Laughing at Transgender Comedy

Rae Drew and friends joke, rap and talk about gender during a special one night stand at GayFest

Rae Drew performing for the first time as an out transgender artist at the July 2010 Queer Memoir Show in West Philly (courtesy of Quince Productions)

When it comes to transgender comedy, most mainstream jokesters walk a thin line. But among transgender performers themselves, all bets seem to be off. At least that’s the idea behind LOL @ Gender, a one-night-only evening of comedy, poetry and music (Aug. 26) that pokes a little fun at gender as we know it.

Leading the performers is Rae Drew, a standup transgender comic in Philly who started an online campaign – 7000 People Project – in part, to help finance transgender surgery and to shed a little lights on Drew’s own artistic express and search of self. The insightful twentysomething talks to us about why transgender comedy can be taboo, but why we all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

How does the comedy world react to transgender comedians these days?

I don’t consider myself to really be too “immersed” in the comedy world, actually. I mostly write fiction and poetry and I like to do comedy off and on again on the side when the mood strikes me. However, the comedians that I’ve shared the stage with in Philly have been some of the most supportive people of my journey. One fellow comedian even had a benefit in my honor (funds to benefit my surgery) and another comedian let me talk about my surgery fundraiser on his show. Others always ask how things are going and are excited for new developments in my journey. Although being transgender is probably the most important thing about my identity, I think the key is just to be a down-to-earth, relatable person first, and transgender second.

There have been some controversies along the way when straight comics make jokes about the transgender experience. But what can transgender comics bring to the table?

I think transgender comics have an opportunity to bring a living, breathing human experience to the stage to combat the myriad of jokes that ignorant (in the true sense of the world) comedians – and the world at large – are constantly making at the expense of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Laughter is the best medicine and transgender comics truly have a chance to cure some of the nasty stigma and misunderstanding by way of funny jokes and stories about our lives. You have to have some sort of sense of humor to be trans, I think. At least every trans person I know has a funny story about being trans.

What can we expect from the comedians who are participating in this show?

The show is more of a variety show involving comedy and gender, and it is a peek into the world of transgender and gender non-conforming performers who are thriving in this city and the larger, more established LGB community has no idea about us. I was happy to have an opportunity to put together this show to somehow try and bridge the gap between the older LGB community and the younger Trans/Gender Non-Conforming/Queer community.

What kind of material drives your own act? Is there such a thing as going too far?

My act is about experience, experience, experience. I joke only about things that are real to me. And yes, I firmly believe that there is no need to insult or belittle other groups of people just for a cheap laugh, which so many comics do. It’s unoriginal and it is going too far in my book. I think the best jokes are just about how one experiences the world and interprets that into a joke.

Being able to laugh at life has certainly advanced the success of many notable gay and lesbian comics in recent years (not to mention inspiring audiences to rethink things), what kind of impact can comedy have on the way audiences think about funny trans men and women?

Good comedy and storytelling is intimate and reaches into the heart of the audience. Trans people (men, women, and anyone who identifies as just a human being) who have a knack for being funny or telling good stories (not even just professional individuals) have an opportunity to soften stigma and to tug on the heart of people. I really believe in the power of art to change people’s hearts and minds.

Okay, so what’s the funniest joke you can tell us in 50 words or less?

Omg! Pressure! Ok, I got one. Two trans guys walk into a bar. No, wait, they are both too short for that. Nevermind! They just walk under the bar. My jokes are mostly stories, so come check out the show to hear about how awkward life can be when you identify as a guy but kind of like a girl!

LOL @ Gender, Aug. 26, 7 p.m., Plays and Players Theatre (Skinner Studio), 1714 Delancey Street.