Non-toxic Masculinity in Stand-up

Ahead of this year's Edinburgh Fringe, comedians Stephen Bailey, David Correos, Mawaan Rizwan and Joe Sutherland talk about subverting traditional masculinity in stand-up

Feature by Katie Goh | 02 Aug 2018

Stand-up comedy is masculine in the most traditional sense of the word. The profession has historically been male-dominated, with conventional stand-ups tending to be straight white men doing opinion-driven sets. In their hands, it is about dominating a room, holding all the power and the microphone, while a subdued, passive audience hangs on their every word.

Recently, however, comedy as a boys' club has been going through a change. From the fallout of #MeToo, which saw the king of comedy Louis CK admit to sexual misconduct and Bill Cosby's conviction earlier this year, to the success of comics like Hannah Gadsby and Michelle Wolf, our idea of what stand-up looks like is changing. While the world of comedy is hostile for women, for men who fall outside the parameters of straight white cis male – a model of masculinity stand-up has long embodied – the industry is equally as challenging. We speak to four comics who are shaking up conventional stand-up and using the form to question what masculinity can mean in 2018.

"Femininity is still seen as weakness," says Stephen Bailey. "At gigs, I’ve noticed that some straight men of a certain age won’t look at me when they're in the front row. Some of them have their backs to me and some of them laugh by covering their mouths. Come on, it doesn't make you gay by laughing!" When asked why some men in audiences take so long to warm to him, Bailey is direct in saying it's the fact he's a gay man. "If a straight man is shit, the audience still gives him their attention from the beginning and then when he’s shit they turn their back – I get it the other way."

Bailey’s comedy style is gossipy – he cites Amy Schumer and Kathy Griffin as influences – and because his sets feel as intimate as sitting around a pub table, he can play around with stereotypes of campness. However, even today, it's still something that is held against him. "I find it hard when people say I'm putting the camp thing on – this is my voice! I’m not putting it on. I had another comic say to me recently, 'Oh, it's easy for you because you just do the gay thing.' I was actually talking about a recent breakup and that's not a 'gay thing' – that’s me discussing relationships. It was an old straight white man who said it to me as well. So he gets to talk about his ex-wife and be a sexist pig, but I can’t talk about my ex without it being deemed 'that gay thing.'"

For LGBTQ+ comics, homophobia can extend beyond comments like the one Bailey mentions to being an issue for booking shows. "Sometimes I don’t book jobs because they say they’ve already got the camp box ticked as if every camp comic is the same," he says.

Tokenism is a major problem within comedy. It's common for promoters to book one female, one LGBTQ+, and one BAME comedian put them on a line-up with seven straight white men and call that diversity. While the UK's stand-up circuit has a notorious reputation for this kind of tokenistic performative 'diversity,' other countries are faring better. 

David Correos, born to Filipino parents in New Zealand, says that the Kiwi comedy scene is "pretty diverse at the moment, to the point where it’s my mates who are straight white guys who are struggling most at the moment." Diversity in New Zealand’s comedy scene isn’t only in terms of who gets on stage, but Correos says that it’s "diversifying everyone and everything because the subject and the content of comedy is so diverse now. It’s great for quality."

Correos himself is an example of this diverse comedy. The comic's set is part stand-up, part clowning, as he tells one-liners while often taking his clothes off and covering himself in paint. While comics might call standing on stage getting naked, Correos often gets literally naked. "I mean I’ve got a tiny dick," he says, laughing. "It’s not a very alpha presence. I’ve got nothing to be proud of bringing it on stage, it’s not doing me any favours at all. But I just think it’s funny."

Correos’ nudity is for laughs but it’s also subverting racial stereotypes of masculinity. "I looked it up, for Filipinos, the average penis size is 4.7 inches and that’s tiny!" he says. "You can’t go against fact so I guess I’ve just got to rock it. So instead of saying it’s a detriment, I’m saying it’s funny and I don’t give a shit!"

Like Correos, British comedian Mawaan Rizwan is similarly experimenting with how clowning can diversify stand-up. "When I first started stand up, I was a bit disheartened by how mundane stand-up was," says Rizwan. "Line-ups weren’t diverse and people weren’t necessarily saying anything new, so I started gravitating towards cabaret and clowning. That’s where I found the weirdos and underdogs and what I really imagined comedy to be – something subversive and rebellious."

Using props, costumes, and dance numbers, Rizwan’s sets are vivacious and so outside of conventional stand-up that it's surprising to learn he started performing by taking a comedy course. "There was a lesson where we were told to acknowledge our 'thing,' whether that you're a person of colour or you're a bit effeminate or whatever it is," he remembers. "We were taught that we need to get it out of the way. I think that’s a bit of a shame. I’ve spent all of my life with people categorising me and putting me in certain pigeonholes so why should I play to that myself? I think it’s dumbing audiences down and apologising for not being normal. You were telling the audience how to feel and telling them to see you as one dimensional, like 'Hey I’m the brown guy on the bill!' or 'Hey, I’m the queer one!' Comedy’s more exciting when it’s more nuanced. When self-deprecating humour comes from people who are really marginalised it’s disempowering."

By not limiting himself to conventional one-man-with-a-mic stand-up, Rizwan has liberated himself from the restrictions of the form as well as gender. "I try not to be too on the nose about it but I think it’d be a shame for me to be in the world of performance and not acknowledge that gender itself is a performance. That’s how we’re taught how to behave, either as masculine or feminine. Babies don’t behave like their genders – the world teaches them how to perform it. My comedy is a ticket to freedom for me because all the things my 16-year-old self would have been too scared to express in fear of being too gay or too girly is now a source of endless creativity for me."

Comedy as liberation is something similarly explored in Joe Sutherland's Fringe show. Aptly named Toxic, Sutherland uses the everyday domesticity of moving in with his partner to address trans politics from his childhood. "When I was a kid I had tested the boundaries of my own gender presentation," says Sutherland. "I had gone through a couple of years when I was convinced that I should be a girl and tried to convince people that I was. Since then I’ve talked to a few people, particularly queer men and women, and we’ve all said the same thing, that we went through something similar but didn’t want to tell people in case they thought it was just a phase of questioning gender when you’re a child. It’s a really weird subject and in the show I want to open it up. Maybe if we acknowledge that we need to address gender, then we don’t need to create monsters out of people. Especially men."

Comedy has always been about subverting expectations and questioning the norm. As Rizwan tells us, "the role of the jester throughout history has been to challenge power and status quo in society," and our ideas of gender are part of this status quo. While conventional stand-up has largely become a stale homogeneity, Bailey, Correos, Rizwan, and Sutherland are part of a new generation of comics using the art form to its full potential, bringing new models of masculinity onto the stage and into the limelight.

Stephen Bailey: Our Kid, Laughing Horse @ The Three Sisters (Maggie's Front Room), 2-26 Aug, 5.15pm, Free
David Correos: The Correos Effect, Gilded Balloon, Teviot Row House (Turret), 1-27 Aug (not 13), 9pm, £6-10
Mawaan Rizwan: Juice, Pleasance Dome (Jack Dome), 1-27 Aug (not 13), 5.30pm, £6-10.50
Joe Sutherland: Toxic, Underbelly, Bristo Square (Dexter), 1-27 Aug (not 14), 8.10pm, £6.50-10