Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Comedy is feminist when it helps me understand how power works and how it can be fucked with": A Chat with Jessica Halem

Jessica Halem can do incredible things incredibly well. She was named one of the "Queers that Make Our City Great" by Timeout Chicago and was nominated for "Best Female Comedian" at the 2008 Chicago Comedy Awards. She also served as Executive Director for the Lesbian Community Cancer Project in Chicago for five years, overseeing record levels of fundraising and expanding the organization's mission into one that was trans-inclusive. I first saw her perform at the Lincoln Lodge last spring, where she brought the house down with joyously raunchy tales of dildoes and fisting. Jessica left Chicago for the Pacific Northwest last year, and I needed a Jessica fix, so she was kind enough to answer some of my questions about activism and comedy.

When did you first know that you loved doing standup?

1995, Beijing, China during the Young Women's Talent Show at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. I was given the job of emcee and had to keep thousands of feminists from all around the world laughing. I felt the surge of bringing laughter and light to those who needed to let off some steam. I don't remember doing jokes per se but I remember the energy of being an enthusiastic fool for the night. That's when I knew I could be both an activist and a stand-up and in fact, it was a powerful tool to be both.

What does feminist comedy look like? Do you have any guidelines for what you will or won't make jokes about?

How about this for feminist comedy: A bloody tampon, wire hanger and Sarah Palin walk into a Rape Crisis Center...

It's hard to say what feminist comedy looks like...I know what my comedy looks like as a feminist living in this world and talking about my experiences and perspective. But just like women comics, or black comics, or gay comics, there are no two same feminist comics or one way to do feminist comedy. I'm not interested in pretending the categories of men and women (or straight and gay, etc.) are stable, constant identities that can be summed up or understood easily (or stereotypically to be more precise.)

I like comedy that helps us understand that there is, in fact, no stable category or binary or identity. I like comedy that plays with notions of what lesbian means, or female means, or feminist means. For me feminist comedy is a way to talk about power and how it operates. On an everyday level in big and small ways. Comedy is feminist when it helps me understand how power works and how it can be fucked with.

The topics that I cover are easy to choose because I stick to my personal experiences (with some embellishment of course) as an antidote to how hard life is for everyone. You can't go wrong as a comic if you find the funny in your everyday life. Everyone can relate to that. Or if not relate then really value insight into what life is like for you. I hope I get on stage and folks think "oh, this is gonna be good. I'd love to hear what this cute, short, Jewish, queer girl thinks about XYZ and I wonder if that could help open me up to a new way of thinking." Ok, really, I just hope they think...damn she's hot.

You perform for a lots of audiences that are queer or queer-allied. Did you start out seeking out these audiences, or did you do the mainstream open mic/ comedy club circuit at first? Has finding venues that attract queer-friendly audiences been a challenge? How important has exercising some control over the kind of audience you perform for been to the development of your onstage voice?

One of my main goals is to bring funny to those who need it most. Who has a voice or experience that is not getting voiced on stage or on screen enough? My hope is that folks who are working hard everyday living their lives on the margins or differently or in fear or struggling in some way will find a chance to laugh with me. So, that means I need to perform in venues or shows where they know it is for them. They don't show up at their mainstream comedy club on a regular night thinking they will find their life being valued on stage. And they are probably right.
Yes, I've done open mics and comedy clubs with no special advertising and done fine. I approach every audience with love and compassion and that comes through. But my goal is to uplift my brothers and sisters who need it most. So, I end up being picky and finding the right venues or getting involved with advertising so a "mainstream" show can be a chance for the queers to come on out for a good time! Some of my best shows have been mainstream venues where I've got a few queers in the audience who have just had the whole night flipped for them! I love that!
My dream audience to entertain for a night would be full of sex workers, artists, trannies, leather daddies, bears, butches, femmes,
teenagers, old lesbians, HIV+ folks, non profit workers, politicans, cancer survivors, and my ex-boyfriends. Let me be THEIR fool!

I might need to put that answer on my wall. Have you ever felt torn between "serious" activism and devoting time to your comedy? What performers do you look to for inspiration about how comedy can be meaningful in people's lives?

I am inspired when I make my friends laugh who are working in the trenches everyday as politicans, activists and social workers. Nothing like knowing your activist friend has her iPhone on as she waits for an important meeting with a Congressperson. Or a politican who appreciates dirty comments on his Facebook status updates!

I also love keeping up with my comedy heros like Margaret Cho and Marga Gomez via their Twitter and Facebooks who make life on the road look like so much damn fun! They and others have been doing comedy work a lot longer than me. As someone who has only recently switched to more comedy from more non profit work...I love learning how to do this well!

Most importantly, I'm inspired to do comedy as a tool for social justice everytime I make a 17 year old queer youth laugh or a long
time HIV+ gay man laugh or a gray haired lesbian from the rural part of Virginia who drove an hour to see me. I make them laugh through a story filled with equal parts love and misery from my life and I know I've lightened their load just a little bit for a little while. That's justice. That's change. That's comedy.

What should we look forward to from you in the next 5 years?

I've recently joined PhinLi Bookings, an agency for LGBTQ and sex positive talent. I'm excited to work with folks who get that I'm not looking to make my material easily palatable for TV or host a gay marriage rally. So, in the short term, I'm looking forward to being on the road more hearing from and talking to a new generation of queers in colleges and smaller towns. That and some regular yoga and meditation, I'm trying not to get too ahead of myself. I'm open to allowing the universe unfold in front of me. I'm working on being able to hear what it has to say.

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