As someone who tells jokes, I'm always amazed when an audience member loses it—lashes out in confused frustration, tells the comic onstage to eat a dick, and then storms off angrily. But we're just telling jokes up here, you think. We all sort of just agreed to come here tonight, voluntarily, to a comedy club.
At the same time, though, it's the public. They don't do comedy, they don't think about comedy, and they're not comics. Certainly I know that when in an art gallery, maybe the first thing to come to my mind is Oh right, I really do not understand art. But I don't hold it against the artists, nor do I go around ruining the afternoons of those around me. I simply look at the ladies and I enjoy the big walls, because I am a member of society.
One night in Portland, though, about a year ago, it was a comic who didn't understand what was going on. At least this person was a purported comic, or someone holding themselves out to be a comic, or something. Never had a set of mine led to a posting the next day on a show's group or event page about redoubled efforts to book only feminists, not racists, no one homophobic, no one cruel, progressives, NICE PEOPLE.
Really, the jokes that I'd told had been time-tested and well-worn, loved by poets and painters, professors of law, Londoners and New Yorkers, no-good kids and thoughtful old folk from all ends of Newfoundland.
The night was also my introduction to both the idea and the phenomenon of the "safe space." Most spaces I'd performed in had been pretty safe I thought when accepting the gig. (And things had gone okay.) What I did not understand at the time was that "safe" was just some sort of neo-speak for whatever totalizing ideology.
Even today I can't truly wrap my head around the politics that I violated, nor can I say which joke in particular, if any, was the one to prompt the ultimate outrage. I was never told. What I did understand going in, though, was that most people in the crowd would most likely be female and queer. Okay, I thought to myself as a comic might, this is a good time for the female and queer material. If these are intelligent, good-willed, self-respecting individuals, then not only will they have the capacity to laugh at themselves, they will want to laugh at themselves. After all, to stand before a roomful of queer women and tell jokes on the subject of—say, for example—straight men is no more in good spirit than it is, in a roomful of straight men, to tell jokes about queer women. At best, those jokes that involve laughing at people who are not like you are comedically uninteresting, regressive, and intellectually stultifying. At worst, they are hateful, pernicious, and divisive. As a comic, that kind of material offends me. It's in those kinds of spaces that I feel most uncomfortable.
But, obviously, my comfort was not the issue.
Now, I'd been given an early light on previous occasions—when a set doesn't go well, they want you off, understandably—but on this particular night, the audience was really digging it. It was almost as if—oh, how might one say it—they'd previously not had that kind of comedy there?! Maybe the whole experience was... dare one say... kinda funny?
Yet I got the early light. I got it not only far earlier than ever before, but more unexpectedly too, given how much the crowd had been listening intently and laughing. Still, it's considered bad form to fight the light, and you get off when told, and so I did. After asking the person running the room what had happened, I was told that I had spoken some "trigger words." At the time, this was a turn of phrase totally new to me, though from the way the words were used, I came to sense it suggested something categorical, irredeemably other, almost magical.
Feeling totally unwelcome, my friend and I left to go lick our wounds and think things over.
The only time that I'd ever thought, "Oh, for fuck's sake, if only there'd been some sort of a comedy safe space," was when waking up to the news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I mean, if nothing else, clearly the killers had been given their own little worlds. (How else does one get those crazy ideas except, of course, through a "safe space" of their own making?)
Those unable to distinguish between misogynistic/racist/homophobic/cruel/NOT NICE PEOPLE jokes and jokes about misogyny etc. and jokes about misogynistic jokes etc. simply ought not to be telling jokes. But, of course, that's just what I believe.
Women who've miscarried have told me they love the miscarriage joke, while homos who've homoed have told me they love the homo joke. Needless to say, these are not bad people. To not tell these jokes would have been to infantilize them. To quote from just one of the handful of wholly retrograde, embarrassing obscenity trials (where only the most narrow-minded, upstanding of citizenry did their best to stop the publication of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and other such filth): "A denial of freedom on the queasy grounds that men are not fit for freedom... is to say that the least of men shall dictate the diet of the rest."
Now, I travel all over telling jokes, and Portland is by all means a hip and happening town, and I almost love it. Of the comics I've met there, maybe 99 percent of them have been super cool, many even remembering and apologizing for that one night more than a whole year after the fact. Certainly, where I come from—those great cultural monoliths of Toronto and Montreal—we too have our problematic rooms. But not like Portland does. And, for that matter, not even like Seattle does. Maybe it's some sort of combination of temperate weather, relative affluence, and a remarkably homogenous demographic, but there simply is something about the Pacific Northwest (even you, Vancouver, if just a bit) that appears to lead to a kind of closing of the comedic mind or spirit.
On the other hand, for example, New Yorkers seem to have come to terms with anyone telling anyone just about anything—white, black, whatever—as they know all too well that they're in the shit together. And, as for your Anytowns, USA, it always just feels like they know not to take things—i.e., themselves—so seriously. No one's less queer, no one's less proud—they just get that it's comedy. They give the benefit of the doubt.
I may present as cruel, but I certainly don't identify.
David Heti is a stand-up comic, sort of. He teaches comedy writing at McGill University and, from time to time, does some stuff with a children's hospital in their bioethics department. His debut album, It Was OK, has been called "outlandishly harsh and thought-provoking" and can be found on Stand Up! Records. His podcast and more can be found at davidheti.com, and he tweets @davidheti.