I think it’s really finding a way to laugh at yourself and laugh at them and laugh at everything. Laugh at the absurdity of it. When we’re kids, we think everything is, like, the worst possible thing that could have happened. You feel things so much more intensely. Comedy is really a great healer and a great coping mechanism. It’s a way that we can survive anything. A kind of a trick that our mind does that keeps us, I don’t know, able to carry on with life. Because if you can laugh at something, you can find a way out of that difficulty, whatever that is.
How do you feel when people criticize your work as raunchy or distasteful?
Well, I think that’s good. I mean, you want to be challenging. And being raunchy is really fun. To me, it’s like that feeling of getting away with something. I have bad taste, and I think it’s great. I enjoy the distastefulness of that. Like talking about “blue material” — that’s anything that deals with sex. Anything that deals with race, to some extent. Anything that deals with gender expectation. Anything that deals with queer issues. Anything about religion. All of these topics people are very careful around because they’re afraid of making a mistake, afraid of being offensive. If anybody brings them up, everybody’s on guard because there’s this expectation of, like, “Okay, if you’re even talking about this, it’s probably going to be negative, and I’m probably going to be upset.”
Like, before the whole Me Too movement happened, it was very hard to talk about sexual abuse. It was very hard to even enter into that conversation because there was a consciousness, like: "We don't talk about that in comedy." They would hold up the example of comedians like Danny Tosh, for example, making a joke about a woman in the audience being raped. All of these people got very enraged about it. So then that became the example of: This is how we talk about rape in comedy, and it's not cool. After that, it was impossible to even talk about anything relating to the subject because it had somehow been censored from the world of comedy. But unfortunately, when you censor a topic like that, you're also talking about the survivors, who should have a voice in it. Society had to change in that we had to bring forth the Me Too movement in order for it to become safe for even survivors to talk about their experience.
You are a survivor, right, and you had broached it in your work before the Me Too movement?
Yeah. And it was really hard. Because you had to fight against people’s not wanting to hear it, in that they already prejudge before you even put the story or the joke forward that it’s not going to be okay to talk about. Just an immediate shutdown of, like, we want to censor this. And we can’t even go into the topic because we can’t accept it. And that’s a problem. Having to kind of wade through all of the societal taboos is really tough. So it’s about finding your level of skill in handling things that people may think of as taboo and doing it in a way that’s disarming with humor.
How did you develop that skill? By emulating people?
You watch people — people like Joan Rivers. And then you also go and you try. It’s just a matter of trial and error.
Did you have times where you just felt, “I’m not hitting it. I’m not connecting. Maybe this isn’t the right thing”?
Yeah. All the time. All the time. And then it’s better, you know, then it works. And then it doesn’t. And then it works. It’s always different. You never know.
Is it easier than it was, though, now that you have so much experience?
I think so. But then the landscape changes. Like with social media. Because then the jokes get taken out of context and something's just sort of there without the structure and it becomes confusing. And people get offended more quickly, or they have more of a means to express their anger about things.
You’ve talked about how you got to the point where you felt free enough to take on some of the difficult and taboo subjects, especially in the context of your family. You said one of the great things about disappointing your family early on is that it gives you some freedom. Because you’ve already let them down.
Well, that’s just jokey, but honestly, it’s the understanding of: This is my life, and I don’t owe it to anybody to live it any other way than the way that I would like. It gives you freedom to be yourself. Not beholden to this image or idea of who we are to an outside group of people. I don’t want to be beholden to expectations anymore. It’s my story and my experience. You just have to be bold enough to own your own stuff.
If you could go back to when you were going through some of the bullying or some of the harder times when you were young, what would you whisper to your young self?
Everything is going to be okay. And better than okay. Better than you could even imagine. And, you know, just be ready for it. I just worried a lot. I didn’t need to worry.
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Her latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” will be published in October. Follow KK on Twitter: @kkOttesen.