Comedy is booming. Call it an effect of peak TV" Performers and creatives are flocking to stand-up comedy, eager to make sense of the world, even as standup gets increasingly complicated. (Remember the uproar around Samantha Bee's Ivanka Trump comments?) This is mostly a good thing. The sheer influx of standup coupled with a rapidly changing political landscape means there's more room for queer comedians. In fact, in 2018, queer comedians are leading the charge, with specials like Cameron Esposito's Rape Jokes and Hannah Gadsby's Nanette taking center stage. Out On Stage, a Fathom Events special that arrives in theaters July 24, attempts to summarize this movement in a single 90-minute special. The special gathers 16 comedians, all of them LGBTQ+, to do comedy, mostly about being queer. Their sets are spliced together and divided by theme as the comics tackle topics like coming out, dating, and, of course, politics.
Ahead of the special, Refinery29 spoke to the four women involved in Out On Stage — Gloria Bigelow, Irene Tu, Janine Brito, and A.B. Cassidy — about the changing face of standup.
"When I started doing standup, there were out comedians. There were some. There were a couple of us," says Bigelow, who has been doing standup for over a decade. She participated in a similar project called Laughing Matters: Next Gen, a movie featuring the work of LGBTQ+ comics, in 2009. "But it feels like now, there is a whole network of queer comics, and not just in L.A., and not New York. But like when I go to other towns and other places, I'm like, 'Look! There are bunch of queers here, too.'"
This isn't to say there hasn't always been a wealth of queer comedians — it's just that the field has been leveled, and now queer comedians have a broader platform. Tu, who is based in San Francisco, recalls that the social scene at her local comedy club, the Punchline San Francisco, has more than doubled in her time doing stand up.
"There's just a lot more women in comedy, from when I started 'til now," Tu adds. "There's so many more comedians now than when I first started." Tu appeared on the Seeso series Take My Wife in 2016 and hosted her own comedy show, The Guest List, for the platform. (Seeso shuttered in 2017.)
"I would honestly say that I'm having more fun with comedy right now, because I feel more accepted," says Cassidy, who started doing comedy after a family tragedy. She sought solace in laughter, which almost feels ironic, given the weight that standup has right now. (Both Nanette and Rape Jokes deal with heavy, heavy ingredients.) Cassidy adds, "I feel more the norm."
The 'norm' across all creative industries has shifted quite a bit, especially after the 2016 election. The felling of Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent #MeToo movement also forced comedy to molt, shedding an outer layer of — how to put this? — bullshit. Comedy as a tool is sharper than ever, and the world's made room for the right people to use it. Bad comedy is easier to spot, and good comedy is revelatory.
"It feels like whatever medium you're in, you have to do something," says Bigelow of standup's political habit. "And I think standup is no different. This is medium that we use, so it would feel ridiculous [or] irresponsible not to at least use it when you can."
Brito, a writer on Netflix's One Day at a Time, cites the #MeToo movement as a watershed for comedy. "I feel like, for a long time, especially in standup, there was this underground network where women in comedy would tell each other about different people to look out for. And a lot of women were too scared to speak out," she says. Some comedy bookers have even made it clear, she says, that they won't book abusers on their shows. (Last week, this issue came to a head when T.J. Miller, who has been accused of rape, appeared at Kurt Braunohler and Kristen Schaal's show in Los Angeles. Comedians piped up on Twitter, and Schaal and Braunohler apologized for having Miller on the show.)
Audiences have changed, too, at least from Brito's perspective. "There's definitely certain jokes that audiences won't respond to anymore. They'll just kind of sit silently," she says. "I've definitely seen some more misogynist stuff be said on stage, and instead of people either politely laughing or just going along with it, it gets kind of like an uncomfortable, 'Oh, no, we're not on board with that!'"
Maybe audiences are growing smarter because they have more comedy to watch. Streaming platforms like Netflix, YouTube, and, once upon a time, Seeso provide greater access to comedy than ever before. Netflix recently dropped eight 15-minute specials as a part of a show called The Comedy Lineup. The streaming site will also soon drop 47 comedy specials on one day. Comedy is simultaneously really important and really, really overwhelming.
This just means that "tasting menu" style comedy — like, say, 16 comedians in one comedy special at your local movie theater — is all the more consumable.