Comedian Adrienne Truscott Talks About Nudity and Moving on from the Rape Joke
"Is having your vagina out gimmicky? My answer is yes. But you can make use of that gimmick."
Stand-up comedy is, by its very nature, an exposing thing. Getting up in front of a room full of (most likely pissed) strangers and trying to make them laugh with the jokes that you made up in your head can really show one's true character. But few comedians know the meaning of "exposing" as well as Adrienne Truscott, who really, literally, laid herself bare with her debut stand-up effort, Asking For It: A One Lady Rape About Comedy (or, as Truscott calls it "the rape show") back in 2013.
As debuts go, it was one you could consider a certified success—the comedian and performance artist (Truscott is one half of "neo vaudeville" act the Wau Wau Sisters) took home a Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award for it, which led onto a sellout global tour. For those that didn't get a chance to see it—and you'd remember it if you had—then you've probably already a got a fair idea of the subject matter from the title. But this wasn't a case of one comedian cracking hackneyed jokes about sexual abuse, nor was it a woman making light of her own tale of rape. Wearing a blonde wig and denim jacket—and nothing else until you get to the shoes—Truscott confronted the rape joke genre, turning it on its head and ripping it apart until there was nothing left that was worth saying by anyone else.
But that was two years ago. Now she's back—slightly less naked, but not entirely clothed—for her second show in Edinburgh. VICE caught up with her in between sets to talk about nudity and how you make a comeback when you're the woman best known for performing without your pants on.
VICE: The title One Trick Pony hints at what the show might be about. Would you describe it as the "difficult second album"?
Adrienne Truscott: I would describe it as the second album in that I came out with a very bold show and this is the second show. And this one feels a lot bumpier. A few more fences to jump, if I use the vernacular of the show. I think that's partly because my first show was about a topic and not about me. It was about something bigger and I had a real bee in my bonnet and I was super clear on what I wanted to say—I wanted to make a provocative show that provoked in the right way. With this one I'm sort of calling myself out, as I don't know how I do a second show. That's what I'm sort of investigating on stage. And I'm having highs and lows, some of which were designed to be in the show and some where I'm like, "What the fuck is this?"
With Asking For It, you had a very clear message. Did the idea find you? Or did you search for the idea?
I had been working on the show in the back of my head for a year or so, not even knowing I was making it in a way. I was just going, "Could I...?" I didn't even do stand-up, but I was intrigued to see if I could you use this thing that I love—comedy—to talk about this thing that I don't love—rape. It's not exactly an immediate go-to for a comedy. Then came this onslaught of conversation about rape jokes and comedy which hit it's obvious zenith with the Daniel Tosh situation and once that happened, then it really hit me. I was still writing material but something about that made me go "Fuck it, I think I make it right now." It may be the only time in my life that I've known what I'm doing really, really clearly. I had a gut instinct that I was going about it in a way that was worthwhile.
The last show raised biographical questions, with people asking if it was about your experiences. Are you anticipating a similar reaction to this show because it's more about you?
It's not so much that this show is autobiographical, but it doesn't feel like it's about a topic per se. The thing with Asking For It was that really it was just an hour of observational comedy, narrowed down to one very specific topic for a specific reason, with a bit of absurdism thrown in. But I feel like sometimes women's material is treated as only subjective and personal. While it was understood as stand-up, it was also understood as a performance of stand-up and I was labeled with the dreaded term "feminist performance artist." I definitely am that, but it's also funny to me because I was like "Wait, I just got up and told jokes for an hour. I thought that makes you a stand-up." The show has all the structures of stand-up and I was struck by the fact that because I was a woman and because it was political and talking about bodies and because I used a bit of multimedia and nudity it was much harder to see it as stand-up.
Did you think the "performance art" label is a result of you deciding to the show naked from the waist down?
I do. In our culture, we're taught to look at a woman's body before her brain and so the minute you disrobe that comes into the foreground. I was aware of that and because of the topic I felt like it was really worthwhile way to play it that way. I wanted the audience to deal with the woman's physical body while I was saying what I was saying. In a much more generic way, if a woman takes off her clothes I think it becomes about her body or feminist, political art. Whereas if a man gets their jocks off for a laugh they're not called performance artists.
Yes. It's funny if a man exposes himself, but if a woman does it, people worry for her.
Right, people think "what's happened to her, she's vulnerable." That's why it was important for me for the show to be lighthearted, not just to make the difficult material palatable, but so you couldn't do that with my pussy. I was like, "This pussy's going to be funny, you just watch."
Why do you think nakedness is still so powerful for a woman? Not just in comedy, but in political protest too?
I think that in a nutshell most women are smart enough to know that getting naked grabs media attention. And that in spite of huge and exciting advances in roles women are playing around the world—in art and in politics and everything—there's still a rampant problem with sexism and sexual violence against women's bodies. Minute in and minute out.
What's so confronting to people, and empowering for the women doing it, is that the world is still shocked by a woman inhabiting the agency of her own body and saying "No, no no—you can't see my body like the Victoria's Secret ad, you can't see it murdered on the cop show, you can't see it raped in the provocative theater show: You can see it like this, on my terms." Whether that's me using it in my art, or a woman walking down the street with her breasts out. I get the call that it's gimmicky—which is something I discuss in my show this year. Is having your vagina out gimmicky? My answer is yes. But you can make use of that gimmick.
Do you get a gendered reaction to your material? Do men and women act in surprising ways?
I've really found the reaction has been so positive and intelligent and thoughtful. If you treat the audience with intelligence they will respond in kind by really paying attention. But I haven't found that the breakdown has been particularly gendered. I certainly have a lot of women come up to me and say "That was a rad show, I'm so glad you did it," but I get that from men, too. I also love it when someone says that show was hilarious—that means just as much to me. When it comes from a woman I'm just really glad that we shared that sense of humor about experiences in the world. And when it comes from a guy and they say, "That's funny, I get it," I'm also glad they found it funny and that they could share my experience even if it's not theirs. I'm not saying I don't have wankers, not literally (well, probably) in the crowd who act like real dickheads. I do. And likewise I've had a woman or two who have said, "I don't like the way you did that" and challenged my right to do it. And those are pretty interesting, too.
Adrienne Truscott performs One Trick Pony at Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon until August 17.
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