I'm sick of hearing female comics censoring themselves - jokes are weapons to be used in battle

On how I went to a all-female comedy night raising funds for women's charities - and it was awkward, but needn't have been.

Nothing kills an orgasm as effectively as the obligation to have one. It's the same with laughter. While this problem affects many women, it’s particularly an issue for female comics who perform at women’s-charity fundraisers. Speaking as an audience member, it’s a drag to experience flop sweat on somebody else’s behalf and have to fake the expected response in order to help the project along. The empathy neuroreceptors are too far from the mirth ones, perhaps, and too dependent on an algorithm of surprise and suffering: hence the many YouTube videos of cats falling off things and toddlers inadvertently whacking people in the balls. 

In the past couple of weeks I attended two standup nights benefitting women’s charities. I cringed as comics wandered uncertainly through their sets, combing their material for feminist-charity-appropriateness, unsure how to sell them except by consensus. Worse, to segue from “dating is hard” material into “seriously though, donate at the door because the number of women getting beaten up is terrible” puts the onus on the audience in too direct a way. It’s unfair. We've already spent 20 quid at the door for the cause. We’re here in the seats to laugh, not to watch comedians be virtuous and careful. Let’s start with the assumption that we’re in consensus about domestic violence and genital mutilation and go from there, not cap a bad set with a sobering reminder. Puts a new spin on the term “punchline,” I suppose.

But am I being mean? Why criticise? Why not celebrate all or any women saying anything? It's because comedy has corners, has criteria, is brutal. And because the stakes have escalated for feminist comics since the comedysphere took a turn towards the outright rapey, so we’ve got to be on our game. In the last year or so — let’s pretend for a second that Daniel Tosh’s nightclub gaffe marked the beginning of something — the lowest common denominator peanut gallery schtick sank from “are women funny?” all the way to: 

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Rape joke!

Rape joke wh-

STOP TRYING TO CENSOR ME OR I’LL KILL YOU, YOU FAT BITCH!

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

We (we being feminist comics and writers across the gender spectrum - I'm a failed comic myself, having hacked away at it for eight years in New York) have to do more than disapprove of this state of affairs, and do better than merely to address the outrage. Journalists and thinkers like Lindy West and Anita Sarkeesian have put themselves in harm’s way, and are using the weapons at their disposal to do battle. This is crucial work.

The work of a comic performer, though, is both less constrained by conventions of discourse, and more constrained by desirable outcome. Though they’re both sharp and witty, Anita Sarkeesian and Lindy West don’t have to make people laugh. Abi Roberts, Sara Pascoe, and Mary Bourke do. Because it’s their job. It’s their job, though, because they have untoward and bizarre impulses they seem to barely constrain, which makes them dangerous and hilarious and the very opposite of consensus comedy. I don’t actually know whether any of the three “self-identify as feminist”, as the saying goes, but they’re getting the job done.

The most gripping and consequently funniest performers illustrate the disconnect between lame, “I’m ready for my sitcom, Mr Demiille” club comedy antics, and the raw but relatable originality that answers to your own experience. To refine this rawness just enough to let the audience know you can handle it, is the witchcraft. I’m not going to spoil a these comics’ material, which I saw them perform at the aforementioned comedy fundraisers. However:

Take Abi Roberts.

Abi Roberts: A Laugh (photo credit: Abiroberts.com)

Schtick arsenal: Employs classical training in music and theater, a sly and unapologetic knowledge of vaudevillean tricks, and a preternatural comfort with herself onstage.

Attack style: She feels unstoppable, triumphant. She bounds onstage, robust, already laughing, nimbus of blond hair aswirl, genuinely happy to be there – it’s the rest of life that’s almost unbearable - and takes down target after target, rapidfire, infectious. Expectations of the female body, the pornnlike fantasy of the cooking show, the depredations of shapewear. She’s a master of self-deprecation but doesn’t hinge on it; she doesn’t posit herself as an object of desire (which is cute at best, and usually a stupefying bore) but in having for-real, bodily sex. 

Deadly weapon: She has a very graphic bit about her iPod being on shuffle, and she kills with it.

Sara Pascoe.

Sara Pascoe: Fever to tell (image credit Edinburgh Fringe Festival Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: The shocking art of seemingly boundless personal revelation.

Attack style: Where Roberts has unapologetic gusto, Pascoe has a mien of slight ambivalence to her obsessive personal confessions. She’s skinny, wide-eyed, and slightly hesitant. But her physical subtext, all semi-shrugs and minutia, her wide eyes widening, her girlish voice barely above a whisper, heightens our intimacy. Our guard down, she regales us with some of the weirdest preoccupations this side of Maria Bamford, an American comic who likewise flirts with discomfort, making you laugh not just in ticklish discomfort, but at the audacity it takes to make self-consciousness funny.

Deadly weapon: Her scorching rumination on the forbidden desires of the hair salon.

Mary Bourke.

Don't be fooled. (Photo vredit; Edinburgh Fringe Guide, 2012)

Schtick arsenal: Precision and lyricism, which sounds unlikely, but...

Attack style: She is nothing short of terrifying. A slender, smiling lady with eye-grazing blunt bangs, dressed in a floral-print dress and chic but sensible shoes, she looks for all the world like she might teach third grade or run an arts programme in a hospital for the aged. And her voice, a gentle, brogue-burnished alto, signals nothing untoward; she said onstage that her stage presence is “like being menaced by a fine mist.” Yet she slays you; she’s attuned not only to her own rage, but to consonant rhythm, image density and tonal escalation. She’s so absorbed in her own surefootedness that your laughter is both incidental, and effortless. She doesn’t ask you, she makes you.

Deadly weapon: Her attack on mummy blog culture, the refrain of which is “Am I Being Unreasonable?” This, obviously, is no consensus-building gambit; there’s little sisterly comradeship in skewering motherhood. Bourke sets up as backdrop a message board populated at midnight by complaining, privileged mummies. She pushes this caricature to its Swiftian logical conclusion, then soars into a bizarre St. Crispin’s Day battlefield oath of startling hyperviolence, leaving me and the rest of the audience gasping for breath.  

The female comics who most interest me are indecorous, and have a touch of the monstrous about them. And the ones I find hard to maintain attention to are the ones who seem in subliminal, unexamined crisis about whether or not they're good enough, pretty enough, or have the right to be there. If you have that anxiety — we all do — bring it out, mess with it, tread on it. Rape jokes arise and flourish from a desperate, anguished, castration fantasy/terror. They attempt to shift that terror onto women, which is not only loathsome, but boring. 

It’s in going deeper and darker, taking fierce joy in the uncouth, not capitulating to the terror nor to the bona fides of virtuous doctrine, that we have the last laugh.

Sarah Silverman on stage at a fundraised for AmeriCares after Hurricane Katrina - but do comedy and charity mix? Photograph: Getty Images.
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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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