The stand-up comedian Jes Tom has a go-to pronoun joke: “I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely.”
Tom is part of a small but growing group of comedians that doesn’t exclusively identify with the gender labels of “male” and “female,” and before the pandemic were regularly performing stand-up sets around New York City.
Over several months, we spoke with five of these comedians about the joys and frustrations of explaining their gender onstage and the entertainment industry’s newfound interest in nonbinary performers. They also talked about the challenges of working in a field embroiled in a continuing discussion about what is and isn’t off limits in comedy.
All this coincides with a greater awareness of gender diversity in the culture at large. In 2019, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year was the singular pronoun “they,” and both the singer Sam Smith and Jonathan Van Ness of “Queer Eye” came out as nonbinary. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. And on the state and federal level there are proposals that would allow a third gender option on passports and drivers’ licenses.
Comedy clubs remain closed, but these comedians were largely in good spirits when we reconnected with them recently to find out how they were managing as the city slowly emerges from its shutdown.
The Embodiment of Nonbinary
Jes Tom, 29, has a swagger that is at once preening, arch, acidic and world-weary. When I said I found them surprisingly menacing onstage, they clapped in delight and responded, “That is the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
An Asian-American comedian who also hosts a weekly cooking show on Instagram Live called “Iron Jes,” Tom is aware of Hollywood’s growing appetite for people who look like them. “For better or worse, I think that the embodiment of nonbinary that I am is really hot in the mainstream world right now. By which I mean specifically a thin, of-color but still a relatively light-skinned person, East Asian but still perfect English-speaking, assigned female at birth but still kind of masculine leaning.” Indeed, Tom fits this prototype perfectly.
Tom acknowledged that their identity has helped land jobs, including commercial work that has helped sustain them during the pandemic. “As a nonbinary trans queer Asian-American stand-up comedian, I probably get a lot more paying gigs than white straight [male] comedians do,” they said. “Which is not to say I have it any easier systemically.
“This is like the marginalized artist double-edged sword, right?” Tom added. “On the one hand, I look forward to the day when my whole career is not about this identity part of myself. On the other hand, I feel very grateful that this marginalized identity part of myself gets me working, gets me attention.”
Being able to work in such a niche is a far cry from when they started doing comedy in 2013. Back then they were usually the only gender nonconforming person in the room. “There was, as far as I know, no queer comedy open mic,” Tom recalled. “By which I mean I Googled it and nothing came up.”
‘Free Speech Is a Two-Way Street’
“If you don’t know, the open mic scene in New York can be shockingly transphobic, misogynistic, racist,” James Tison chirped from the stage at Club Cumming last fall.
It was the third installment of the monthly showcase “The Snowflake Mic,” and Tison was explaining the ethos of the open mic night.
“You’re welcome to say whatever you want. But free speech is fortunately a two-way street,” Tison cautioned the participating comics. “So if you come onto this stage and you rattle off some hack premise about how trans women aren’t women or if you think you found some clever new way to say the ‘N-word’ into a microphone and you’re a white person, this audience is allowed to boo you, they’re allowed to come up to you after and say ‘Hey, I didn’t like that,’ and you have to take it.”
As a stand-up, Tison, 33, has performed at open mics in New York City for years and regularly encountered heckling and harassment both onstage and off. In response, they curated a list of “nontoxic open mics” on their website and created “The Snowflake Mic,” reclaiming the word that is used to describe an overly sensitive person.
Not everyone appreciated the joke. A few comedians took to Twitter extolling the virtue of tough rooms and hostile crowds as important preparation for a nasty and difficult industry.
But Tison bristled at the idea that a comedy night by and for L.G.B.T.Q. comedians represents a radical departure from comedy at large or a softening of jokes. “I don’t think anybody has neutral material,” they said. “It’s a made-up concept. There’s just a lot of straight men in the business and we call that neutral.”
“The Snowflake Mic” has been on hold since March, but Tison plans to restart it as soon as possible. For Tison, hosting the mic is about labor as much as it is about comedy.
“Open mics are the entry point for the entire field,” Tison wrote in an email. “They’re the only way to actually get better at stand-up, but they’re also where you build professional relationships with like-minded folks that lead to future gigs. We’re talking about job opportunities in a job market.”
Of course, that job market and the open mics that feed it are largely gone right now. Over the past few months, Tison has spent the time they would normally have spent onstage working on a podcast for the abortion rights group NARAL, writing a pilot, and uploading videos to TikTok, which they describe as “methadone” to the heroin of live comedy performance.
They’ve also turned their attention and anxieties to their own home. “I built a desk,” Tison told me. “I repainted my bathroom twice.”
Ripping Apart ‘the Reality We’re In’
For anyone concerned that nonbinary comedians represent politically correct or sanitized comedy, Lorelei Ramirez, 30, might ease their worries. At their MoMA PS1 show last fall, Ramirez told a joke about getting caught masturbating in a public library and mused about how a choir of pedophiles might sound.
Ramirez’s PS1 show also included a musical performance using their voice and a looping pedal, a live projection of a digital drawing, and a circus-themed art installation, complete with a stilt walker, popcorn, and framed portraits of clowns painted by Ramirez. “Nonbinary” applies not only to Ramirez’s gender, but to their entire approach to performance and art.
While they do tell jokes about their gender identity (“I’m nonbinary, so I’m not like other girls. Because I’m a person.”), Ramirez often veers into absurdist body horror monologues delivered in voices that can test the line between cutesy and creepy.
“I like to jokingly rip apart the reality that we’re in,” Ramirez explained over Zoom. “I just like to have people imagine the craziest thing that they can.” Which, in the case of Lorelei’s comedy can include a long non sequitur about being followed home and killed by a one-foot-tall imp with a giant head.
Ramirez’s performances during the lockdown have mostly been limited to a weekly live drawing show called “Art Is Easy,” on Twitch. They’ve also been working with friends to provide food and wellness services to community organizers and activists.
Though not performing regularly, Ramirez said they’re still using their “comedy brain and production brain” amid the current political climate. “We created an alternative scene in an industry that didn’t have space for us,” Ramirez said. “So now we’re doing that but in actual life, not just this small scene. And it still applies.”
A Duty to ‘Free Other People’
In an elegiac solo performance at Ars Nova, Peter Smith, 29, portrayed Princess Diana in a work that featured original songs and monologues scattered among a virtuosic lip sync of Diana’s 1995 BBC interview with the journalist Martin Bashir. It was tragic and disorienting, and occasionally hilarious.
Smith’s performance in “Diana” had more in common with esoteric theatrical performers like Dickie Beau or Lypsinka than your average stand-up comedian, but Smith still sees value in being an openly trans comedian playing for mainstream comedy audiences.
“If you are free from something, it’s your duty to free other people,” Smith told me. “Just seeing someone exist and have fun is liberating.”
Smith is philosophical about the concept of nonbinary gender identity. “All language is wrong,” Smith said. “To pick an identity still has a binary nature to it because there’s still a decision that needs to be made.”
Smith has frequently performed at comedy venues like Caroline’s on Broadway, but their career has been nothing if not eclectic. They’ve played the titular role in a production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Peter Pan,” worked as a wardrobe production assistant for independent films, and assisted the painter George Condo.
They also hosted two variety shows in New York City with their frequent collaborator, Sandy Honig: the flashy high-gloss burlesque show “The Bongo Hour” and the self-consciously casual weekly comedy show “Pig,” which ended its run in 2019.
In 2020, Smith starred in the new musical “XY” at the Village Theater in Seattle, appeared alongside Honig in Adult Swim’s “Three Busy Debras,” and delivered a powerhouse rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in an episode of Hulu’s “Shrill.”
Since March, Smith has eschewed traditional comedy in favor of songwriting and community organizing, sometimes collaborating with Lorelei Ramirez. Does Smith miss live performance? Of course.
“But my desire to get back on the stage does not come close to my desire for getting people together and activating them,” they said. “Everything that’s happening now is very live.”
‘I Always Wanted to Do It All’
A summer camp talent show was Spike Einbinder’s first brush with performing comedy. They pantomimed picking tomatoes off a hamburger while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played on a tape recorder. “I was never like, ‘I’m doing just one thing,’” Einbinder said. “I always wanted to do it all.”
Einbinder, who insisted in our conversations that their age was 5,412, fuses elements of theater, drag and performance art in their comedy sets. They have appeared onstage as demons, golems, or in the case of their alter-ego, Candy Dish, a green-skinned swamp creature who cut her teeth as a comedian working “the Bog Belt.”
During their more traditional stand-up sets, Einbinder sometimes uses their trans identity to toy with their audience. “I’ll say ‘Who here thinks I’m a girl?’” Einbinder said. “And usually people are too afraid to answer that.”
“I feel like the body that I’ve been given is like a weapon,” Einbinder told me on the phone. “It’s something that I use as a tool because I don’t want it to be used against me.”
Einbinder’s eclectic performances made them a favorite at alternative and queer comedy nights, and they’ve also appeared on HBO’s “High Maintenance” and “Los Espookys,” which was written by their best friend, Julio Torres.
“I would like to think that the reason that I get roles and the reason that I get booked is because I’m a singular, unique person who is funny and not because I’m some new buzzword,” they said. “I’ve always been this way.”