[Ed. Note: This is an informative essay I found on Tumblr by an amazing trans stand-up comedian named Johannes T. Evans. I have received permission to reprint it here from the author himself (yay!). TW: variation of f-slur used.
I’m a stand-up comedian.
Last week, I did some comedy at a queer-run, queer-centred open mic — suddenly, a twelve-minute set fit into six, because I was in a room full of queer people who knew exactly what I was talking about.
I didn’t have to take time to explain what bears, twinks, and otters are; I didn’t have to make sure everyone had a working understanding of what Grindr is; I could make puns and little quips that because of the sheer cultural gap, a cis straight audience just wouldn’t be equipped to understand.
In front of straight audiences, I often mention RuPaul’s Drag Race — in front of queer ones, I’ve never even thought about it.
There is an unfortunate rule in stand-up comedy that basically every marginalised stand-up comic has experience of, and knows that they often have to follow in rooms where they’re the minority, and even in many rooms where they’re not.
Comedy is the art of creating tension, and then breaking it. The essence of a good punchline lies in surprising the audience — they laugh because they didn’t see the joke’s culmination coming.
Because of the way marginalised people are treated in our society, when we are surrounded by those who are part of the majority of which we’re not a part, or when we are noticeably different in some way, our very existence creates tension.
As a gay man, and particularly as a gay man who’s very faggy and effete, who is most explicitly not interested in assimilating with cis-hetero society, I often find that my presence in some rooms can discomfort those around me. Straight men, particularly, often become nervous — people choose their words more carefully, or they clam up and don’t dare to speak at all.
Many of these people would say it comes from a fear of “offending” me, which is a polite way of saying they don’t know how to be normal when they talk to an obviously gay man. Either they’re ordinarily casually homophobic, or they say bizarre shit about gay people — and they feel quite comfortable saying things like that around other straight people, but when there’s a gay person right there?
Well, they might be called out on that shit.
They’re more comfortable with gay people when we exist in theory, and they can’t see one right in front of them.
Most people in 2023 do know other gay men and queer people, though, even if they don’t necessarily know one that’s as fruity as I am — as a trans man, though? That discomfort goes through the roof.
And I experience that as a white man who’s thin and isn’t visibly disabled most of the time. When I’m using my cane or wearing joint braces, it ramps up even further — friends of colour, especially people I know who are Black and darker skinned, especially who wear hijabs or other head coverings, or who have natural hair, experience all this discomfort a thousandfold, of people’s stares and discomfort, the questions that are building up on their tongues.
What does this have to do with stand-up comedy?
That discomfort that one feels when one walks into a room where one is outnumbered, where one is known to the room as Different, a Minority, and Marginalised… When you walk onto a stage, it becomes quite literally spotlit.
As I said, your existence creates tension.
People don’t often think of it like this, but stand-up comedy is a form of one-person theatre. You are in essence performing a monologue for your audience, and part of your performance is in making your monologue appear spontaneous.
As in any form of theatre, it’s important to engage with your audience. You don’t just practice in private, learn your work off-rote, and then do precisely the same thing in front of the crowd.
You listen for when they’re breathing. You pause when they need time to digest what you’ve said, or to let a particular line make its emotional impact. When they applaud, you might choose to hesitate a few moments before you go on, letting that applause dissipate — other times, you might shout over the noise.
Because the whole of the audience is fixed on you and your work on the stage, you control the room — you do this by creating a world, a narrative, that you are all sharing together.
When you start to tell a joke, you begin ramping up the tension. You are drawing your audience in, asking them to imagine the world you’re envisaging, to come along with you for the ride. The longer you talk for, the tighter you turn those screws, the more tension there is in the room, the more anticipant the audience is, the more they hold their breaths —
Then you tell the punchline, and that tension is broken as the audience (hopefully) laughs.
This process comes down to one’s theatrical skill. The audience needs to be able to understand what you’re saying and what you’re communicating, they need to trust that you’re leading them in a direction that will be funny, that you’re worth listening to, and worth laughing with.
Almost no comedian would start their set with a long joke that takes a lot of set-up to get to the punchline, because much of the audience wouldn’t listen to the set-up. They’d be irritated and impatient at all this babble that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
You tell a few shorter jokes at first — you break the initial tension between you, a stranger, and the audience. You let them learn who you are as a person, and trust that you’re funny, that you’re equipped to lead them on his journey and give them a few more laughs.
You might even hear comedians talking about rooms in terms of temperature, talking about a “warm” room or crowd, or a “cold” one, or an MC talking about warming an audience up — a warmer audience is more receptive; a colder audience is more shut down, disinterested. Even the funniest material won’t land if the audience is shut off and doesn’t want to hear it.
Sometimes an audience will shut themselves off consciously and purposely — for example, certain men might have a little tantrum when they see a woman comic walk on stage, and they might cross their arms over their chest and decide they won’t be laughing at anything she says, because they’ve already decided she’s not funny.
As a gay guy, I’ve absolutely experienced that from staunch homophobes in the audience, especially when I start making jokes about sex.
But some audiences become unreceptive not because they’re intentionally rejecting a relationship with the comedian — they’re distracted.
When I was performing as a comic before I passed as cisgender, I could often feel the audience telegraphing their “confusion” about who and what I was.
They weren’t listening to my jokes because they in their heads they were thinking, “So, is this a lesbian? Is it a man or a woman? Are they queer?”, and because they were so focused on that, they weren’t coming with me on the jokes I was actually telling.
If your identity requires any kind of “explanation,” you often try to address it in your opener, because until you break that initial tension, you can’t start building and breaking new tensions with your actual jokes.
If someone noticeably different, who’s a member of a marginalised community or is just from a background or community they’re not used to, walks on stage, a lot of the audience will wait for the punchline.
However subconsciously, the audience thinks of someone they consider different-looking — someone who looks very queer instead of straight, who’s a woman instead of a man, who’s Black or East Asian or Indigenous or otherwise not-white instead of white, who’s disabled instead of abled, and yeah, who looks like they might be trans — walking onto the stage as the set-up for a joke.
What’s unfortunate is that to get certain audiences on-side, they’ll stay shut down until in some way you assure them that you’re “one of the good ones” — if you’re gay, for example, they want to be told that you’re not one of those gay people.
(I’m not personally equipped to tell them that, because whatever negative connotations “one of those” has, I almost certainly deserve them.)
They want to be assured that you won’t say, for example, that the bigotry you’re treated with is bad — and if you must say that, you absolutely must not imply that the audience might have a hand in it, God forbid!
That’s the root of a lot of their discomfort. Audiences don’t want to be “preached” to, don’t want to hear about anything “woke”, don’t want to be called out.
Any marginalised person can tell you that a lot of the time you’re not doing any of those things — you’re just talking, and because the other person feels a lot of guilt about your existence, they interpret it as preaching or criticism. Sensitive sorts, these cishets.
Fuck me, the relief I feel when I’m in a queer comedy room, and I don’t have to explain anything.
Fuck explaining terms, or lingo, or the queer and trans cultural aspects that a straight audience might not be familiar with — in front of a queer audience, I don’t have to explain me. I don’t have to justify my existence, or footnote it, before I can get to the performance.
I can just tell the jokes I came on stage to tell, and enjoy the laughs that follow.