Punching Up

Funny women are bringing serious subjects to the stage and revolutionizing comedy—and creative nonfiction—in the process

Cancer Jokes & the Hermit Crab Essay   

The past two years have been anything but funny. And yet, to remake my mind during the pandemic, as virus variants and sociopolitical atrocities floated through my news feed, I turned to female stand-up comedians. It all started with Tig Notaro’s 2012 comedy album, Live. Recorded shortly after Notaro’s breast cancer diagnosis, the album deals with content that doesn’t at first appear to be very funny; in addition to the cancer diagnosis, Notaro shares she’s just lost her mother, and that the hospital accidentally sent her dead mom a satisfaction survey. Then she uses the survey’s form to structure the segment. At the time, I was preparing to teach a creative nonfiction class on the hermit crab form. As I toggled between the album and Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s definition of the hermit crab essay as one that “appropriates existing forms as an outer covering,” I started seeing Notaro’s set as a hermit crab essay—a comedy set in the form of a hospital satisfaction survey, in the form of tragedy, in the form of creative nonfiction. Both the hermit crab and stand-up comedy forms hinge on their ability to surprise. They recast something you thought you knew in a whole new framework that highlights both its familiarity and its strangeness.

Stand-up comedy isn’t usually included under the creative nonfiction umbrella, perhaps because of its performative element, or maybe because comedy still gets labeled as a “low” art and creative nonfiction as a “high” one. But it definitely should be. The current work of women stand-up comics reflects and builds on what women creative nonfiction writers are doing in terms of telling important stories—ranging from childbirth to trauma—in ways that expand what’s possible in storytelling. Stand-up comedians and creative nonfiction writers may work in different arenas, but the impulse at the center of their work—to present their own experiences in inventive and transformative ways—is in many ways the same. And now, at a time of so much suffering, these writers’ ability to communicate trauma in particular is more crucial than ever—revolutionary, even. In a New York Times interview, Hannah Gadsby—another comic whose work has been labelled “anti-comedy”—says of stand-up, “There does have to be a revolution of form in order to accommodate different voices,” and a revolution there has been.

Clogged Milk Duct Jokes & Showing Versus Telling

Historically, male comics have built a joke arsenal on the myth of the mirthless woman. In particular, women’s bodies and what they emit (see: childbirth) have often been cited as part of why ladies are incapable of killing at comedy. Jerry Lewis said, in 2000: “A woman doing comedy doesn’t offend me but sets me back a bit. . . . I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.” In his 2007 Vanity Fair polemic “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” Christopher Hitchens included this gem: “For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle.”

To claim reproducing makes women squeamish about “filth and embarrassment” reflects a crucial misunderstanding of the birthing and mothering processes—experiences the current crop of women comedians explores in vivid terms. As anyone with a Netflix subscription could tell you, one of the most remarkable aspects of current women’s stand-up is how much of its volcanic hilarity comes from foregrounding the very thing that supposedly makes a woman unfunny: her body. Ali Wong, for instance, who wowed audiences by appearing onstage hugely pregnant not once but twice, nails the havoc childbirth wreaks on the body in her 2018 special, Hard Knock Wife. The container of comedy doesn’t force Wong to rise above the bodily, to move on, to grow up; rather, she dwells in that abject realm of motherly blood, guts, pee, poop, and milk until it becomes its own form of transcendence.

A Wong set is a front-row ticket to motherhood. For example, a clogged milk duct leads to a visit from the dreaded lactation consultant (who nobody has nailed better in the history of language), that “white NPR-listener with dreadlocks, named Indigo, that you have to pay $200 to rush over to your house and Roto-Rooter your titty.” Similarly, Amy Schumer, in her 2019 special, Growing, draws us in so close that we get why she loves us but hopes our cars crash if we had good pregnancies after she spent hers Exorcist-style puking from hyperemesis gravidarum. And in her 2017 special, Mother Inferior, Christina Pazsitsky telegraphs how hard parenting can be to the extent that when she admits she loves her kid but also wants to go into the bathroom and push a Q-tip right into her brain, we don’t judge her; we raise our Q-tips in solidarity.

Sure, stand-up comedy has an embodied element that writing on the page doesn’t. But even if we “page writers” don’t have access to that performative aspect, the biggest craft lesson I’ve learned from stand-up is the importance of demonstrative verbal depictions of experience that transport the reader/viewer into the world you’re building with your words, a.k.a. good old showing, not telling. We’re immersed in the florid verbal imagery of Wong’s clogged milk duct description until it comes to feel like our own. I could do a whole lecture on the importance of showing versus telling in writing craft, or we could do a little experiment where I show versus tell. What’s more convincing—simply saying that breastfeeding a baby is challenging, or describing it (like Wong does) as a “savage ritual that just reminds you that your body is a cafeteria now”? That’s what I thought.

Rape Jokes & How to Talk About Trauma

One of the most striking techniques in writing of any kind right now is how women are using humor to address the body and sexual trauma in ingenious ways that rewrite the old victim narrative. Witness Patricia Lockwood’s poem “Rape Joke,” which nails rape culture even in its first few lines:

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.

Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. “Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”

No offense.

Even now, unfortunately, when a woman speaks seriously about her experience of sexual assault, she’s often dismissed as a spoilsport or sourpuss. So, instead, Lockwood plops the reader down at the center of both the rape experience and how that rape experience will be culturally received—inviting you to visualize, even to personify, the joke that it will become, told by some dude. Except that Lockwood has gotten ahead of it, crafting the rape joke herself, from her own experience and in the form of a poem, no less. Lockwood’s lines also demonstrate that writing doesn’t have to be technically categorized as either comedy or creative nonfiction to do some of that same work.

In her 2018 special, Rape Jokes, Cameron Esposito says we’re starting to discuss these issues of sexual trauma, and she clearly wants to push this discussion further. On this topic, in Hysterical, the 2021 documentary on women comedians, stand-up veteran Margaret Cho says the challenge is to use suffering like paint, the dark to contrast the light, which pairs nicely withstand-up comic Iliza Shlesinger’s point, in the same documentary, that the best comic delivery comes when, in a manner “melodic, almost” you change it up, mix registers, go from shallow to deep, low to high, and back again.

In Hysterical, Cho also recounts how a man locked her in her dressing room and tried to rape her. She focuses on the jokey aspect of a guy half her size trying to accost her, but she has revealed elsewhere that she’s been raped in the past and molested as a child, so we can see the very real emotions hovering beyond the joke, maybe even more starkly for having arrived via the side street of humor. This layover gives us time to reflect, creates an augmented mental space for us to work though Cho’s material, which melds with our own, creating one ugly conceptual baby that Ali Wong could really have a field day with.

In her 2017 special, A Speck of Dust, Sarah Silverman recounts a disturbing tale about her drunk sister: puking in a coed dorm, she thinks she feels someone pulling down her underwear. Our hearts sink; we think we know where this story is headed. Silverman constructs the joke so that the audience is in her sister’s place—feeling the dread most women have felt, the fear that their body could be violated.

And then, she breaks the tension.

Eventually, Silverman’s plastered sister realizes that she’s also soiled herself, and that’s what she was feeling behind her. . . . What a relief.

I initially hated this bit because it seemed to make light of rape, but I came to see that there were two possible ways of interpreting it. Possibility number one: Silverman thinks rape is funny (!), which would not be so surprising given that rape jokes have long been a mainstay of the comedy circuit. In fact, in 2012 Silverman joked that rape was “like the safest area to talk about in comedy. . . . ‘Cause who’s going to complain about a rape joke? Rape victims? They don’t even report rape.” That same night, on a different stage, after a female audience member informed comedian (?) Daniel Tosh that rape jokes are never funny, he joked that it would be hilarious if a bunch of guys raped her right then.

But here’s a more likely explanation: Silverman doesn’t think rape is funny. Rather, she hopes her material will serve as an empathy exercise for men (the ones who haven’t been raped, at any rate) and a relief for women of “the tension they feel because of the fear of rape,” as Carol A. Mitchell characterizes the rape joke. Like Lockwood and pretty much every woman ever, Silverman might also know that when women write serious treatises on this subject, men write them off as sad sacks and killjoys, and she may think this joke, this way of telling it slant, is a more useful way in.

After Silverman tells this unsettling story, she points out how scared the audience was before she comforted them by letting them know her sister hadn’t been raped. Silverman has thus controlled the comic tension intricately, structuring the joke to emphasize, you guessed it, showing over telling. She has also effectively given a demonstration of a key Kantian philosophical premise of humor (what?!): “Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.”

Assault Jokes & How to Innovate

Perhaps no comedian has done more to subvert both rape culture and the conventional, often misogynistic, form of comedy itself than Hannah Gadsby. Gadsby is the stand-up comedian who, in her 2018 comedy-breaking special, Nanette, famously dared to simultaneously be unfunny (while also being hilarious) and quit the industry.

Gadsby opens Nanette by sharing that she doesn’t feel safe in a small town. This alone reverses the common lore and is just the first in a series of profound reversals. Because, of course, for people who inhabit the margins, as Gadsby formulates it, a small town might just be the most dangerous place on Earth. She jokes that small-town folks view her as a “trickster” after initially taking her for a man. She tells the story of a guy who almost beat her up for hitting on his girlfriend, but then relented when he realized Gadsby was a woman. What a relief.

Later, it becomes clear that this trickster sensibility secretly structures the whole set; throughout the show, Gadsby builds to the game-changing conclusion that comedy’s recipe—setup and punchline—invariably leaves out the ending, the real story. And so, she remakes the comic equation. She circles back to that tale about the guy and cuts out any conventional notion of a punchline (aha, you’re a lady, so I won’t hit you!), revealing instead that he did in fact beat the crap out of her, and nobody did a damn thing about it. She shares this, along with other sexual assaults she’s undergone, telling a more complete story (beginning, middle, and end) that comedy often eschews in favor of a punchline. She thereby creates a narrative monster that is more expressively powerful and, yes, even funnier, for being hybrid—the head of a joke with the body of storytelling. As she admits in her next special, Douglas, “I know better than anyone that what I did with Nanette was not technically comedy. But I’m also not a fucking idiot. I wanted that show to have an audience, and a broad audience, and if that meant I had to “trick people” by calling it “comedy” . . . that’s technically a joke.”

Notably, what she does in both shows is also an audacious form of creative nonfiction.

In Douglas, which centers on an adult autism diagnosis, Gadsby reverses the maneuver she pulled in Nanette. Instead of leaving out a crucial conclusive element, she previews the show’s whole configuration, the very structure of the show an ode to neurodiversity. In Nanette, she conceals; in Douglas, she reveals. But both shows somehow end up in that same space of concealment and revelation, of something being recast—comedy, thought, narrative, the body, what could be. In this way, Gadsby’s stand-up is like a magic trick: she shows us the card at the beginning, and yet it’s a surprise when it emerges again at the end, the same and yet transformed by the power of narrative. “I don’t tell you this,” she says after sharing her trauma, “so you think of me as a victim. I am not a victim. I tell you this because my story has value.” She tells us, “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”

Detachable Pussy Jokes & the Twist Ending

Another comedian who knows a little something about conceptually rebuilding the body in innovative ways is the intrepid Wanda Sykes. In her 2006 comedy album, Sick and Tired, she poses the following thought experiment (which riffs on an earlier bit by stand-up trailblazer Elayne Boosler): “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? . . . Just think of the freedom that you’ll have.” She then mimes the wild liberty of jogging at night without worrying about getting jumped by a man. Next, she imagines being approached and announcing giddily, “Uh, I left it at home. Sorry, I have absolutely nothing of value on me. I’m pussy-less!” To me, this is innovation, a joke that builds a new world. I also find it strangely redemptive to watch, as though for those moments I am also freed of the baggage of this particular problematic body part.

When it comes to revising notions about woman as victim and turning the sexual-assault tables, one of the most arresting moments in recent stand-up comes from Marina Franklin. In her 2019 special, Single Black Female, Franklin describes seeing some guy jerking off to her on the subway. Through sheer comic technique, Franklin gives this unfortunately familiar scenario a striking twist ending. When faced with this man using his penis as a weapon, she doesn’t flee. Oh no. She stares that phallus down, sexually sizing it up, licking her lips, playing predator right back, instead of victim. The masturbator finds himself in slippery ontological territory because Franklin has now broken the rules of public masturbation, bypassed the box of definition. What even is she?

Franklin, who is also the host of the podcast Friends Like Us, calls herself “bilingual” for being able to speak like a Black woman and a White woman, and here she demonstrates a different kind of bilingualism. She speaks predator to the predator, and what happens? “Now it’s my story,” she says—because it happened to her, but also in the sense that women have been taking back control of the narrative since the dawn of the #MeToo era.

“Oh, I made him uncomfortable,” Franklin declares, doing an impression of the guy turning around, suddenly self-conscious. In the scene she conjures, he keeps looking back at her, scared, saying, “Ma’am, this is not how this works.” If you’ve ever had a man do this (or worse) to you, or even if you just like funny stuff, you need to see this special now. As a human woman who’s experienced her fair share of such men, I can’t tell you what this scene meant to me; it was so much more therapeutic than all the therapy or even the serious essays I’ve read on the topic. Throughout the show, Franklin has been searching for her “Black Girl Magic,” and this carnivalesque ability to remake language, the power structure, maybe even eventually the world itself—just might be it.

For Franklin to turn the tables on the masturbator is funny, to be sure, but for me it also deconstructs and reconstructs assumptions about how everything else—our thoughts, our world, our writing, our understanding of culture—might be rearranged, remade, seen anew. Not only does humor not make something less brilliant or creative but, in many cases, I’d argue it makes it more so. Comedy works by fusing unexpected qualities together through irony, subversion, lacunae, silence, and speech. I view innovation and genius as the making of unusual, never-before-seen connections, and this is exactly what the best comics—and creative nonfiction writers—do.

Although supposedly working in massively different genres and arenas, both stand-up comics and creative nonfiction writers use their own experiences, presented in inventive ways, to break down and rebuild, Frankenstein-style, notions about both their bodies and the body of narrative. Both groups explore trauma by taking on the form of its fragmented structure, using their ordeal as the engine of their craft, presenting how the world has tried to tear them apart. But then—and this is key in a time of trauma that calls for a reinvention of storytelling that foregrounds resilience—through stunning reversals, they show how they put themselves back together into more ingenious forms.

About the Author

Caroline Hagood

Caroline Hagood is an assistant professor of literature, writing, and publishing and the director of undergraduate writing at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where she also teaches in the MFA program.

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