Tig Notaro, Joel Kim Booster, and Queer Identity Politics in Comedy

What’s so funny about being gay? I’m interested in the intersections of comedy studies and queer studies. For example, questions related to audience permeate both fields. Comedians heavily rely on the reactions of their audiences, and the assumed goal for comedians is to create a large enough fan-base to sustain themselves economically. In the field of queer studies, topics of audience are related to palatability. In order to gain a larger audience, some scholars argue against the goal of making queerness more palatable or “acceptable” by the general population. I’ve looked at the field of media studies, where there are many examples of a changing landscape in television, where an increase in networks and media platforms means that programs are made for niche audiences instead of the mainstream population. Is the introduction of more streaming services and smaller cable networks positive because they give under-represented groups the chance to produce their work, or is it negative because their work only reaches audiences who already understand their experiences or agree with their worldview? Although those two sides are massively generalized, this is one of the major debates I have encountered.

I’m also interested in how intersections of queerness and other forms of identity are used for comedic purposes. Many queer comedians use their sexuality in conversation with gender, race, and immigrant backgrounds to create a more intersectional image of themselves. This also relates to the form of stand-up that the comedians I have studied use. Specifically, I’m interested in comedians who use storytelling as opposed to general observational humor. Storytelling almost seems required for comedians who want to use “charged humor,” as described in Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside. How do comedians use their own personal narratives to create humor from intersectional, queer identities?

Within the field of queer studies, politics of shame play a significant role. Because this has been such a dominating theme throughout the field, I want to try and avoid focusing on shame as a central aspect of the queer identity. Instead, I want to highlight comedians who do not use their shame as the part of their comedy. It is difficult to avoid the subject altogether, but there are several examples of comedians who do not use their difference as a means to highlight (either consciously or subconsciously) their shame.

Notaro’s special Boyish Girl Interrupted (2015) is essentially a series of stories from her life. A thread running through all of these stories is that people are often confused by her, but she enjoys the confusion and awkwardness. For example, the first lengthy story Tig tells (this special is mostly a series of narratives) is about how she bombed “every night for 14 weeks” (Notaro). However, the story isn’t about how she failed and why. She explains that she did two shows a night, and didn’t have enough time between shows to go to her hotel, so she would just sit in the back of the club until her next show. The club owner thought it was bizarre (especially because the audience “hated” her), but instead of confronting her himself, he called her agent and had him tell her that the club owner wanted her to leave. The joke lies not in her failure, but in the bizarre behavior of the owner of the comedy club. She acknowledges that people dislike her, but matter-of-factly, and does not continue the joke to make fun of herself.

That narrative was not directly related to her queer identity, but instead sets a tone for the rest of the set, which is more directly related to her queering of gender and her homosexuality. In a later story she explains that after her double-mastectomy (she had bilateral breast cancer) she had a situation with a pat-down in which the TSA agent repeatedly conferred with another officer because although the other officer stated that Notaro was a woman, the agent giving her a pat-down couldn’t find any breasts. Tig then points out that her facial appearance is (purposefully) not very feminine. However, Tig’s joke is not at her own expense. Her identity is not the butt of the joke, but instead it is those around her. I would even argue that it is in this unpredictability that makes the jokes funny. We expect to laugh at her, but she focuses on the part of the story that audiences would not immediately have focused on. She even directly explains that at any point she could have spoken up, revealing her gender from her voice. But Notaro “did not want to help her out at all,” as she was “enjoying the awkwardness” (Notaro).

This special somewhat depends on the audience’s knowledge of Tig. At one point, she said “my fiancée… he is…” to a burst of laughter from the audience. She feigns offence, and says “okay…” then continues “no, she was raised in New York” and continues the joke. Although assumptions about the outward appearance of lesbian women are being made, it’s always true that specials are typically filled with people who are already fans of the comic. Later, she explains that she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, then states “but I have not told anybody yet” (Notaro). This line is met with huge laughter. Notaro waits for the laughter to die down, and says “Wow, that’s a very cold response,” then lets out a long, disappointed sigh. She makes no sign that she’s in on the joke. Notaro is actually famous for performing a stand-up set about being diagnosed with breast cancer (the audio was released but it was not intended to be a full-length stand-up set). Her comedy partially relies on her own fame, and on her audience knowing about her already.

Finally, this text addresses intersectional identities, as she removes her shirt to reveal her mastectomy scars halfway through. She deals with it in a remarkable way: she removes her shirt, then performs a basic, uncomplicated joke about airplanes. Her joke itself is purposefully simple and recognizable (plane jokes are often mocked by comedians as being the most basic and predictable form of stand-up). However, by the end of her story about hating planes, I would argue that the audience has essentially forgotten that she is shirtless. She performs the rest of the set without her shirt, even doing some physical comedy (which would only work if the audience was not distracted by her body). In Notaro’s carefully timed and constructed comedy, often the unsaid is more important than what is directly explained.

The second primary text I’m currently exploring is the stand-up album Model Minority (2017) by Joel Kim Booster. The album is an audio recording of an hour-long special. Most of his jokes are directly centered around identity politics. He often places his identity as an Asian-American in conversation with his identity as a gay man. For example, he argues that he is a terrible driver not because he is Asian, but because he is gay. He says “something about being lied to my entire sexual life about what six inches looks like, now my depth perception is fucked. I can’t parallel park, bumper to bumper traffic is a nightmare” (Booster). He also talks a lot about being adopted by a white Christian family from the midwest. His homosexuality is often described as something that inconveniences others, but to the enjoyment of Booster himself. For example, when explaining that his older brother (the biological son of Booster’s parents) also came out as gay, he says “my older brother, a couple of years ago, he also came out of the closet, which is like muah. You know? What a good prank, you know? It’s so delicious to me. My parents, they really rolled the dice there. They made one themselves, they bought one off the rack, and they both came out gay! I don’t know what the scientific argument is there, but that feels like nurture” (Booster). He frames homosexuality as a prank against his parents, and plays into a homophobic fear that sexuality can be changed by the way one is raised. Like Boyish Girl Interrupted, Model Minority is a series of stories about the performer’s life, but in Booster’s case, the stories are more directly tied to ethnic and sexual identity.

The form of this text (an album recording of a stand-up special) is particularly interesting to me. Although Booster is an experienced comic, he began performing more recently than Notaro, and therefore gained his audience in a different way. Booster’s start in stand-up included performing sets on live-recorded podcasts like 2 Dope Queens and Put Your Hands Together. Much of his fan-base grew from hearing these recorded performances. Although he also worked in clubs (and Notaro eventually had her own podcast), he began stand-up much later than Notaro, right at a time when podcasts were becoming a more celebrated medium for accessing live comedy. I would argue that this has affected the type of comedy he is able to do. By using a comedy album (which is an old-fashioned medium and harkens back to the days of Steve Martin and Richord Pryor) to analyze the stand-up of a relatively new comedian, I can talk about how Booster is able to reach niché audiences in a newer era of stand-up production.

In addition, because Booster is not as famous as Notaro, he cannot rely on audience familiarity in the same way that she can. I would like to study how notoriety affects performance. For example, although he jokes that he is visibly queer and Asian, he still directly explains his own identity and backstory, with no hint that he assumes his audience to already be aware of his work. I question whether this is because he does not have the privilege of assuming the audience already knows him, or whether those explanations are simply necessary to the construction of the joke. In other words, if Booster knew that his audiences were familiar with him, would he still write and perform in the same way?

Although I think both of these texts represent a wide variety of issues within the field, I am concerned about making big claims based on only two texts. My inclination is to use many examples, but then my thesis could sound more like a large list of stand-up specials instead of a concentrated argument. I also worry that in focusing on audience, I might stray away from the performances themselves. If I center my arguments around how queer performers adapt to audiences, I might get bogged down in purely media studies and do as much close-reading of specific texts as I want to. Therefore, I want to work on finding examples of articles that are able to both survey a wide range of texts, while also close-reading individual texts themselves. I don’t want to stretch my arguments too thin, but I feel that in order to make a convincing argument, I’ll need many more examples of primary texts.

I also worry about repeating arguments that have already been made. For example, although I said I would like to stray away from shame as a central theme, it’s difficult not to bring it up in my analyses. Even when I use comedians like Notaro and Booster, I still find myself talking about how they subvert expectations of shame (which in itself is still a discussion of shame). Similarly, I fear that if I focus myself entirely on content or on performance, I’ll only be summarizing what scholars in either queer studies (which tends to focus on content) or comedy studies (which tends to focus on performance) have already covered. I don’t want to repeat what others have already said, so I need to find more unique intersections between the two fields.

 

Works Cited

Notaro, Tig. “Boyish Girl Interrupted.” Boyish Girl Interrupted, HBO, 2015.

Booster, Joel Kim. “Model Minority” Model Minority, Comedy Central Records, 2017.

Questions of Queerness in Comedy

My thesis centers around how humor and issues of queerness interact within the medium of stand-up comedy. Rebecca Krefting’s book All Joking Aside aims to classify a type of stand-up comedy as “charged humor,” and places that type of humor within different concepts of identity (Krefting 3). The first chapter, for example, focuses on “cultural citizenship,” specifically how comedians with an immigrant background use comedy to either question or assert their own position within American culture. Another chapter analyzes how comedy addresses gender politics, while another focuses on a generational identity (that is, comedy after the year 2000). Her arguments center around posing contradictions. Krefting will introduce a concept, then provide two examples, a positive and a negative. She compares, for example, a straight comedian’s joke about “gay ghosts” redecorating a house, with a Mexican comedian’s joke about Mexican field workers taking revenge on white oppressors by inserting e. Coli into crops. She claims that while one comedian takes advantage of someone else’s stereotypes, the other one is a reappropriation of stereotypes for humor. She explains “charged humor” by defining it as more biting than satire, and more focused on carving a spot for disenfranchised people.

The Trouble with Normal Cover Art

The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner is a study of queer theory as a whole, which questions how the LGBT movement functions. Although a lot has changed since the book’s publishing in 1999, many of the concepts introduced are integral to studying queer stand-up comedy. One of the major arguments of the book is that shame surrounding sex permeates our society, but is especially prevalent within the queer community. He argues that only when we accept shame (instead of trying to push away or pretend we don’t have shame) can the movement more forward. The other key argument of the book is that the attempt to normalize queerness is regressive. Warner specifically uses the fight for “gay marriage” as an example of a harmful attempt for “normalization.” The Trouble with Normal therefore primarily deals with how we as a society (and how queer communities) should talk about queerness. Each chapter begins with many specific examples of queer media (such as certain gay marriage protests and magazines like Hero), and close-reads comments surrounding those examples. The author then consolidates his analysis into critiques about the queer community obsession with normalcy. The book uses close-reading to study the politics of shame and queerness.

Both sources deal directly with how queerness should be discussed. All Joking Aside lays a framework for how stand-up throughout history has covered topics of identity. From satire, to “charged humor,” to bigoted belittling, to personalized storytelling, the book details the various methods by which identity can be covered. The Trouble with Normal argues how queerness specifically should be talked about. He argues that shame should not be ignored, but owned. Shame is often used as a punchline in stand-up comedy. Although All Joking Aside does not directly mentioned shame, politics of normalcy are confronted in many of the comedians exemplified in All Joking Aside (though specifically in a chapter discussing Hari Kondabolu comedy critiquing racial inequality in the United States). From both of these sources, it seems that comedy about shame (whether the jokes are meant to cause shame, hide shame, confront shame, etc) is a key feature in debates about queer comedy.

All Joking Aside argues that humor is a tool for social justice, but I want to focus more on why social justice is a tool for humor. In the same way that The Trouble with Normal criticizes certain topics (i.e. gay marriage) as regressive or unhelpful for queer movements, I want to study more about what aspects of queerness make stand-up funny, or how comedians use their queerness for humor. Instead of talking about how social justice is served by a humorous telling, I want to base my arguments in why my primary texts are funny. While texts such as All Joking Aside provide a history of “charged humor” and give excellent examples of comedians who have used social justice in their work, I want to read more about comedy theory in general. Then I’ll be able to incorporate the close analysis from queer studies texts like The Trouble with Normal, and write more effectively about how one discipline (queer studies) serves another (comedy).

 

Works Cited

Krefting, Rebecca. All Joking Aside : American Humor and Its Discontents. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal : Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2000., 2000.