"I can't stand faggots! They everywhere! Rubbing our noses in it!"
"It's the women! They turn men into queers!"
"They ain't born that way! Don't sell me that shit! They choose to be sick!"
So went the discussion on the A train from Brooklyn. A large Trinidadian and a Black man from Bed Stuy argued only about the details of their mutual hatred, one insisting that gay men are demonic aliens, the other blaming ancient Greece and Rome for same sex unions. I sat directly in the middle of this, trying to read the NY Post's sports page, chewing my bottom lip to keep quiet.
Was it their skin color or physical size that silenced me? Would I be less hesitant were they white suburbanites or rednecks? Their reasoning was so ridiculous, their claims so outrageous, that any attempt at correction would be pointless, and dangerous, given the Trinidadian's outburst when a skinny Black kid tried to do just that.
"You a fag?!" he yelled.
"No. I'm straight."
"You sound faggish! If you straight, why do you care about fags?!"
"You're missing the point . . ."
"Fags need to go!" the big guy thundered. "We don't tolerate that shit in Trinidad! We kill them!"
This was too much for his queer-fear friend.
"Yo brother, no need to kill them. Just ignore them."
"No! They gotta die! You hear me?!"
That's where I got off the train, ears ringing with rancor. Even after the doors closed, I could still hear him yelling. As the train left, the sound of classical violin took over, a young Asian man playing with sweet intensity. Ugliness immediately transcended by beauty. That's what I love about the city.
It's easy to assume that queerphobia rests merely with the ignorant. But I've seen similar attitudes from supposedly-intelligent comedians. Indeed, the Trinidadian would've howled at some of the bits I caught this past week.
One comic, Jeff, who I've seen before and enjoyed, did this inexplicably bad routine about the dime being the gayest coin. "It's thin, light, has a guy on it that gays wanna look like [FDR?], and when you spend it, everyone knows you're gay." Yeah. I get that all the time. (And time rhymes with dime which makes me . . .) This was the most creative fag baiting I saw. The rest were mere insults. Yay comedy.
Dealing with my straight life on stage was no less daunting. Turbulent emotions guided my bits about marriage fading, relationships in serious transition. I act as if it doesn't bother me, but it does, in ways I've yet to fully comprehend. Riffing off this mindset has led to some interesting discoveries, a few funny, others wistful, melancholy. What I consider sad has gotten laughs, and what I thought were punch lines led to nods and cocked heads. If there's a template for what I'm doing, it eludes me.
A key difference between my relationship material and that of many other male comics is a lack of aggression. A lot of these guys either hate or fear women, or pretend to for comedy's sake. Bitch, cunt, whore are commonly tossed around, and I'm amazed that women stand ups don't defend themselves more. It's as if they roll with misogyny to show their toughness, oftentimes using the same words. Honesty does reveal malice and anger, but I don't get the impression that male comics are trying to learn as they perform. Spite seems more their speed.
There have been abusive, crazy women in my life, but I would never crudely trash them on stage. I retain enough toxic emotion as it is. While I avoid verbal abuse, I do examine darker sides to my relationships, which require no added poison to make them tangible.
This time out I pondered how relationships end, going from my parents' acrimonious divorce to my more amicable situation to bizarre lovers I've known, like the middle-aged stylist/dominatrix who fucked Michael O'Donoghue and wanted to stick a loaded .38 up my ass during sex. I performed pretty much the same set at Otto's Shrunken Head and Teneleven's Freakshow Mic. I assumed the former would be dodgier than the latter, but again I guessed wrong.
Otto's resembles a grass-lined Tiki hut leftover from Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla. Mike Toro ran the mic, which was very welcoming to new performers, the small room filled with comics and civilians. I went up early, talked about marriage and old girlfriends as the audience flowed along, smiling, laughing, and happily for me, not texting or checking email.
I was more storyteller than comedian, animated but relaxed, going where the subject matter took me. I ended with how modern porn, with its many disgusting amateur genres, offers no real fantasy release, but instead has turned me into porn reactionary. "Bring back the pros!" I pleaded. "Bring back people who know what they're doing and look good doing it!"
It was a smooth, fulfilling set. Another step forward. So naturally I figured the same material would fly at Teneleven, where I've done fairly well.
Here the audience was much quieter. Lines that got laughs at Otto's laid there at Freakshow. I had their attention, commenting on their silence, which elicited scattered laughter, but nothing overwhelming. They stared at me, grinning. If, as O'Donoghue insisted, making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy, then my Teneleven set was decidedly high brow. Or maybe they just didn't find me funny. I know the feeling.
Still, I felt fine about it. Enduring quiet without breaking pace is good exercise, but you don't want to make a habit of it. Then again, Samuel Beckett played with "terrible silence" and he was a laugh riot. Godot as emcee, giving Estragon the boot.