by Amelia Bane
Last Fall, I ran into a guy that was on my college sketch comedy team at a party. After a sweaty hug, he looked me in the eye and drunkenly apologized for “never writing any good parts for women.” To be clear, he did write parts for women. He once wrote a sketch featuring characters named Darrell, Stu, Jeremy and Woman.
It is often said that that more than half of the world’s people are women, but looking at a typical stand up showcase, it would seem as if 99 percent of comedians are men. So when I started doing stand up comedy, I asked for advice from a woman (let’s call her Woman) who had been performing for several years. “Figure out what your “thing” is,” she told me, “and just be that.”
I took Woman’s advice quite literally. Some of my first jokes were about being named Amelia, which is arguably as autobiographical a joke as I could ever write. I rode the Amelia-joke wave for a good long while before I realized it could not be my thing.
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I am a woman. Is that my thing? I am from Virginia. Is that my thing? I am a queer person. I have ADHD. I am the youngest child. Are any of those things my thing? I tend to overthink things. Maybe that’s my thing!
Stand up sets for amateur comics usually don’t go any longer than five minutes. If I have five minutes to make you laugh, why would I spend any of that time walking you through my multifaceted identity? In the amount of time it would take me to explain that I’m a southern, lesbian with ADHD, I could have yelled “GAY-DHD Y’ALL!” at least twenty times.
I do my best to play interesting characters but I will admit I often play “The Mom” in scenes. I love playing “The Mom” because I get to play against audiences’ expectations of motherhood. As a bonus, I’ve gotten very good at pretending to stir a large bowl. When I am the only woman onstage, it is possible for me to rely on my gender and end up playing stereotypes of women.
The Smurfette Principle, coined by Katha Pollitt in 1991, is a media trend in which “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female.” If you’re not familiar with Smurfette’s backstory, she was created by an evil wizard named Gargamel and is surrounded by exclusively male smurfs. I feel a real sense of kinship with Smurfette because I too was created by an evil wizard named Gargamel and I perform improv on a team with two straight, white men. Comedy is about identifying an unusual behavior or trait and finding humor in what deviates from the expected. I work hard to make sure the unusual thing is never my gender or sexuality.
Figure out what your “thing” is and just be that.
Until recently, queerness qualified as the unusual thing. There’s a whole episode of Friends in which Chandler debates whether or not he should invite his gay father to his wedding. I won’t go into it. The point is, until not so long ago “Gay” could be and was regularly used as a punchline. That has changed. A show called “Thank You For Coming Out” invites comedians to share their coming out stories and UCB hosts Here and Queer, a monthly improv show featuring a full lineup of LGBTQ improvisers.
When I first came out, I felt like I had to acknowledge my sexuality in my comedy—that it had to be my thing. With time, I’ve come to understand that I can talk about it if I have something funny to say or I can leave it alone. It is not, in itself, the unusual thing. In fact, my “thing” is not any one demographic anomaly or even a hyphenated compilation of anomalies. The fact that I don’t have to think about my identity as a queer woman at every moment is a privilege afforded to me by a lot of people who spent their lives working hard. But when I am the only woman or queer person onstage, I often find myself pushing back against limiting roles that cast me as an accent to straight/male performers. Not relying on easy laughs of these tropes has made me a better comedian.
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A comic I know recently complained that he shouldn’t even do stand up anymore because, “I’m a straight, white man in my twenties. My voice doesn’t matter.” Honestly, this is the funniest thing I think he has ever said. I think he should do stand up forever.