Comedian Jes Tom has a pronoun joke: “I like it when people call me ‘them’. It makes me feel less alone.”
Tom is part of a small but growing group of comedians who do not identify exclusively with the gender labels of “masculine” and “feminine”, and before the pandemic regularly held stand-up shows in New York City.
For several months, we spoke with five of these comedians about the joys and frustrations of explaining their genre on stage and the new interest of the entertainment industry in non-binary artists. They also discussed the challenges of working in a field involved in an ongoing discussion of what is and is not off limits in comedy.
All this coincides with a greater awareness of gender diversity in culture in general. In 2019, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year was the singular pronoun “they,” and both singer Sam Smith and Jonathan Van Ness from “Queer Eye” came out as non-binary. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. And at the state and federal level, there are proposals that would allow for a third gender option in passports and driver’s licenses.
Comedy clubs remain closed, but these comedians were largely in a good mood when we reconnected with them recently to discover how they were managing as the city slowly emerges from its closure.
The embodiment of the non-binary
Jes Tom, 29, has an arrogance that is at once groomed, bowed, acidic, and tired of the world. When I said I found them surprisingly threatening on stage, they applauded with joy and replied, “It’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me.”
An Asian-American comedian who also hosts a weekly cooking show on Instagram Live called “Iron Jes,” Tom is aware of Hollywood’s growing appetite for people who look like them. “For better or for worse, I think the embodiment of the non-binary that I really am is in vogue in today’s world right now. By which I mean specifically a thin person, colored but still relatively light skinned, of the East Asia but still speaking perfect English, he was assigned a woman at birth but still a kind of male bent. ” In fact, Tom is a perfect fit for this prototype.
Tom acknowledged that his identity has helped them get jobs, including commercial work that has helped them support themselves during the pandemic. “As an Asian-American trans queer non-binary stand-up comedian, I probably get a lot more gigs than whites.” [male] comedians, “they said.” Which doesn’t mean I have it easier systemically.
“This is like the marginalized artist’s double-edged sword, right?” Tom added. “On the one hand, I look forward to the day when my entire career is not about this part of my identity. On the other hand, I feel very grateful that this marginalized part of my identity makes me work, that it catches my attention. ”
Being able to work in that niche is a far cry from when they started doing comedy in 2013. Back then, they were generally the only gender-nonconforming person in the room. “As far as I know, there was no open queer comedy microphone,” Tom recalled. “What I mean is that I Googled it and nothing came up.”
‘Freedom of expression is a two-way street’
“If you don’t know, the open mic scene in New York can be surprisingly transphobic, misogynistic, racist,” said James Tison from the stage at Cumming Club last fall.
It was the third installment of the monthly showcase “The Snowflake Mic”, and Tison was explaining the spirit of the open mic night.
“You are welcome to say what you want. But freedom of expression is, fortunately, a two-way street, “Tison warned participating comics. “So if you come onto this stage and tell yourself a hacking premise about how trans women are not women or you think you found a smart new way to say the ‘N word’ into a microphone and you’re a white person, this audience can Boo you, they can come up to you later and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t like that,’ and you have to accept it. ”
As a stand-up, Tison, 33, has performed at open microphones in New York City for years and regularly faced harassment and harassment both on and off stage. In response, they selected a list of “non-toxic open microphones” on their website and created “The Snowflake Mic”, reclaiming the word used to describe an overly sensitive person.
Not everyone appreciated the joke. A few comedians took to Twitter extolling the virtue of tough rooms and hostile crowds as important preparation for a nasty and tough industry.
But Tison bristled at the idea that a comedy night by and for LGBTQ comedians represents a radical departure from comedy in general or a softening of jokes. “I don’t think anyone has neutral material,” they said. “It is an invented concept. There are only so many straight men in the business and we call it neutral. ”
“The Snowflake Mic” has been on hold since March, but Tison plans to restart it as soon as possible. For Tison, hosting the microphone is as much about work as it is about comedy.
“Open microphones are the entry point for the entire field,” Tison wrote in an email. “They are the only way to really improve in stand-up, but it is also where you build professional relationships with like-minded people who lead to future concerts. We are talking about job opportunities in a job market. “
Of course, that job market and the open microphones that power it have largely disappeared right now. In recent months, Tison has spent the time they would normally have spent on stage working on a podcast for abortion rights group NARAL, writing a pilot and uploading videos to TikTok, which they describe as “methadone” for live heroin. . comedy performance.
They have also directed their attention and anxieties to their own home. “I built a desk,” Tison told me. “I repainted my bathroom twice.”
Tearing apart ‘the reality we are in’
For anyone concerned that non-binary comedians portray a politically correct or sanitized comedy, Lorelei Ramirez, 30, could ease their concerns. At her MoMA PS1 show last fall, Ramirez told a joke about being caught masturbating in a public library and pondered what a chorus of pedophiles might sound like.
Ramírez’s PS1 show also included a musical performance with his voice and a loop pedal, a live projection of a digital drawing, and a circus-themed art installation complete with a mosquito, popcorn, and framed portraits of clowns painted by Ramírez. “No binary” applies not only to Ramírez’s genre, but to his entire approach to acting and art.
While they do tell jokes about her gender identity (“I’m non-binary, so I’m not like other girls. Because I’m a person”), Ramírez often deviates to absurd-bodied horror monologues delivered in voices that can test the line between cheesy and creepy.
“I like to jokingly destroy the reality we are in,” Ramírez explained about Zoom. “I just like people to imagine how crazy they can be.” Which, in the case of the Lorelei comedy, may include a lengthy no-nonsequence about being followed home and killed by a one-foot-tall imp with a giant head.
Ramírez’s performances during the running of the bulls have been mainly limited to a weekly live drawing show called “Art Is Easy” on Twitch. They have also been working with friends to provide food and wellness services to community organizers and activists.
Although he doesn’t perform regularly, Ramírez said they are still using their “comedy brain and production brain” amid the current political climate. “We created an alternative scene in an industry that had no room for us,” said Ramírez. “So now we are doing that, but in real life, not just in this little scene. And it still applies. “
The duty to ‘free other people’
In a solo elegiac performance at Ars Nova, 29-year-old Peter Smith played Princess Diana in a work featuring original songs and monologues scattered between a virtuous lip sync from Diana’s 1995 BBC interview with the journalist Martin Bashir. It was tragic and disorienting, and occasionally hilarious.
Smith’s performance in “Diana” had more in common with esoteric stage artists like Dickie Beau or Lypsinka than her average comedian, but Smith still sees value in being an openly trans comedy for the mainstream comedy audience.
“If you are free from something, it is your duty to free other people,” Smith told me. “Just seeing someone exist and have fun is liberating.”
Smith is philosophical about the concept of non-binary gender identity. “All the language is wrong,” said Smith. “Choosing an identity still has a binary nature because a decision has yet to be made.”
Smith has frequently performed in comedy venues like Caroline’s on Broadway, but her career has been nothing but eclectic. They have played the title role in a production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Peter Pan”, worked as a costume production assistant for independent films, and helped painter George Condo.
They also hosted two variety shows in New York City with their frequent collaborator Sandy Honig: the dazzling high-gloss burlesque show “The Bongo Hour” and the weekly informal comedy show “Pig,” which ended its broadcast in 2019.
In 2020, Smith starred in the new musical “XY” at the Seattle Village Theater, appeared alongside Honig in Adult Swim’s “Three Busy Debras,” and delivered a powerful rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in one episode. from Hulu’s “screech”.
Since March, Smith has eschewed traditional comedy in favor of songwriting and community organizing, sometimes collaborating with Lorelei Ramírez. Smith missing the live performance? Of course.
“But my desire to return to the stage does not come close to my desire to bring people together and activate them,” they said. “Everything that is happening now is very much alive.”
‘I always wanted to do everything’
A talent show at a summer camp was Spike Einbinder’s first contact with stage comedy. They pantomimed picking up tomatoes from a hamburger while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played on a tape recorder. “I never thought ‘I’m doing one thing,'” said Einbinder. “I always wanted to do everything.”
Einbinder, who insisted in our conversations that his age was 5,412, fuses theater, drag, and performance elements into his comedy sets. They have appeared on stage as demons, golems or, in the case of their alter ego, Candy Dish, a green-skinned swamp creature who cut his teeth like a comedian who worked “the Belt of the Swamp.”
During his more traditional stand-up sets, Einbinder sometimes uses his trans identity to play with his audience. “I’m going to say ‘Who here thinks I’m a girl?'” Einbinder said. “And generally people are too afraid to answer that.”
“I feel like the body they gave me is like a weapon,” Einbinder told me over the phone. “It is something that I use as a tool because I don’t want it to be used against me.”
Einbinder’s eclectic performances made them favorites on rare and alternative comedy nights, and they also appeared on HBO’s “High Maintenance” and “Los Espookys,” which was written by his best friend, Julio Torres.
“I would like to think that the reason I get roles and the reason I am hired is because I am a unique and unique person who is fun and not because it is a new buzzword,” they said. “I’ve always been like this”.