The first time I said “dick” onstage during an improv comedy set, I went from zero to hero overnight on my high school team. In the beginning, I was hardly one of its strongest members, and I didn’t have a close bond with anyone on the team. It took only one juvenile sex joke to skyrocket me into a position of attention.
This bit was hilarious to a 16-year-old audience. This bit now concerns a 20-year-old me.
In a piece written by the Atlantic, it’s proposed that comedians are guided by a central “benign violation” theory. Break your audience’s expectations, but in a way that is harmless. It’s not so different from visiting a haunted house, knowing that people try almost anything to terrify you, but they’re paid not to touch you — so it’s still fun.
I remember first learning about Chris Farley, the phenomenal but oft-forgotten “Saturday Night Live” comedian who tragically died of a drug overdose at the age of 33. As it was first explained to me, much of Farley’s massive success could be attributed to his weight — he possessed an “it’s funny because he’s fat” quality — and he knew it too.
“Fatty falls down, everyone goes home happy,” Farley reportedly commented in behind-the-scenes footage from “Tommy Boy.”
Farley leaned heavily into his own fatness, milking its societal stigma for all it was worth. He would flail about, sweat profusely, gesticulate aggressively, squat too deeply, fall over left and right, sometimes even strip.
It was stories like Farley’s that swirled around in my head just as I was beginning to find my own comedic strengths. After making waves with the dick joke, I began to experiment more and more with sexual humor — fervent gyrations, explicit flirting and innuendo, and absurd romances were my calling cards. I was hugely successful in this vein, rising in reputation on my high school team and later joining an improv team at Berkeley.
But as I got older, my success with this type of humor began to bother me. I wondered if my benign violation was existing in a sexual context. Audiences laughed at my representations of myself as sexually proactive. The worst part was, I hadn’t been in on the joke.
What Farley felt toward his weight I felt toward my appearance. Most people aspire to be thought of us funny, but when you feel like you’re funny because of your God-given appearance, you begin to feel like you’re not in control of your own humor. You’re not funny because of what you say or do, you’re not funny because of your cleverness or your creativity — you simply “look funny” to audiences.
While people may not question the blonde cheerleader’s sexual brashness, when the small red-headed girl mimed these actions, it was funny — my actions lost their humor outside of this context.
Unlike Farley, once this thought entered my brain, I completely abandoned sexual humor. I developed a new set of characters to play in improv sets, ones who tended to completely take over a scene. Wielding this kind of power helped me feel like I was reclaiming control over the laughs I generated.
My characters — punkish middle schoolers, zealous interns and overbearing mothers — worked for me because they existed in total opposition to me. I couldn’t play myself if I wanted to be funny in a scene; in fact, I had to get as far away from that person as I could.
But, then again, maybe I didn’t.
Particularly for improv comedians, the things that are funny about us will always be our standout characteristics. We leverage the things that make us unique for an element of surprise. And, naturally, most of us think of the things that make us different as being our flaws, particularly physical ones.
Some of these flaws are more obvious, others more obscure, but the most foundational is probably gender. Comedy is consistently a male-dominated landscape, and there’s a common perception that women are by nature not as funny as men.
A huge population of female comedians tend to respond by exuding what has been critiqued as masculine energy. They speak candidly on taboo topics, chase “gross humor” down its rabbit hole or dare to portray ridiculous characters with huge confidence. Think of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer in “Broad City,” Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids,” Kristen Wiig on “Saturday Night Live” or Amy Schumer on “Inside Amy Schumer.” Even though Tina Fey is an objectively beautiful woman, her character on “30 Rock” was scripted as ugly.
The benign violation that leads to success for female comedians is “acting like a man.” But this is not because men are funnier, but because certain behaviors are coded as male, even if they’re universal. Women aren’t borrowing — they’re reclaiming.
Which, finally, brings me back to my storied past with sex jokes. Under the guidance of so many female comedians before me, I’ve embraced my own violations, not as flaws but as comedic assets.
The things that make us different aren’t flaws — in fact, most of them don’t even make us as different as we think. You can be beautiful and confident and surprising and hilarious all at once. The jokes you choose to tell are your own, and the laughs you earn are yours to take.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].