“Humor as Lube:” On Comedy and Activism

Comedian Kristen Becker made a big splash in my hometown of Buffalo, first as the city’s favorite stand-up comedian and then as the general manager of Helium, a major comedy club bringing national talent to the Buffalo. Lately she’s turned her attention to LGBTQ rights activism, especially in her former home state of Louisiana, a major battleground for human rights (state law currently does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing, employment and public spaces, and there is a same-sex-marriage ban). Becker will testify next week in Baton Rouge on behalf of the Louisiana Nondiscrimination Act (discussed below). Becker and I chatted recently about the role of comedy in social justice.

Do you consider yourself an activist?
I feel like I am currently becoming someone who speaks about LGBTQ stuff, as my career unfolds. I like doing Q&As with colleges that book me, after the comedy portion. While onstage, I am definitely a comedian and people who come to shows get comedy first and foremost. My writing and interviews are starting to have more of an activist bent.

Do you see a trend towards comedians become more involved in social issues?
It seems like it’s been happening more in the last few years. There have always been one or two people who’ve been political; Stewart and Colbert, for example. We’re not all thinkers, but some of us are! It definitely seems comics are getting more vocal about things they’re passionate about. Personally, when I get into something I get into it pretty full-on.

Comedians are often in hot water with the social justice community as a result of problematic remarks and jokes in bad taste, so it’s interesting to think about comedy as a vehicle for social justice. Do comedians have a unique opportunity to spread a message?
I think the same laws apply to comedy as the stage. Normally you do the thing where you get them on your side but in the process you’re feeding them your message, you’re evoking a positive emotion. That can be super effective in changing minds––basically using humor as lube. [Regarding problematic jokes] should having a joke fall flat make you lose your livelihood? If jokes get done in poor taste I just don’t go back to your show. I feel like common sense should tell you what’s right, but we don’t all have the same common sense.

Have you seen recent efforts to make the comedy world more diverse? Or do POC, queer people, and women have a glass ceiling as much as ever?
It’s definitely a white guy industry. I think people are actively looking to diversify their lineups but it’s going to take a while. Just recently [comedian Jenny Collier] got booted from a lineup because there were “too many women.”

Are you interested in other activism or primarily LGBTQ rights?
Maybe it’s just because I’m gay; maybe I won’t get into anything else, but there’s a lot of work to do still. When New York decriminalized same-sex marriage I didn’t realize how awesome it was going to be. I didn’t expect it to hit me the way it did. That’s my driving force; these are people I love and care about [in Louisiana] and I want to live there again someday. I don’t know how allies do it sometimes. The key to the South is the allies, trusted community leaders who can get behind the cause.

The abortion restriction stuff in LA is also insane. I had to tell myself, ‘one issue at a time.’ I’m about visibility more than anything else. I use my tiny platform to the best of my ability.

What’s your advice for comedians who want to incorporate more social advocacy?
I think you have to go all out. I think one of the best advantages of being a comedian is that you can go all out. If you take me too seriously I am going to make you a joke. Comedians do a fun dance. I’m shocked when I see a non-socially-progressive comedian.

Does comedy self-select or attract people who are sympathetic to marginalization and bullying?
Quite possibly. Of course there are a plethora of different types of comedians. But, there is the theory that those that get picked on tend to use humor to diffuse situations.

It’s a weird art form to begin with. You’re put on the spot, literally, and in no other art form is anyone allowed to yell at you––even community theatre. You can’t see past the front row because of the lights and when someone shouts something, the general rule is you ignore the first one or two but then you’re supposed to respond and sometimes you say the wrong thing. You can ruin your fucking career or you lose control of the show.

Haha, that sounds terrifying. What draws you to comedy?
The travel. I love being on the road, a lot. I’m a total introvert. All my old friends say, ‘You always just hung out in your room by yourself!’ but when I’m out I fill up the well and live off that attention. I was nervous last night [at a show in Texas], even though I’m just telling jokes, but there was progress made last night. They had a positive experience with a dyke and they don’t get that very often. Someone unapologetically talking about sleeping with women, a positive story about homosexuality.

No one’s talking about it in Louisiana. I have to beat a fucking drum right now. All my shows benefit Forum for Equality, Louisiana’s LGBTQ human rights advocacy organization. And now LANA, Louisiana’s Nondiscrimination Act, looks like it’s getting through the House and then maybe the Senate in this current legislative session.

It’s funny, though; the culture doesn’t match the politics. At my shows all the guys really stuck to their ladies, and that was hilarious, but other than that everybody was really nice.

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Julia Burke

Julia Burke

Julia Burke is a Chicago-based wine professional and freelance writer with an interest in social justice. She has been known to drink Grenache with PB&J. Follow her on Twitter or on Google+ or check out her website at Stellenbauchery.

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