By David Michael Newstead.
Local DC comedian Eva Mozena Brandon gets serious as we discuss the world of comedy. Our conversation is below and you can see Eva at the DC Improv on May 2nd.
David Newstead: What do you think representations (like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel among other shows) of standup comedy get right and what are they missing?
Eva Mozena Brandon: Here’s the thing about portraying comedy: you can’t really do it without comedians because that would be sloppy. I think that’s fortunate because the lens ends up being quirky and raw, which I tell myself is the reason that people watch comedy in the first place – right? Live performance is rough around the edges and that’s pretty relatable; unless you’re totally bombing but honestly I think it’s fair to say that’s relatable, too! It seems that for whatever reason comedy is a really popular art form right now, so I sort of like that it’s being examined and seen as a craft worthy of exploring. Personally I think this is both exciting and terrifying – like someone is walking in on you in the bathroom, except that it’s my whole community and lifestyle and creative space. I love that comedians have become esteemed as a sort of public intellectual class even though we totally don’t deserve it and most of us are just regular, non-expert people with often very unconventional lives. I love that people would rather watch the news with punchlines, because let’s face it, we’re so over-saturated that we need that spoonful of sugar to get us through the news cycle these days.
I think it’s fair to say that most portrayals of comedy ring decently true because there are a lot of common factors: learning to be funny on stage, being a misfit who craves validation, writing awful jokes at the beginning, trying to have normal relationships when your whole life becomes an endless pattern of waiting in the back of the bar to perform while other people are on dates, that weird look from your friends and family when they realize that you spent an hour writing a line about socks and feel very seriously about it; the innumerable crappy open mics.
I love that the movie The Big Sick addressed the social experience of someone struggling to grow into himself as a person and a comedian. Every part of that movie felt very real. The one part that was less realistic was that he really, truly found love. That doesn’t always happen. I think that, more often than not, comedy is a solitary sport and a lot of your support system fades away and is replaced by a fairly competitive landscape of people who all want the same two spots at the club. You’re less likely to find your best friend and soulmate in that type of environment.
This movie is also about a man, who of course had a completely different experience of comedy from mine. It’s always fair to say, no matter what city/show/audience/booker; sexism and harassment are absolutely part of the package. It’s not unusual to find that women stop doing comedy at some point because they get tired of both. The #MeToo movement is starting to shift the tides, but in the interim a lot of us have to stand around listening to jokes that are offensive, violent, or just blatantly sexist and I’ve yet to see a portrayal of what that actually feels like to those of us who aren’t laughing. Standing through a handful of crass rape jokes every night over the course of a week definitely feels different for the non-cishet-male comedians. By the same token, I’m white and don’t have to endure the first-hand resonance of the truly ignorant, racist humor that’s very common in low-stakes artistic spaces.
In the new season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, they begin to address how a path to success becomes truly isolating (which I of course someday aspire to experience for myself; my professional goals include aching loneliness) which I was surprised to see in a show that seems to otherwise glamorize standup as an experience.
David Newstead: It’s interesting to me that something we use to basically entertain and maybe distract ourselves from serious issues in the world just ends up reflecting those issues back.
Eva Mozena Brandon: Huh, that’s a really good point.
David Newstead: Do you feel like sexism in comedy is maybe worse than the day-to-day world, because anything said or done can be veiled as “just a joke”?
Eva Mozena Brandon: Ooooohhhh this is interesting.
Eva Mozena Brandon: I think it’s often worse than the everyday world, but not because of the joke part. What people say in a joke exposes what they think in ways they themselves sometimes don’t understand, which is definitely true about sexism: the bias is so deeply engrained that most men don’t understand that a woman could hear that undertone in their material, because they haven’t thought about it. I do think that the same people not understanding the tone they are conveying say that a lot of things are “just jokes,” but the reality is that a lot of the behaviors/attitudes that are sexist (e.g. addressing a woman’s appearance when introducing her on stage, not booking women, etc.) occur outside of jokes. Most bias is implicit and people don’t understand that their behavior OR their words are conveying any bias at all. Still, what makes sexism worse in a comedy environment is usually that the power dynamics of the landscape are completely male dominated and women still have to deal with the same men over and over again, even if their behavior has been bad or sexist in the past. An example: I’ve known several instances of harassment or assault of other comedians. Under all circumstances, there’s still an expectation that everyone will accept and even embrace known dirt bags while they get ahead and this is perfectly normal. I was once banned from performing on a show because I asked the host to stop touching me. Also normal. Entertainment is about ego and when everyone wants the same pie, any little piece of power can be used to get forward… and the quickest way most men do that is to disempower women because frankly that’s what society teaches us all.
David Newstead: What do you think about comedy’s relationship to drama? As related to the range of comedians who have had recent acclaimed dramas like Bob Odenkirk, Bo Burnham, etc.
Eva Mozena Brandon: Honestly I think it’s really cool. First, I do think that a lot of people aspire to standup, but then get into it and find they maybe prefer improv or they like to act. Basically most of us are completely self-taught performers, but we don’t get the opportunity to perform in other spaces, so I always applaud the transition. I think it’s great that people can grow their range. Second, I think it’s a pretty logical transition: after years of carefully writing, directing, producing, and performing your own material, it makes perfect sense to me that you would transition easily to writing full scripts or acting in whole movies. To me, that’s someone who has a depth of skill that’s newly applied in a different space.
David Newstead: Out of curiosity, which comedians inspire you?
Eva Mozena Brandon: When asked which comedians inspire me, I often try to explain that one thing about comedy is the goal is never really to fit into a genre but to stand out as your own voice. That said, if I was in an Irish punk band, I would want to sound like Flogging Molly and as a standup I’m pretty sad that I’m not Maria Bamford or Wyatt Cenac. Maria Bamford has a way of personalizing the political realities of the world that I love and that truly does inspire me. She’s biting and honest while indicting society in a way that I find to be truly magical and endlessly rewarding and her vocal talent is so dynamic that she’s able to portray nuances of her commentary in a way I hope I can someday master. Wyatt Cenac has a way with stories that’s so personable that I have to remind myself that I don’t actually know him. I met him once and had to find a way to be sneaky about giving him my entire fan girl speech, which was epic. He has a way of weaving stories together that’s both highly personal and un-self-conscious in a way that makes me truly excited about life as he tells it.
David Newstead: What are your upcoming comedy dates or locations? (Also is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about yet?)
Eva Mozena Brandon: I co-produce two shows right now with Lisan Wood; one called Thursday Night Therapy at the Airedale and the other called Femme Friday at Habana Village which is part of the DC Comedy Collective – they’re both fun shows with a positive, fun-loving vibe that are our babies, I’ll link in a minute…