I’m sitting in Flappers, the unfortunately named comedy club, fidgeting with my notebook. It’s a weeknight, dinnertime, and I nervously shift my weight on the leather bench that runs the length of the club’s dark main room. I pull a pen from my bag and turn the palm of my hand into a sweaty cheat-sheet. Slurping a Coke, I wait for the host — a bubbly blonde whose bit revolves around not being pretty, even though she essentially embodies the Western beauty standard — to call my name.
Beside me, a friend calmly munches some buffalo wings that will soon give her food poisoning. The host calls her name — Ali Liebegott! — and she shuffles to the stage, grabs the mic, and settles down on a leather couch, relaxed as if she’s home watching a Mets game. Ali has done this before, and I take notes. She seems totally at ease in her skin, isn’t shooting desperate “like me” energy at the crowd. I can do that — act like I don’t give a shit when really my stomach is full of lurch and gurgle. Other resources in my aspiring-comedian tool kit include a strange immunity to shame and a willingness to expose my thoughts and behavior to utter strangers. I feel confident. But can I tell a joke? Ali can.
She’s the one who’d suggested I try stand-up in the first place a few days before as we commiserated over the state of our creative souls. Having been working in Hollywood for years now, Ali juggles the strange challenge of enabling other people’s visions while trying to remain true to her own artistic impulses. “That’s why I like stand-up,” Ali said, and elaborated: The pressure is off. While you don’t want to bomb, there isn’t a producer standing in the wings, toying with your future health insurance. You can be deeply, weirdly yourself. “And,” she said, “it’s just exciting to do something new.”
The thought of standing before a room full of strangers, daring to think I might make them laugh, gave me the tiniest burst of adrenaline. Imagine how terrifying/exciting it would be to actually do it. I was in.
Now the chirpy host is bringing me up onstage, where the lights are reassuringly bright, blinding me to all the eyes upon me. I briefly worry that I won’t be able to see the smaller light set that will flash at me when I’ve hit my time. I worry that I’m going to go blank, trip over the mic cord, develop a new and embarrassing nervous tic. Then I fire up my mental Zamboni and smooth the chatter till my mind is slick as ice. I launch into my set, a three-minute thing that begins awkwardly with the absurd grossness of anti-abortion billboards.
“You knit me together in my mother’s womb? Barf.” I hear a chuckle or two. “What about ‘Thanks for not aborting me?’ Is that what my mother is waiting for?” I query the audience. “Is that what this vibe is between us? Is she waiting for me to thank her for not aborting me?” The audience likes this, and I feel jazzed from their laughter. It pushes me deeper into my set. I recount for them my birth story, told in my mother’s charming, outside-of-Boston accent, like the Kennedys but trashy. I liken the “big, Irish nurse” to Brienne of Tarth, eliciting loud laughs from those who get the joke. I express sympathy for those who don’t get the joke and maintain my boundary around translating pop culture to them. More laughs.
I feel like the audience and I are pals, and I grow looser, my body language taking on a type of dance. I pace a bit, toss my hair. It all feels natural.
My piece ends with a comparison of my parenting style with my mother’s. My mother will get defensive about her choices, sniping, “Well, you turned out all right.” I question whether or not I, with my drug addiction and alcoholism, my slutty lesbianism and TMI literary career, my forays into the sex industry and my trusty bottle of Lexapro, truly can be said to have turned out “all right.”
I end my set to applause and leave the stage embarrassed at how triumphant I feel. The bro sitting in front of me gives me a fist bump as I slide past him back into my seat. “Good set,” he says. Ali smiles and nods, patting my shoulder. “You did great, Famig.” It’s short for Famiglia, our longtime nickname for one another.
The open mics at Flappers function as de facto auditions for the club’s curated shows, and soon enough, an invitation to perform at a women’s comedy show called “Cookies and Sweatpants” arrives in my inbox. My first booking! It’s really happening. Like seemingly every other female in the city of Los Angeles, I’m officially a stand-up comedian.
Before I did stand-up, I got my start onstage during the “confessional”-poetry craze of the early ’90s. (It was a precursor to the poetry slam, which eventually got so big it imploded.) In 1993, in San Francisco, the Mission District teemed with open mics, as did the Tenderloin and the Haight.
Poetry Above Paradise, run by Manic D Press publisher Jennifer Joseph, was the place to be featured. But you had to earn it, leaving a good impression on the tender yet cynical Joseph, who shared her commentary in a wry, Daria-esque tone. When I finally got my coveted invitation to feature, it was alongside Ali.
We both felt like we’d arrived, our names listed in the ad in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. We spoke our very personal poetry into the mic, detailing our traumas and tragedies, our heartaches, our political gripes, the small ways we got our revenge. Estrogen Junkies, Ali had named the night, making a flyer of clip-art Victorian women flinging fruit and vegetables at one another. After the show, she sold copies of her chapbook, No Pink Bows, and I sold copies of mine, Oppress Me Before I Kill Again. We were young and queer and legitimately wounded, but there was humor in our work, even back then, at our most humorless.
From writing confessional poetry, I shifted to writing short vignettes about my life, pieces created to be read aloud at open mics such as Sister Spit, the all-girl event I co-hosted with the filmmaker (then-poet) Sini Anderson. These pieces would go on to make up my first memoirs, but at the time, publication seemed far too wild of a thing to hope for. People like me — broke, queer, angry, unschooled — didn’t get books, I thought. And that was fine.
I mainly felt compelled to express myself to my immediate community of writers and queers, trading my chapbooks for beer. And that was enough. I asked them to bear witness to my stepfather’s sexual misconduct, my screwed-up attempts at heterosexuality, the terrifying night my friends and I tried to help a prostitute who’d been beaten by some men. My own forays, both frightening and revelatory, into the sex industry. These were heavy topics, and I didn’t shy away from their weight. But woven through the pain, almost subconsciously, was humor. And that, I quickly learned, was everything.
Humor made my most strident political proclamations more palatable, because they took the piss out of my righteousness just the tiniest bit. Enough to make the drunken boors in the audience (of which there were many) tilt their head and listen to me, the little “feminazi,” with surprisingly opened ears. Humor signaled out to my people, the fellow queers in the audience, that they were seen; the strange quirks and glitches of our young community, I saw them too, and look, we could share a laugh about it.
This was no small relief. Queer culture in the ’90s was under siege everywhere, helping to affirm the stereotype of the “humorless lesbian” as we responded, unsmiling, to the laughs America had at our expense. What an affirming relief to see that we weren’t humorless, we could laugh — laugh at the idiocy of culture, of jerks persecuting us.
As a teenager, I was part of yet another subculture not known for their funny bone — goth. But my spooky friends and I spent most of our time looking for things to laugh at: The dark humor put forth by John Waters in his earliest, filthiest films obsessed us; we would constantly repeat lines spit from the lips of Divine and Edith Massey. We would mimic Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest with queenie flair; we would find humor in obscure bits of dialogue from films like Desperately Seeking Susan and Times Square. We would make fun of our families and other tormentors, building a vast repertoire of in-jokes and imitations.
In my early 20s, moving to San Francisco, finding a community of both wild, TMI queers and wild, TMI poets broke me out of a certain dour spell, reconnecting me to the joys of connection. And more than sex, even, human’s number one mode of connection is humor.
Recently I was asked to do a set at Weirdo Night, my favorite art-comedy-performance event, curated by the artist Jibz Cameron in the guise of her performance ego, Dynasty Handbag. I was a fan of watching Jibz do her own crazy thing as Weirdo Night’s host, a sort of stand-up breakdown involving spandex and lingerie, disturbing makeup, and stream-of-consciousness ruminations that bring to mind the accidentally lucid ramblings of a schizophrenic. I’d seen John Early rhapsodize on Britney Spears’s vocal fry, seen Ali enact a bizarre, depression-themed game show called Sad-Sacks. Comic Atsuko Okatsuka somehow made comedy about the unfunny experience of living undocumented in a garage, then brought out her charming, elderly grandmother for a dance routine.
I was scared to perform in front of this audience. Doing comedy in Burbank, where just being the kind of gay I am can bring some shocked giggles, is one thing; Weirdo Night people are sophisticated.
When Jibz called my name, I clambered onto the stage in a pair of platform heels and a thrifted Calvin Klein dress. The lights weren’t quite as bright as the bulbs at Flappers, and I could see the faces of the people sprawled on carpets on the floor, seated in plastic chairs, lining the risers against the back wall. I recognized all of them as the community I’d been sharing my stories with for decades, offering our shared trauma for mutual validation, resting in relieving moments of laughter before setting off to war again.
It struck me that with comedy, I’d reversed the order of things. Rather than centering the pain and giving it an edge of humor, I, like most all the female comics, queer comics, and comics of color I’ve become inspired by, have centered the humor against a subtle backbeat of survived trauma. The laughs, I realized, are hard-won. The triumph I feel as I crack my jokes is a pride at having overcome a certain amount of bullshit that at one point had threatened to take over my life. I launched into my bit, and they responded with laughter.
Michelle Tea is the author of a dozen books, most recently the essay collection Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticisms.