The Comedy Business

Over the past week I have been having an interesting email conversation with Bethany Black. Regular readers will know that I have been concerned about how some comedians appear to target trans people, and the effect that this can have on how trans folks are perceived by the general public. Beth is a professional comedian, and an out trans woman. She regularly performs as a stand-up comic. I think that she is incredibly brave. I’m also very grateful to her for her insights, as I think that the trans community can learn from them, and thereby be more effective in challenging transphobia in the media. Here’s a summary of what I have learned.

The first thing that we all need to be aware of is that comedy in which men dress as women, or women dress as men, has been going on for centuries. This doesn’t have anything to do with trans people. What’s often happening here is that people are mocking extremes of gendered performance. There’s no way we are ever going to be able to challenge that, and indeed I don’t see why we should try. I have seen some of the responses that the BBC makes to complaints about apparently transphobic humor, and they always use the long history of cross-dressing jokes as an excuse. In order to be able to complain effectively, we have to be able to separate and identify actual transphobic humor, as distinct from jokes about gendered performance.

Beth also explained the concept of “status” in comedy. This is how comedians understand power relationships in their work. So, for example, a responsible comedian won’t make fun of vulnerable people. That’s not joking, that’s bullying, and audiences will tend not see it as funny. Of course it is not always that simple. It all depends on who you are supposed to laugh at. For example, Penelope Keith spent much of her career playing upper class twits, such as Margo in The Good Life. When Margo says something offensive, we are not supposed to laugh at her target, we are supposed to laugh at her for being such a bigot, and you’ll be able to tell that by the way that other characters react. So the simple fact of having a transphobic comment made in a sketch is not, in itself, always something we should complain about. It all depends on the context.

In order to complain effectively we need to establish that the joke in question is directly aimed at trans people, and that it is harmful rather than funny.

Of course all comedy is, to some extent, subjective. There’s no guarantee that a comedian will know much about trans people, so it may well be that what is required is education, not a complaint. All of this will need careful work, and given how clueless I have been I’m nervous of trying to make suggestions, but here’s a possible start.

Firstly we’d need to establish that the joke in question actually references trans people. If the joke simply involves a man dressed as a woman (or vice versa) we won’t get very far. Beyond that we should establish that the joke plays off a harmful stereotype about trans people, such as:

• That trans women are all ugly, and therefore laughable;
• That trans women are all sex workers;
• That trans women seek to deceive men;
• That trans women are “really” heterosexual men acting out a fetish.

Yes, I know those all refer to trans women, not trans men. I’ve yet to see a joke about a trans man, though I’m sure they exist.

Beth and I also talked about how the comedy business works. This is important to bear in mind when considering who is responsible for a transphobic joke. A stand-up comic will generally write her own material. However, as soon as you move to TV or radio shows things get very different. A panel show will have a team of writers providing witty remarks for the stars to perform. The stars may or may not have input to that. The more famous (and therefore busy) they are, the less likely that is. The production team may spend 3-4 hours recording material that they edit down to a half hour show. A sketch show is even more complicated. The crew will shoot a number of sketches, written by a team of people, which are then tested on trial audiences. Programs are put together based on which sketches get the best responses. Sometimes a sketch may go before several audiences before getting either the thumbs up or thumbs down.

There are two lessons that we can learn from this. The first is that the person who tells a joke on TV is by no means necessarily responsible for writing it. He may even hate the joke himself, but he has a job and if he wants to further his career he may have to film what he is given. Obviously there are ways in which performers, especially big name stars, can influence what jokes get used but, as I noted above, if they are don’t have a good understanding of what might be offensive then they may not know to object.

The other lesson is that the comedians themselves are probably the wrong people to target. Script writing teams are difficult to identify. It may well be that the best way forward is for people like TransMediaWatch to work with senior management, and with the producers of comedy shows, to develop guidelines that enable production teams to identify potentially offensive jokes before they even get filmed.

I still think that comedy is hugely important, because most people aren’t very witty. If they want to bully someone, they will tend to recycle jokes they have seen on TV. But there is little that an individual comedian can do to change social attitudes. And individuals will only so their bit to help if we talk to them and get them onside.

5 thoughts on “The Comedy Business

  1. What you’ve just done is not easy – I remember growing up, occasionally hearing Jewish jokes and my mom teaching me the difference between “Doing your own” and being a bigot – between someone making the joke of the bigot by showing how the other actors responded to an ethnic joke – and watching my dad’s reactions (we’re Jewish from dad’s side) to various examples of “humor” – that distinction, which both my parents made, seemed to elude a lot of my friends and their parents – and I think the distinction is vital.

  2. Targeting transwomen seems to be the one way pop culture consistently treats them as women. It’s easy to take a bog-standard sexist joke and push it further by making it about transwomen.

    There isn’t a raft of jokes targeting men as a class, and FTM surgery (or lack thereof) doesn’t boil down to a tacky punch line the same way. Wanting to be a man is something a lot of audiences accept. Jokes about transmen are just going to fall flat for a mainstream audience unless they’re about a particular famous personality. Even Chaz Bono jokes don’t fly, and he’s the popular face of transmen.

  3. I agree that a lot of jokes made at the expense of trans women are based in misogyny as much as in transphobia. Also, that “wanting to be a woman” (i.e. a member of an inferior group to one’s own) is seen as automatically suspect or perverse by misogynists, where “wanting to be a man” might be read be read as an understandable desire.

    However, there is a large class of “joke”rooted in the specific perception that trans women are deceptive, trying to be something they’re not etc. The whole of the notorious transphobic *Moving Wallpaper* episode from a couple of years ago was based around this obsession, as was (to take a more recent example) the Russell Howard sketch from earlier this year (

    There’s also a group of jokes based on “trans panic”: the disgust/fear that red-blooded men are meant to feel when they discover that they’ve been attracted to a trans woman (as in this example from Family Guy: Referring back to Cheryl’s point about status above, we might note that Brian the dog is generally presented as more reasonable and enlightened than anyone else on the show, so his vomit counts for more than, say, Peter Griffin’s would have.

    1. There’s a difference between “deceptive” and “trying to be something they’re not”. “Deceptive” implies that trans women succeed in “fooling” people. The “trying to be something they’re not” joke requires them to fail (badly).

      1. There are distinctions, true – I suppose you could put the Little Britain “I’m a lay-dee” character into the latter of your categories, and she is presented as (possibly?) self-deluded rather than deliberately deceptive – but they both belong to a broad family of jokes based around the perceived disparity between appearance and “reality”. And that isn’t something cis women are usually targetted for, at least in terms of their gender.

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