The Laugh, the Truth, and what happens when you’re still chasing both. [~2,400 words. Content warning: transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, internalized oppression.]
I don’t know if you know this, but I did stand-up comedy in college for a few years. There’s a reason I gave it up (more on that later), but you can still find shitty cell phone videos of my shittier jokes on YouTube if you search for my deadname.
I was really into comedy in college. It was kind of my “thing” at the time. I was, like, really proud of it. I was also writing a thesis that was heavily involved with what the meaning of Objective Truth™ means when it’s being bandied about by human beings who can’t help but infiltrate all observation with subjective choices about how information is related. It’s all sort of ivory tower thinking, but it had a big influence on a lot of my world.
The thesis was related to the fact that I was so into comedy. It’s easy to summarize in a simple axiom: “It’s funny because it’s true.” In my search for both the Laugh and the Truth, I often was seeking the same thing: a joke where every piece of the universe fell into place.
I still love comedy and have a great deal of respect for it. I just did some musical comedy before the election, only to be horrified that I might be proved right. Laughter is still something I prize and cherish. This is because I’ve focused on the moments that laughter helped me, saved me, or released me. But there have been times when laughter has hurt me.
And this is what circles back around on the notion of Truth. When people’s laughter hurts me, it’s often because their sense of the humor in play is grounded in their Truth. That’s not the end of it, of course–the real issue is often that their Truth is a threat to me or to others, especially people who don’t get the chance to tell their Truth.
So, with all that heady emotional bullshit in mind, let’s take a look back at three installments in trilogy: my stand-up sets as Santa Claus. There’s a lot of garbage in them. If you can’t stand the kind of predictable jokes that come from privilege, you should just stop here or skip ahead to the part with more heady emotional bullshit at the end.
2010: Sophmore Year
- Thanks to Dan Ahrens for the intro.
- What a dork.
- After getting a big laugh with that inside joke about campus parking lots, I’m not sure how I feel about “holiday” party getting a bigger one. I remember this a lot, though–not knowing whether people are laughing with or at political correctness.
- The reference to “The Dougie” obviously dates this piece, just in case bodyshaming Snooki didn’t do it for you.
- You miserable egg with your “Legolas is a girl” joke. Every closet case thinks they’re doing such a good job hiding it.
- I think that’s a solid “Santa pretends to do Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” bit. But the Ty Pennington thing–I remember this explicitly–was one of those indirect gay jokes that I’ve come to hate. They make me cry now, which makes it really hard to think it’s worth it to take a chance on live comedy.
- The Teen Mom stuff is so bad. As in not really funny, but also just toxic waste as far as comedy goes. Casual misogyny is something I way more tuned into now.
- Here’s something: this Mrs. Claus stuff tracks through all three iterations of this character. Year one is just the marriage on the rocks. The later years aren’t so rosy as this. But also, I said I wear a tutu for sex and did a self-conscious laugh after. What was that I said about closet cases earlier?
- I would come to love playing for groans, not hedging them like I do with the one at the line about “no more eggs to hide”.
- Needlessly violent Tim Allen non sequitor: B-
- There’s no jokes in your hat, dummy.
2011: Junior Year
- Shout out to my man Carl Flounderman for the great intro.
- This was Santa “Dice Man” Claus, a specific breed of Bad Santa I wrote to be as disgusting as Andrew “Dice Man” Clay. That’s why he opens with a “my ex-wife” joke.
- Mrs. Claus is first up this year and Santa is having a hard time being emotionally available. You can see how my relationship with groans from the crowd has changed, though.
- I don’t know how self-conscious this performance of toxic masculinity is. Which is like exactly what’s wrong with toxic masculinity.
- 72 million Kardashian jokes later, …
- This set, if I remember right, started as a list of dirty puns about Santa. It sort of evolved into a Dice Man impression from there. Put bad in, get bad out, I guess.
- I still love the idea of Santa knowing that he has a tendency to start shit because he got kicked off Maury. But that setup is too good for walking through the lyrics to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” like you think you’re some kind of hard-ass.
- Actually, Blitzen isn’t racist. This joke is insensitive as hell. Coca-Cola ads aren’t even the funniest thing about Santa, but this turned into a weird look at how Santa would cope with modern economics. At least, that’s how I think we got to the high-brow USA credit rating scandal that felt like it came out of left field.
- Sucking elf dick. Legolas. Snooki. The pieces are all coming together.
- Great delivery on coke line. Throwing shade at the tooth fairy again, I see.
- Very topical Dr. Pepper commercial reference that I turned into my finisher. But this sort of weird character work–trying to get inside Santa’s head and process shit he’d see–is what would lead to the next year’s progress.
- This set is my least favorite of these three because I was always so self-conscious of performing masculinity, it’s weird to watch myself try to dip a toe in true misogynist waters for the sake of a laugh. I think there’s a lot of power in parody and how it can expose the ridiculousness in people and events, but this set was not written as a commentary on toxic masculinity; it’s has nothing to really offer on the issue.
- In-character vaguely criminal Tim Allen non sequitor: C
2012: Senior Year
- Or as I call it: SHIT GETS REAL for Santa Claus. I’m still in love with the opening line.
- [If I had to guess, that was the goat-obsessed Ryan Priestle with the intro no one will ever see.]
- Three tweets is too many, even for a Christmas list. I see that now.
- Much more realistic relationship with polar bears than Dice Man Santa had. Santa deals with climate change, labor practices, and a media field day at the North Pole in one joke. But that was kind of the point of this whole set–making Santa as real as possible.
- Finally, the truth about the Tooth Fairy and the Claus marriage is revealed. (Four pairs of dentures actually seems pretty impressive for 600 years old. The really impressive amount of time is how long it took me to figure out why I wanted all my girlfriends to be lesbians.)
- Solid “garnish” pun for bitter divorced Santa. “No crumbing” isn’t as strong, but I was trying to save the word cigarettes for the later punchline. “Milk & Cokes” is a great third hit of bold-faced wordplay.
- For the full Cheech & Chong effect, I should’ve said, “What are you smoking, officer?”
- Santa’s car.
- “Passed out masturbating” was a “joke” I wrote for me, but loved to use for Santa. Looking back on all three of these, it’s the only real joke in any of them.
- I’m still kind of proud of this set. Trying to get real with Santa was a thrilling challenge and exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do with comedy.
- Full circle on Tim Allen relationship non sequitur: A
The Part With More Heady Emotional Shit At The End
Looking back on all of these, I’m struck by what I think is the biggest different I sense between the worldview I brought to the stage and the worldview I bring to life now, it’s not even about gender. Here’s what is is: The Laugh is no longer my priority.
When I was on stage, getting laughs was what mattered. Stand-up is kind of great because it reduces you to this singular purpose. Maybe that’s part of why it feels so bad when you fuck it up–you can’t even do one thing right. (This is a gross oversimplification given that there are infinite ways to do this one thing right.)
But when you do that one thing right, it’s incredible. You get to share laughter with a room. Of course, it’s totally self-indulgent and really egocentric, but laughter was life to me at that point. It was the only thing that got me through losing one of my best friends my senior year in high school, a death that I still get hung up on. But The Laugh was about the only sacred thing I had reverence for at that point.
I believed because I’d heard it somewhere that laughter was a natural response to things people don’t understand. To me, this is the crux of every joke: some kind of misunderstanding or break from expectations that the teller shares with the audience. What a beautiful way to react to the unknown, I thought, blind to my own rose-colored Groucho glasses.
But getting in touch with who I really am showed me the dark side of the laughter I’d been ignoring. I don’t know why I didn’t see it more when it came to trying to tell jokes to strangers just for laughs. A lot of it–my misogynistic jokes, my racial insensitivity–is blindspots, sure. But you can erase a blindspot if you just turn your head, so that’s no excuse.
But, to reduce it to a sort of simplistic binary, the dark side of comedy is one of the several subtle shades in the difference between laughing with and laughing at. It’s a gray area a lot of the time, but also a really important fine line.
That’s why I find all the bits about gender in these sets really telling. Like really telling. Especially as it connects to the larger arc of Santas I laid out. (They weren’t really written as a series.)
[Sidebar: Who really thinks that Santa doesn’t know why the radiant genderfuckery of Legolas caught his eye? Are we really supposed to believe that Mrs. Claus insisted he wear a tutu to bed? Or that their marriage fell apart because she cheated on him with the Tooth Fairy? (I personally don’t believe a damn word that comes out of Diceman Santa’s mouth.)]
The thread I pulled through all three of these sets is that Santa seems to get more miserable very year. If I really headcanon my own interpretation of a popular mythical feature, I see that, like me, Santa passes through three very familiar phases of performative masculinity.
First, he just tries to play it cool as if nothing is even bothering him. Second, he reverts to this sort of brash fake machismo persona in order to compensate for the fact that masculinity is a trial for him. Finally, he embraces a nihilist’s sensibility that if nothing matters, then everything has the potential for meaning and a couple of laughs. He arrives at a relationship with his reality similar to the one I had with my gender when I started to get serious about transitioning.
That was the headspace I was in before I finally gathered enough sense to do some research on why everything related to gender feels so upside-down and painful for me. Because it was from that cynically optimistic perspective that I was able to look to these tiny moments in my past that had the potential for meanings that could totally alter the course of my future.
In the process, comedy got hard to handle. I know there’s a lot about college campuses and safe spaces in the news lately–and most of it is hypocritical bullshit from the administrations of universities–but there’s a very real difference from the comedy scene I got to enjoy on campus in Athens, Ohio, and the ones I’ve seen in a city like Chicago.
Normally, it’s enough to keep me home. Before my set at Second City right before the election, I hadn’t been to a proper comedy show since I’d watched two dudes scream “cocksucker” at each other behind a thin veil of irony for what felt like an eternity. And that wasn’t even an improv set.
But, anyway, I feel like this is a really long piece about what’s really a simple couple of points for me. Obviously, I’m not condemning comedy. I very probably owe my life to the Laugh, and that’s a debt I’m still trying to repay even if now it’s in day-to-day interactions instead of on a stage. And I still don’t really know how to feel about the Truth. It’s an immense and powerful entity, but one that’s also twisted and manipulated and hard to verify.
Neither is really a star to guide me perfectly through reality. But both can guide me somewhere safe. They can help me find my way through something unknown. And they both are things that I place on a special tier of my ideological pantheon.
To kind of put a neat little bow in it (and not just because it’s seasonally appropriate), let me write the following sentence and be done with it. There’s always going to be overlap between the Laugh and the Truth as long as there are those of us mad enough to laugh at any truth on offer.