Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Authentic people, Authentically funny.

Lately, I’ve been asked on a few occasions if performing as a woman is much different than it was as a male. I’m prompted to write about this tonight because of yet another brouhaha (pun intended; I love puns, Dammit!) caused by the  former Letterman talent coordinator Eddie Brill, who implied that female comics were “not authentic”, and “acted like men to please an audience”.

I used to know this talent coordinator when I worked in New York, but it’s been years since we’ve spoken. Ostensibly, his unfortunate remarks to oh, I don’t know... THE LARGEST NEWSPAPER IN THE FRIGGIN WORLD was the reason given for his dismissal, but there is more to the story than that. I don’t wish to speculate or discuss it here, because quite frankly, being a transgender, lesbian, nearly senior citizen comedian, the odds of me being booked as a guest on Letterman are about the same as Herman Cain  teaching world history at Harvard. Therefore, the subject is irrelevant to my life.

Having said that, my perspective on where women stand in standup has been altered since coming back. And I would at least like to use the talent coordinator’s quotes as a launching point for this blog entry, because it brings up a subject very dear to my heart; gender identification.

The issue of “authenticity” is one that I am not unfamiliar with. Transgendered people live with it in nearly every aspect of our lives, from who we can marry, what state of the union decides if we should be considered women or men, even deciding in which public restroom we are allowed to use to relieve ourselves. At the annual Michigan Women’s Music Festival, the “for womyn, born womyn only” rule bans us from attending. This stupid rule is our equivalent of the Jim Crow laws. I say stupid because using their definition, female-to-male transgendered men like Chaz Bono would be allowed to attend the event.

Despite the enormous price transgender people pay for their right to “be”, society still holds our fate in its hands; even among our LGB family. So I’m not really sure what Mr. Brill means by the term, authentic, though it does smack of the sexism and chauvinism that ran through American culture prior to the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s.

All of that began to change of course, with the publishing of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. This book, arguably responsible for the resurgence of the Women’s Rights Movement begun earlier in the century, began the dismantling of female stereotypes that continues to this day. One of the side benefits of the movement was an increasing blur in the lines that traditionally defined gender.

The simple truth is that today’s males and females look and act nothing like their pre-Friedan counterparts. When was the last time you heard the phrase “blonde bombshell” in reference to a movie star or watched a tough-as-nails, “man’s man” like John Wayne, in a movie? Humphrey Bogart would never cry or show a bit of sentimentality in his movies because his gender role wouldn’t permit it. Even at the end of Casablanca, when he bids farewell to Ingrid Bergman, knowing that he’ll never see the love of his life again, he remains Spartan in his countenance. Find me even the toughest action star today that will emulate Bogart’s stoniness. It wouldn’t be until the mid 1950s that movies like Rebel without a Cause, and On the Waterfront would begin to change the public’s idea of what constituted a man.

Cinema, television and advertising have always guided trends and served as a cultural tour guide of modern life. At the same time though, they have also reflected the changes in societal norms which they helped to create. Those of you old enough to remember the phrase “You’ve come a long way, baby” know that this was a direct reference to the Women’s movement, even though it was attached to a vintage Virginia Slims cigarette ad campaign. Can you even conceive of that happening today?

More and more, today’s media reflects characters who have adapted many of the traits that were once considered purely male or female. Men are more feminine today and women, more masculine, going by the standards of the past. But these standards are arbitrary, created by people (mostly men) who dominated the media for many years. So in response to Eddie Brill’s accusation of authenticity, neither men nor women are authentic if you are using standards that are 50 years old; And that includes him as well.

His other accusation, that women act like men to please an audience, is not surprising  when you consider that he only booked one woman out of the twenty-two comics that appeared on Letterman last year. Here again, Brill is going by a standard that no longer exists. He may be right that female comics use a lot of the same tools that the males do, but that is more a function of stand up than of emulating a man. To make an analogy, if a female carpenter builds a house, she doesn’t create new female tools to build it, does she? But then again, I suspect that Eddie might consider female carpenters not authentic women either.

All of which brings me to my current presentation on stage. As a transgender, lesbian, nearly senior citizen comedian, I was a bit confused when I first began performing again. When I was with the other tribe, my onstage persona was a variation of my father’s loud, curmudgeonly behavior and it was very successful; it pleased the audiences, but fueled the anger and discomfort I was feeling inside. I knew that once I’d transitioned completely, I would never again be able to use the material I’d crafted over twenty years of performing. I needed time to build a life history again in order to have something to talk about. I also need time to rebuild my dignity and self confidence in my own head and it would take me eleven years to do it.

One of the biggest concerns I had in coming back was whether I would be too male or too female up there. It wasn’t until my third time onstage, that it hit me...I was subjecting myself to the very same standards I learned growing up. My own personal sexism was guiding me up there! So I cancelled one or two guest sets and decided to pull back, rethink and regroup. Speaking to some comic friends that I respect, I kept hearing the same thing over and over again; you were funny then, you’re funny now. Funny is funny, no matter what gender you are.

I pulled out some old Rick Scotti tapes and began to watch them from a purely technical aspect. As I watched this stranger performing, I had to keep reminding myself that it was still me up there on the screen; still the same person I am now, just in a different package. The essence was still inside me as I thought well if I was female then and I’m female now, why shouldn’t the old character work just as well?

And so I began writing with the same attitude that I had before. The more I wrote, the more I began to understand that trying to be female was going to lead me down a dangerous path of stereotypes, many of which I had never experienced and had no connection with. True, I have experienced some sexism over this last decade, and understand how frustrating it must be for a GG (genetic girl) to have had to endure it her entire life, but that was not my reality.

The next time I appeared onstage at the Comedy Works in Bristol, Pa., I went up there determined to just be me and fuck the result. If it failed, I decided, then so be it. I would go back to the drawing board and try something else. But it didn’t. In fact, I ‘killed’... and it felt good.

Now, each time I step onstage, I am more determined than ever to be honest with myself and my audiences. And the results have been impressive. I am seeing consistently good sets that ring true in my heart. Most importantly, I am becoming fearless up there, which can only lead to better and truer comedy.

The takeaway from all of this is that there have been funny women for as long as there have been funny men. While the tools are the same, the content is different not because of a gender issue, but because there is a cultural one. All of our ‘stories’ are unique and we tell them the way we tell them. The only reason we think of stand up as a traditional male domain is that word tradition. Traditionally, men have dominated the media and thus comedy. All of that is changing, thankfully. The proof in that pudding is the rise of people like Tina Fey, Ellen de Generes, Joan Rivers and all the others into places of public prominence and respect.

Time is wearing away the attitudes of the Eddie Brills in this world. Time will also some day make the ‘womyn born womyn” rule at the Michfest become an anachronism as well. And some day, a transgender woman or man will appear on Letterman, Leno, and all the others. Someday a transgender person will star in a movie or television show and people will think nothing of it; But not yet. Maybe not even in my lifetime. For right now though, I’d like to think that my own little baby steps and the giant leaps of people like Eddie Izzard are in some small way breaking down the walls that separate us from the mainstream. Whether we were born female, male, or transgendered, we all have something to say, and we are all authentic human beings.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat! Abbondanza!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your unique perspective on this!

    As far as Eddie's remarks, I interpreted "authentic" as "authentic to themselves," although how he could know this without knowing all of the women in question very well personally is beyond me.

    I lost interest in stand-up because I couldn't find a way to do the kind of act I wanted to do and make a living at it given the venues of the time. (Longer narratives vs. laughs-per-second.)I didn't feel authentic onstage either.

    By the time the "alternative" scene came around, I was interested in other things and didn't have a strong reason to be onstage. "You can get spots" was not a strong reason.

    As for the "act like men" remark, I'll have to think about that while I get my estrogen claw hammer and put up a couple of shelves.