I have a joke that goes like this:
â€œPeople always say that kids are honest, but I just think theyâ€™re fucking mean. Last week, a little girl came up to me and asked me why I donâ€™t â€˜fix my hairâ€™ or â€˜wear makeup.â€™ So I told herâ€¦
Because I would get raped immediately! I mean, come on, honey, if I doll this up, Iâ€™m just asking for a cock in my no-no place!â€
I canâ€™t tell that joke anymore.
Itâ€™s May of 2010, and Iâ€™m opening for Cowboy Bill Martin at the Oklahoma City Loony Bin. Heâ€™s tall, he has big teeth, and heâ€™s very good at what he does. Also, heâ€™s sponsored by a western wear company, so he comes in every night starched and ironed, wearing a cowboy hat and some oddly-pleated jeans. Got a mind-picture of him? Good.
On Saturday night before the early show, Cowboy Bill walks up to me and says, â€œLeah, Iâ€™m gonna watch your set tonight.â€
And like an excited schoolboy who gets to show off his pet rat during science and nature time, I get anxious, intent on impressing him. The problem is, I only have five minutes onstage, and letâ€™s just say people need a smidge longer than that to warm up to me. For one thing, my jokes are kind of long, so five minutes only gives me time to tell three jokes without stepping into Cowboy Billâ€™s 20-minute epic circumcision story closer, and for another thing, I could not have picked three worse jokes to tell to an audience full of people who came to the club to see the Christian sensibility and good olâ€™ western humor of Cowboy Bill.
Let me paraphrase my 5-minute set for you:
â€œHey everybody! Hereâ€™s a joke about me shitting my pants. Oh, you didnâ€™t like that? Well hereâ€™s a joke about dead babies. Oh, you didnâ€™t like that either? Well hereâ€™s a joke about masturbating with a rusty railroad spike. Thank you and goodnight!â€
During the train wreck that is my act, I hear a faint â€œJesus Christ,â€ a few awwws, and zero laughs. After my set, I sulk off to the back of the room where Cowboy Bill stands shaking his head, his arms crossed in a plaid starched mass of disappointment. When I reach his side, he leans down, and in his Texas drawl, he says, â€œThatâ€™s the set you wanted me to watch?â€
â€œCome here,â€ Bill says, gesturing for me to follow him out into the lobby. Once weâ€™re there, he puts his giant cowboy hand on my shoulder. â€œYou want me to tell you what your problem is?â€
I sigh. This ought to be good. â€œSure.â€
Cowboy Bill looks from side to side and rests his eyes back on me. Then, in a voice just above a whisper, he says, â€œYou have to tell the crowd right away whether or not youâ€™re a lesbian.â€
â€œBecause thatâ€™s all anybody can think the second you step foot onstage.â€
â€œAre you telling me that I look like a lesbian? And so much so that 200 people canâ€™t pay attention to the words coming out of my mouth unless they know for sure whether Iâ€™m gay?â€
He scoffs. â€œUh, yeah. Youâ€™re wearing the basic lesbian uniform.â€
I look down at my outfit: a pair of checkered Vans, corduroy pants, a v-neck sweater with a t-shirt under it. â€œThese are not lesbian clothes.â€
I know Iâ€™m right. The lesbians Iâ€™ve encountered in Oklahomaâ€™s gay scene look like the prototype of my version of the quintessential lesbian, a girl named â€œVâ€ who I met six years ago. At the time we met, she was wearing a plaid button-down shirt with the sleeves ripped off, a leather strap around her wrist, hiking boots, and a bandanna, and she had a cigarette dangling from the side of her mouth. She sat on the couch and nodded at me when I told her my name, and then she went back to sharpening her giant knife, the task she had been performing before I had so rudely interrupted her by existing.
I donâ€™t mean to say that every single lesbian looks like V and diligently cares for weapons in her spare time. I mean to say that roughly half of them do, and quite frankly, the other half dress much, much better than me. Most of my â€œoutfitsâ€ end up making me look a little bit like Sporty Spice, the bad years (whatever the hell that means).
Back in the comedy club, I can see that Cowboy Bill is still skeptical. â€œNot lesbian clothes, huh? Then tell me this. What t-shirt do you have on underneath that sweater?â€
I pull my sweater off of my chest and look down through the neckhole to find out what shirt I haphazardly threw on. Shit.
I cringe. â€œItâ€™s my 6th grade softball jersey.â€
Cowboy Bill howls with laughter.
Cowboy Bill Martin is not the first comedian Iâ€™ve worked with to bring up issues with my appearance. Several headliners have hinted that I should dress better on stage. Every time we have a roast for one of the Oklahoma City comedians, most of the insults hurled at me have to do with my appearance (Leah has a big nose, Leahâ€™s a pseudo-Jew, blah, blah), and the rest of the jokes attack my femininity (Leahâ€™s a man, Leah has a penis, Leahâ€™s a dyke, you get the idea). And the truly clever comics can attack both at the same time. For example, Seth Joseph once commented, â€œLeah Kayajanian proves once and for all that women can be funny. They just canâ€™t be funny and pretty.â€
You may be reading this right now, thinking, â€œAw, that poor girl.â€ Donâ€™t. For one thing, Iâ€™m one of the meanest roasters on the planet, and any comment made at my expense is certainly well-deserved. For another thing, none of this really hampers my ability to snag some casual cock, you know, in case I ever have one of those â€œI-need-a-hard-dick-inside-meâ€ emergencies. Simply put, I can get laid.
Whatâ€™s more, throughout my four years in comedy, itâ€™s been no secret that I donâ€™t put any effort into my appearance. But a few months ago right out of the blue, a strange thought occurred to me: I wonder how much effort it would take to not look like a huge dyke with a metaphorical giant cock.
Turns out, not too much.
I used to wear makeup and fix my hair every day. Iâ€™d get up in the morning, hop in the shower, blow dry my hair, and spend 20 minutes putting on foundation and eyeliner, mascara and blush, anything that might make me look better than I did in real life.
At some point, I suddenly stopped wearing makeup. I didnâ€™t stop for any feminist reasons or in protest against impossible ideals of beauty. If memory serves me right (and due to indecent amounts of marijuana, it usually doesnâ€™t), I stopped wearing makeup because I didnâ€™t give a shit about what I looked like. Some kind of cocktail of depression mixed with pure laziness and low self esteem.
What I do remember about when I stopped wearing makeup was the first two weeks, when I spent every morning startled by the plainness of my face in the mirror. It took me a while to get used to the way I looked without it, but eventually I did. I would even go as far as to say Iâ€™m better off for it â€“ after all, you canâ€™t really be comfortable with your looks if you donâ€™t pull off the mask and face them down.
About five years ago, my friend Jenny convinced me to let her â€œfix me upâ€ before we went out one night. She helped do my hair, and she picked out an outfit for me: a turquoise tank top, high heels that pinched the tops of my toes, and a white, flowing skirt that, with every swoosh, breathed out the sigh of my innocent vagina. She fixed my makeup, a glorious 15 minutes spent with inches between our faces while I watched her grab random makeup items and smear them on me.
I could have helped, but I just sat there like a squirmy five-year-old, barraging her every 10 seconds with an impatient, â€œAre you almost done?â€ Maybe Jenny didnâ€™t realize I knew how to put makeup on myself, or maybe Iâ€™m just the type of lazy asshole that would let other people dress me by pretending to be a paraplegic.
Either way, Iâ€™d like to say that when Jenny unveiled her â€œmasterpieceâ€ to the rest of the world, it was like when they do a makeover on Tyraâ€™s daytime talk show, and the entire audience oohs and aahs about the amazing change in the person. But no one seemed the least bit impressed by the fact that I had dressed like a girl for once in my life. I was convinced that it was because I looked â€œunnatural,â€ like a â€œdepressing Barbie doll trying to be pretty for the stupid douchebags that went out in Bricktown on a Friday night.â€
But Jenny and the rest of my friends were convinced that no one noticed how pretty I was because I spent my entire night on the deserted patio drinking gin and tonics, chain smoking, and hawking loogies out into the canal. Strangers that happened by the patio received a graceful greeting of me grabbing my crotch and asking, â€œWhat the fuck are you looking at?â€
I have no explanation for my actions that night other than this: I had gulped down a lot of gin, and I didnâ€™t feel like myself. I felt like I had come to the club in disguise, some elaborate ruse meant to bait someone into giving me a good sausage insertion, and I thought I was better than that.
And worse, I wasnâ€™t baiting anyone.
Recently, I started caring more about my appearance.
I didnâ€™t come to this decision for any specific reason, but Iâ€™ve gradually become a tiny bit more particular about the way I present myself to the world. I started out small, deciding first and foremost that I would get dressed everyday. That was a big step for me, making the choice not to spend my every unemployed Monday wearing a pair of sweatpants I stole from a guy I made out with once and a t-shirt with the printed words, â€œI donâ€™t have whiskey dick. Youâ€™re just ugly.â€
Soon after that, I bought a full-length mirror so as to ensure that I no longer go to work, to parties, or out to the clubs dressed as â€œa mentally retarded clown,â€ â€œa little boy going to skip rocks on a lake,â€ or â€œan insane person,â€ as a few of my friends have described my ensembles.
And after that, I decided to use my hairbrush as more than just a pretend microphone. In December, I actually dared to attend a 70s Christmas party in a dress, heels, and some subtle eye makeup. And surprisingly, I didnâ€™t spend the entire party grabbing my imaginary dick or doing anything equally as disgusting. In fact, I spent the party like I imagine a grown-up might, completely comfortable in my clothes and my new fake eyes.
The problem is, itâ€™s one thing to dress up and go out with your friends. Itâ€™s completely another thing to change the character you present onstage. So while I took an extra half hour every day to look like I gave a shit what I looked like, at nights before I went to the comedy club, Iâ€™d pull my hair back into a ponytail, throw on a little boyâ€™s t-shirt, jeans, and my sneakers, and wipe off any remnants of girl on my face so as not to ruin the onstage character Iâ€™ve so carefully cultivated over the past four years: the girl with a dick that may or may not be a lesbian.
If I changed my look, I thought, people might actually see me onstage as a woman, a vile, unfunny slut of a woman (too far?). And then what might happen to my brilliant â€œcock in my no-no placeâ€ rape joke?
What if (gulp) looking better sucks the funny right out of my act?
I performed at the Tulsa Loony Bin a few weeks ago, and because I was in a place where no one really knew me, I decided to ease into my little social experiment. On Thursday night, I wore a t-shirt and a cardigan sweater. On Friday and Saturday nights, I wore nicer clothes and put on some eye makeup. When I went to the club on Friday, I remember thinking that someone was going to call me out. Like maybe Iâ€™d walk into the club, and the bartender would see me, point at my face, and say, â€œLook at the painted whore, everybody. Look how she thinks sheâ€™s somebody now.â€
But when I arrived at the club, no one said a word. They just talked to me like they always did, and the bartender made several creepy sexual innuendoes in my direction â€“ nothing out of the ordinary. Phew. I did my two Friday night sets, and I mustâ€™ve fooled the audience, too, because I killed both shows even though I couldnâ€™t tell my rape joke.
On Saturday night, I walked in wearing makeup again, much less self-conscious. I went to take a seat at the bar, and Larry, the Oklahoma City Loony Bin owner visiting the Tulsa club for the weekend, gives me a gruff once over. Then he says, â€œLeah, why do you look so much better when you work in this club than when you work in ours?â€
I laugh. I guess I havenâ€™t fooled everybody. â€œOh, you noticed?â€
â€œWell, Iâ€™m doing this new thing where I try to look better.â€
He smiles and nods his approval. I go on to have two more great shows, and I figure out that I havenâ€™t subtracted any of the funny from my act. I realize for the first time that this image Iâ€™ve been keeping up for the sake of my onstage character means nothing, and there ainâ€™t a person in the world who will judge me for trying to look professional when I do my job.
Itâ€™s the spring of 2009, and Iâ€™m performing at the Norman Music Festival. When I get onstage, the audience is packed all the way to the back door of The Red Room, a sea of expectant and sweaty Norman faces staring at me. I do seven minutes of material, and the crowd full of my friends roars with laughter after every joke.
When I step offstage with the buzz of a good set still alive in my cheeks, I spot a familiar face in the audience, a girl I havenâ€™t seen since the year 2000, when I graduated from Blackwell High School.
â€œChantelle!â€ I say, pulling her into a bear hug. â€œOh my God, what are you doing here?â€
â€œWell, I live in Norman now,â€ she says. â€œI saw your name on the performance schedule.â€
â€œCool.â€ Before I can stop myself, I ask the question that no comedian should ever ask anyone: â€œWhat did you think of my set?â€
She shrugs, gives me a half smile, and blows my mind when she says, â€œSame old Leah.â€
Same old Leah? Iâ€™m confused. Iâ€™ve spent nine years out of high school cultivating this new personality, and the minute Iâ€™m confronted by my past, it doesnâ€™t see a change in me at all. For the rest of the night, I think about Chantelleâ€™s declaration, and I come to the conclusion that she must be a lunatic with poor judgment.
But now, more than a year later, I look back on that moment and realize that I shouldnâ€™t have taken offense to what Chantelle said â€“ I shouldâ€™ve been proud. It occurs to me in these first few days of 2011 that all the thought Iâ€™ve put into the way I present myself onstage has been unnecessary and misguided. Like I do with everything else, I have simply over-analyzed the effects a little bit of eyeliner can have on anything I do. Iâ€™ve gotten so caught up in the labels that other people have placed on me that Iâ€™ve started to place them on myself.
I think of the many times after my show, when a drunk guy will pull me aside in the lobby and say, â€œI never think women comics are funny. But you are hilarious.â€ They think itâ€™s a compliment, but itâ€™s a backhanded compliment, and it always annoys me.
Because itâ€™s ignorant and straight-up wrong to say that women arenâ€™t funny. But at the same time, itâ€™s just as wrong to purposely dress down onstage for fear that the audience wonâ€™t like me if I look too much like a girl. As it turns out, I can make people laugh when I look like I just stepped off the board at a skate park, and I can make people laugh when I look like a 28-year-old woman whoâ€™s finally comfortable in her own skin.
When Chantelle says, â€œSame old Leah,â€ she means that it makes sense to see me onstage doing stand-up, even if it took me years after high school to figure out for myself that itâ€™s what Iâ€™m supposed to do. She means that whether or not I smear some black shit on my eyelashes, Iâ€™m still me at the core of my being. As many differences as there are between 18-year-old me and 28-year-old me, there are just as many constants. I still have a potty mouth. I still spend way too much time over-analyzing every situation Iâ€™m in. I can still drink whiskey like a super-hero, and Iâ€™ll still talk shit to you for hours before I beat you in a race, and then Iâ€™ll rub it in like the uber-competitive poor sport that I am.
And, most importantly, I still go out of my way to make people laugh. Iâ€™ll forever rather be funny than pretty, but my recent attempts to be both have only cost me one thing: a stupid rape joke that Iâ€™ve been telling for years.
Peace out, old joke â€“ youâ€™ve served your purpose.
(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved.