When Cameron Esposito was in college, she had a friend who would memorize her class schedule, hide behind a nearby tree, jump out and tackle her to the ground. His behavior made her uncomfortable, but she didn’t know how to deal with it. So whenever they hung out, she would drink. One night, after heavy drinking, they went back to her dorm room. “I know that I didn’t say yes,” Esposito says. “I also know that I couldn’t have.” She pauses. “This is the shit I think we’re not talking about — we’re just at the edge … and I want to push it further.”
Esposito isn’t delivering a talk on sexual assault. This is part of her new stand-up comedy special, Rape Jokes, performed live at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in Los Angeles. And she’s not alone in taking this counterintuitive approach to comedy. For decades, self-deprecation has been viewed as the essence of successful comedy, the ability to laugh at oneself a vital part of any comic’s toolkit. But a growing band of comedians is flipping the script on modern humor, using comedy specials and stand-up routines to vocalize marginalization and injustice they’ve faced — while making the audience laugh.
Earlier this year, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby highlighted the harassment and homophobia she experienced growing up in her Netflix comedy special, Nanette. Hari Kondabolu discusses the racist stereotypes of South Asians that had a lasting impact on his childhood in his 2018 special, Warn Your Relatives and his 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, a reference to the Indian-origin Simpsons character.
The examples are beginning to expand globally. In Australia, in addition to Gadsby, you have Adam Briggs, an indigenous Australian who writes and performs comedy from the perspective of aboriginal people – one of the most persecuted groups in that country. In India, there’s Deepika Mhatre who worked as household help in Mumbai until April, and now does stand-up. It’s considered taboo for a housekeeper to talk back in India, but Mhatre regularly performs jokes about the ridiculous antics of her former employers — members of India’s elite. Back in the U.S., Hasan Minhaj discusses the racism he experiences as a Muslim in America in his stand-up special, Homecoming King.
In the past, they used self-deprecating humor to survive … they’re simply no longer willing to do that.
David McNeil, retired associate professor of comedy and satire, Dalhousie University
This shift coincides with the increasing recognition that in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that forced the world to confront uncomfortable truths about the harassment of women, there’s a greater audience than before willing to listen to stories of disadvantaged people and communities, say experts.
“Comedians will always reflect what they feel society is ready to hear and wants to hear,” says David McNeil, a recently retired associate professor of comedy and satire at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. McNeil points out that comedians frequently use biographical material in their routines. These performers have likely wanted to discuss the topics at hand for a long time, he says, but knew it wouldn’t have been well-received until now. “In the past, they used self-deprecating humor to survive and to appeal to a wider audience,” says McNeil. “But they’re simply no longer willing to do that.”
Writer, actor and comedian Sabrina Jalees has noticed this shift, and she’s part of it. In 2018’s Netflix series The Comedy Lineup, Jalees points out that as a woman, you’re told to yell “fire!” if you’re being sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, if you yell “rape,” it’s likely that no one will come. “As I’ve gone deeper into stand-up, the ‘why’ has become clearer,” Jalees tells this writer. “I want to speak about things I’m passionate about and take them to the next level.” She thinks it’s time for people to hear her experiences as a gay, half-Muslim woman.
The emphasis on hard social issues isn’t coming at the cost of humor. In one routine in Mumbai, Mhatre talks about how her former employers weren’t comfortable with her eating from the same utensils as them — a reminder of India’s deeply entrenched caste system. Then, she pauses and pivots. “Whose hands do they think wash the dishes they eat on?” she asks with a smile as the audience laughs.
Esposito does something similar in Rape Jokes. She tells the audience she had no information about what positive attention would look like from men growing up. Beauty and the Beast, she says, was the most formative romantic movie from her childhood. “So, what am I looking for in a man?” Esposito asks. “Well, he should’ve recently kidnapped my father … and once we fall in love, I’ll stop reading and talk to a fork!”
Still, the laughs they draw are carefully planned in a script that’s also hard-hitting. Esposito speaks of her sexual assault only toward the end of her special but mentions it several times throughout the show, taking away the shock value from the word “rape.” Gadsby does the same thing in Nanette, as she talks about growing up gay in a small Tasmanian town. Very early on, Gadsby declares she will no longer engage in self-deprecating humor. “I put myself down in order to speak,” Gadsby says. “I simply will not do that anymore — not to myself or to anybody who identifies with me.” In Warn Your Relatives, Kondabolu discusses casual racist stereotypes and the rise of White supremacy in America. “When you’re telling someone we’ve come a long way, you’re telling them they have to hold their pain for longer,” he says.
This style of comedy is also gaining momentum in comedy schools and training programs. Mano Agapion, a teacher and performer at UCB in LA, often sees this with his students and fellow performers. Agapion is part of an all-queer comedy team that often highlights queer community concerns by role-playing their oppressors. And audiences are into it. “More than ever, I’ve noticed that White, cis, straight people are open to being mocked,” he says. Minority comedy performers used to make fun of themselves to be included, he says. But today, audiences are less likely to enjoy that type of comedy. “It’s cathartic to say, ‘look at these monsters in power,’” Agapion says. “And oftentimes, those are the jokes that resonate most with the audience.”
Underground comedy clubs remain relatively immune to this trend so far. “I can’t say we have any performers doing this at the club,” says Noam Dworman, owner of the Comedy Cellar in New York City. That’s partly because of their model. The Comedy Cellar, for instance, has “five or six comedians on every night,” says Dworman, and “this style is better suited for a headliner or longer set.” Also, not all audiences are the same. Louis C.K., who has performed for years at the Comedy Cellar, returned to the stage there in October after nine months. He had been accused and subsequently admitted to the sexual harassment of two female comedians. Dworman faced criticism for allowing C.K. to perform at his club, but the majority of the audience that night was excited by C.K.’s return to the stage.
Still, Dworman is happy to see what Esposito, Gadsby and others are doing. “I think there’s a big interest right now in the experiences of marginalized people,” he says. He cautions, though, that “it won’t work unless the person’s jokes are really funny.”
Luckily, these comedians are. It’s just that they’re redefining funny.