There’s a certain forced intimacy required for most successful comedy shows. The more people you can cram into a small space, with just enough room for folks to slide their way to and from the bar, the easier it is for performers to build momentum. Laughs bounce off each other rather than dissipate anticlimactically into the airspace.
At Berkeley’s Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center, however, while most tables were filled, the crowd was spread in such a way that the venue felt emptier, and the “Comedy at Ashkenaz! The 2nd Annual Gay Pride Comedy Night” event suffered for it — though this setup wasn’t the sole reason for a fairly quiet house.
The evening introduced its attendees to an admirably diverse lineup of LGBTQ+ comics. Lisa Geduldig, Dom Gelin, Nick Leonard, Irene Tu and Karen Ripley made up this year’s performers, and they brought a predictably mixed bag of punchlines, with some landing in spite of themselves and other sure-bets falling flat.
Taking a bird’s eye view, many of the comics at Ashkenaz seemed a little too inspired by existing trends in comedy, borrowing go-to constructions and topics from the greater landscape without much innovation, though it was encouraging to see some of these topics confronted from an LGBTQ+ perspective. Nearly all the comics mocked their physical appearances while delivering in a laid-back style, most including jokes about menstruating — which is, admittedly, a pretty funny topic. The first three times.
No one was expected to reinvent the genre, but a comic getting too derivative is comparable to the latest magician attempting to saw a woman in half: It’s still pretty cool, but not as cool as something we’ve never seen before.
That’s not to say each comic didn’t boast unique strengths. Tu excelled in a clever monologue about nursing bras and adult diapers, while Gelin was able to enrapture her audience with stories about her antics with medical professionals and regional airport staff. Geduldig kept the pacing light, conversational and relaxed. Leonard boasted one of the most well-received quips of the night — if guns were made to look like vaginas, he posited, men would never be able to find the trigger.
As the comics would hastily glance down at their notebooks for their next cheeky jokes, it became apparent that the performers were faced with an unusually challenging job of catering to the senses of humor of a crowd that spanned a range of ages and sexualities less typical for a comedy show.
The night’s final performer, however, was able to unite folks young and old. At 67 years old, Ripley has been performing comedy for 41 years — her history as a comedian is rooted in a time well before a welcoming space existed for LGBTQ+ comedians. When she made her way to the mic, a security tag still attached to her jacket and a piece of toilet paper clinging to her shoe, she did so with a unique confidence and a mischievous, knowing look in her eye.
“You ever been walking down the street, minding your own business, and your vagina falls out?” Ripley blurted in her opening remarks. She went on to earn some of the most enthusiastic laughs of the night for her frustrated rants about aging bodies and senile vaginitis.
Still, even with years of experience, Ripley still wandered her way into the territory of comedic faux pas. A few rambling, distracted monologues were fairly inconsequential, but an unnecessary reference to the Parkland shooting in the set-up for a punchline and a repeat of more than one joke from last year’s iteration of the event felt like much larger missteps.
With that in mind, performing comedy can be a lot like throwing darts: There are not too many folks out there who can nab a bull’s-eye every single time. Ashkenaz was aiming for a much more important target, anyway — to provide a platform dedicated to amplifying LGBTQ+ voices, punchlines be damned.
Shannon O’Hara covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected].