DISCLAIMER: If you can’t be bothered to read to the bottom, best you fuck off now. As the title implies, this essay is probably not for you.
With the release of Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix Special “Humanity”, I am instilled with a re-instated hope for the future of comedy – and its relation to a PC zeitgeist.
Driving home from London on Wednesday night, I’m asked by podcaster Stu Whiffin what I thought of the special.
“I loved it.”
“What did you think of the transgender stuff?” he asks, tentatively. A fair question. As far as Stu knew, it’s possible I might have compartmentalized any resentment – given my respect for Gervais as a comic.
“I thought it was the best part” I told him “Because he did it right.
It may be your personal opinion (nay “belief!”) that you should NEVER joke about identity: race, gender, sexuality, religion, bone-density or pube-colour. You’re not an idiot for thinking that; you’re just playing it safe. That’s nice of you… sort of.
With “transgender” being the “minority of the month” (with “non-binary” waiting in the wings), one can’t be blamed for feeling intuitively protective of a community that’s still finding its feet. It’s natural to want to preserve every modicum of dignity afforded to us by our hard-fought victories over a bigoted status quo.
But to demand that “trans” and “gender” be excluded from the realm of comedy is to deny our common foothold in the shared experience of humanity. EQUALITY means taking your turn on the funny-go-round.
The past 5-7 years (“ish”… don’t have a pedantic cow, man) have seen a mahoosive shift in attitude towards self-identification. Young people are de-and-re-constructing the “idea” of gender like never before and a lot of emotion is tied up in the “validity” of our choices.
Comedy, by its nature, subverts, satirizes, truncates, distorts and destroys. In a word: Comedy INVALIDATES its subject. It holds up a fun-house mirror to hypocrisy and bad logic. In the case of a trans person; if your entire identity is founded on the fragile superficiality of cis-normative beauty, you may find yourself reeling at the figurative reflection staring back at you.
Flowery rhetoric aside: if you’re not comfortable in your skin yet, a joke is probably going to hurt your feelings more. That’s life. Get comfortable. There was a time I’d hear “he” and my little heart would break. But what does it say about an identity when it shatters into a million pieces the moment it’s challenged? That’s a weak-ass identity.
Funny will always win out. Even politicians know that (!) which is why the good ones will invite a bit of banter instead of censoring it: reading out mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel or popping up in 30 Rock. It gives us permission, as a society under their charge, to release a little tension. The day North Koreans realise it’s OK to take the piss out of Kim Jong-Un, they’ll probably shit themselves to death.
Let us clarify at this juncture: yelling “tranny!” at me out of a moving car is not exactly on par with a Jimmy Carr put-down. So here is where we must reacquaint ourselves with our old friend *nuance* – do you remember him? (he was massive in the charts a few year ago)
It’s very difficult to joke “at” something. Much easier to joke “about” it. Which is why I’ve always preferred the term “butt” of the joke rather than the “target”. In the same way the “butt” is the result of a burnt out cigarette, the individual’s shattered ego is merely collateral damage in a joke “about” them. What they do, how they act.
I believe the idiom to “take a joke” is more poignant than it sounds. To accept the gift of a good joke, at your expense, with good grace, is to accept the hand of common humanity in marriage. Make no mistake: I’m not going to be your best friend if you run up and tug on my willy for a laugh. But a masterfully crafted transgender bit from a fellow comedian will only serve to endear me more toward them.
So what of Ricky Gervais’ “Humanity”?
Following a recap of his Golden Globe Caitlyn Jenner quip, the resultant Twitter backlash and an acknowledgment of his “crimes” of “dead-naming her” and “implying that she ever used to be a man” – Ricky delivers the line that clenches the collective bumhole of the audience:
“But he WAS though.”
“He was everywhere! I saw him on telly!”
Written down, out of context, devoid of NUANCE, you’d be forgiven for dismissing this comment as unnecessarily flippant, cruel or unconsidered. But WATCH the special! LISTEN to his delivery. You can see through to the underpinning sincerity and a veiled plea for understanding. Ricky’s tone is one of bewilderment and SELF-doubt – like a young child being told to go to bed a 7, when bedtime is ALWAYS at 8! As far as that child’s concerned, one understanding of the world is being substituted for another, unjustly and without explanation. I defy anyone not to sympathize.
Ricky’s subsequent deconstruction of the “Bruce-Caitlyn debacle” is a masterful piece of comedy that I for one, whole-heartedly embrace as a trans comedian. I was rolling!
Jim Norton, co-host of the “Opie With Jim Norton” Show (former “ExtraJordanary Show” telephone guest) is another comedian doing it RIGHT. Jim’s 2017 Netflix special “Mouthful of Shame” chronicles his love affair with trans women and the inner conflict those feelings stir up in a staunchly heterosexual psyche. Let me remind you – these are JIM’s feelings we’re hearing about, not vitriolic declarations of fact. Sure, trans women of a certain ilk might take offence to a few of Jim’s terminologies. But if you bother to watch the show instead of skimming the comment section for self-edification, you can see a man exploring the nature of his own shame and questioning its validity in 2017.
Louis CK’s “transgender anecdote” in the eponymous 2017 Netflix Special “2017” goes by without a modicum of transphobia. The humour is at Louis’ expense and we are being led by the hand through LOUIS’ experience of the situation.
In each of these cases, the humour is deflected back at the comic and out through the prism of their own emotional connection to the subject. Each of them in turn is dealing with their own fear of *change*. Through them, the rest of the world is invited to vicariously deal with it too. Remind me, as a trans woman, why I’d want to take that away from the world?
Our shared fear of change (our fear of losing everything, of sickness, death, and what comes next) is the driving force behind most non-sexual human connection. All these doubts and fears are tied up in our prejudices, and have a convenient outlet in the mistrust of transgender people. We are a walking-talking symbol for change. But we didn’t climb a mountain or journey deep into a jungle to achieve this changes. As far as the world is concerned, it’s “now you see me, now you don’t”.
Ricky, Jimmy, Louis and (as of the 2nd of his 2 recent Netflix specials) Dave Chapelle are all doing it RIGHT because they are sharing THEIR perspective on the subject. And THEIR perspective is why we bought the ticket.
A trans joke in a vacuum, without a personal perspective to hang it on, is likely to do far more damage than a comic sharing their feelings through the medium of comedy. They gift unto us these carefully crafted jokes and I, for one, am grateful when I recognise the nuance that’s been sorely missing from political discourse around the subject. These jokes are open invitations to talk.
Chris Rock’s advice to aspiring comics?
“Make fun of what people DO, not what they ARE.”
Our actions are our own choices. As a 6ft woman myself, if I decide to put on 7inch heels and it looks fucking ridiculous, that’s on ME. That’s fair game. Is it funnier because I’m trans? Yes! Obviously it is.
Just as a town needs a church to qualify as a “city”, a subculture (be it racial, sexual, religious or gender-based) needs a disembodied stereotype to act as its ambassador to the realm of social consciousness. These caricatures are the necessary evils that guard the gates of understanding – apparitions that guide the way for weary psychonauts seeking connection and clarity. Many never breech these gates and instead these cartoon decals overlap reality in the minds of the ignorant. But somewhere in the middle of all that noise and confusion, there is a comedian jingling a skeleton key. Like Joseph Cambell’s monomyth: it is the duty of the hero-jester to skip beyond the veil, and return with knowledge to change the world for the better.
Comedians speak freely. By their very nature, they are a threat to any governing body that hopes to contain it’s populous with an oppressive agenda. As such, comedians are vilified by the 1%. But we EXPECT that of the powers-that-be. Trans or no, let us not – as card-carrying members of the 99% – turn on the very people that are greasing the gate hinges to a future of transgender normalisation.
Well done, you made it.
@Talldarkfriend (Insta, Twitter, Youtube)