As stand-up comedy’s diversity problems persist, comedians who don’t or won’t play by traditional rules are finding new ways to reach audiences. Hobart’s Chloe Alison Escott is one of them.
Stand-up comedy has a diversity problem. Long viewed as the default mode of performance comedy – the norm from which alternate forms deviate – comedy festival programs and gala line-ups are still just as notable for the people missing as those included. This goes deep to the foundations of the comedy industry. Increasingly, addressing the lack of diversity in stand-up seems an insurmountable challenge – for every diverse act that enters the scene, there are another two straight, white, cis men. So what if stand-up itself is the problem?
Chloe Alison Escott was once a regular on the comedy circuit but has increasingly found that stand-up is not a medium she feels comfortable in. The Hobart comedian, musician and writer has seen the ways that stand-up culture excludes certain people and makes it very difficult for others to succeed. She is devoting less and less time to live comedy and more to performing music, both solo and with post-punk group The Native Cats, seeking outlets for her comedy offstage. This shift has been a conscious one, reflective of her misgivings about stand-up.
‘In a lot of stand-up culture – and you have to go really quite extraordinarily far out of the mainstream to see these ideas challenged – there is this idea that there is a set of skills, and to be a great stand-up you have to have all of them,’ she says. ‘You have to be quick on your feet and able to improvise in a pinch, and able to remember things and never consult notes, and be able to respond to even the worst, nastiest hecklers and deal with any group of people that might be thrown at you. You really have to fit a very traditional ideal of the working stand-up who is ready to face anything, anywhere, any time. Those kinds of skills are very impressive. But the idea that having them is necessary to be respected as a stand-up can make it very, very exclusive.’
With performers striving for this limited ideal within a gruelling and often discouraging industry, it’s easy to see why so many people feel excluded from stand-up. Simple things like a bad memory or the unwillingness to tackle tough crowds can be significant stumbling blocks for success. ‘I don’t really want to be a part of a culture that thinks less of people who aren’t able to handle those things,’ says Escott. ‘I think it excludes a lot of people and I think that’s really unfortunate. You miss out on a really great diversity of ideas and performance styles.’
For many years Escott was a fixture in the Tasmanian comedy scene, appearing regularly at local rooms and often travelling to Melbourne to perform. But since coming out as trans and transitioning in 2015, Escott has found herself less and less drawn to stand-up. ‘I got into a state where I was thinking a lot about what I was trying to get out of it, what I wanted audiences to get out of it, how much control I actually had over how audiences would read what I was doing,’ she says. ‘I’d get stuck in these loops. I was a regular at the Hobart rooms and I haven’t done that in a long time. I’d quite often head up to Melbourne to watch a few shows, and I’m less interested in that now. I’ve got lots of stand-up albums and DVDs that I’m not sure how to approach anymore.’
‘I don’t really want to be a part of a culture that thinks less of people who aren’t able to handle those things.’
There was a time, Escott says, when she would have been ashamed to admit to feeling more comfortable with certain audiences, that she simply doesn’t have the desire to perform to just anyone. Great weight is placed on a stand-up’s ability to win over tough crowds, to make them laugh against the odds. Escott sees a lot of problems with this idea and the limitations it places on performers. ‘The only straight stand-up that I did last year was at the National Young Writers Festival in Newcastle,’ she says. ‘I felt so good there. I had no hesitations about what I wanted to talk about. It was a really warm and accommodating room of artists and queer people. Basically if there was some way I could consistently have an audience like that one, then I would be constantly performing.’
The path to success in stand-up comedy is a well-worn one. Acts begin doing short sets at comedy rooms, expected to endure whatever a pub or club will throw at them. Sets are short and dominated by very traditional styles. More experimental and alternate forms of comedy, like narrative storytelling or cabaret, are drowned out in these loud, often aggressive environments. Having proved their chops in these rooms, comics will write a full length show to tour, moving between fringe and comedy festivals locally and internationally. At festivals like the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), competition is so fierce that comics have to take whatever crowd they can get, fighting for a share of the limited audience. Most of the general public come to festivals like MICF seeking stand-up, so it’s difficult for other forms to break from the fringes. There is a grind to be endured – to be offered commercial gigs or television slots, comics must overwhelmingly make their way along this narrow path. Even straight, white, cis women struggle to find a place in this traditionally masculine scene, and many people, particularly minorities, are hesitant to even step through the door. ‘Part of the resistance [to change] comes from people who feel they’ve earned their place by slogging through the pubs and clubs scene and getting all the battle scars,’ Escott says. ‘And if they want to spin some kind of romantic yarn about their life in this great, noble entertainment profession then sure, but I really strongly dislike those ideas being used to knock people down.’
‘I don’t want people to feel that they don’t have a place in stand-up… anything that can exist on a stage in that way should be allowed to.’
Instead, Escott is increasingly experimenting with alternate platforms for her comedy – last year she started a surreal scripted podcast called Laser Blowouts. Having mysteriously woken up in a deserted commercial radio station, she finds herself hosting breakfast radio, ‘because it’s 6am and I figure I might as well.’ Within this fictional guise, Escott creates a melting pot of comedy, storytelling and music. ‘Laser Blowouts came from thinking really, really hard about what I wanted to do with comedy, completely regardless of whether anyone else would want to hear it or if it would go anywhere,’ she says. The podcast is updated sporadically – only two episodes have been produced so far and there is no set schedule going forward – and for Escott, this ability to create her own platform and explore issues within a context she had complete control over has been freeing. Outside the strict limitations of stand-up, she has found there is much more room for experimentation.
Escott believes there is space for alternate modes of comedy and different styles of performance that aren’t currently being accommodated in stand-up culture. ‘Part of what was exciting about [NYWF] was there was a lot of people on that bill who really just read something aloud. What they’d written was funny and they delivered it in a really great way. I don’t want people like that to feel that they don’t have a place in stand-up. I think anything that can exist on a stage in that way should be allowed to.’ While venues like Sydney’s Giant Dwarf (home of shows like Story Club and Nailed It!) increasingly provide spaces for new kinds of comedy, they sit outside the traditional stand-up scene. We are seeing the rise of people like Hera Lindsay Bird, whose work has achieved popularity both on the page and stage, yet who solidly classifies herself as a poet. Rebecca Shaw has found success online through her own writing and parody Twitter account @NoToFeminism, completely bypassing the stand-up scene. Sketch and narrative comedy programs like Black Comedy and The Family Law have created training grounds for diverse performers by welcoming new voices. Many of the performers who have success in these spaces would not necessarily identify as a comedian or consider performing in traditional stand-up settings.
Increasingly, different kinds of comedic voices, like Escott’s, are being heard – but they are being heard outside stand-up, taking instead to storytelling, scripted comedy, television, podcasts and theatre. Stand-up’s issues with diversity are endemic and tied to the very core of the industry. As alternate voices enter the landscape through other channels, stand-up stands to lose its place at the pinnacle of comedy culture, or at least have its dominance seriously questioned. As Hera Lindsay Bird says in her poem ‘The Dad Joke is Over’: ‘if a punchline falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it… is it time to stop telling jokes in the forest?’