Standup comedy. You probably recognize it from various Netflix “hour-long specials”—It is the part-time gig I want to turn into my dream job. As an amateur woman comedian from a Chinese-Ashkenazi-White Bread heritage, I don’t approach or experience stand up in the same ways as my white guy friends. At an open mic, I’m usually one of a handful of women and one of a few BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). I’m likely the only Asian Jewish Woman of Color. I stand out. And I don’t mind most of the time, but I have this constant funny feeling (pun intended).
Stand up is a craft of solitude writing and acting that takes years to master. Over eight-ish years, I learned my identities were great for comedy when wielded with pride. Yet, I never feel full “belonging” in any comedy space. In lineups that showcase a specific identity, I get booked because I check two boxes- I’m funny and I’m Asian/Jewish/Woman. When I’m in an all-woman lineup, I only belong if I set my Asian and Jewish identities aside. In an all-Asian lineup, I find it tough to be my full Jewish and woman self. I love and appreciate these showcasing spaces, as they fight for diverse representation in stand up. They’re just one step in the right direction, and I will always have this inner teenage angst that I won’t ever fully belong anywhere. Cue Paramore song.
Then I found a place where I belong. My mind was blown when I met an online Asian-Jewish community through LUNAR, created by some fantastic Cali Asian-Jews. I could feel this shift within myself: gone was the token weirdo. I instead felt at home amongst the multitude, all aware of what it means to be Asian and Jewish in America.
For those not identifying as exactly that, the LUNAR docu-series lets you step in our shoes for a moment and hear our stories. Even being the only comedian in LUNAR, I felt less conditional belonging and more of a “bring all your baggage, pal, ‘cause we’re celebrating all of us” feeling. I want comedians like me to feel that anytime we do comedy. But why is “belonging” so hard to come by?
It’s because when you’re in a field dominated by straight white men, anything outside the norm (like being an Asian Jewish woman) goes under a lens of unfair scrutiny. The underrepresented faces in the funny business feel the endless pressure to become a representative of their entire people. It’s 100% important that we hear more of multi-hyphenate comedian’s stories so it becomes less of a this one person represents this whole species of identities/ wow it’s like a zoo and becomes more of a this individual represents their own story and is one of many examples of this identity represented in media, you go Glen CoCo!
Basically, the existence of diverse comedians with the equal amount of scrutiny that white guys get is the goal.
Comedy is a familiar language to everyone; it spans cultures and countries as a way to communicate joy and hope in the hardest of times. “Stand up comedy” is comedy’s quirky love child with a megaphone. It’s a uniquely American, monochromatic, masc-aggro cultural item. And it has served an important purpose in the United States- as a historical, cultural enforcer of the white-male-centric image as what is “normal” and “funny”.
White-male-centric standup allows for (and even celebrates) harmful “joke” throwaways of: “love me long time”, “my wife/girlfriend has an opinion which makes her a bitch”, and the stereotypical BIPOC accents. These joke archetypes are created by white men from the 1900s, a tradition which did not give the young Becca a welcome mat into a future in comedy. It made me feel un-human, like a punchline and not a person.
Sure, there are the greats like George Carlin who set the bar high in the world of comedy (and he happens to be a straight white man, gasp!) Exceptional human beings of comedic talent and decent morals can be of any identity, though. We need to see them center stage, too. We need to disrupt the historical remnants of media censorship of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC.
If comedy really is a boundaries-breaking medium, why is it recycling tools of patriarchal white supremacy? I get that it’s easy to say what’s already said, but that’s like stealing jokes from fossils. I don’t think it’s that hard to get creative comedically while upholding humanity versus merciless punching down. I have witnessed a white guy used the n-word throughout his whole open mic set just because he thought he could do it. Later, I spoke up and said, “Hey, you can’t say that ‘cause you’re white and your people weaponized that word with violence.” Then he stopped saying it. Actually, I haven’t seen that boring racist at any show since. It’s that easy to stop comedy entirely if you’re a racist!
We need all multi-hyphenate comedians to shed light on the comedy of our shared human experience. When I grab the mic for 4 minutes, I break the illusion that the narratives worth listening to are ones we’ve already heard. Even if I mess up, even if I am not the funniest, I still fight for new voices to be heard with my nasal Chicago accent. When I encourage other women/non-cis-men to start doing standup, I make room for the change I can’t enact on my own. Comedy is a way of sharing joy, and I would love to see changes in gatekeeping to diversify what is “normal” and “funny.” The comedy community is a community at the end of the day, and it’s worth it to help people up the ladder as you go up.
Becca Nix Tham is a do-it-all Chicago comedian (stand up, musical comedy, and improv). Her style is witty quips with a sarcastic punch. She has performed in the Chicago Sketch Comedy Fest 2020, Crazy Woke Asians Fest 2021, and has been a guest performer at Laugh Factory, Lincoln Lodge, and Zanies.
“LUNAR: The Jewish-Asian Film Project” is a docu-series normalizing an intersection of two identities. Episode 3 from Season 1 discusses family heirlooms to generational trauma- there is much that we inherit from our ancestors. In this episode, Jewish Asian Americans unpack the cultural values passed down in our families – both the positive values that continue to be meaningful, and the harmful values that we wish to unlearn.