Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tofu: an essay on the state of stand-up and the fear of losing my liberalism.

Once upon a time Dennis Miller was cool. He is famous for explaining in an interview why he started self identifying as a conservative. After 9/11, he heard a lot of his liberal friends call Ruddy Giuliani a “Nazi.” He reexamined his beliefs and realized that he now had more in common with conservatives than liberals. Saying anyone is a “Nazi” is always a huge exaggeration. Kind of like saying a health care reform plan that would cover more people and save more lives while denying record profits to companies who have a nasty habit of dropping people once they actually need what they have been paying for is Nazi like. Whatever. I do understand hearing something and having a hard time finding a place for it in the context of what you believe. That was Denis Millers tipping point. I am worried it’s happening to me. It started with Tofu.
I was performing at a show recently when I did this joke.

Science now says that eating too much tofu can have a negative effect on your memory. I think this is true because every time I have it I forget it tasted like shit the last time.

From the back of the room a high-pitched voice went “Come on!”
The tone of outrage was unmistakable. It was a Vegan girl who wanted to dispute the scientific findings, the slanderous statement I made about its taste and her disapproval in general with any swipe at her food of choice.
Since she obviously eats a lot of Tofu I thought, just move on. She will probably forget this in a minute or so.
No such luck.
Here is the thing. I was at the end of a long show already. A show where she had sat quiet or laughed at the usual endless stream of dick jokes, an implied rape joke, a domestic abuse joke and other assorted politically correct challenging jokes ranging from poor taste to borderline racist. But tofu? That is where she drew the line!
Oh San Francisco.
I could write this off to the phenomena of everything is funny until its your issue, but her displeasure at having Tofu mocked while none of the other material she had heard inspired her to comment just seemed more ridiculous to me than usual. I hadn’t made some outrageous statement like all women are objects or God created black people to serve us; I made a pithy little joke about fucking Tofu and she lost her shit!
Stand-up comedy is a lot of things. It is the intersection between art, bad taste, the first amendment and trying to make a room full of strangers laugh in an age where every subject is polarizing. People go out to see stand-up comedy with an expectation that its going to be just like the one comic they saw five years ago on a TV show and then become offended when real issues are talked about. But again, this is fucking Tofu! Her reaction seemed out of proportion for the subject.

I am for Gay marriage, health care reform, a colorblind society, cutting pollution and a woman’s right to choose. Down the line, I am a liberal. What I am starting to have problems with is the mentality, the blanket statements and the lack of willingness to turn that critical eye inward. One day a woman standing in front of me on MUNI was wearing leather pants and going on about cruelty free food choices clearly oblivious to her fashion choice of irony. The bus stopped to pick up a guy in a wheelchair and half the bus with hemp shirts on and End Don’t Ask Tell Now bumper stickers across their Apple Laptops moaned at the few extra moments this process would take. A white Dude with dreadlocks rolled his eyes and loudly said, “Fuck!”
I looked down at him in the seat reserved for disabled and elderly people and went “Are you going to be late to the compost heap?”
So often in comedy shows it really is a case of everything is funny until it’s my issue but so often in San Francisco it seems like my liberal cause cancels out your liberal cause.
It’s a guy in a wheel chair, Ass-holes! You know, all inclusiveness and such? It’s sort of what all liberal thinking rests on.
We always ask conservatives if they have ever asked questions or tested their assumptions, but do we?

I get annoyed at people who wear their beliefs like fashion choices.
Does the color of my breast cancer awareness ribbon clash with my gay rights rainbow flag button? I have a No Blood for Oil bumper sticker on my Land Rover, so its alright to idle my engine for ten minutes as I block traffic waiting to get into the Trader Joe’s parking lot for sustainable farmed free range waffles.
These aren’t such crazy exaggerations.
A girl wearing a fur coat once heckled me after a joke about bestiality. She explained that the coat was second hand and like some moral version of the carbon-offset concept, she could wear it guilt free. This is classic San Francisco thinking to me! Since I didn’t purchase the coat and it looks great on me it’s all right to wear the skin of an animal but it is never all right to have sex with one?
I looked at her from the stage and asked, “So with your logic it would be OK to be the second one to fuck the horse?”

I heard a comic on stage talk about the idea of white privilege recently. He made the blanket statement that all white people have it easier.
All white people?
I understand that many of our institutions still have a bias built into them and that racism is alive and well even after we elected the first black president, but a blanket statement like that, no matter how many guilty white liberals nod along in agreement is still a huge generalization.
I would trade my poverty, my lack of access to dental and medical care, clinical depression, alcoholism, addiction, IRS problems and crushing debt for the cops pulling me over and white woman wanting to fuck me any day.
When I expressed this thought to a friend, she looked at me like I had just put on a white sheet and set fire to a cross! Her argument, more people of color have had it far worse for far longer than you!
True. No argument about that at all. The thing is, I had nothing to do with it. I can’t donate money I don’t have or give jobs in a company I don’t own or make some statement that comes off sounding condescending about the plight of minorities or even sit through Blind Sided. The best I can do is be respectful to everyone regardless of his or her race, color or creed. If that isn’t enough then were in bigger trouble than we want to admit. I walk into a show as a white person but leave black and blue because I get hit over the head with the message so much that I am the problem.
I am a white, heterosexual male.
Apparently I’ve been the problem all along. Slavery, that was me. Denying woman equal pay, me as well. In fact, I had the idea to have Puritans with small pox sneeze on blankets before we handed them out to the Indians.
I’m not saying white people in history haven’t pulled some of the worst shit in history, I am just saying I wasn’t there, don’t agree with what was done and I am one broke barely hanging on guy looking for the answers too and it sure doesn’t feel like I have had it any easier than anyone else.

All of these are examples of those moments when I have an uncomfortable realization; I am liberal, but I don’t exactly agree with what is being said. Sometimes I can’t put my finger on it but it feels wrong or off or maybe just not my truth yet I am scared to say it. I have to think Dennis Miller didn’t just throw out his ideals all at once. It was probably a lot of little moments like this that lead up to it. When that girl shouted “Come on!” after a silly little joke on Tofu, I felt a sharp snap in the back of my head. I’ve had it with this liberal bullshit!
That was my first thought.
In tone, it sounded the way any commentator on FOX news has said it a hundred times before. Thinking about it later, I was a little scared. Am I getting older and growing more jaded to the world’s problems, or am I becoming pragmatic? Are we accomplishing anything or just replacing one set of slogans for another? Can you point out the shades of gray without being labeled a racist, Nazi or hater when everyone seems to suffer from black and white thinking these days?
Tofu is a great way to explain most stand-up comedy. Bland, tasteless and forgettable five minutes after you’ve watch it, Tofu is the mainstay in the American intellectual diet. When most of the population has a better understanding of the plot lines on Lost than the war in Afghanistan, it makes sense to have someone heckle you over soybeans I guess. Part of why I think that heckle happened and not during all the other stuff is a bit depressing to ponder for my art, but it is an inescapable conclusion. Dick jokes and jokes that only work if the audience feeds into some portion of the stereotypes used in most routines are expected. Crude, lewd and decidedly not politically correct is the expectation most people have for a comedy show when they walk in a club. Guys and girls are different, dating is weird and almost any joke that start with the comic emphatically saying, fellas or ends with the comic saying, what’s up with that are worn premises and tools, but it is still the framework for much of the stand-up out there today. When you step outside that narrow margin of safety, you are bound to hit someone’s big red button that almost every American not only has, but also expects you to know about without ever having met them before. I just never thought that Tofu would be one of those buttons.