When I perform stand-up, I don’t have an agenda. The point is to make people laugh. Maybe someday I will have grown and advanced to a point where I can send subliminal messages to my audience as I dispel jokes. They will laugh with bliss and ignorance during my set but later go home and think, “I should start composting!” or “I’m not going to make fun of fat people anymore!” or “My pre-teens don’t need the newest iPhone!” or whatever platform I’ve settled on at that point. But right now I am only a couple years into comedy and my single, desperate wish is to make them laugh, make them laugh, make them laugh.
To a degree, I believe stand-up is art. Some would say it’s not, some would say it’s a science. Either way, I think it’s beautiful. A person getting on stage and entering a room full of people. A single person with a single microphone, maybe a stool, not only holding people’s attention but making them laugh. A stand-up show is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The variables are always shifting. A joke in one room won’t work as well as a joke in another room. A heckler might hurt your set, but she also might get you the biggest laugh of the night. Stand-up is communal experience. A group of people, all hearing the same words at the same time.
Level Ground had a party two weekends ago, and I performed stand-up with my friend Jonathan. We both had good sets, and lots of fun, and from the outside, the show might not have seemed any different than a show set in a bar or a club. But it was.
Because of what Level Ground is and what it promotes, I did some older material, about my long-lasting virginity, my parents’ tenacious sheltering, and the consequential sexual ignorance that got me into unfortunate situations as I realized, so much later than most women, that I did, in fact, have a vagina.
I opened my set with this:
“Christians love purity. Last year, I talked to my dad, and I said, ‘Dad, if you, my loving father, were hog-tied and forced to choose between me, your precious daughter, having premarital hanky-panky or shooting heroin, which would it be?’ And he said, ‘Would it be a sterile needle?’”
This is a joke that usually just works, regardless of the audience’s religious background. You may be someone who has never met an evangelical but you can find humor in my truth, even if you can’t relate to it. And this is how a comedy show goes: Joke, laugh, joke, laugh, joke, laugh, the end, applaud, go home. People go to laugh. We perform to garner the laughter. We live to entertain. Entertainment feels like a selfish goal, and probably it is. I want my voice to be heard, my face to be seen, my little jokes to be laughed at. There is no beauty in that.
I love stand-up because it can redeem things for me. I joke about strains in relationships I have with family members. I joke about my lack of sex education. I joke about being uglier than my sister. I joke about guys not offering to wear condoms. If I don’t joke about these things, they are just my unfortunate truths. But if I can make them funny, it dispels their power. I’ve conquered the truth, I’ve packaged it into a piece of entertainment. And that is lovely and powerful for me, but it still ends with me. It’s still ultimately selfish, my making peace with the sordid parts of my life.
At the Level Ground party, Jonathan and I performed for people who think and who talk and who value story. So it wasn’t as if we were simply doing the ol’ joke, wait for the laugh, joke, wait. People laughed, but they also listened to us with the understanding that we were more than performers. We were people who were dealing with our own sexuality and who each have complicated histories with Christianity. Most people know that evangelical Christians make losing your virginity a big deal, but only people raised in or familiar with evangelical Christianity understand that it isn’t only a big deal but also something we must deal with. I didn’t wait until marriage. Does God still love me? The audience unfamiliar with the faith doesn’t understand that this is not just a joke, this is also a question I’ve asked in earnest.
Comedy is my catharsis; it gives opportunity for redemption. But it doesn’t often give opportunity for understanding and that is what I find in the people of Level Ground. People who don’t just laugh but who understand the weight of the joke, the story behind it, the person who’s telling it.
As Jonathan left that night, he hugged me good-bye with a smile, contented and refreshed. “This was special,” he said. “It’s like what we said really mattered.” We were the entertainment, yes. But we were also part of the community, two of the many voices, our stories heard and accepted and dealt with.