truth of that thought.”
Although in stand-up, it’s hard to pinpoint a direct correlation between a comic and their direct impact on influencing change, aside from a few like Hannibal Buress, who in October, 2014 after calling out Bill Cosby for raping women (the subject was not new news, but it wasn’t something that was being talked about at the time), during his late night show; saw a direct response in having women come forward to the mainstream media with allegations against Cosby, with this exception, a correlation between comedy and direct impact is usually unclear. However, comedy has been a way to get conversations started about topics that are complex and not talked about.
In the past, stand-up has been able to turn subject matters into a joke while still commenting on the bigger issues as seen in movements like civil rights, gay rights, and most recent women’s rights. Now, there is an opportunity to make space to present a microphone and spotlight for Transgender rights.
Stand-up and Civil Rights:
In a conversation, what is said is part of making a change, but how it’s presented is what can determine whether what has been said is being heard. For American comedian Richard Claxton Gregory (Dick Gregory) in the 1950s and ‘60s, presentation was everything. While he didn’t believe humor could solve race issues, Gregory’s stand-up tackled issues like racism and bigotry. Although there was anger over racism, Gregory neither scolded nor lectured his audiences, but rather got people to listen with satirical observations regarding race. One of his more “classic” lines was about a restaurant waitress in the segregated South who told him, “We don’t serve colored people here.” His response, “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
In 1964, Gregory wrote an autobiography with Robert Lipsyte. In it, he talked about how once he earned trust and a positive reputation, he could turn the jokes so that instead of laughing at him they (his audience) laughed with him. “After a while,” he wrote, “I could say anything I wanted. I got a reputation as a funny man. And then I started to turn the jokes on them.”
Standing out from other black comedians like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Slappy White, (their humor was mainly confined to the black clubs), during the 1950s Gregory became one of the first black comedians to receive acclaim performing for predominantly white audiences.
Stand-up and Gay Rights:
Before members of the LGBTQ community had the opportunity to be given the mic at stand-up, a narrative regarding the (LGBTQ) community was told by straight stand-up comedians. However, while the community was being talked about by these straight comedians, the subjects discussed were presented in an ignorant fashion and were far from promoting advocacy or information.
For example, in 1983, during Eddie Murphy’s comedy special, Delirious, he opened with a five-minute homophobic rant, referring to gay men as “faggots” and even went on to talk about how straight men could catch AIDS from their girlfriends kissing gay men. These kinds of jokes even continued in Murphy’s future sets, like in 1987 during his special, Raw.
In 1996, Murphy voiced his regret for the comments made in the eighties and said he was now “more educated about AIDS” than he was in 1981.
Between those fifteen years since Murphy’s insensitive joke, progress had been made in standup for the queer community.
When thinking about LGBTQ comics, names like Ellen DeGeneres tends to come up first. While DeGeneres began her comedy career in the early ‘80s and is remembered for coming out in 1997, (the same year her character on “Open House” came out), in the realm of stand-up, she’s not the first to embrace her queerness. In fact, in the 1990s, Lea DeLaria (known for her role as Big Boo, in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black), DeLaria was the first openly gay comic to appear on American television and she let it be known, by announcing in her special, “It’s hip to be queer, and I’m a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!”
Nowadays, queer comics have a choice on whether or not they want to talk about their sexuality. 28-year-old comic, Brett Sullivan has one rule on stage: never come out. He explained to the New York Times that it should be inherent in what he’s saying and that “If you stop making it a thing, then it won’t be a thing.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, other queer stand-up comics recognize the value of being able to “come out” on stage. Comic Cameron Esposito recognizes that she’s able to talk about her life in a normative and accessible way because of the comics who did it before she did.
Stand-up and Women’s Rights:
Stand-up comedy has been described as a masculine art form because the performer must take charge of the stage. Along with the broken record spouting: “women aren’t funny,” stand-up has been hard for female stand-up comics to make a name for themselves.
However, the popularity of female stand-up comics is evident in reviews. As of 2019, Rotten Tomatoes score of stand-up specials in the top 10, six of them were women the top special with a score of 100% is Hannah Gadsby: “Nanette”.
When it comes to advancing the narrative forward for women, topics like equal pay and violence against women are just some topics that female comics can assist in shedding light on.
In the era of the Me Too movement, stand-up comics have taken to the stage to share their experiences of sexual assault. Comedians like Hannah Gadsby, shared her story about sexual assault to show that the subject of rape shouldn’t be approached lightly.
Similarly, Cameron Esposito’s stand-up special “Rape Jokes” highlighted her sexual assault experience. In an interview, she shared with The Washington Post, that she wrote the special because she felt that during the Me Too movement the media was focused on covering the perpetrators rather than the survivors.
In the same interview, Esposito also highlighted that it was the women who took the liberty of sharing their stories first that helped her release her special.
Stand-up and Transgender Rights:
Growing up, Avery saw himself as a happy kid. He was always trying to run a joke but would refute the idea that he was a class clown.
Avery’s first experience with stand-up came in 2016 when he performed at Crackers Comedy Club in Indianapolis. His three-minute set consisted of jokes revolving around stories about the relationship between him and his father (since Avery is a Democrat), and about his relationship with his girlfriend.
He laughs nervously throughout his set as if he’s said something wrong; after two minutes of back to back jokes, he pauses. The build-up of awkward silence and the nonchalant delivery of his next joke is what sparks it to be his best received. He pulls out a brown pocket-size notebook from his faded jeans and opens it to a marked page and sets it on the stool next to him, then he said, “So, I have the same haircut as my brother.”
After his first time on stage, he said he almost cried because of how much fun he’d had.
“You know honestly, I think that was one of the best feelings in the world; was going up and doing something I’d never done before and not finding fear in it once I got on the stage. But instead, you know honestly if anything it was energizing and really rewarding and instantly rewarding,” he recalls.
Since his first time performing he’s gone on to perform in cities like Chicago and Detroit. His material has expanded too. As he’s grown in the comedy space, he now likes to have usually ten minutes of material to pull from. When it comes time to acknowledge to the crowd that he is transgender, he’ll pull from a few jokes. One of the jokes is called “Bag of Dicks,” which comments on how many people ask him when he is going to get a penis but more specifically it’s recalling the time his brother called him in a panic asking him that very question.
All in good humor, the joke is centered around how his brother was upset because he thought Avery could pick the size of his penis if he ever chose to get one. His brother said it wasn’t fair and that Avery should have to pick a penis out of a bag, but Avery goes on to describe many of the ways in which that could go wrong.
Another joke Avery tells explains his experience in going from using women’s public restrooms to men’s and how he “downgraded” bathrooms: “Yeah you know girls’ bathrooms are really clean and really nice and then I started using men’s bathrooms and it’s such a downgrade. Like I get why a ton of guys want to poop in the privacy of their own homes because even I hate men’s bathroom stalls.”
While Avery’s jokes don’t call out the larger subject of transgender bathroom access laws, the joke could spark that sort of debate. Other topics regarding transgender rights include allowing transgender people to serve in the military.
In 2017, Patti Harrison, a transgender woman, went on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and addressed the issue transgender people not being allowed to serve in the military after Trump declared it so in a series of tweets. When presenting this subject and the feelings rooted behind why this was a big deal, she did so tastefully by saying, “Now I don’t necessarily want to serve in the military, but I want the right to serve. You know, it’s like I don’t want to go to your baby shower, but I want the invite.”
After his statement in July 2017, the ban went through several hoops over the last year and a half. It was blocked in November 2017, until it lost 5-4 in the Supreme Court in November 2018. The military ban has been in effect as of April 12, 2019. According to the Associated Press, what this has meant is no one with gender dysphoria who is taking hormones or has transitioned to another gender is allowed to enlist.
Not only are trans-specific rights regarding military, healthcare and bathroom laws important topics to shed light on, but also subjects regarding violence against the community, family life, social rejection, and mental health are crucial topics to bring to the forefront of conversations.
According to The Trevor Project, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of those individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
In 2018, a study from The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law looked at more than 1,100 people and found that simply by showing people images of transgender and gender-non-conforming people it reduced transphobia. Although this study was unclear how that directly affected individual’s attitudes on transgender rights, previous studies have shown that exposure to the lives of lesbians and gay men via television increases both positive attitudes toward gay men and support for lesbian and gay rights.
If increased exposure for the trans community has the potential to be positive then there needs to be a shift in representation across media platforms like television and film. In 2017 GLAAD’s LGBTQ representation report in 2017 films found zero transgender-inclusive films from the major studios. In 2018, there were no transgender or non-binary characters counted in the mainstream releases. However, for television in 2018, the representation of regular and recurring transgender characters went up from 17 the previous year to 26.
In the last few years, an increasingly popular way of watching stand-up is by streaming it and now Netflix even has its own Stand-up specials. With an array of comics like Ali Wong, Wanda Sykes and Seth Meyers, it’s no wonder roughly half of its 150 million subscribers watched stand-up in the last year. Since 2012, Netflix has built a portfolio featuring roughly 208 original stand-up comedy specials, with no comedians who are transgender, yet.
History seems to repeat itself the way it did with Eddie Murphy and the LGBTQ community. The conversation about the trans community in the stand-up world has been left to comedians like Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle. In Chappelle’s 2019 Netflix stand-up comedy special Stick and Stones, he made jokes about trans people hating him and cracked jokes about how “confusing” they were. Although Chappelle “tested” his jokes with Daphne Dorman, a transgender comedian, actress and activist, who died by suicide in October 2019, Chappelle’s jokes still resulted in backlash from the trans community and its allies.
For Avery Sanders, rape is a topic he would never include in his comedy. He doesn’t think it would ever be appropriate unless he had a personal experience to draw from. But he does have a story to share about his experience in transitioning and living as a transgender male and that’s the story he chooses to share through his comedy.
Instead of having an episode dedicated to explaining who transgender people are or having a character in a film whose only defining trait is that they are transgender, stand-up offers transgender people to approach who they are and hard-hitting issues that’s not so on the nose.
When Harrison made her joke commenting on transgender people being unable to serve in the military, instead of calling out the president or saying it’s wrong, she addressed it to the audience in a way that they can connect to (in Harrison’s example, not wanting to go to a baby shower but still wanting an invite). In the stand-up world, this kind of joke is referred to as “connector”, meaning the joke has at least two ways of being perceived. One way of perceiving it constitutes the target assumption; the second way of perceiving it reveals the reinterpretation. The metaphorical approach that stand-up comics use to relay a message about a larger issue to their audience is like they’re mind-fucking their audience with a condom, or as Avery put it, it’s like going on a first date: you want your first impression to be a positive one. And you don’t want to like hammer someone down, you know what I mean? You’re like easing into it.
When it comes to marginalized groups, some of the benefits of exposure Matthew McMahn sees possible is helping that group understand their platforms and framing issues and from there find a mode of empathy with one another and find a constructive way of building a platform for the community. He thinks the same holds true for the trans community. McMahn doesn’t think exposure will persuade a transphobic person to actually care about trans people; instead, he sees a greater chance of an impact being made within the community and its kin.
“While it (comedy) may not be great at really getting people to cross into your camp — although it can have that effect — it’s really great for a community to strengthen itself,” he said.
Stand-up and Speak Loud:
The need for marginalized groups to be granted a platform to tell their stories only seems to be growing. While women don’t have to simply do “women’s comedy,” or queer comics have to do “queer comedy,” hearing from comics with direct experiences or a relationship to that community can echo to individuals and supporters of those communities. Stand-up comedy is simply one of the platforms that can help make a difference.
On the topic of moving towards having more conversations about subjects revolving around transgender rights and the experiences and treatment of transgender people, it’s OK for people to still keep their journeys to themselves. For Avery however, embracing and sharing his journey through finding himself is simply a part of how he makes people laugh.
“I don’t think I set out to be an advocate, but since I’m in this position, I know I have to use my position wisely. So, I will say, I think it’s definitely trans person to trans person for sure,” he said. “And I think just because of the position I put myself in I decided I’ll go ahead and take on this responsibility and at least talk about my journey to make people understand better.”