By Cristina Arroyo (and NOT by Jeff Myhre, despite what WordPress says — we’re working on it).
Follow any LI comic or club on Instagram, and count the number of women or comics of color in the photos; you’d be hard pressed to get past single digits. The Long Island comedy scene in New York is very male and very White–I’m not trying to be controversial, just factual. Lack of diversity (race, gender, and even comedic style) is a glaring issue that, if continued to be pushed aside, will render LI comedy obsolete.
Many seasoned comics and show producers and bookers dismiss the lack of diversity, saying that they’re merely responding to audience preferences. Indeed, Long Island is about 80% White (Nassau, 77%; Suffolk, 86%) and, not surprisingly, one of the most segregated suburbs in the nation. While Long Island comedy audiences are in no way monolithic, they tend to skew White, older, male, and conservative. So, why not give them what they want?
I just watched Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette”on Netflix. I am not Australian. I am not White. I am not a lesbian. However, I enjoyed it thoroughly and was able to relate to the comedian at a human level. In fact, by listening to and sympathizing with Hannah, I was able to further learn about the world and narratives surrounding different disenfranchised communities. (One hundred percent recommend this special to anyone, regardless of their group membership.)
Long Island comedy did not get this memo. Comics here are strongly encouraged to “appeal to the mainstream” and make their comedy “more universal” (code for more White). I especially hear this on a weekly basis, as my comedy is reminiscent of Anthony Jeselnik’s–dark and smart. Recently I competed in a comedy contest in which I didn’t advance simply because my comedy was too edgy, “won’t go over well with the masses.” Funny thing is: The audience loved it!
Nothing kills art faster than pandering to the masses. There’s always an open platform for jokes about weight issues, online dating, the mother-in-law, and anything Italian in Long Island. However, mention racism, sexism, politics, religion, socioeconomic class–you know, the trivial things in life–and you’re cursed to wearing that scarlet A (for agitator) in every LI comedy club.
The blind spot of Long Island comedy lies in their narrow definition of comedy: “people just want to laugh,” “they don’t want to think,” “they don’t care about your point of view.” George Carlin, Louis CK, Richard Pryor, Bill Burr, and countless other successful comedians use(d) their voices to discuss their philosophies on controversial topics. Their audiences left the shows more enlightened and critical, they left as different people than when they arrived.
I don’t think the previous observation is lost on most comics in Long Island, but there is something else at play.
When Long Island comics, bookers, and producers say, “people don’t care about your point of view,” they mean Long Islanders don’t care about a point of view different from their own, in which America is the best country in the world and Christopher Columbus was a hero. When they say, “people don’t want to think,” they mean Long Islanders don’t want to think about topics that take them outside their safe, little, racially and socioeconomically segregated Long Island bubble–God forbid you ruin their football Sunday for a minute and a half during the national anthem. When they say, “people just want to laugh,” they mean Long Islanders just want to remain in a blissful state of ignorance that Long Island history, culture, and institutions have been trying hard to keep intact.
Yes, I’m talking about privilege, and Long Island comedy is wearing that badge proudly. Case in point: some minority comics are indeed welcomed at the clubs and shows. They advance in the contests and get regular spots weekend nights. However, their comedy is nothing short of a minstrel show. Hispanic comics joke about how “Spanish” people are stupid and illegal, black comics joke about how African Americans steal things, and female comics joke about how they’re not pretty enough to date homeless guys. In other words, they embody and perpetuate the very same stereotypes that keep minority comics from succeeding in the industry.
Many seasoned LI comics have encouraged me to “tell more Puerto Rican jokes.” They say I should capitalize on my ethnicity, that I should talk about wanting to be a housekeeper or about how sexy Latinas are insatiable in bed. To be fair though, these same comics have also approached Caucasian peers and advised them to capitalize on their Whiteness, to tell jokes about going gluten-free and being hyper-aware of their dancing at bar mitzvahs–oh, wait, no…that never happens.
The night in the comedy class when I was told to not be too smart…guess, I should shut up.
This sort of pigeonholing of minority comics in Long Island is not reserved to race. During a comedy class I attended with my best friend, as soon as she got on stage, they told her she couldn’t be too sexy–it’s distracting to the audience. As soon as I got on stage, they told me that I couldn’t be too intelligent–it’s threatening to the audience. None of the men in that comedy class, or any of the other three comedy classes I took, were ever told to tone down the sexy or tone down the smarts. For some reason or another, they were given feedback on their joke writing, stage presence, and delivery?
Disclaimer: I’m not just a Puerto Rican comic. I’m not just a woman comic. I experience and understand the world through many lenses: as a mother, as a scientist, as an artist, as an atheist, as a socialist, as a feminist, as well as a Latinx woman. While a White, male, straight comic is simply a comic in Long Island shows, the host introduces me as “the lady comic [he] met on Tinder,” “the only one on the show [he’d] bang,” or the “affirmative action portion of the show.” But at least I get show time, so I have no right to complain, right? In fact, I’ve been told that women and people of color have more opportunities in Long Island, “You’re lucky because nowadays the PC thing is to make shows more diverse–there’s your in!” So, I should be grateful, right? Fuck you.
Giving minority comics spots on your show to make it more diverse is insulting and counterproductive. Not only does it perpetuate the myth that affirmative action is based on a quota rather than merit, but also reduces the comic’s identity to simply that of a woman comic, a black comic, a gay comic. Whenever a minority comic then succeeds, many (including the comic him/herself) will question whether it was due to hard work and talent or group membership, “She got the spot because they didn’t have any brown people on the show.” Whenever a minority comic then fails, many will extrapolate that failure to the rest of the group, “Cristina bombed, but then again women aren’t funny.”
For this is the racist and sexist narrative that makes for a typical green room conversation on Thursday nights in Long Island. The booker of a big LI club tried to convince me that the lack of representation of women in comedy was because women aren’t as funny as men or because they are just lazy, not willing to put in the legwork. This is the same booker who’s rumored to follow the old-fashioned (sexist) code of “one woman per show.” One of the big headliners in Long Island, a White, middle-aged male, doesn’t believe that women suffer from discrimination and sexual harassment in comedy, unless they’re actually harassed to completion–raped. He tried to convince me that the real victims in the comedy industry are…(wait for it)…middle-aged, White men.
Women, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ+ comics don’t need your charity, we demand justice. We don’t want opportunities due to our group membership but due to our comedic skills. We want to be held to the same standard as other White, male, straight comics. However, this would require, not only eradicating prejudice and discrimination, but also addressing privilege. In LI comedy, privilege translates to telling hacky jokes and still advancing in a comedy contest, to being able to discuss your politics because you’re in the majority, to dismissing minority comic’s calls for fairness as complaints, to telling me to do open mics in the city even though I live here too, to calling your comedy “mainstream,” “universal,” and “appealing to the masses.”
There exists a comedy fringe in Long Island that produces and performs shows in bars, coffee houses, and other small-scale establishments that indeed welcome diverse comics and audiences alike. Shattering the LI comedy establishment narrative, these audiences want to laugh, think, and listen to comics’ points of view. Therefore, justifying lack of diversity and overt/implicit discrimination on pandering to the audience, is not only counterfactual but also bad for business. This justification is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which LI comedy clubs match the demographic of the comic to the audience, and then that same audience returns because they see comics who look like them, and then on and on goes this racist and sexist cycle.
This is not one of those inspirational articles that ends with an empowering note–any story about prejudice is not one with a happy ending. Long Island comedy is highly discriminatory and segregated. To improve on this we need to change a million things, from ending the informal and formal censorship of minority comics to changing the business model of the comedy industry to embrace diversity of thought. For now, baby steps: Expose the culture of comedy in Long Island for what it is: a reflection and manifestation of the most racially segregated suburb in America.
On top of all of this, I just dropped my iPhone SE and the screen shattered. Great!