When I started out, I wore jeans and t-shirts, hoodies and sneakers. Off-stage I wore dresses and skirts, but when I did comedy I played at looking androgynous.
I didn’t want people to focus on the fact that I was a girl because I had been told that people didn’t find girls funny.
I also tried to avoid material that was about being a woman. I didn’t realise then that everything that I write is about being a woman and nothing that I write is about being a woman.
Last year, I wrote a joke about being excited that the Goods and Services Tax (known in Australia as the GST) had (finally) been removed from tampons:
I’m going to use all the extra money I save to top up my superannuation and close the gender pay gap.
That may sound fanciful to you,
But I have a very heavy flow.
I had vacillated about whether to perform it and I was surprised when it got a big laugh from the crowd.
A woman from the audience came to speak with me after the gig and we chatted in the dimly-lit front room of the pub. She told me that, at the time the GST was introduced, she had joked about it with a comedian friend who was about to have a hysterectomy. They had laughed darkly about the lengths you go to avoid GST. The comedian didn’t survive her ovarian cancer. Her friend was tearful seeing me tell jokes about the tax being removed from tampons after all that time. We hugged.
A week later, I met a stranger at a party and mentioned that I do stand-up. He told me: I don’t like it when girls tell jokes about their periods. I don’t like that period comedy.
When people watch stand-up, they often assume that the performance is unscripted – if it’s done well, it gives you an ephemeral, conversational feeling.
Sometimes it is improvised and immediate. More often, the ‘bits’ that are performed are scripted and refined, memorised and rehearsed.
Everything must be performed for a first time, usually at ‘test shows’ or among friends. Unrehearsed material is interwoven with proven jokes. Even responses that seem completely spontaneous – like quips in response to heckles – might be well-worn.
Around the time I started doing stand-up, I was putting together graduate job applications with a good friend. We talked a lot about office work and what it would be like. My friend worried that I would experience sexual harassment and wouldn’t say anything; that I would put up with it, that I put up with things, that I didn’t make a fuss.
I was surprised and a bit defensive. I set my jaw and I told him that of course I wouldn’t put up with someone harassing me. Of course I would say something.
A few weeks after that conversation, I did a stand-up gig. The backstage area was a commercial kitchen with a layer of grease on the floor so thick that I pretended it was an ice-skating rink and slid around on my sneakers while I rehearsed my jokes.
The gig was in a ‘line-up’ format. There was an MC and a series of comics who performed for between 5 and 10 minutes each.
On stage, the lights were warm and so bright that I couldn’t see the faces in the audience. It was like driving into the late-afternoon sun.
I did my five-minute spot. I can’t remember what jokes I told. I’m not particularly proud of my material from that time. I think that I was performing an idea of what I believed stand-up comedy was, rather than expressing myself.
What I do remember is this: I finished telling my jokes. I put the microphone back in the stand, which is always a clumsy manoeuvre for me. The MC came back onto the stage while the audience clapped. I stepped off the stage and stood in the dim light near the greasy kitchen. The MC back-announced my performance: “Ladies and gentlemen, Jess Moir – all that… AND GREAT TITS”.
Laughter and applause. Applause and laughter.
More than a decade has passed and it still makes me embarrassed.
After my spot there was an intermission. I moved through the big room where the audience was standing, through the hum of people chatting and ordering drinks from the bar. My humiliation made me feel like I was floating over the garish carpet.
I found the MC. He said to me smilingly “That was a great spot”.
And I said to him “Thanks. Don’t ever talk about my breasts again”.
His face fell and he apologised profusely.
I walked away and pride poured over my humiliation. It was oil on water – all the dignity that I felt in standing up for myself did nothing to lessen my mortification.
I spent a long time deciding whether to write this. I want to tell this story because it’s true, but I’m reluctant to broadcast the MC’s comments – I wonder if I am inviting new and different audiences to focus on my body and not on my ideas. There are other stories too. The story of the unwanted kiss on the mouth from an audience member after a charity gig. The story of the headline act who objectified female bar staff while I watched uselessly from the audience.
I remember a dear relative who would carry an umbrella on crowded buses when she was a young woman. No matter what the weather, she carried her umbrella. She used it to hit the men who groped her.
I confronted that MC years ago only because I had already resolved to do it; I had insisted to myself and to my friend that I would say something if I was ever harassed. So I did.
I spoke because I had a script.
Challenging harassment might look unrehearsed. It might seem natural or conversational. But it’s not. It’s something we decide to do. It’s something we rehearse in our quiet minds and try to remember when hear our cue.
You are being inappropriate.
That isn’t acceptable.
None of us is responsible for correcting people who harass us – it’s not our job. But if we want to speak, it helps to have words ready.