Comedy Has Slapped Me Around My Entire Life

Some shit just isn’t funny anymore. For some of us, It never really was.

Original photo: Julia Engel (manipulated by NeverSkurred Imagery)

I highly recommend Jerrod Carmichael’s new HBO Special, Rothaniel. It’s powerful. Much of what I have learned about racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, really all the “isms” — has come from first person accounts that required a lot of vulnerability on the part of the storyteller. I found these accounts in person or in literature, seldom, until much more recently, in film or on television. Carmichael gets raw and vulnerable and tells an important story so many can relate to.

I love to laugh. I’ve been a big fan of comedy my entire life. I’ve watched it evolve over time to be more aware, and in the process I’ve seen more and more queer folks, women and people of color emerging onto a scene that was dominated by white cis men not all that long ago. It’s a good change. It feels like fresh air to me. That old trope about learning to “take a joke” or “laugh at ourselves” was prolly devised by folks making a living pointing and laughing at us. I doubt it came from the ones being laughed at.

A local comic popular in the 1980’s, (white dude) asked to do an impromptu 5 minute set in our bar around 2017. It was during a night where we had a piano player one could get up to sing with. So it was sorta an Open Mic, the pianist had no objection, so we said, “sure.”

I cringed through the entire set. Not only was he out of step with the times, he clearly forgot how to read a room. Making fun of the most economically challenged neighborhoods nearby, and souls suffering hard with addiction, was his “humor.” All of it. He stopped, blessedly, after about 3 minutes when it was obvious he wasn’t getting the reception he’d hoped for. Those may have been the longest three minutes I’d ever spent in our bar. I can’t remember the exact song that followed this mess, but it was one clearly chosen to disinfect the space.

Blaccents, mock Mexican or Indian accents and the like, are déclassé. Hearing them doesn’t feel at all funny anymore. I realize now that for some, they never did. And that understanding really is the point to what is so often dismissed as “PC culture.” I hate that lazy term. Decency comes so hard to some folks they need to mock the very idea of it.

Dismissing the lived experiences of others is apparently so delicious, they won’t stop without a fight. And when they have no other real choice, they whine hard and paint themselves as victims. Everyone still remembers Michael “Kramer” Richards’ career-ending “N-word” tirade, right? It was sad. Instructive, but sad. And I’d bet money he still feels he was wronged somehow. Poor little fella.

I’ll note that the controversy over Dave Chappelle’s attacks on trans people hasn’t hurt his career -or his Netflix money- one bit. He’s an otherwise brilliant comedian whose take on racism in America is spot on and important. But when a comic veers out of their own lane, it’s often not a good look. In the case of Chappelle, it’s downright ugly.

And he’s still defending his right to shit on trans people. I suppose because he’s been shit on along the way to becoming a multimillionaire.

He won’t accept even the suggestion that there might be physical attacks on us in his name since his “jokes.” Would proof matter anyway? It’s all for humor’s sake, right?

Maybe mocking trans people is the very last bastion of “still a-okay to punch down on.” That’s the message I left with, and that’s what the evidence says.

There are two comedy specials I absolutely adore. The first is Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix. It’s raw and real in the best ways, and brilliantly delivered. In it, Gadsby discusses quitting comedy altogether because she is tired of being her own punchline. It resonates deeply with me. I can’t recommend it enough.

The second is Jerrod Carmichael’s recently released HBO special, Rothaniel. In it Carmichael, a bright and hilariously funny comic, comes out as gay. A friend who has spent her career in radio said, “It was a beautiful best kind of freeform radio show.” It really was. With lush visuals. There are several silent pauses where the audience asks questions. It’s a beautiful, intimate dialog and it left me in a wonderful place. Authenticity is freeing. And powerful. And you can’t get there without vulnerability. I’m grateful to both Gadsby and Carmichael for their willingness to get vulnerable in front of a mic. It is groundbreaking comedy and empowering stuff.

My biggest fear in coming forward as trans was being a joke. No matter how pretty anyone tells me I am, I feel big and clunky and without right to take up so much space. I’ve been so disconnected from my own body for so long I never really learned to appreciate it as anything but “too” big. One of the probable reasons I still smoke cigarettes is that I haven’t ever considered my body a “temple.” Knowing that a good portion of this country considers my body ridiculous and wrong, it’s a bit of a reach to believe it valuable. There is a vocal set of nasty folks who want my temple condemned. Torn down and hauled away. Temple? Fuck outta here!

I’ve got a cough and a slight chest rattle I need to address. If I don’t get ahead of this nonsensical habit, I sense it will get ahead of me entirely.

I’ve lost so many loved ones to lung cancer. People I valued immensely. Gone sooner than I’d have liked. I know better, trust. But connecting what I know and want for other humans to my own behavior requires a mind-body connection. That’s something I’ve only had in theory until very recently.

I’m just getting around to seeing myself as worth keeping around. And it’s becoming painfully obvious I’ve already done myself some damage. I’m working on it.

This brings me back to not punching down. The history of trans representation in all forms of media has not been a proud one. I never saw myself reflected in any positive light growing up in front of a TV. Hell, I was practically raised by a TV. We weren’t ever the comics, we were the punchlines. Who cares if a punchline smokes itself to death?

With the likes of JK Rowling -an author and “humanitarian” I once deeply respected- telling me I will never be a “real” woman, and the likes of Dave Chappelle -a comedian I once deeply respected- co-signing that bullshit with vigor, I’m left wanting another cigarette. And a drink.

I have navigated this world for the better part of my 56 years living deep in my head, surviving on black coffee, cigarettes, and contempt for myself, in service to others. I’m slowly switching that internal narrative. I am slowly turning the tables to accept that these haters are never going to stop their hurtful attacks in my lifetime. I will be despised by a sizable percentage of the population of this planet for what I am no matter what I do. But I don’t have to join them.

I had no one to explain this to me as a child in a way that affirmed me. Rather, they saw what was ahead for a “confused he-she” (their term, not mine, obviously) and thought denying my reality was protecting me from a cruel world. So I had a steady diet of familial cruelty as the vaccine against the world’s cruelty, and no one to tell me any different. Realizations like this are where I pause my writing and light another cigarette.

As heartbreaking as it is to me that black parents have to have “the talk” with their young children, I wish there would have been some version of that warning offered to weeping little girl me. Queer folks -at least of my generation and before- too often grow up never meeting another queer person. By meeting I mean knowing. We grew up in heteronormative, cisnormative households where we learned what was thought of people like us, and it usually wasn’t good. And any representation of us was deemed repugnant or hilarious.

That’s why for many years the expectation -and I mean even from our DOCTORS- of trans folk was that we would create a new identity away from everything and everyone we knew and quietly (silently) try to pass.

So even if one did “know” a trans person, we probably never knew they were trans. They were told to hide to survive. I’m afraid that’s still sound advice for some in 20fucking22.

It hurts to even write that shit.

Here’s where I light another cigarette.

I often use the term trans femme, not because I am not a trans woman -I am- but because I’m not gonna fight y’all for a word. Not for a pronoun, or a noun you don’t think I have the “right” to. Like too many of my trans siblings, I’m fighting an internal battle to want to even be here with y’all and your constant barrage of hateful bullshit, let alone fight people (for whom words are meaningless) over which words they want to allow me.

Yes, I’m smoking again.

Look, my chest is sometimes tight, my breathing more difficult than it once was, my cough a bit too productive. I’m at a crossroads with this stupid addiction, and now that I’m certain there’s a lot I want to say, its time for me to work on being healthy enough to keep saying it.

I am quitting the cigarettes. They never were my “friends” but the point is, I wasn’t my friend, either. I’ve been hating myself along with the rest of those who raised me, even after they were almost all dead. When children are taught they are worthless as they see themselves, that shit runs deep and forever if we don’t learn to speak well to and of ourselves. I’m new at it, but I promise, I’m getting better.

That’s what Hannah Gadsby said.

That’s what Jerrod Carmichael said.

They will tell the truth and speak well of themselves. I’m here for that.

And if they are the future of comedy, then the future is brighter than it’s ever been. Chappelle be damned.

Frightened trans kids can finally look around and see themselves represented in positive ways. In serious ways. In real ways. It’s beyond about time. I’m grateful to be alive to see it.

I will eventually put these cigarettes down for good. This trans body is worth celebrating. It is my temple, and I’m not letting any of you tell me otherwise. Not anymore. I still have way more laughs left in me, and comedy is finally offering me stuff I can laugh along with.

Peace, Lovelies

- MM

Originally published at http://iammarthamadrigal.wordpress.com on April 5, 2022.

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Trans Artivist/Writer/Humorist ~ co-host of “Full Circle (The Podcast) with Charles Tyson, Jr. & Martha Madrigal.” Rarely shuts up.

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Martha Madrigal

Martha Madrigal

Trans Artivist/Writer/Humorist ~ co-host of “Full Circle (The Podcast) with Charles Tyson, Jr. & Martha Madrigal.” Rarely shuts up.

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