When many people in the U.S. think of trans people in the context of stand-up, they're thinking of celebrated edgelords like Ricky Gervais or Dave Chapelle whining about our junk, our pronouns or, god forbid, cancel culture. They're not picturing us in the audience, and definitely not onstage, even as trans comic geniuses like Patti Harrison and Jes Tom are reaching increasingly mainstream audiences. Mostly, they're thinking of us as a punchline.
In April of 2015, I came out as a punchline. A year later, I started doing stand-up—gender transition is rare and absurd and thrilling and lonely, and I wanted to talk about it to everyone. I assumed I was destined for stardom: Trans people make great jokes, right?
Over the next three years, I rose through the ranks as a semi-professional stand-up comic. My usual opener went, “My name is Max Delsohn, and I’m a transgender person. Does anybody here know what trans people are?” Sometimes I was met with applause, sometimes a smattering of polite whoops, and sometimes dead, awful silence.
“Some of you look nervous,” I said. “Don’t worry, this isn’t a TEDTalk!” Yes, TEDTalk jokes are hack, but my hack opener was strategic. It was a depressurizing way into what I really wanted to talk about onstage: going through life as a trans guy. How much I loved it, and how much it sucked. I wasn't up there because I wanted to enlighten my crowds about some essentialized "trans experience." I was there to have fun, fuck around, complain, and tell stories.
Most of my act was about hormone therapy. For instance, after living for 22 years as a lesbian, testosterone had inspired in me a radically unprecedented attraction to men. “Genuinely liking men is what I imagine it’s like to be a cat person,” I told the crowd. “You just love this thing that’s mean, selfish, doesn’t answer when you call. But it's who you are, to love this brutal animal, so you keep a little raw turkey in the fridge and hope he comes around.” Women and enbys loved this joke; men—perhaps new to being objectified, particularly by a trans guy—not so much. Even with the stage lights half–blacking out my vision, I could see the thin, hard lines of their mouths as their dates laughed.
So my act wasn’t a TEDTalk, but it was still a far cry from, say, Bill Burr's irate, rapid-fire tirades about gender-neutral bathrooms and male feminists. For most of the cis men watching or performing stand-up that I met while as I worked as a comic, comedy shows seemed therapeutic. They wanted their flaws, mistakes, and hatreds—especially their hatreds—to be held up to the light and validated, declared natural. To an extent, I wanted what they did—but not to be like them. I didn’t want to scream at the front row, relentlessly work the crowd, or punch down (all of which tended to be hallmarks of their acts). I wanted to show off my hard-won insights into how gender shapes all of our lives. I wanted to chase the high of having a room of rapt strangers hanging on my every word. I especially wanted trans people in the audience, and I wanted them laughing loudest. I reasoned that that was worth any cis guy hostility I might face; I’d just do my best to ignore it when it cropped up.
Throughout my first year of comedy, I found that approach hard to pull off. Male comics who went up after me incessantly commented on my jokes, my gender, my being in the world. “You used to be a lesbian? So hot! How could you give that up?” a host yelled as I walked offstage after a feature set in the suburbs.
Their riffs were always that obvious, tired, offensive; they flopped. “Wait, so do you have a dick?” said a comic who went up after me at a neighborhood mic. He spent his whole three minutes this way, holding the microphone in my direction while I sat in a booth up front and giggled in shock, as I've always done when cis men get in my face. You need a new defense mechanism, I thought, as I became aware of the rest of the crowd's silence—I was the only schmuck in the room laughing.
Worse than the outright bigots were the self-fashioned cis guy saviors: veteran comics with regional influence, but who were aging out of broader relevancy and desperate to earn clout by championing marginalized newcomers. As my stand-up improved, I got their attention. Though they were presumably drawn to the originality of my jokes, these men also liked to lecture me about the limits of “identity-based comedy” and encouraged me to deviate from my trans material.
One locally beloved comic put me on his shows and regularly sought me out in green rooms to dispense wisdom, talk shop. I couldn’t ignore him—I needed the stage time. “Don’t get me wrong, your trans stuff is great,” he said to me after a gig. “But you don’t always have to tell trans jokes. One day, you’re gonna wake up and think, Today, I wanna write a joke about baseball. I’m looking forward to that day.”
Even without a cutting-edge baseball joke, I kept moving up the industry ladder in the years that followed. Before a comedy competition in Chicago, a booker from a late-night talk show walked straight up to me in the green room. “Great set at Second City last night,” he said. I blushed. He was at Second City last night! He remembers my set!
“Thanks! It was—”
I didn’t finish my sentence. Another competing comic, a six-foot-tall cis man with an egregious beard, stepped in front of me and introduced himself to the booker. I urgently took out my phone as we all three pretended I didn’t exist. I got it then: If I wanted mainstream success, I’d have to fight for men's attention, get men to like me, play by men’s rules. The next night I went up, I rephrased some of my jokes, softened some of my language. In my cat-person joke, mean became distracted. Brutal became difficult. Right away, I started getting bigger laughs. Had I made the joke funnier, or just more palatable to cis guys?
It was around this stage of my comedy career—beginning to headline, having casual interactions with the industry—that I started to question my commitment to stand-up. Did I really want to get onstage every night, my body lit up and on display, for mostly cis people to accept or reject? How many trans people were ever in the crowd, anyway? I considered this as I walked, shoulders hunched, into a black box theater in Austin, where I was performing at a festival. Other than defanging my core set, I hadn’t written a new joke in weeks, and the after-show highs were growing fewer and farther between.
In the lobby, I overheard another comic say, “Shit, he’s here.”I immediately perked up: It was rumored that a big industry player was in town to scout for new talent, but no one had expected him to come to this show. Sure enough, when I shuffled down the aisle of the theater to get to the stage, I saw the shadow of his fedora. I grabbed the mic and started with my tight five—the stuff that always works.
“How many cis people are in the audience tonight?” I called out. As usual, almost everyone raised their hands.
“That’s OK, put ’em down,” I said. “I’ll just count how many of you tell me I’m brave after the show.” The audience roared, except for the talent scout. His mouth was fixed in a thin, hard line.
At the afterparty, I ended up in a section of the restaurant where the scout had secured a table for his friends. When I hesitated to sit down, he offered me the seat next to his. The other comics watched us, eyes wide.
“Your set’s good,” the scout said. “How long you been doing standup?”
“Four years,” I lied. (It had been three, but I thought four would make me seem like less of a comedy baby—something only a comedy baby would think.)
“You’re on the right track,” he said. I smiled and self-soothed. OK, it’s not your big break, that makes sense. You are a comedy baby. Just keep this interaction cool, pave the way for a working relationship.
“So. You were born a woman?” he said.
I froze, returning instantly to the questions I had been turning over in my head before the show. Oh. It’s always going to be like this. No matter how big you get, it’s always going to come back to this question. Your body lit up and on display.
He looked at me, waiting. It was the first time we’d made eye contact. “Sure,” I said.
“Have you had…” He lowered his voice. “…the surgery?”
That was it. “You shouldn’t ask people that,” I said.
He kept talking. He had a transgender niece, or something. I didn’t laugh along or take out my phone. I’d had it with the defense mechanisms; with laughing politely through the invasive encounters; with “taking a joke” as men reduced me to a collection of body parts. I stared into the fabric of the talent scout’s hat as he ranted about “they/them” pronouns. Another cis guy comic stopped by to schmooze, and, this time, I didn’t care that he was trying to step in front of me. I tuned out the rest of their conversation. Maybe they were talking about baseball.
Six months later, when the pandemic hit, my fledgling stand-up career found its natural conclusion. I’ve discovered another way to make trans people laugh, through short stories and essays, happily out of the spotlight; I’ve realized I’m better at entertaining people from my writing desk, surrounded by books instead of cis people. I'm more confident (and, by extension, funnier) when I have time and space to consider what I want to say, when I can publish in venues that reach more trans people than the average comedy club, and when I can express myself without having to keep track of how big my hips might look from the club's back row. So far, the writing's going well. The books don't heckle, and I haven’t talked to a man in a fedora in over a year.
Follow Max Delsohn on Twitter.