TComedian Stephen Bailey was hosting an Instagram Live earlier this year when he received a message that shocked him. One of his supporters, an open-mic stand-up, described “experiences of blatant homophobia in booking,” Bailey said. “A place wouldn’t book it because, according to them, their audience” wouldn’t like gay stuff. ” “
In the past, Bailey has had homophobic heckling ignored by the scene and been turned away from jobs because there was already a booked “camp comedian”. “Imagine all the people we have lost over the years, these beautiful queer artists and performers, because of such attitudes. They say: we don’t think our audience will like you – not because of your talent, because of who you are.
While the industry has undoubtedly taken steps towards diversity, there is a lingering assumption that the default comedy actor and audience member are straight, white, cis, and male. The Lol Word – a collective of queer women and non-binary comedians – decided to create an evening especially for people excluded by default because “in many concerts, as a member of the audience, you never know if you’re going. spend the night without hearing something really horrible, ”says co-founder Jodie Mitchell. “The other part was just a weird joy, being able to take up space. “
Co-founder Chloe Petts says, “I think ‘white man’ is not allowed to be a gender, but ‘gay’ is a gender. No, gay is just one thing that we are. We all do very different comedies. Comedian Lee Peart agrees, “Nobody blinks when it comes to four straight white comedians, but if you have four gay acts people ask, is this a special night? Peart found that people expected a certain style of explicit comedy based purely on his sexuality: “The assumption is, to be gay is to have sex with men. Bailey describes the same thing. Although he worked on television during the day, he was told he was “too rude” for certain jobs.
Ruby Clyde, half of the double act skit Shelf, says: “It’s strange that people think of gay people who talk about their lives as people who talk about ‘gay stuff’. But one [straight] the guy can get up and do a whole hour on Tinder and no one considers that a normal agenda. ”
Queer comedians can find themselves in a catch-22. You are expected to explain your identity as soon as you take the stage (Peart says: “If we don’t, we will never have the audience on our side, they will always be on edge”) but this is often accompanied by accusations that they are unable to talk about anything else.
Paul Sinha describes a “cognitive dissonance” among the audience: “People like your comedy or not. Based on this, you are either “brave and inspiring” or “having a hard time having fun” about your sexuality. There is a balance to be struck: “Be confident in what you want to talk about and make sure you talk to the audience about what you and them have in common as well.” Most importantly, don’t let others impose their agenda on you.
Suzi Ruffell says that in some clubs, “I would be heckled before I even got to the mic about my looks, my sexuality, or just someone screaming ‘dyke’ so I had to make a joke on me first. that someone else cannot. ”
It’s still rare to have more than one queer artist on a bill. “It’s very rare that I’m with another trans person, or even another LGBT person,” says Jen Ives. When Ruffell first started, she was told she couldn’t play with Zoe Lyons or Jen Brister because “you could talk about the same thing”. Even now, she says, “I never do concerts with gay girls.” Peart says it can mean missing out on community: “It affects relationships, friendships, and it means we’re always seen as outsiders. “
This reservation practice can give actors the impression of being seen as a “representative” of their sexuality or gender. Ives says, “I’ve always felt people underestimate me. Promoters will say, “We already booked a trans number and didn’t really like it. “
As more LGBTQ + comedians appear in live and TV shows, it can often seem symbolic – everyone will, because they’ll be telling the same jokes. On television, there is often a reluctance to book two gay acts on the same series, let alone the same episode. “But they’ll do it for two straight white men – many even put on shows together,” Bailey adds.
Clyde says that she and the other half of Shelf, Rachel Watkeys Dowie, experienced this conundrum with the TV commission. “You get it all the time when you present a script, ‘There’s actually already a gay show going on right now. Or all queer ideas are niche-ready, although they are very different from each other.
Sinha says it works both ways. While “it would be ridiculous to think that I was not treated differently because of my sexuality”, this is only one facet of her identity and there are other factors that affect the decisions of bookers and commissioners. “No matter how you try to label yourself, the doors will open and close at once,” he says.
On TV, you’re more likely to be limited to working on sexuality, says Watkeys Dowie: “We’ll pitch a bunch of ideas, and they just want gay stuff. It’s like, “If you check our gay box, we need you to fully check that gay box.” “
Mitchell says that while many queer comedians want to work on their sexuality, the pressure of exploring traumatic experiences can be uncomfortable: “Do this skit specifically about your trauma or the platform isn’t there. “
The success of shows like Mae Martin’s Feel Good proves that there is a demand for queer stories. Yet when the TV show isn’t about sexuality, it’s rarer to see a queer comedian at the helm. Ruffell says, “When I was young there were three lesbians on television: Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins and Clare Balding. Now that I’m 35, it’s still those three women. There isn’t even a single lesbian who has dated in the past 10 years.
Despite a history of sold-out tours, viral stand-up clips and a popular podcast, could it be that hiring a queer woman like Ruffell to host a mainstream show is still considered risky? Experiences like a TV producer asking, “Do you always have to wear a costume?” Make her feel like “they don’t know what to do with me.”
Peart and Bailey are constantly compared to Alan Carr and Tom Allen, although their material is very different. One can get the impression that there is a ladder where only one person is allowed to occupy each rung.
Some promoters and curators may wrongly prejudge their audience. Peart, Bailey, and Ruffell all say they have a predominantly straight audience. “If I’m funny, nobody cares who I sleep with,” Ruffell says. “I think people are guessing the audience. Many comedians have heard that their material is “not comparable” – but does that affect what’s funny? “I never understood this criticism,” says Ives. “Even when I see a straight white male comic, even then!” – I’m still interested in their life.
In Sinha’s 20 years of comedy he has seen “vast improvements” and says LGBTQ + representation is important “in broadening people’s horizons, so that all kinds of under-represented voices are heard. , in a way that provides an opportunity for talented and funny people, and doesn’t feel symbolic. I’m at the point where I honestly can’t believe LGB portrayal is the problem. T, however, is the issue that needs the most urgent attention – because we haven’t really started yet.
Ives agrees that “the trans portrayal is in the bathroom” and adds, “I don’t feel trans people feel confident to walk into the bathroom. [comedy]. It’s understandable, she says, when clubs book comedians who use trans people as a punchline. “Another act will say something incredibly transphobic and the audience will respond in a positive way,” she says. “Then you have to go upstairs and remind them there’s a trans person in the room. On television, you are more likely to find a cis comedian who talks about trans people than a trans comedian who talks about anything. (Since we spoke, Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, in which he makes jokes directed at the LGBTQ + community and says “I’m Team Terf,” has been released.) Still, Ives cheers on other people. trans to try comedy. “It’s a forum for you to speak for yourself; there aren’t many, ”she says. “People don’t understand what our lives are like. They think they know, but they don’t. The truth is, our lives are very normal, and we need more people to tell people that. “
More trans comedians could also encourage trans people to attend comedy shows, which Ives says is rare, even on LGBTQ + comedy nights. The Lol Word has grown from a tiny play on the outskirts of Edinburgh to packed venues at the Soho Theater in London. Ives also praises smaller nights such as London-based Clandestina for their inclusiveness. Their success shows that it is possible to build an alternative vision of live-action comedy, but broader change will be driven by the mainstream – big clubs and television, in particular. “The media generally have a real responsibility for how they affect the world,” says Ives. “If people don’t see you represented the way you really are, it’s going to affect the way they think about you. “