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  • Writer's pictureTraci Kanaan

Being Woke Is No Laughing Matter

As a comedian for nearly 19 years, I’ve navigated some pretty tough waters in comedy. Comedy is based upon “free speech” and “freedom of expression,” yet my entire comedy career I’ve been told what I can and can not say on stage.

Tip #1: I should work “clean.” No curse words. You don’t want to offend anybody.

Tip #2: “If I’m not _______, I can’t make fun of _______.” You don’t want to offend anybody.

Tip #3: Be yourself. Just don’t offend anybody.

I tried following all this “well intentioned” advice for the first 5 years of my comedy career, and I was miserable.

First of all, I had trouble working “clean.” Why? Probably because I didn’t grow up in a “clean” Disney-esque environment. I started working for my parents printing company when I was 8 years old. I was taking care of customers at 15. While my parents had several corporate clients, they had a few odd-ball clients as well. Like the nationally touring “adult entertainer” who did a reverse strip-tease. She came out naked, and then put her clothes back on. I remember designing business cards for a call-girl when I was a sophomore in high school. I was the only child of self employed parents, and my parents taught me when you own a business you do what you have to do to get money in the door. My parents cursed when jobs went wrong or when employees screwed up. My parents kept several bottles of liquor right beneath the cash box for those tougher than usual days. Sundays was my parent’s only day off, and they weren’t about to spend it in church.

The second rule, “if I’m not ____, then I can’t make fun of ______” was hard to follow. When I was getting started in comedy, The Gulf War had just begun. Thankfully, I was allowed to do jokes about Arabs thanks to my Middle Eastern heritage. I’m also Italian, so plenty of material from that…but Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and every other nationality was off limits. Black and Hispanics out of fear of racism, and Jews out of fear that I wouldn’t get paid as they owned the comedy clubs I was working at. I could try and make fun of men, but only at the risk of turning 1/2 of my audience against me. Thank goodness for that “double standard,” where men could make fun of women, and Blacks and Hispanics could make fun of Whites.

While I’m trying to write material that won’t offend anybody, other comedians said “you just need to be yourself.” Well how can I be myself when I have all these rules to follow? Somehow I got moderate laughs, but I was tired of the restraints.

One evening, I pulled into Snapper’s Comedy Club in Largo, FL, and saw my name scroll across the sign as “headiner.” I was proud of how far I’d come. And then reality set in when I walked into the club. An overbearing lady introduced herself as “Kayla’s mother,” and told me how they were doing a fundraiser to get “Kayla” some singing lessons and she’d appreciate it if I didn’t use curse words in my set because there were going to be children in the audience. She informed me that after “my little comedy show was over,” Kayla was going to sing for everyone and I would introduced her.

I fuckin’ snapped. I had not busted my ass for 12 years to become a headliner, only to be upstaged by a teenager who needed singing lessons. I had a whole set that was NOT designed for children, and I wasn’t about to be told how to do my job. II took a deep breath, and told this woman that “Kayla” was going to sing first, and while she was singing I’d inform the audience that I don’t work clean, and if they didn’t want their precious darlings to hear adult words and adult material, they needed to get the f*ck out of the club by 8pm.

Kayla’s mother stormed off to the club owner, who supported my call, mostly because I threatened to boycott my own show. Two people left after “Kayla” sang her songs, and the comedy show started at 8pm. I needed a few shots of Crown Royal to calm myself after the showdown. When I took the stage at 8:45pm, I had a good buzz on. When I went to play my keyboard, I discovered Miss Kayla had unplugged it, and now I had to bend over in a corset and try to plug the damn thing back in. I kept a bottle of Crown Royal and a shot glass under the keyboard for such occasions. I poured myself a shot, and said “It’s going to be one of those kinda nights” and drank an unknown amount of Crown Royal straight out of the bottle. It was evident I was hammered, and becoming more so by the minute. I proceeded to do my show, no holds barred for the first time ever, and unleashed the comedy beast within. My regular show had about 12 F bombs in it…one of my fans started tallying my F bombs on a napkin and lost count at 258. I finally came across one of my signature songs, Rubber Dickie, based on Sesame Street’s Rubber Duckie, and stopped in the middle of it.

“Where’s Kayla?”

A little voice from the back of the room said “I’m over here.”

“Miss Kayla, I have a Bachelor of Arts in Music and Business, with a minor in Piano Performance, Music Composition and Electronic Music. This degree cost my parents $60,000, and I’m singing dick jokes in a strip mall where the anchor tenant is a gun dealer, across the parking lot from a guy selling BBQ out of a tent. See what you have to look forward to when all of your musical dreams are crushed?”

I didn’t think the laughter from the audience would ever end. Miss Kayla’s night ended with her being carried out the door by her stage door mother, and my night ended in a stand ovation. I found my comedy voice, and the freedom that came with it was relief, exhilaration, and confidence. By finding my comedy voice, I was free to create an entire comedy world just for myself and did just that.

I can’t help but see a similar parallel in my experience with “wokeness.” For those not familiar with “woke”:

(from Wikipedia)

Woke is a term, originating in the United States, that originally referred to awareness about racial prejudice and discrimination. It subsequently came to encompass an awareness of other issues of social inequality, for instance, regarding gender and sexual orientation.

Oddly enough, “woke” social media and “woke” political activist groups are imposing the same “rules” I learned in stand up comedy nearly 20 years ago, but they’re imposing it on an entire society.

#1 Work “clean.”

#2 If you’re not _______, then you can’t make fun of ___________.

#3: Be yourself. Just don’t offend anybody.

These restrictions are becoming quite evident each and every day. Millions of people are unable to express themselves for fear of what other people think. People don’t dare say what they really think, because they’re afraid of conflict and/or eventual retaliation. People are no longer free to express their thoughts or “be themselves” for fear of being ostracized by family and friends, being banned from Twitter, or being placed in “Facebook Jail” simply because someone disagrees with them. “Woke” is changing the landscape of comedy…which is often the last stand for freedom of expression. Jokes that were funny as f*ck 20 years ago aren’t funny anymore, because those jokes now “offend” people. Comedians are losing work for 15 year old “tweets” that were hilarious at the time. But not now!

Living in a constant state of fear of “offending” someone is not a world I want to live in. I want to live in a world where I can express my thoughts freely, and someone else is free to say “I disagree with you, but I respect you’re right to have that opinion.” No protests. No lawsuits. No Twitter bans. No Facebook jail. No family feuds.

Speak your truth. Be yourself. If you are offended by what someone says, perhaps it’s time to do some self reflection on why those words bothered you so much and begin making some changes within. Forcing the world to bend around your hurt feelings only builds further resentment and ultimately fixes nothing.

As you can see...being "woke" is no laughing matter. When a repressed society snaps under pressure (and it will, as history shows), we’re going to need a lot more than a few shots of Crown Royal.

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