You caught a lot of bile when you started coming up in the comedy world. You were doing well pretty quickly, and there was some pushback. Are you cool to talk about that a bit?
I definitely did, but it took me a while to realize it was all coming from a very small concentration of, well, losers. Like, sad men who wanted to hurt my feelings…and succeeded. I feel the same way about #GamerGate. It’s a small group of dudes who are chasing after trailblazing women in gaming because it feels threatening to see anyone else’s point of view.
If you get to the point with any community where you are the minority and you’re feeling like you don’t fit in, your voice doesn’t count, or people are going after you, the best thing to do is double down on your work and take ample breaks when necessary. More often than not, I have people come up to me and tell me they admire that I call out pricks on their nonsense. Of course, no one else is ridiculous enough to burn as many bridges as I have, so maybe they’re the smart ones!
If you let someone being shitty stop you from doing what you love, they win. There’s always a more creative way to approach things. I perform mostly on shows and work with other comedians I know and trust. I do things like write, podcast, and storytelling shows as a way to get out there without being so immersed in stand-up comedy that I can’t see a way out of it. I also try to reach out to people I admire and work with them on small projects.
What can straight white male comics (or anyone looking to be an ally) do to make comedy shows safer spaces for women, people of color, and LGBTQ-identified comics?
Don’t book comics with racist, homophobic, and/or sexist material. That sounds so basic, but well over half of the stand-up shows I’ve been on have failed at this. The other thing I suggest, which people get SO MAD at, is to go out of your way to book people of color, women, and queer folks. Because a lot of time, there’s an intimidation factor.
I don’t try to get on shows if I see they’ve mostly booked straight white dudes all year. The message they are sending out is that they are not making diversity a priority. But then people get very offended by that, and start whining about “quotas” and how they shouldn’t be forced to book anyone. When, really, there’s just an unspoken “straight white guy, aged 20 to 35” quota that gets met every single night of the week.
It feels like people are finally dropping that weird debate about whether women are CAPABLE of being funny. Do you think the term “female comedian” is next on the chopping block?
No—I want to know if someone is a female performer. I like watching women. I get a bit annoyed by female comics who want to divorce themselves from their gender, like “I’m not a FEMALE comic!” Instead of trying to not be a girl, how about we all just elevate the profile of women in comedy and make it fairer and more equal for everyone?
It’s frustrating, because it can seem like people use “female comedian,” or “female firefighter,” or whatever to suggest men are actual comedians/firefighters, and women are little hamsters holding tiny microphones/hoses—like cute little oddities that can’t really get it right.
If you want to be “one of the guys,” what I hear is, you want to leave other women behind you. I don’t want bad things to happen to men; I just think that there are too many guys who literally can’t watch a woman in comedy without being threatened by it. Like, comedy is seen as this thing men do to impress women, and not something we can all do equally (if differently) well.
There’s that weird pressure to be the female comic some drunk guy comes up to after the show, saying, “I don’t normally find women funny, but you were great.”
Guys always seem surprised that women can be funny. They’re used to seeing “comedic actresses” who are cast primarily for their looks, not their comedy. Like, it’s this mind-blowing idea that women shouldn’t have to be hot first, and everything else second.
How did you keep going to shows and performing anyway?
I never fully quit because I never doubted my talent, and when I felt like quitting, I would go to friends and loved ones who would push me to keep going. When push comes to shove, there’s no law saying I can’t take a break, whether it be one week long or 12. I always come back to it, because I love doing it, the connections I’ve made, and the creative projects I’ve gotten to be a part of.
You’re such a busy producer, on top of comedy, on top of a full-time day job. How do you avoid burnout?
This year, I finally came to the realization that I require relaxation time. I have had a host of health issues over the years, and if I go-go-go, I just end up getting sick and miserable due to my crappy immune system. Danz pointed out that I sometimes used to go weeks without a break, then just crashed on the weekends. I am trying to find a balance between different projects and also work in breaks and rest. Self-care and taking care of my relationship and our house is also stuff that is relatively new to me. I lost a friend this year, and that also got me to think about my overall quality of life, rather than just being hyperfocused on performing and comedy.
What are some classic mistakes you’ve seen fresh comedians make, either onstage or in their offstage professional lives?
One is rambling on and on instead of telling jokes. You think you’ll just come up with something, but leave that to people with more experience. In your first 12 or so sets, don’t try to wing it too much.
Sarcasm doesn’t come across as funny as you think. There are a few newer comics who think making fun of the audience, or crapping on the show itself, is a good move—it almost never is. Learn about the concept of “punching up.”
Just be yourself. It takes some time to find your voice on stage, and at first you will just be sort of doing an imitation of stand up, rather than just doing it, if that makes sense. Be patient, and don’t buy into what a comic “needs to” sound or look like. Being earnest is always so much funnier than trying to come across as “cool.” There are comics I can think of who I don’t think will ever be that funny because they are totally unwilling to be vulnerable or real with an audience. Some people can make that work, but not many.
I hate it when people make fun of the audience! It never happens at your shows. Do comics retrain themselves to fit the LGBTQ and women-friendly mandate?
I give a little speech at the start of every show outlining the importance of mutual respect between the audience and the performers. While I try to book comics that aren’t going to be mean or hurtful, I can’t guarantee what they say or do. And people should wait till the end of a joke before they start heckling—ugh this has come up before, people boo the setup before they hear the punchline that justifies it.
What’s your favorite joke you’re telling right now?
The most fun I’ve had on stage lately was doing a year in review with my fianceé. We told all the weird, funny stories that happened to us this year: Like, she had this one long stomach hair, like ridiculously long, and she was so proud of it. Then she accidentally pulled it out somehow? And she was legit sad.
What should someone starting out in comedy do to get going?
Keep a notebook of anything that happens to you that makes you laugh, anything you say that makes someone else laugh, and weird things you see or overhear. After you get a few of them together, record yourself saying them out loud. You only need about five minutes of material for your first few tries. Once you get up there, you can see what works and what doesn’t, and use that to craft the jokes a little better. It also helps to have a friend who will be be your stand-up buddy and go to open mics with you.
You were the only reason I ever tried doing comedy in the first place. I’d never have gotten up the nerve on my own.
I tend to do that. I’m a pusher. Sometimes a little encouragement goes a long way. It’s worth trying something out rather than sitting around, considering it, then talking yourself out of it. Just do it. And whatever it is, you gotta do it a bunch before you’re going to be good at it. ♦
Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. Her first book, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, is forthcoming in spring 2015.