• John Shore

Yael Kohen's "We Killed," and the I'm Not Laughing At Your D**k Comedy Tour

Hey, friends. I hope this finds all of you well, and not . . . being so confused about whether or not you're still supposed to be wearing a mask that basically you've given up on ever going outside again if you can possibly avoid it.

Which you can't. Unless you're lucky enough to be able to work remotely. Or are a hardcore hermit. Or have simply lost all interest in leading a normal human life. If any of those are you, then you're good to not go!

Anyway, how 'bout this heat, huh?

Okay, moving along. I'm currently writing a sequel to my novel Everywhere She's Not (here), titled Make 'Em Laugh. The story takes place in the summer of 1982, and is told in the form of a diary being kept by David Finch, the protagonist of Everywhere. David is on his first cross-country comedy tour with two other comedians: Maggie Clayton, a former Christian fundamentalist who's now a comic sensation, and Lyle Brewster, a veteran stand-up whose current acting gig on a hit sitcom has brought him top-tier celebrity.

Below, David writes of a conversation he's just had with his new friend Maggie, in which she discusses being a female comedian (in the early 80s):

"Oh, I definitely get heckled every night," said Maggie. "Because, look at me. I'm six feet tall. Guys don't know if they want to fuck me or beat me at arm wrestling. I'm serious! Your experience doing comedy is way different than mine, David. When you come on stage, all the men in the audience think, 'Right on! A fellow comedy bro!' But when I step out and take the mic, their first thought is, 'Who the fuck does this bitch think she is? Being funny is a guy thing. It's what we men do.'" She dropped her voice into fully low, Dumbass Male range. "'Can't be funny without a dick, man. Get off the stage! Bring us a dude!'"
"That does sound like us," I said.
"I'm not saying all men are like that. But enough are to guarantee that I'll have to deal with at least three of them at any given show. And they're all basically the same guy, too. When you get heckled, it's by a happy drunk guy who, deep down inside, thinks he's as funny as you are. When I get heckled, it's by an angry drunk guy who, deep down inside, thinks I'm laughing at his dick."
"That is an ongoing concern of my kind."
"But I'm not laughing at his dick. I'm laughing with his dick."
"That's what you should call your first solo tour: I'm Not Laughing At Your Dick."
"I should! I will! Because my goal, every time I walk out on stage, is for me and all the men's dicks in the audience to be laughing together."
"Aw, that's so sweet," I said. "I think."
"But for me, reaching that state of mutual appreciation—of that synergy—means first having to break through what, in my head, I call The Guy Wall."
"Which is . . . ?"
"The resistance men have to the idea that a woman—even one performing in a comedy club—can make them laugh."
"What is that resistance, you think?"
"I actually have a whole theory about that, if you wanna hear it."
"I absolutely do," I said.
"Okay, well, if you think about it, laughter is a form of surrender. It's a happy surrender, for sure. But it's surrender, right?"
"I'll pretend like I myself have ever had that brilliant insight—and say yes, of course it is."
"It is! Because when you make someone laugh—just spontaneously bust out with that really deep, loud belly laugh—they've really given it up for you. You've broken through their defenses, their brains, their everything. For just that one moment, they have become your, like . . . I dunno . . . "
"Your willing submissive?"
"Yes, exactly! And that's exactly the relationship we want with our audience. Our job, every night, is to make our audience willingly submit to us."
"So my mom was right: S&M does stand for Smiles and Merriment."
"In this context, it does! My problem—the problem every female comic has—is that while men are more or less comfortable submitting to a dominant male—that's just in your tribal DNA, or whatever—they definitely resist submitting to a female. So where you can just walk out on stage and the party automatically starts, I have to come out and get fucking busy obliterating The Guy Wall."
"Which you do by . . ."
"By giving every man in the room a blowjob, of course."
"Of course. Boy, you are gonna be a tough act to follow."
"The key is to make sure you talk loud enough so the women in the audience can hear you over all the snoring." . . .
. . . "But, I mean, you still do comedy, obviously," I said. "Can I ask you why? Because I feel like if every night I had to face drunk men who clearly think I really should be blowing them, I'd be so constantly pissed off that I couldn't do comedy—like I would literally come out with guns blazing. But you must have—what? A bigger view of it than that?"
Maggie nodded. "Yeah, I do. To be honest, I have a much bigger view of it. Because I will break through that wall. I will be so fucking funny, so fucking fast, that every man in that room will immediately forget whatever macho shit is usually clogging up their brains about who women are, or what women are 'supposed' to be, and just laugh. Laugh! Laughter is all I'm after. Because when I get it—when I feel a wave of laughter just destroying that wall—I do feel that, yes, I've just changed that room. But I also feel—if only a little, and only for a moment—that I've just changed the whole world."
I was actually speechless for a moment. Then, reverentially, I said, "Holy cow. You're the Gandhi of stand-up.

In preparation for writing Make 'Em Laugh, I read a lot of books about stand-up comedy generally, and in particular about female comics and women in the comedy industry.

One of those books I've yet to put down because rereading it continues to be so rewarding is Yael Kohen's We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy.

We Killed is essentially an oral history; that is, it's the story of the history of women in comedy (up until 2012, when the book was published) as narrated by the women and men central to that history. Sprinkled throughout the first-person testimonies of the comedians and movers-and-shakers of America's comedy industry are Kohen's brief, insightful and artfully comprehensive essays, which provide the context and connective tissue that makes this book such an illuminating read.

It's hard enough writing a character who's based on yourself, let alone one with a gender identity, family history, cultural background, sexual preference, and/or a racial identity different from yours. But by definition the novelist must either face that challenge, or put away their pen and choose a different vocation. Writing a character who isn't me means my becoming educated. And I'll find that education through paying attention to anyone who can help me understand the dynamics that have defined the life, personality, and perspective of the person I'm trying to imagine into being.

Part of that education will also be reading everything pertinent to that character's life I can get my hands on: personal narratives, histories, essays, literature.

If I do my job right, then ultimately I'll be able to step aside and watch, as the person I've been endeavoring to create finally steps forth and assumes their own independent existence.

And then I've got myself a character I get to watch, rather than control.

That's the dream!

We Killed was of immeasurable assistance to me in writing Maggie Clayton (and will continue to be so, as I write a new episode of Make 'Em Laugh every week). So if by some chance you happen to read this, Yael Kohen: For the superb work you did researching, editing, and writing We Killed, I thank you, from the bottom of my heart to the tip of my pen.

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