I have a joke that goes like this:
“People always say that kids are honest, but I just think they’re fucking mean. Last week, a little girl came up to me and asked me why I don’t ‘fix my hair’ or ‘wear makeup.’ So I told her…
Because I would get raped immediately! I mean, come on, honey, if I doll this up, I’m just asking for a cock in my no-no place!”
I can’t tell that joke anymore.
It’s May of 2010, and I’m opening for Cowboy Bill Martin at the Oklahoma City Loony Bin. He’s tall, he has big teeth, and he’s very good at what he does. Also, he’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, “Leah, I’m gonna watch your set tonight.”
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 let’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 Bill’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 ol’ western humor of Cowboy Bill.
Let me paraphrase my 5-minute set for you:
“Hey everybody! Here’s a joke about me shitting my pants. Oh, you didn’t like that? Well here’s a joke about dead babies. Oh, you didn’t like that either? Well here’s a joke about masturbating with a rusty railroad spike. Thank you and goodnight!”
During the train wreck that is my act, I hear a faint “Jesus Christ,” 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, “That’s the set you wanted me to watch?”
“Come here,” Bill says, gesturing for me to follow him out into the lobby. Once we’re there, he puts his giant cowboy hand on my shoulder. “You want me to tell you what your problem is?”
I sigh. This ought to be good. “Sure.”
Cowboy Bill looks from side to side and rests his eyes back on me. Then, in a voice just above a whisper, he says, “You have to tell the crowd right away whether or not you’re a lesbian.”
“Because that’s all anybody can think the second you step foot onstage.”
“Are you telling me that I look like a lesbian? And so much so that 200 people can’t pay attention to the words coming out of my mouth unless they know for sure whether I’m gay?”
He scoffs. “Uh, yeah. You’re wearing the basic lesbian uniform.”
I look down at my outfit: a pair of checkered Vans, corduroy pants, a v-neck sweater with a t-shirt under it. “These are not lesbian clothes.”
I know I’m right. The lesbians I’ve encountered in Oklahoma’s gay scene look like the prototype of my version of the quintessential lesbian, a girl named “V” 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 don’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 “outfits” 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. “Not lesbian clothes, huh? Then tell me this. What t-shirt do you have on underneath that sweater?”
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. “It’s my 6th grade softball jersey.”
Cowboy Bill howls with laughter.
Cowboy Bill Martin is not the first comedian I’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, Leah’s a pseudo-Jew, blah, blah), and the rest of the jokes attack my femininity (Leah’s a man, Leah has a penis, Leah’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, “Leah Kayajanian proves once and for all that women can be funny. They just can’t be funny and pretty.”
You may be reading this right now, thinking, “Aw, that poor girl.” Don’t. For one thing, I’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 “I-need-a-hard-dick-inside-me” emergencies. Simply put, I can get laid.
What’s more, throughout my four years in comedy, it’s been no secret that I don’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. I’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 didn’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 doesn’t), I stopped wearing makeup because I didn’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 I’m better off for it – after all, you can’t really be comfortable with your looks if you don’t pull off the mask and face them down.
About five years ago, my friend Jenny convinced me to let her “fix me up” 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, “Are you almost done?” Maybe Jenny didn’t realize I knew how to put makeup on myself, or maybe I’m just the type of lazy asshole that would let other people dress me by pretending to be a paraplegic.
Either way, I’d like to say that when Jenny unveiled her “masterpiece” to the rest of the world, it was like when they do a makeover on Tyra’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 “unnatural,” like a “depressing Barbie doll trying to be pretty for the stupid douchebags that went out in Bricktown on a Friday night.”
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, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
I have no explanation for my actions that night other than this: I had gulped down a lot of gin, and I didn’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 wasn’t baiting anyone.
Recently, I started caring more about my appearance.
I didn’t come to this decision for any specific reason, but I’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, “I don’t have whiskey dick. You’re just ugly.”
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 “a mentally retarded clown,” “a little boy going to skip rocks on a lake,” or “an insane person,” 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 didn’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, it’s one thing to dress up and go out with your friends. It’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, I’d pull my hair back into a ponytail, throw on a little boy’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 I’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 “cock in my no-no place” 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 I’d walk into the club, and the bartender would see me, point at my face, and say, “Look at the painted whore, everybody. Look how she thinks she’s somebody now.”
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 – nothing out of the ordinary. Phew. I did my two Friday night sets, and I must’ve fooled the audience, too, because I killed both shows even though I couldn’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, “Leah, why do you look so much better when you work in this club than when you work in ours?”
I laugh. I guess I haven’t fooled everybody. “Oh, you noticed?”
“Well, I’m doing this new thing where I try to look better.”
He smiles and nods his approval. I go on to have two more great shows, and I figure out that I haven’t subtracted any of the funny from my act. I realize for the first time that this image I’ve been keeping up for the sake of my onstage character means nothing, and there ain’t a person in the world who will judge me for trying to look professional when I do my job.
It’s the spring of 2009, and I’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 haven’t seen since the year 2000, when I graduated from Blackwell High School.
“Chantelle!” I say, pulling her into a bear hug. “Oh my God, what are you doing here?”
“Well, I live in Norman now,” she says. “I saw your name on the performance schedule.”
“Cool.” Before I can stop myself, I ask the question that no comedian should ever ask anyone: “What did you think of my set?”
She shrugs, gives me a half smile, and blows my mind when she says, “Same old Leah.”
Same old Leah? I’m confused. I’ve spent nine years out of high school cultivating this new personality, and the minute I’m confronted by my past, it doesn’t see a change in me at all. For the rest of the night, I think about Chantelle’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 shouldn’t have taken offense to what Chantelle said – I should’ve been proud. It occurs to me in these first few days of 2011 that all the thought I’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. I’ve gotten so caught up in the labels that other people have placed on me that I’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, “I never think women comics are funny. But you are hilarious.” They think it’s a compliment, but it’s a backhanded compliment, and it always annoys me.
Because it’s ignorant and straight-up wrong to say that women aren’t funny. But at the same time, it’s just as wrong to purposely dress down onstage for fear that the audience won’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 who’s finally comfortable in her own skin.
When Chantelle says, “Same old Leah,” 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 it’s what I’m supposed to do. She means that whether or not I smear some black shit on my eyelashes, I’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 I’m in. I can still drink whiskey like a super-hero, and I’ll still talk shit to you for hours before I beat you in a race, and then I’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. I’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 I’ve been telling for years.
Peace out, old joke – you’ve served your purpose.
(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved.