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 Op-ed: Dodging the Punchlines

 Op-ed: Dodging the Punchlines


Comedians just want you to like them. And so we trek to filthy sports bars on weeknights, put our names on a piece of notebook paper, and wait for a turn at six precious minutes to practice our best dick jokes. This is an open mike, like a "gym" for comedians.

Picture a training montage where Rocky is in a butcher's freezer pounding away at a cow carcass while the little guy who played the Penguin on the Batman series heckles you.

There is no audience, there is no laughter. There are only other comedians furiously writing in their notebooks and occasionally scoffing at the contender who is currently "exercising" his new material.

I say "his" new material because there are never female comedians at open mikes.

Even in New York City, the cultural epicenter of our country, where Broadway lives, where gay marriage is now legal, where gay people are practically made, I can go to an open mike and be the only queer comedian suffering through two hours of straight dudes talking about who they masturbate to.

On this night at an open mike in Hell's Kitchen (a fitting neighborhood, in retrospect), I hoped to practice a few new jokes for a show later this month. For a straight audience, I would throw in a few self-deprecating -- if not stereotypical -- jokes about being a lesbian: the haircuts, cats! Crocs, being friends with all of my exes. These are the kind of jokes that give people permission to laugh at the stereotypes to which they pretend not to subscribe.

This particular open mike, on this particular night, had 18 spots. And I drew the 18th spot. Last place.

But it turns out that what I was most unprepared for was not my upcoming show, it was watching in disbelief as 17 straight male comedians performed joke after joke about how gay men seem weak and how lesbians are mean and unattractive. One guy compared the "natural disaster" of gay marriage to the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. He called gay marriage a worse tragedy than September 11. And that was just the first comedian.

I'm used to being the only queer comic in the room. I'm certainly always the only girl. I know more penis jokes than you can shake a dick at. But that night I watched in amazement as 17 comedians assumed winning an audience's approval meant, one by one, taking stabs at gay people.

I felt so small. It was as if I had never stood on a stage before. I felt like the kid in elementary school who pooped her pants in the middle of the talent show and then was bullied relentlessly. (That totally happened at my elementary school, by the way. There's no way that kid made it to high school alive.) I didn't know how to retaliate. I knew I couldn't get outwardly angry. I couldn't take the stage with my middle fingers blazing. Then I'd become the mean lesbian they would write new jokes about tomorrow. I was too stunned to take the witty approach and make light of their hate. ("Thanks so much for representing the lesbian community here tonight. I feel so selfish for not bringing my pasty-white-dudes-who-can't-get-laid jokes.") Instead, I pretended it didn't happen. I stood on that stage and talked about how dating ladies online has left me without any standards. "My search criteria has been whittled down to: has bangs." But the faces in the audience said they just wanted me to "go suck a dick."

My six-minute set turned into a four-minute set. Then I buttoned up my sensible blazer and took my seat in the dark, silent room.

That open mike made me question whether I could actually succeed as a queer female comedian in a self-loathing, male-dominated field. Then I remembered that my experience isn't special. Women and gays will always be fodder for jokes from guys who are too insecure to look inward and make jokes about their own inadequacies.

That dreadful, pukey feeling that made me lose my Thai take-out dinner is no different than the experience of thousands of queer or questioning teenagers who are forced to go to small-town schools and endure the same hurtful jokes. Nearly 85% of LGBT students report being verbally harassed at school, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. I read that on a bathroom stall I was hiding in.

Those same words shouted from a microphone onstage ring just as loudly for the 14-year-old kid from middle-of-nowhere Florida (where I am also from) whose only options are to run away from home and stuff his feelings and Lady Gaga CDs into a closet indefinitely or to stay and bravely face his high school antagonists.

It took me years to realize and appreciate who I am as a lesbian and even longer to come out of the closet as a comedian. In the end, we do what we have to do. To be who I am, I have to perfect a set of jokes at an open mike that suffers from a bad case of towel-snapping. Inevitably, when I return to Hell's Kitchen to practice for new shows, I'll use my gay material. Because I have to. And because, just maybe, my continued presence and persistent professionalism will force these guys to realize I am not some terrifying, man-hating monster competing for the drunken affection of all of the women of the world.

Although, ladies, I am available.

Jami Smith is a stand-up comedian who lives in New York City with her dog, Penny Lane. Watch one of her sets in the video below.

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