A comedian was riffing the other night.
Riffing: - verb. 1. Making it up as you go along; improvising, usually inspired by the surroundings, other performers, technical difficulties, etc. 2. What comedians do when they haven’t prepared any material.
He was doing a pretty good job of it. The subject of his riff was the comic before him, a pre-operative, male-to-female transsexual. The riff was relatively good natured; nothing like the usual mean-spirited vitriol that comedians often engage in when referencing other comedians.
(We comics are ruthless assholes – we will viciously ridicule another comic if we think it will get a laugh. Nothing is off limits. Jerry Seinfeld wrote in his New York Times obituary for George Carlin: The honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about.)
I wish I remembered the riff-ers name, so I could give him some credit, but I have forgotten it if I ever knew it. I also don’t remember exactly what he said, suffice to say it rang very true to me. I’ll paraphrase.
It says a lot about New York City when you can hear someone say they’re getting a sex-change and not think it’s strange at all. I was like “yeah, I know three other transsexual comics, what else you got? Oh, so you’re a comedian and you have a brain disease? Join the club!”
I collected a few nuggets of wisdom in this riff. First, it does say a lot about New York City. I came from a relatively small town. Plymouth's population hovers around 55,000 - about half the population of the Brooklyn PathMark on weekends. An abundance of transsexuals is just something you don’t encounter in Plymouth, especially ones comfortable enough to talk about it in a public setting. But in New York City, regular encounters with transsexuals is not only not strange, it’s almost boring. What else you got? Twenty Million people shuffle through the Greater New York Area every day. It takes a significantly odd calamity to stick out in that mass; sexual reassignment surgery isn’t even close. There are people who would bemoan the lack of individualism, of course, but there is a certain comfort in the anonymity. And if that gives conflicted souls the courage to be themselves, them I am all for it.
It’s not like that back home. When I was a child, a homeless man became a local celebrity. I remember him distinctly. He had long red hair and always wore a green flannel jacket. We would spot him at grocery stores and gas stations, endlessly searching the parking lot for cigarette butts with a few puffs of tobacco left in them. All the kids knew him. A homeless man in New York City wouldn’t get recognition unless he fell on the subway tracks.
The other part of the comic’s riff that stayed with me was his last line. Oh, so you’re a comedian and you have a brain disease? Join the club!
First off, I realize he is implying that transsexuals have a brain disease. I think he meant brain disease in a broad way, meaning less like an actual affliction and more like you and I would say “issues.” I don’t think too many transsexuals would argue they didn’t have issues. I mean, isn’t that the whole point? And most importantly, the transsexual comic’s whole style was self-deprecating. Most of his jokes were about the problems he faces with his sexual idenity. So saying brain disease was right in tune with the comic’s act.
And anyway, the point that stuck with me was the response, the Join the Club line. The comic basically said it’s nothing unique to find a conflicted comedian. It’s virtually a prerequisite of stand-up comedy to be someone who has serious issues. Laughter has always been medicinal, and never think otherwise – comedians are telling jokes for themselves first and foremost. It’s the best way we’ve found to deal with our problems. Most of us have been doing this all our lives, making jokes out of anything that scares us, or harms us, or threatens to get in our way. Comedians are lucky enough sometimes to get people to pay to hear their issues, but even then. We’re telling the jokes for us.
So it’s nothing unusual for a transsexual to gravitate toward stand-up comedy. It’s a good fit.
Think you’re a woman living in a man’s body? Having surgery to turn your penis into a vagina? Just another premise to make jokes about.