Comedy is not a pursuit for the faint of heart, and that goes for audiences and comics alike. Lately, there’s been a widespread and mercilessly drawn-out public debate over what exactly counts as “offensive,” and how that may or may not be something quite separate from old-fashioned hate– you know, the classics, like racism, misogyny, homophobia. Meanwhile the term “safe space” has become so common, so misused and abused, that invoking it comes with some seriously heavy baggage that makes it almost impossible to use without infuriating some people and inspiring others to swoon.
The widespread misconception (still) is that there are just two camps in this debate: the Free Speechers who believe that saying whatever they want, whenever they want, no matter who it hurts, is their inalienable right; on the other side are the sensitive, flower-sniffing butt-touchers who demand that comedy see some sort of cleanup and that each comedian, pundit, TV personality, and American man, woman, and child be outfitted with kid gloves.
A newish group called Comedy Cunt Collective and the monthly standup and multimedia-art showcase they hold at Bluestockings (the Lower East Side radical bookstore and “activist space”) is a reminder of just how screwy this debate really is.
The collective was founded by Arti Gollapudi and Amanda Justice, both artists slash comedians, as a way to spotlight “marginalized comedians from various communities,” with a special emphasis on queer feminists. Their lineups are exclusively made up of “people of color, queer people, people who don’t assign to the [gender] binary,” something that’s highly unusual in an industry that’s overwhelmingly dominated by straight, cisgender white men. Just having such a diverse lineup is a statement in and of itself. “We’re all a bunch of cunts,” Amanda said. “You can look at the lineup and see, ‘Yeah, guess what? We’re going to have women talking about their periods.’ Because, guess what? Women have periods.”
The idea grew out of a shared conviction about art. “We both really feel like it’s important to create the spaces for the work that you wanna make, not to just make the work,” she explained.
Much like The Experiment Comedy Gallery, this creates a parallel scene for standups from marginalized groups who perform regularly throughout the city’s mainstream comedy club circuit. “We do our best to make it a safe space,” Arti said.
Amanda, who identifies as a “femme-presenting queer woman,” explained, “There are still not many predominantly queer feminist spaces, and until that day comes I’m not going to feel completely comfortable performing in every venue or feel comfortable at every show.”
That might sound like perfectly gushy fodder for some Breitbart news article–something like, “Lesbian Comediennes Who Hate Jokes Made a Comedy Show Inside a Feminazi Leftist Bookstore”– about “PC culture” and how, with a name like Arti, one of the founders is clearly a George Soros-loving Jew.
Actually, Arti is Indian. And really this “PC culture” debate simply can’t account for what she and Amanda are doing, which you might have guessed from the title alone. So why call a show Comedy Cunt and risk being excluded from listings?
There’s something particularly taboo about the word “cunt” which, as United Staters, we’re socialized to think is the absolute worst thing you can call a woman. “Something about ‘cunt’ is so aggressive,” Arti explained. Both women said they’ve been called a “cunt” multiple times before, and I bet any woman, including myself, can say the same. “Let’s take that back,” Arti continued. “I’m going to take ownership of it. Let’s be aggressive in the art that we do, let’s take ownership of it and our experiences and be proud of them.”
At the start of every show Arti, the show’s host, does her best to “normalize” the word. “We say ‘dick’ so easily, and I feel like any slang for phallus is like, ‘Cool, not that bad.’ It’s easy to say, ‘That dude’s a dick.'” In that way, what they’re doing is good old-fashioned reappropriation, or when an oppressed group adopts an epithet or slur that is used to disparage them, and by using the term themselves turn it into a sort of weapon of resistance and declaration of power, one that disarms their oppressor in the process. It’s the same thing that assures rape jokes can be funny and President Obama can say he’s late because he’s running on “CPT” (and Bill de Blasio probably shouldn’t).
For Cunt Comedy, a “safe space,” therefore, isn’t about censorship, just the opposite is true– it’s a way to ensure that comedians and artists from marginalized groups have a place where they are guaranteed representation and can feel comfortable speaking and performing as themselves. This makes for warm, cuddly feelings and “community building,” which is nice and great for sure, but that’s not really the point– in the end, it’s about comedians being able to do the comedy they want to do, no matter who they are.
“It’s great to be able to connect with people from the same background,” Arti said. “But it’s also about having an audience see me as a human, past my race, my gender, and my sexuality.” In a way, Cunt Comedy is the anti-niche standup showcase. As a house performer at Upright Citizens Brigade, her material has mass appeal. “Everyone can relate to rejection, or like the feeling of embarrassment in sexual experience,” she said. “To be vulnerable is a universal experience, having a crush— all those things are human.”
But, believe it or not, there are many comedy clubs and venues even within our city’s progressive oasis that can be uncomfortable or even hostile environments for marginalized groups. “A lot of times you’ll walk into a place where people don’t want you to be heard,” Amanda explained. “They don’t even want you to speak.”
Arti recalled that recently, after performing a bit about “dying in my own farts by hotboxing an elevator” a man approached her after the show and told her that she was too “aggressive.” It was bewildering and she felt strange being told by a man that her bit was somehow inappropriate. “I feel like white men take off all their clothes on that stage screaming and everyone calls it hilarious,” she said.
Even setting up an inclusive showcase like Cunt Comedy inside one of the newer DIY venues led to an uncomfortable incident in November. “We had one with a lot of feminist comedians, a lot of queer comedians. That was our entire bill. Well, that’s always our bill, actually,” Amanda said. “But we were in a new place, and at the end we had people come up to us and basically let us know that we weren’t wanted in that space.” It left her feeling “kind of shocked, really” and was “the kind of attitude I’d expect to find in the Deep South, where I’m from,” she said. ‘There’s still that intolerance in Brooklyn, even if we think we’re in a safe haven.”
Since then, Cunt Comedy has been very selective of their venues and lineup, and has settled into Bluestockings for now. “After that we didn’t scurry back into our holes, we connected again and started planning our next several shows, and discussed how to push more boundaries, and how to be more strict about the kind of people we’re putting on our bill, the kind of people we’re working with, and the kind of spaces we’re presenting in.”
The results have been even better than they expected. Both performers said that they feel more like themselves at the showcase, which they described as a place that’s especially welcome to experimentation and performers who want to try out new material. “One of the points of Cunt Comedy is for people to go outside the realm of standard stand-up,” Amanda said. She called it a “safe space to fail” and a place where many comics are free from the fear of heckling and rejection for the first time. “Being able to look at into the audience and see myself ten times over,” she said. “That’s been an incredible experience.”
The next Comedy Cunt Collective show is happening Thursday, January 19 7 pm to 9:30 pm at Bluestockings bookstore on the Lower East Side, entry FREE at the door.