No, this is not an article from another edgy white guy who wants permission to tell sexist jokes. It’s an article by a progressive white guy who thinks safe space culture has excluded every marginalized demographic that it’s supposed to protect, while simultaneously giving a green light to predators, racists and otherwise unfunny comics, many of whom are rabid wolves who just found a cool sheep costume on sale at Goodwill.
Comedians are supposed to be the unabashedly honest commentators on a society’s most visibly unaddressed idiosyncrasies. Comics are supposed to make the sacred into the profane, re-framing cultural phenomena for purposes of humorous presentation. This is not possible in a scene that focuses more on a protocol with which to evaluate potential offensiveness, than it does to foster a variety of "funny" that can actually make a living.
For example, this Summer, a stink was raised by a Portland comic about a touring comedian dropping "racial slurs over racist jokes" at Harvey’s, one of the only comedy clubs in town that appeals to touring comics and fans of actual (read: setups, punchlines, etc.) comedy. If you’re picturing a "racist comic," don’t forget that the "racist" performer in question was... drum roll... a black dude from the east coast. His "racist" jokes were light-hearted jabs at his own culture, using words his culture currently owns. The lady to raise the stink? A white girl who cries "trigger" at every possible opportunity. Also worth noting is that said white girl applied to perform at the club, was not given the opportunity (her audition wasn’t funny) and now sees it as an issue of racist patriarchs in the booking department.
This is the same trope of a woman who would claim that gyms are "body-shaming," or that her doctor is perpetuating rape culture by suggesting she use protection in her poly-theta-mecha-whatever relationship. Always the victim or victor, never a mere member of a much larger society or ecosystem (one that does not read Tumblr’s page on preferred pronouns for omnisexual youth who identify as ice wolves), this stereotype is, ironically, the truest one alive in Portland.
Logically, there is not an issue of actual offense, as Louis CK and dozens of other white, N-bomb dropping comics perform in Portland all the time. That supposedly doesn’t count because these guys are famous, and can therefore be used as bio credit ("So and so once rubbed elbows with Jeff Foxworthy at an after party"). Where the Harvey’s issue arose is, arguably, in light of a comic who needs to work on her craft, but is surrounded by yes-men and pity laughter all week, and therefore does not pass the auditions held by actual, respected, established comedy clubs. Portland is a Mecca for underachievers, though, so she has dozens of other venues to choose from. Meanwhile, "racist black guy" can’t get booked at any of the alternative safe spaces.
The guise of "anti-sexism, anti-racism and anti-homophobia" in Portland comedy is about as legit as a nazi skinhead’s guise of "brotherhood, homeland love and German aesthetic." In practice, Portland is among the least progressive cities around, and our collective lack of experience makes it offensively obvious, especially in comedy. Whether it’s a self-proclaimed progressive posting a crowdfund page for an African American friend that is captioned with "he’s one of the good ones," or a long-winded explanation by a straight woman regarding how drag shows are offensive to "certain members of the LGBT community," the end result is a bunch of white people who have occasional (if not frequent) patriarchy-endorsed cis-gender style white people sex, but are afraid to attend a drag show on Stark or a jazz night on the part of MLK that still resembles Dr. King’s dream. Portland’s progressives are no different than southern conservatives in practice. Exclusionary politics in Portland, however, are reliant on the Orwellian doublespeak tactic of curating a hostile and exclusionary environment based on language manipulation and logical fallacies. Life has no trigger warnings, so Portland enacted sundown laws for critical thinkers.
If racism, sexism and all that fun stuff is alive and well in Portland’s "liberal" scene (prize to the first person who shows me an all-black comedy lineup at an alternative comedy venue that is simply called "comedy show" on the flyer, instead of "Minorities in Action" or "Darkies of Bridgetown"), then what is the purpose of the supposed safe spaces? When I watch a table of gay dudes roll their eyes and ask for a check, it’s usually because the comic onstage (who "totally loves LGBT music and Macklemore and all that") is trite, cringe-worthy and genuinely unfunny. Plus, when someone is thrown out for telling potentially (read: only if intentionally misinterpreted as) homophobic jokes, it is by a straight host, regardless of how many members of the LGBT community are present and laughing (see "How Do You Tell a Joke in Portland?" by David Heti in The Stranger).
What good does the alt-comedy safe space provide, if anything? The answer is simple: a low bar.
By limiting risk and critical discourse, a low standard for what is considered appropriate is created, allowing mediocrity to thrive in a risk-free environment where pity applause encourages those acts brave enough to conform to a specific style of "safe" (as defined by an all-white committee). It’s not a safe space for a transgender, black, lower-class adoptee with a history of PTSD, if said member of this marginalized demographic turns out to be actually funny in their own voice. He, she or they (see, I’m educated where it matters) will get a lecture from some straight white hipster girl in horn rimmed glasses about how their one jokes may be a trigger for another straight white hipster girl in horn rimmed glasses. "On behalf of your people" is a uniquely Portland phrase.
In other words, there is no better tool for exclusion in practice than the guise of inclusion in theory. It’s a safe space the same way that T-ball is a safe sport, with the exact same amount of major league preparation. And if you come to a Portland alt-whatever mic with road gig jokes, expect to be looked at like Barry Bonds showing up to a little league game.
Further, it’s fine to have a basic format and genuine, common sense requests regarding content. My favorite mic host, Hijinx, asks of his comics, "no racism, no dead babies, cool?" In other words, he requests a tone, instead listing a bunch of words and rules, giving his acts the chance to use common sense. His request is enough of a restriction to keep the bigot morons away, but you won’t be tossed out for saying something that, for instance, may be adjacent to certain topics (but doesn’t punch down). You wouldn’t have your mic cut simply for saying "Vanilla Ice is bad at what he does" or "I wish Honey Boo Boo would go missing," just because you bordered on the banned topics. At this mic, I heard jokes that touched on a variety of triggers and unsafe topics, but since the comics telling the jokes knew the rules (don’t be a nazi, don’t kill kids), the show ended up being a riot of risky and hysterical material. The show also happens 82 blocks away from any of the cool kids mics. Seeing a pattern here?
Portland’s "comedy" scene is an extension of the participation trophy culture that bankrupt an entire generation of unqualified snowflakes who treat constructive criticism and high standards like a virus. This is what happened with the "racism" attack on the black comic at Harvey’s. Since he was actually funny, it meant the white snowflake applying for the hosting gig had to step up her game. So, she decided to self-marginalize and cry "triggered," instead of applying herself and accepting that black people from outside of Oregon aren’t gonna re-write their acts to appeal to the 0.001% of non-comic Portland audience *members* who need a safe space.
In reality, the biggest trigger to Portland scene comedians is the road gig. Since no one in La Grande or Renton reads Pitchfork or listens to Marc Maron’s podcast, comics have to rely on jokes. And these jokes have to be funny to people who don’t ride bikes in traffic, or only eat organic food by accident. Hell, even Portland audiences are tired of the alt-bullshit, which is why you won’t see a legit venue host a safe space headliner, ever.
This is also why you will never see the next George Carlin or Joan Rivers on a Portland comedy festival. In order to call out racists, you’re gonna have to mock them and possibly use a few triggers. In order to be an independent female with a take-no-prisoners approach to humor, you’re gonna have to veer away from the neo-fauxmenist ideal of how a woman needs to speak, dress, behave, act like and identify as. The funniest aspect of Portland comedy is that white progressives have effectively recreated the 1950’s, all in the name of anti-sexism and racial awareness.
Further, humor is not subjective; one’s genre of humor is. Much like music, if a band in a genre that you don’t enjoy releases a high-quality, in-tune, on-beat product, it will be seen by the market as higher quality than your indie band’s under-produced, off-tempo, off-key garbage. No, it’s not "meant to sound like that," you’re just lazy and uninspired and your hatred for Nickelback makes no sense because they only play two chords that you could easily replicate if you wanted to. "Who would sell out and press up an actual DVD when digital is the new format? They can just download my special from Youtube," says the kid who won’t get a day job to support his merch table. If a joke gets laughs, it’s funny. If a joke makes a room kind of smile and feel a fuzzy feeling, it’s spoken word. Portland’s alt-comedy scene is 90% spoken word. Good, well-written and entertaining spoken word, sure, but a lack of laughter means your "comedy" night is as authentic as a laptop DJ’s "sick scratching."
My sister (white, suburban, boring, easy to make laugh, nonjudgmental and dying to smile) sat through about a dozen comics at a Portland comedy venue she was "curious" about. She went in with an open mind, wanting to laugh. After the show, she called me and asked what nights the venue does "stand-up comedy, like the kind with jokes." A dozen plus acts, no laughs from the audience, and as she put it, "the night felt like a grade school play where everyone in the crowd was just kind of playing along because the kids on stage are trying." However, according to Facebook posts from the venue in question, the night was a success. And from the perspective of a venue that doesn’t want to seek out new talent every week, it makes sense to keep the mediocre acts at amateur level, making sure they can’t move up in the game (amateurs posing as pros have the lowest overhead costs, plus you can pay them in praise).
We need comedy. Comedy is risky. It makes leaps, often times off of unsafe ledges, then it climbs back triumphantly and does it again. The logic that, if given full permission to say what someone wants (free speech), it will cause a bunch of nazi skinheads and child murderers to just roam free at open mics, is beyond flawed. Anecdote: a white guy told a joke at one of my mics that was implicitly racist. I let him finish, red faced, to a quiet room that you could hear an Afro pick drop in. The silence caused homeboy to leave as fast as he could, while we all slowly gave him the body language that he would provably give his daughter’s first black boyfriend. Had I cut his mic or played Superliberal Heroman, he would have felt like a badass and proceeded to just go brag on a Trump Facebook fan page about being too controversial for Oregon or some shit like that. Silence can kill a comic faster than a cut mic. Darwin goes to comedy shows, too, and if someone is genuinely unfunny, they won’t thrive.
Ironically enough, this is why safe-spacer Liberals of the Year are still under the impression that their material works. Pity laughter, to an unfunny, unpolished, not-ready-for-the-road comic doing the same lame PDX showcases for drink tickets and sympathy, is the same as giving a racist, sexist, homophobic comic undeserved laughter: it encourages something that should not be encouraged. Oh, the patriarchy is bad? Sports is boring? Cool, go write for an organic Laffy Taffy company instead of wasting your audience’s time.
I vote for a safe space from mediocrity and low bars. Given free reign of every stage in the city, I honestly doubt too many nazi skinheads would show up to try out their bit on airline food. Horrible people have rallies in Gladstone they can attend, and nothing at a safe space comedy mic will prevent them from having their BBQs or bingo nights (do racists have bake sales? I’m outta the loop...). However, a black transgender comic may want to share their experience with an uncomfortable white crowd, and it’s beyond fucked up that they would have to think twice about how to share said material with a room full of mostly hetero white kids (and their "this is how your people feel" lectures).
The Portland comedy clique has created a scene that is not only safe from individually, critical thinking, paradigm challenges and the like, but it’s also produced welcoming environments for the wolves. Remember last year when I got 86’d from the snowflake palace for making a joke about how women’s studies classes and feminist identity work better than roofies or booze? The guy who I was making fun of, who spearheaded the blacklisting of Ray (I’ll call him Handy McFondle), it turns out he sexually assaulted about a half a dozen women in the Portland comedy scene. This was after earning their trust by pretending to be an ally and keeping "alpha douchebags" like myself out of his environment. Probably a good idea, as the type of guy who would beat this dude’s ass isn’t gonna wanna sit through two hours of bitingly unoriginal bits about cats. In short, by keeping out normal dudes with inappropriate material, PDX comedy fostered the ideal environment for predators to thrive. Did I mention that Handy was living with the queen of Portland fauxmenist safe space comedy, until a bunch of "trigger" comics like myself ran the dude out of town?
Let’s take comedy back. When I say "let’s," I don’t mean just white guys named Ray who write for free porn mags. I mean all the outcasts, the queers, the weirdos, the girl who identifies as her own damn self, the guy who sucks a good dick and likes talking about it, the alcoholic Jesus freak who cheats on her husband, cripples who hate the term "handicapable," black women who date Asian guys and talk about thier small dicks, the Lenny Bruces, the Andy Dicks, the Paula Poundstones, the Richard Pryors, the Bill Hicks loving, Patti Smith reading, John Waters watching, Roxy-eating masses of the pierced and non-pierced varieties alike. I’m talking about those of us who have seen what life is like outside the Portland bubble, or at least remember when buying a donut at 3am was dangerous.
Or, we could just be ironically unaware and say things like "I don’t believe in binary divisions or patriarchal formalities... Am I right, sisters?"
Dear hobbyists, some of us want to challenge our crafts and hone our skills in such a way as to eventually pay our rent with them. Larry the Cable guy sold out the Schnitzer, yet an alternative comedy night in America’s most progressive city can barely draw ten non-comics to the show. Hint: it’s not because PDX wants blue collar comedy. Rather, it’s because Loretta the Taxi Girl can’t get five minutes at a safe space venue due to that one time she joked about getting felt up by her dad without giving a trigger warning first. Meanwhile, Trump is leading the GOP vote at 36%. Perhaps if you let your allies have the same free speech as your enemies, you wouldn’t be giving your enemies an advantage (and a platform). But as long as trite, safe, uninspiring, self-affirming rhetoric is the standard, Portland’s "progressive" (can we make those quotes in 24pt font?) comedy will forever be represented by the exact type of spineless, beta mediocrity that says to the far right and genuinely bigoted, "Here we are, please destroy us."
There is no such thing as safe radical speech. If a comic says "I really hope my bigot neighbor’s kid comes home one Father’s Day with the scent of black dick on his mouth," and is told that the joke is offensive to black people and homosexuals, then all hope is lost and we may as well just usher in the next Reagan era. You’re not protecting the marginalized by limiting speech, you’re protecting the target of said joke: the bigot. And the phrase "indication of consensual oral intercourse with a person of nonwhite origin who also identifies as a gay man" loses the sting that was directed at the joke’s target (the bigot).
Returning to the issue of the supposed "racist" black comic mentioned at the beginning of this article, who do you think would benefit the most from seeing an African American pulled off of stage? His family, or the white guys from Estacada in Pantera shirts and camo baseball caps?
Dear Portland comedy clique: your space is safe for rapist feminists, racist white girls and people who are disgusted by drag shows because they’re offensive to transgender athletes. You have officially become an actively counterproductive parody of yourself.
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