Setups and Punchlines, Signifying Nothing: Nanette and the End of Comedy

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I did my first open mic on May 20th, 2013. The only reason I remember the date is because it’s Cher’s birthday. I didn’t plan on making my comedy debut on Cher’s birthday, but I remember thinking the coincidence of my first public comedy performance landing on the gayest of days was a good sign.

Two days before my performance, on May 18th, 2013, an openly gay, 32 year old man in New York City, named Mark Carson, was the fatal victim of a hate crime. Mark was simply walking through Greenwich Village, just blocks away from the Stonewall Inn, minding his own business, living his life peacefully in a neighbourhood where he felt safe when he was confronted by a random, raging monster, yelling gay slurs. This monster followed Mark, stalked him, and then eventually shot him in the face. I could not shake the horror of Mark’s story.

The night of May 20th, 2013, I was the most nervous I have ever been in my life. I had my five minutes of material prepared and I had spent the better part of a year mentally and emotionally preparing for this major moment. Most people would not call a performance at an open mic “major” but it was major to me because I knew, even before taking the stage, that this was what I needed to do with my life. I was committed. This was not an I’m-funny-I-should-do-comedy-haha moment for me. When I took the stage I was hit with a destabilizing mix of panic, fear, and excitement. I forgot the beginning of my planned material, but quickly managed to get on track and it went amazingly well (granted 90% of the people in the room that night were friends and family who love me). People actually laughed (a lot)!

At the end of my set I needed a moment to be serious. I needed to talk about Mark; I needed to share the story of this perfectly innocent person, killed in the prime of his life out of the blue, out of pure hatred and bigotry. Five years ago we weren’t living in a Trumpian world; people weren’t being encouraged to violently act out their homophobia and racism by the president of the United States. I needed the people in the room that night to know that despite the progress it seemed we were making, hatred and hate crimes were still very real and that we could not forget the ongoing vulnerability of the LGBTQ+ community. The audience cheered. (I’m not saying that to pat myself on the back, it’s just a necessary piece of information, and you’ll see why in the next paragraph.)

The open mic I did was run like a contest: at the end of the night the audience would vote for their favorite comedian, who’d then be invited back at the end of the month to participate in the Best Of competition. I won and came back. When I performed for the second time, I did the same set, and it was just as well-received as the first time. I ended my performance, once more, talking about Mark but this time there wasn’t any cheering. The room was just kind of silent. I didn’t win. After the show I was informed that I should not have spoken about Mark, that it had killed the mood, and that had I not spoken about Mark, I probably would have won. I was brand new to the world of comedy and the first thing it told me was: “you can’t talk about things that matter unless you make them funny.” As soon as I reached the end of Hannah Gadsby’s revolutionary “comedy” special, Nanette, the memory of that lesson came rushing back; Mark’s story came rushing back.

On May 20th, 2013 I didn’t listen to what the comedy world told me. A big part of the reason I became a comedian was because I knew comedy could (and should) be about so much more than just making people laugh. Making people laugh is incredible, and it’s a thrill, but it’s never been enough for me. The only comedians I watched before doing comedy myself were Margaret Cho and Sandra Bernhard because they were the only ones I saw doing things that weren’t always funny; they did things that went so beyond the setup/punchline comedy paradigm. And that’s what I wanted to do. That is what I do.

In Nanette, Gadsby talks about the difference between a joke and a story. To paraphrase her brilliance, a joke has two parts: setup and punchline, whereas a story has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Comedy only has a beginning and a middle. OMG there is something missing in comedy! I cannot tell you what it felt like to watch Nanette and finally have this confirmed because I’ve always felt something was missing, but I could never put my finger on it and I LOVE being right. And then to watch Gadsby deliver the most powerful and unfunny ending of any comedy special ever and give mainstream comedy what it’s always been missing? SUBLIME.

From the beginning, my comedy had an ending. I decided going into my first open mic that my comedy needed to tell a story. The whole setup/punchline thing, while an art of its own, has always seemed boring and limited to me. My material obviously contains setups and punchlines, but they are not the main point; they are punctuation, and within the Canadian comedy scene, that has made me “different.” It’s made more than one person and industry gatekeeper say I’m not a “real comedian.” Of course the idea of a “real comedian” being a person who stands on a stage and does a series of jokes (setups and punchlines) is an archetype created by a straight white man with no stage presence. The comedy world was founded on that archetype and it has very a hard time embracing things that go beyond its limitations--more honestly, it often seeks to silence the things that go beyond. But I know from experience that there is a very large audience that wants more than just a setup and a punchline. That’s the audience I care about. That audience is the future.

Lately, like Gadsby, I’ve been questioning my place in the culture of comedy. I find myself thinking: why am I trying to fit into a world that denies us the best part of a story (the end)? Why am I trying to fit into a world that has consistently diminished, degraded, and abused women and members of the LGBTQ+ community? And when I really think about it, I don’t want to be a part of that world. At all! I mean, ew! I want to be the antithesis to that world! But I’ve always been scared that if I don’t fit into the generic comedy world, that there’d be no space or platform for me to do what I love doing--for me to do my work. Because at the end of the day, this is my work! It’s how I keep a roof a over my head. My “uniqueness” in comedy often keeps me from the well-paid opportunities afforded to the people who stick to convention; the people who only give an audience a beginning and a middle. And while I generally do not care about what people think of me, as a transgender performer I do care about making a living and that’s where this all becomes challenging. After watching Nanette, I can honestly say I am less afraid of not fitting in the comedy world. I feel inspired, validated, and seen.

After watching Nanette, I know that as hard and frustrating it can and will be, I can claim and create space for myself and for those who want to share it: for those who want an end.