It doesn’t take an expert in the field to understand that stand-up comedy in 2016 is still very much a (white, straight, cisgender) man’s game. These men dominate the scenes locally and nationally, and anyone who doesn’t fit that mold is often denied opportunities. Those that don’t may also find themselves the only person from a “niche” group on the bill, or at the very least be told “You’re pretty funny for a _____”.
In the Twin Cities we have a really rich comedy scene, but even the bigger places named places still breed a very “bro-y” atmosphere that makes many uncomfortable, and private promoters are hesitant to fit too much “diversity” on the bill. The Comedy Corner Underground, found at The Corner bar in the Seven Corners neighborhood off the West Bank, does a pretty good job in general of breaking down some of those barriers and providing a safe place for established and new comedians alike to sharpen their chops and perform for a slightly more diverse crowd. It’s still a sports bar and has the free popcorn to prove it, but the melting pot of the West Bank has influences from nearby arts venues and more hipster-aimed spots for food and beer. It also exists in an area that is primarily students, people of color, and low income residents, and the audience does reflect that many nights.
PSSYCTRL is a monthly show, the second Thursday of every month that takes some of that steam from the club in general and breaks down barriers even further by producing a show of all female or non-binary performers. It’s co-hosted and produced by Janna Syverson who, as a lesbian, works the LGBTQ+ arts circuit as well as the comedy circuit. Rana May and Shelly Paul also co-produce and co-host.
The format is simple: Paul and Syverson take the stage to host the show from there. They do some banter and opening monologue style pieces, and May chimes in from the booth where she is running sound and lights, and generally keeping the show running smoothly. Then two comedians come on back-to-back, there is a sketch from “Fat Pussy Feminist Nightmare,” which is Syverson and Paul doing a sketch, and then two more comedians. The opening of any comedy show sets the tone for the whole night, and the night I went to review, Syverson and Paul do a GREAT job of easing us into a feminist comedy show with a very queer, intersectional lens. Syverson introduces herself as a Native American lesbian and asks her co-host point blank “What are you?” Paul refuses to take on labels, preferring to live in the ambiguity she’s built into much of her comedy, and the jokes around either’s identity always come from themselves, as they should in comedy. As the conversation moves into everything from roadkill to Syverson being misgendered to politics, it is clear this is comedy meant to include everyone, not make anyone in the room feel better than anyone else. That shouldn’t be as apparent as it is, but as much as I love stand-up comedy, it is easy to find mean-spirited and divisive sets in Minneapolis, so it’s a relief to have the tone set as anything but.
The comedians change every week, as is common with most monthly or weekly comedy shows. I’ve been following the show for awhile, and even though the night I went appeared to be mostly white and straight comedians, I know for a fact that isn’t usually the case. The rolling event on Facebook even says that they give booking priority to PoC and LGBTQ+ and non-binary comedians, and I’ve seen many line-ups listed where it’s clear that happened.
In Syverson’s words, “The goal is to continue to have a popular and entertaining comedy showcase for under-represented comics like women, GLBT, and PoC comics.” You can sometimes judge such a commitment by looking at the audience — while it was a largely white crowd the night I went, it was not exclusively so. The audience was largely LGBTQ+, and what was abundantly apparent the night I went was that this show was no holds barred on people who are not feminist, allies to queer people, or who are racist. There were a few standard sports bar patrons in attendance, and watching them laugh and applaud as the comedians took bigots and sexists to task was amazing. These are the same people I see at much more oppressive comedy shows, and as great as the comedy itself was, this turnabout was probably my favorite part of the night.
The caliber of performers for the show I saw the night I went made me want to go back every month — there was not a bad comedian in the lot, and though the crowd was small and not particularly enthusiastic (which I chalked up to it being Thursday — plus my hay fever water-y eyes bringing down my own sense of joy made me wonder if other people were in the same boat), the comedians kept their energy up, and the crowd DID enjoy the show; it just wasn’t a vocal lot, by no fault of the performers. The show attracts comedians from all over, which for a small club in a bar basement I was pretty impressed by. Because there weren’t any LGBTQ+ performers (or at least none who’s material reflected such an identity) apart from hosts, there were times when there were quite a few heteronormative or cisnormative jokes kind of piling on top of each other that did pull me out of feeling included — but the performers themselves usually pulled the crowd back in, and if the didn’t our hosts absolutely did with their bits in between acts.
After Syverson and Paul’s great opening, the show started with Chloe Radcliffe. Radcliffe is a local comedy darling who’s really burst onto the scene. Her style is largely rooted in making fun of herself and those close to her, but not in that mean-spirited way that I hate. What I adore about Radcliffe is how much her heart shines through in her work. We then heard from a very young comedian in from the West Coast, Kate McCarthy, who went absolutely in for the kill by starting a set of jokes we thought were going to be about dating and sex, and ended up being one of the smartest satirical sets about expectations of women I’ve ever seen.
The sketch the night I went was so perfectly subversive, and definitely fell into the category of having a lot of queer appeal without being an explicitly queer sketch. Shelly Paul came out in drag, for starters, and though undeniably a feminist sketch about male ego when confronted with the sexism their female loved ones face, Syverson in femme drag plays with subversion of expectations in a way that only queer artists can.
Christina Wolff, another out of towner, took the stage next for another great set based on the hilarity of the every day, but with some pretty cutthroat political humor thrown in. Headliner Wendy Maybury made a couple of jokes that made the crowd uneasy for the wrong reasons, but she read the room and switched tacks pretty quickly. What she did that the crowd loved was gross-out humor, and I love that there’s an all-female line-up that is subversive enough to tackle content that many would deem unladylike. Maybury also had no shame in recounting even her most humiliating personal stories, and it’s things like that in comedy that really bring people of all identities together.
While these exact performers aren’t there all the time, as the show does change every time, what this group of performers does is illustrate how beautifully the show’s producers curate different styles within this supposed niche of intersectionally feminist humor. To me, this is the show’s greatest success: women, LGBTQ+ people, etc. aren’t all the same, looking through life with the same lens, and PSSYCTRL does a really wonderful job of setting you up to leave thinking about the comedians as individual performers, no matter how cohesive the show is. It’s so smart, and it’s one of those subtely radical things that I wish all producers did, because it’s ongoing patterns in this vein that ultimately open people’s hearts.
Syverson says if you are a female or non-binary comedian reading and you’re interested in being on the PSSYCTRL showcase, you can send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. The show is every second Thursday at the Comedy Corner Underground, and the rolling Facebook event is here.