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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A renaissance of conductorless orchestras reveals the limits of traditional leadership

What could the modern counterparts of the first conductor-free orchestras, once a socialist utopian vision, teach our politicians today?

Moscow, 1922. In the bitterly cold first months of the year, word spreads among concert-goers of an innovative concert soon to be held in the Hall of Columns in the House of Trade Unions, in the Kremlin. The concept? A conductorless orchestra.

It was called Persimfans (an acronym: Pervyi simfonischeskii ansambl bez dirigera) – or First Symphonic Orchestra without a Conductor. By doing away with the conductor – the musical figure of authority – its founders sought to embody the egalitarian ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution; Persimfans was a microcosm of socialist utopia.

Before the Revolution, Persimfans’s founder, Lev Tseitlin, had travelled to the United States, where he became disillusioned with the structure of modern orchestras. He loathed their latent hierarchies; the ultimate authority of the conductor, the leader, section principals, trailing all the way back to the fourth desk of double basses. Under this system, Tseitlin believed, musicians were reduced to mere “mechanical keys”, which the conductor simply “played”.

In Persimfans, Tseitlin turned the internal mechanics of an orchestra on their head. Hierarchies were dismantled and socially egalitarian principles were instilled; all members received equal pay, players were free to choose their voice or desk (traditionally viewed as a measure of ability), and committees were established for decisions regarding performance and interpretation.

Players were required to study the entire score, knowing the part of every player in the orchestra (in traditional set-ups, players are only given the music for the instrument they play). The musicians faced each other directly to maximise rhythmic homogeneity, with some even having their backs to the audience. Any arrangement that implied authoritarian motivations was eradicated, replaced by a system that prioritised the collective.

Persimfans was fairly successful for a number of years. The enormously influential Otto Klemperer, after having heard a Persimfans concert, is reported to have said: “If this kind of thing continues, we conductors will have to find a new trade.”

But despite the orchestra’s initial popularity – and imitations cropping up in Baku, Kiev, and Leipzig – it had been disbanded by 1933. The exact reasons why are unknown, but it’s likely economic forces eventually took their toll, with players working long hours for poor pay – that, and alleged ideological fights within the string section (some things never change).

Once the original fell by the wayside, so too did the concept and – apart from a few exceptions in Eastern Europe – conductorless orchestras largely disappeared for a number of decades.

However, in the 1970s, conductorless orchestras underwent a renaissance. And now, numerous orchestras operate on both sides of the Atlantic with great success.

One of the first to appear in that decade was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York. Although free of the ideologically-laden mission of Persimfans, many of its core tenets resemble its ancestor. It aims to “create extraordinary musical experiences through collaboration and innovation”, “challenge artistic boundaries” and “inspire the public to think and work with new perspectives”.

The orchestra’s musical plaudits are now numerous, having won a Grammy in 2001 for a brilliant album of Stravinsky’s orchestral miniatures. The orchestra also appears annually at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

But does the premise of a conductorless orchestra have any real-world currency? As Tim Thulson, a cellist with Washington DC-based conductorless orchestra Ars Nova, tells me, “artists thinking about political problems are, admittedly, like poker players who aren’t betting real money”.

Well, in 2007, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces – an award that recognises organisations “based on freedom, instead of fear and control . . . allowing people to self-govern and determine their own destiny”.

How are the ideals honoured by the award practically enacted? And how do those qualities instil leadership?

Firstly, the principle that anyone can influence artistic direction remains paramount. “We must have all our players ready and willing to speak up, to stop the orchestra, to argue for their ideas,” Thulson says. “Even if they’re in what’s traditionally a non-leadership seat. If the presumption is that high voices get to lead, we have to treat that as a fragile presumption . . . We can’t let traditions make us boorish or lazy.”

But another, crucial, principle concerns sound – and how audiences react to the difference in sonority of conductorless orchestras. Whereas traditional concert-goers talk about “the composer, the sonata form, or the great recordings they’ve heard”, Thulson explains, Ars Nova audiences discuss their “concert experience”; the dynamism of the players and “how exciting it is to hear the inner workings of the music”.

This is a common positive appraisal of conductorless orchestras – their demonstrative, vital and dynamic nature. It’s an attribute often credited to the diversified origin of the artistic ideas that make up a musical performance. As opposed to the single vision of the conductor, audience members hear the collective conception of between 30 and 40 musicians.

Thulson views this premise as having broader social implications. “Pluralistic society,” he says, “gives us more sources of social good of all sorts, whether that’s ethical traditions beyond our own or simply global cuisine.”

Notions of pluralism are under intense scrutiny in the current US presidential election. Now more than ever, diversity and difference are under attack from the narrow-minded politics of Donald Trump. Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy, the co-authors of Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestras, think the Republican nominee could learn a few lessons from the tenets of conductorless orchestras.

“Leadership ensembles are high-performing multi-leader teams that share and rotate leadership roles based on knowledge and expertise, and operate collaboratively on trust, mutual respect, emotional intelligence and integrity,” Seifter says.

“In each of those respects, they are the antithesis of the politics of Donald Trump, and the ethos of Trumpism.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Thulson argues, is the leader representative of collaborative politics. “Good leaders are servant leaders . . . They’re moderators whose first responsibility is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard.”

Although a conductorless orchestra may seem like a radical parallel to draw, and while listening to the public may seem like a basic point to make, recent political events – the ascent of Trump, Brexit and broader euroscepticism – have shown what happens when the fundamentals of democracy are forgotten.