“Why do black women’s vaginas look like a Rottweiler’s gums?” riffs the white comedian. There’s a pause. Then like a faulty release valve, laughter spills out from the audience. Close one. But people laughed. In the stand up game you’re always on a tightrope between being funny, and being offensive. Laughter is the only bottom line.
A hole in the wall, downtown Toronto. This is the spot. Supposedly there’s a weed lounge here. Smoke reefer, and enjoy live entertainment without worrying about the police. In theory. It’s my first comedy gig in the city, hoping to make a good first impression. The nondescript door opens; a familiar aroma wafts out. Bingo.
The host and I bump knuckles. Place is dope; everybody is enjoying cannabis through various doohickeys. Poor lighting only adds to the prohibition era feel of it all. A female comic taps my shoulder and offers me a joint. She’s extremely petite, standing out immediately amongst the mostly male comedians.
My first drag brings on a coughing fit. She laughs. “You’re new huh?” I hack affirmatively and we both turn towards the stage. Some middle aged white dude is up. He makes a joke about how Native people are always having “Listerine” parties. The crowd roars.
He slides off stage, passing the host the mic. “Your next comic is a regular, but we won’t be seeing her here anymore. She’s moving to Montreal. Let me hear you make some noise!” He calls up the the female comic. I shoot her a thumbs up as she gets to the stage.
Tonight’s been particularly blue. She immediately dives into a skit about how she feels insecure. It’s deep. And funny as hell. The audience appreciates not having to hear someone spend five minutes talking about their dick. Pretty killer for a farewell performance. What are the odds that my first new friend would be an absolute beast. The host throws up a signal; I’m next. Time for my big debut.
The commedienne gets off to thunderous applause. We high five, and in that moment I get a brilliant flash of inspiration. The perfect way to start my set. My name’s called onstage. I ask the crowd to give it up for her again. They eagerly acquiesce. Sick punchline incoming.
“She’s got those national geographic angles.” There’s a pause. Nobody laughs. “The fuck does that mean!” comes a shrill voice. A chair scrapes against the floor and footsteps hurry away. Mutinous chatter comes from the crowd. Somewhere in the haze a bottle breaks. Was I about to get lynched?
This is going bad. Obviously I’ve made a gross miscalculation. Comics make fun of each other all time time, but this was different. I awkwardly switch into my normal material. At this point it’s too late. I’m already the villain. “This guy’s an asshole!” comes a voice from the back. One of the comics.
Getting off the stage would be the sane thing to do here. Thing is, I’ve got to do my time. Four minutes left. These people paid for a show. It would be a disservice to the craft for me to give up now. You’ve always got to try to win back the crowd. So I plough through. The front table straight up, walks out. I call them out on the double standard. They’d been cool with the earlier acts talking about this stuff. Why couldn’t they can’t handle an outspoken brother? That gets me my only chuckle of the night.
Finally the light flashes. My self-immolation comes to an end. There’s a scatter of begrudging applause. I stumble off stage.
For a few minutes I just sit at the bar, alone. Trying to recover from my Kramer moment. The host comes over. “Explain yourself.” I can’t. The joke didn’t even make sense. I took a risk, and it failed miserably. He reams me out in front of everybody, and I take it. “You’re banned here. Never come back.”
Nodding, I grab my bag and jacket. Strangely calm, walking out the room, all eyes on me. That was a bit harsh. Still, I’d offended a room full patrons, some of whom might never return. He had a business to run. Can’t jeopardize it for a no name open mic comic.
Right as I exit, the girl is coming back in. She’s obviously been crying. I want to tell her I wasn’t a douche bag. I’d just spewed some douche bags comments on stage. Unfortunately in stand up there is no separation of the two. You own your art completely and have to deal with how your words affect people. It’s not like I’d made a post about her online. She was shamed in front of friends in real life. I silently shuffle by.
That could’ve gone better. I briskly step outside. A violent shove comes from behind. The door has literally hit me on the way out. Ow. Probably deserved it though.
Backside and ego bruised, I can’t help a flush of indignation. National Geographic features the naked figures of African people on a global platform. Nobody bats an eye at that. Maybe I was highlighting a double standard in the way Western culture treats bodies of color. I sigh. But on the real? In the moment, that “joke” wasn’t a socio-political statement. If I’m being honest with myself, it was meant to shock. Insult. Bully. And what came out was just not funny.
On the train ride home, I sit in a corner silently brooding. My art is affecting my career trajectory. Opportunities are closing right before my very eyes. Seriously considering dropping the whole race angle from my act.
There’s an ad for U of T plastered against my window. A group of multicultural kids hold hands in a green field. The poster is trying so hard to be “diverse.” More like exploitative. I think back to the comedy gig. Her tear streaked face won’t get out of my head.
Shit, I am an asshole. Women are judged on their bodies all time. Putting somebody on blast like that wasn’t fair. Another victim to my male privilege. Outside, several dilapidated houses line the block. Gentrification hasn’t reached the area yet. It’s my stop. Because I’m a coward I pull out my phone, and start typing an apology. I think of the joke again. Can’t help it; my lips twitch.