by Abby Plener
Scene: A group of white, university-educated, twenty-somethings gather at a hip Toronto bar. The conversation turns to comedian Daniel Tosh and that stupidly offensive rape joke he made. A male member of the group tries man-splain to us all that you can’t have comedy without offending people. A female member of the group tries to the counter his argument. It’s annoying. The conversation goes nowhere. It’s still annoying.
Well, I think I found my rebuttal. In an effort to strengthen my argument and explore comedy’s positive potential, I sat down with toronto comic Catherine McCormick. McCormick produces the weekly Laughs at Slack’s open mic which exclusively showcases LGBT and female talent, and has often been outspoken about sexism in the stand-up community.
Q: What inspired you to produce the Laughs at Slack’s show?
A: I was really frustrated because a lot of my friends who were women and fellow queer people were dropping out of comedy like flies. I wanted to start a place that was positive where people could come and try it out as new comics, and for people who wanted to watch comedy that wasn’t the usual bro rape jokes.
Q: What have you learned from doing the show over the past year?
I’ve learned that there’s a really amazing, vibrant community of comics who don’t participate in negativity. There are a lot of women, especially I find a lot of women over 30, who are creating their own audiences. There’s a queer comedy scene that while it’s small it’s definitely powerful. My show is not meant to celebrate the exclusion of straight men, but to make a statement that there is an audience who would like to see a show of this nature.
Q: On a recent episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, comedians Jim Norton and Lindy West debated whether rape jokes have a place in comedy. Norton argued that nothing should be off limits and that we shouldn’t be censoring comics. What are your thoughts on that?
Censorship is an oppressive act by a powerful entity. It’s not expressing a completely valid concern with a lack of respect for basic human dignity. And if feminists aren’t allowed to take exception to this kind of material, then you’re censoring us! The whole point of being a comedian is to skewer the powerful. If you’re not doing that than you’re just reinforcing cultural norms that are already ground into our minds everyday. That’s not edgy at all. If you’re fighting for your freedom of speech just to hurt other people, maybe it’s time to get out of the comedy game and join the KKK or something.
Amanda Brooke Perryn posted a great piece today about how she had a rape joke, and she doesn’t tell it anymore because she experienced seeing someone who was a rape victim hear her words, and it really affected her very powerfully.
Q: What do you think are the advantages or challenges of using comedy to explore identity politics?
I do jokes about how I only recently came out as queer, and even now my sexual identity has been reforming and shifting. I like to talk about it on stage because it’s a great way to express myself, but also to provide catharsis [for others]. If you get a chance to talk about it and entertain people at the same time, it’s almost an ideal form of activism in that way.
It’s nice to get on stage as a fat, queer, feminist woman, and say: “I’m not the butt of the joke, I am telling the jokes and I’m controlling the punch line”. Avery Edison is a brilliant comic who uses her comedy to talk about being a trans woman. To see someone who’s a hilarious, sharp writer, who doesn’t threaten the audience in any way, but is really having fun with them - that’s so powerful.
It can be used in a lot of negative ways too. When you go to an open mic and listen to 5 or 6 or 10 white guys between the ages of 18 and 22 making casual rape jokes, what does that tell me about that generation of young men that this is what they consider the height of comedy to be?
Q: One of my frustrations with mainstream female comedians is that many still cater to male audiences. Their material still relies upon making fun of other women, or being self-deprecating about their body and their sex life. What are your thoughts on that?
What happens with female comics and queer comics, and certainly in Toronto with comics of colour, is that they hit a certain point where it just gets too hard. It’s a hostile environment, they aren’t being encouraged, or they aren’t being booked as much. People don’t like to think about systemic oppression when it comes to comedy because they think, “this isn’t a corporation”, but there is hostility that keeps people from moving forward. After some time you just end up at this point that instead of there being half-women, half-men, and 10% queer representation, it’s like 90% men and 10% women.
A woman who wants stage time is going to face the same barriers that an actress would. A male comic just has to show up and be funny. Twenty-five, thirty years ago, most female comics were well outside the mainstream standards of beauty. And now, every female comic looks like an actress.
I’d say overall the women who are in [mainstream] comedy are patriarchal women. If you throw a bunch of comics in a room and ask for their best jokes, you’re going to hear men and women both saying things that are supportive of patriarchy, either because that’s the material that sells or because those are the people who have made it through to whatever point of success. Also, the consumers of most comedy are male. There’s a much higher percentage when it comes to televised comedy, especially when it comes to stand-up. Our content is getting a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down from a younger male audience who usually don’t want to hear life-affirming, feminist jokes.
I think there are a lot of people, including male comics, who don’t publicly identify as feminists because it hurts their saleability to clubs, but they are and you can see it in their jokes. If feminists want to see feminist comedy they have to start doing it. If you want to complain when people are making offensive jokes, that’s fine but you should also do the opposite which is support the people programming with a feminist audience in mind. That will dictate what the content in the future looks like because it’s a marketplace of ideas – if people are making jokes that are sharp and are skewering the rape culture, and if those people are successful, then I feel like more people will start to see that there are more ways to get laughs than just making rape/dick/AIDS jokes which they do constantly non-stop because it’s easy.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for our readers about comedians they should check out?
Basically everyone who’s on Totally Biased: W. Kamau Bell, Aparna Nancherla, Hari Kondabolu. You’ve got people like Fortune Feimster, Maria Bamford, Gina Yashere. Rookie Magazine did a whole series of women comics talking about their favourite women comics. There are ton of amazing female comics in Toronto like Natalie Norman, Martha Chaves, Dawn Whitwell, the list goes on and on. And I always say to everyone, it’s worth trying out. If you feel like you’re perspective isn’t being represented than do it because it costs nothing and we all have day jobs. One percent of comedians do not have day jobs and the rest are everyday people.
Abby Plener is a communications professional and sometimes writer from Toronto, with a B.A. in English Lit from McGill University. Her work has been published in Bitch and SCOPEmagazines. She aspires to cook without burning things, find more free things to do in the city, discover cheap fitness classes, and finish reading that book weighing heavily on her night table.