It’d be nicer if you’d join in: Erin Judge on women making art vs. women critiquing it

Erin Judge is a stand-up comedian who appeared on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham. Judge tours everywhere with her Pink Collar Comedy Tour and also co-produces The Afterlife, a monthly comedy showcase in New York City.

This is republished from her blog, So Make It Up, with the author’s permission.

it’d be nicer if you joined in

Some chick says, “Thank you for saying all the things I never do.” I say, you know, the thanks I get is to take all the shit for you. It’s nice that you listen. It’d be nicer if you joined in. As long as you play their game, girl, you’re never gonna win.

Yes, I am quoting a nearly-two-decades-old Ani DiFranco song in the service of lamenting the gulf – the wide, wide, shitty, shitty, shitty gulf, which only seems to grow wider and shittier – between feminist popular artists and feminist cultural critics.

I went directly from the womb of my women’s college into the throes of one of the most sexist cultures imaginable. There is so much misogyny in the world of stand-up comedy that I cannot even begin to tiptoe toward the precipice of explaining it all here. Some of it comes from the same obnoxious Reddit “masculinist” sentiments that feed and give succor to entitled dickwads like the nice guys of OKCupid. But a lot of it is just dudes on stage being scared and saying stupid shit to establish their power, or attempting to challenge taboos and sloppily missing the mark.

That’s one of the problems with attempting to make art: sometimes you’re misinterpreted. And sometimes it’s your own fault, because you’re not quite deft enough. You take aim at injustice with a premise that seems crystal-clear and obvious to you, but you wind up hurting those who’ve suffered injustice instead. Maybe you simply lack the skills. Maybe you’re sincerely ignorant.

I decided years ago that the best way to combat shitty ideas in an art form is with awesome ideas in the same art form. So I stuck with stand-up, not because it was safe, but because it clearly needed me: queer, female, feminist, plus-sized, anti-racist, snarky, sex-positive, leftist, confrontational, whip-smart me. I know how arrogant that sounds, but it’s true. And it still needs me*. In fact, it needs a whole hell of a lot more people like me. But it’s hard to recruit, frankly, because stand-up is incredibly scary and extremely hard.

The other day I did a show where a woman in the audience (who I later found out is a college professor) sat in the front row shaking her head furiously at every premise (PREMISE! That’s just the set-up part!) that she found questionable. She said, “No!” out loud when she found a subject matter too politically incorrect. She gesticulated like an air traffic controller to indicate her feelings toward, say, a white person who dared mention the fact that race exists. She repeatedly punched her male companion for laughing at jokes. She was buzzed, and, fancying herself a one-woman Waldorf and Statler, she situated herself in a position to be seen by the whole rest of the audience as she judged the moral merits of every comic who came before her.

Here is what I have to say to that chick:

You are a fucking coward. 

I graduated from college awash in opportunities to scuttle off to humanities grad school and have my special brainwaves massaged and celebrated by like-minded academics. Instead, after a year in the trenches of comedy, I decided I could give myself no greater challenge in life than mastering the rhetorical ninjadom required of this art form. It is a long, long fucking road to greatness in comedy. Most of us will never get there.

But the reason that I got to hold the microphone and speak to a room full of people that night is because I have been working very, very hard at stand-up for years. It’s much more difficult to change hearts and minds with laughter than to construct a five paragraph persuasive essay. And every single person who tries it and gets far enough to get booked on paid showcases in New York City has taken a far more courageous and difficult path than you can imagine.

It’s much easier to criticize those who are attempting to make art than to make art yourself. AskLena Dunham. Ask Eminem. Ask me. I’ll tell you. I still do both. And the making art part is way, way, way, way, way, way, WAY harder, especially if you’re trying to get a real audience of actual humans to give a shit about a genuinely feminist perspective.

I have sympathy for my comedian peers accused of mounting an attack on a marginalized group from a position of privilege. It’s not total sympathy – we are all ultimately responsible for the content of what we say into a microphone. But here’s the truth: nobody who’s ever really done stand-up sees it as the position of power and authority that an audience member might see it as.

The vulnerability – the risk – of making art is that some people will not get it, or, worse, will take it the wrong way. They’ll interpret your work in a way that favors their own prejudices. They’ll hold up any single word you say as evidence of the totality of what you believe and who you really are. They’ll tell others about the awful hatred you espoused with confidence, even if they’re the only people in the room who had such a negative reaction.

But, in the end, reacting is all they’re doing. Unless they are willing to take risks and engage their own creativity, criticism is the limit of what they can make. I suppose that, in the case of my front-row chick, they can also engage in flagrantly rude moralistic behavior. But that’s just plain obnoxious.

Which brings me to this:

The subversion here is so fantastic. But if you choose to focus on phrases like “crushing pussy” while utterly failing to recognize the satire, then you can never possibly begin to appreciate the actual joke.

One more thing to my front-row chick from the comedy show:

If you ever saw a man treat a woman the way you treated your male companion that night, you would personally throw that girl her very own Take Back the Night rally on the spot.

* And I, of course, need stand-up. But that’s a whole other story…

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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