Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth By Cynthia and Julie Willett
Reviewed by Maeve Higgins
"I’m a comic, and it’s my job to name the elephant in the room. Anyone know what that is?” Electrifying words, shakily spoken by a young comic named Kelly Bachman at a variety show in New York this past October. The elephant in question, sitting in a booth and surrounded by young actors, was Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer currently facing criminal charges of predatory sexual assault, criminal sexual act, first degree rape, and third-degree rape. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is expected to begin in January 2020. Bachman didn’t name him, saying instead that “Freddy Krueger” was in the room, and continuing, “I have been raped, surprisingly by no one in this room, but I’ve never gotten to confront those guys.… So, just a general f*** you.” Bachman was frightened, funny, and feminist all at once, and I thought of her a lot when reading this book about how comedy has the potential to knock power off its throne. Authored by Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett, a philosophy professor and a history professor, respectively, Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth is quite an academic book, one that “assumes that ridicule operates on a multilayered field of affect and power where agents and their targets possess varying sources of status and social capital.”
We don’t need to study comedy to grasp the inherent power structure on which it operates; we could simply be any one or a combination of comedy’s historical targets, living in a female, queer, fat, black, or disabled body. The thesis the authors have, quoting Hannah Gadsby, is that “there does have to be a revolution of form in order to accommodate different voices.” They set this argument out over five well-researched and entertainingly written chapters, summing it up in a conclusion and a call to action that I found unexpectedly moving. Having performed in countries around the world and almost physically felt the weight of misogyny holding my fourteen year comedy career back at certain points, while also having moved to New York six years ago and witnessed, with some amount of glee, stand-up comedy evolve into something more inclusive and more fun than ever before, I am thrilled that these two smart women, sisters actually, are paying such care and attention to this corner of the entertainment business. They have lofty ambitions for what can be a grubby industry—“this book is about how humor from below can serve as a source of empowerment, a strategy for outrage and truth telling, a counter to fear, a source of joy and friendship, a cathartic treatment against unmerited shame, and even a means of empathetic connection and alliance”—and I am all for it.
“Fumerism” is up for discussion first. That’s a term coined by the stand-up Kate Clinton to capture “the idea of being funny and wanting to burn the house down all at once.” Pulling on cultural theory (such as essays by Mary Douglas and Audre Lorde, as well as the comedy of Cameron Esposito, Tina Fey, and Zahra Noorbakhsh) the Willetts dive right into crucial questions of class, gender, and race and how these intersections vibe (or clash) with comedy. Do the feminist impulses in these artists and comics lead to a transformative strain in humor? The authors believe so, stating that “comedy can create a new kind of community, one based not on homogeneity or rigid identities but rather on a shared dislocation out of customary lines of identity.”
It took a moment for me to translate this, and when I did, I instantly thought about the lineup for a show I do every Monday night in Brooklyn with two of my friends, Aparna Nancherla and Jo Firestone. It’s booked by our producer, Marianne Ways, who is a long time in the business and whose taste reflects ours. She books the funniest people working, and she also keeps a spreadsheet of everyone she books, noting their gender and whether they are white or not. In her first year booking our show, 40 percent of the comics (not including us three female hosts) were female or non-binary and 33.5 percent were not white. This is a self-check, to see that she’s being inclusive, and she shares it online so comics and other bookers can see it, along with this note: “I don’t book people simply to fill a race/gender quota. I book people if they are funny and I aim to have a lineup of comedians who vary in many ways and bring different styles and points of view to a show.”
I get quite serious about inclusivity, too, but it’s not a moral thing, really. I spent so many years being the only woman in grotty greenrooms hearing the same old jokes about how weird and stupid women are, that I came to understand that the particular little world of stand-up comedy wasn’t designed for me. So now when I see people taking care in its redesign, I am thrilled—and protective.
At times, I wondered if the creation of “a new kind of community” was already happening in a way the authors are not quite aware of, perhaps because they are real life academics and not some dorks living at comedy clubs. Almost all the comics they studied and reference are over 35 and on TV. I do wish they had come to see shows rather than using Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart as subjects. Those guys get so much credit, in the book and in general, but I’ve only ever seen them preaching to the choir. On the ground, in stand-up hubs like New York City, there are plenty of subversive voices just doing their thing on comedy stages: trans people, immigrants, fat people, differently abled people. They’re not waiting for the comedy world to change, they’re too busy building a new one. (It also miffed me when the authors laud the diner scene from When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm, and then credit Rob Reiner, the male director, when the incomparable Nora Ephron wrote the scene and the script.)
It’s not every day that I can read a professorial treatise about my colleagues, but a few arguments were a bit of a reach. There’s a whole chapter about animals and humor, for instance. I read it a few times and thoroughly enjoyed the documented cases of animals having a sense of humor—a macaw with a raucous laugh, a chimp pretending to use her hairbrush as a toothbrush, and mice befriending miners underground—but I just didn’t quite feel convinced that the critters were using humor to subvert the patriarchy.
Still, insights abound. The authors include a fabulous potted history of modern humor by basically whizzing through data collected by cultural historian Daniel Wickberg. They begin with the eighteenth century’s switch from ridicule to wit, provoked by sympathy for others’ oddities, on up through “the quasi-Stoic humor of selftranscendence,” probably developed in reaction to the horrifying absurdity of back-to-back World Wars. This brings us back to comedy as escape, a theme that, despite the arguments against it, never really goes away. I find that the worse things get in Trump’s America, the more raucous we get onstage, without ever mentioning what’s happening to us outside. It’s difficult to explain, I just know that when the news tells us that immigrant kids are being taken from their parents at the border, and late-night TV hosts get stuck in a whirlpool of self-righteousness but immigrant comics don’t speak directly about it, instead they get sillier and wilder and somehow more chaotic.
Finally, a chapter titled “Solidaric Empathy and a Prison Roast with Jeff Ross,” which discusses a roast at Brazos County Jail, surprised me. A roast is a ritual humiliation of a guest of honor, someone powerful, who is pummeled by jokes at his or her expense in front of an audience. Jeff Ross is often the maître-d at celebrity roasts on Comedy Central. It would be easy to dismiss any revelations uncovered by a wealthy white celebrity entering a space where people with none of those advantages are not just held in his thrall, but literally being held. The authors do a beautiful job of narrating what came next: namely, empathy, connection, and lots of laughs.
At the Texas jail, a gorgeous scene unfolds when Ross finds an amateur comic in the audience. She heckles, they banter, a connection is made and seemingly valued by both. In the end, “[b]y seeing prisoners as worthy of a roast, Ross honors those too often viewed by his audience as exiles, anointing them as members of the larger community.” Scenes like this one make a compelling case that there is potential for comedians to be the link between marginalized people and the mainstream. I’m relieved though, knowing myself and my colleagues, that the authors don’t expect us to take full responsibility for this enormous and important job. “We are not necessarily looking for comedians to lead a social movement,” the sisters Willet write. Phew! They just want to point out that in the comedy world, similar to other, more serious, decentered movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street and #MeToo, our “absence of iconic top down leaders, foundational political ideologies, and a grand narrative style set the comic stage to address social conflicts differently.” We too can work from a place of pain and trauma to make people laugh, to punch up at those who cause that pain, to ultimately create something better. I guess that’s what Kelly Bachman managed to do, with a trembling voice that rang out clear as a bell, calling time on Weinstein that dark city night. Now that’s a beautiful ambition, one I hope we can live up to.
Maeve Higgins is a comedian and a contributing writer for the New York Times. She co-hosts (with Mary Robinson) the climate justice podcast “Mothers of Invention” and is a frequent contestant on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Her book, Maeve in America, was published last year.