I like scoring comedy gigs, particularly unexpectedly.

Last minute in Amsterdam via facebook I get this gig with a whole crowd of other international comedians at The Comedy Café.
I’m in Amsterdam as part of an 8 week comedy research tour.

The gig is down town, about 7 km’s away from the hotel I’m staying at.

I’m on a rented bicycle.

I ride through a huge storm.

Find the venue, arrive a bit soggy, but triumphant that I have navigated this city on a bike in the rain across town.

The preparations are fun, I write the script, pepper it with local references, rehearse it all day.

Shower, choose that outfit I am going to wear, feel the gurgle of excitement in the pit of my stomach. And head off

It’s like a date night – but with myself and a mic on a stand.

The guy who runs the room is friendly.

A kiwi guy.

We chat.

There’s a nice vibe.

The first act up is a German guy, he talks about not being able to get laid because he’s German. Then he talks about which nationalities are sexy and tries to fob himself off as that nationality. Then he gets into material about being a German and in a subtle way includes anti-Semitic material about how it’s ok that so many Jews were killed in the war ( I am paraphrasing here) because the lurch in my stomach has ramped up, so I can’t remember his exact words, but he does a layering of anti Semitic material. And the biggest laugh he gets is for that part of his set.

I am Jewish.

I am in a bar in Amsterdam.

Not close to home, a 20-minute drive away like it usually is when I go to a comedy room in Melbourne.

My material has a few lines in it about being Jewish.

I am doing a quick calculation about whether to leave it in or take it out.

8 years ago I never spoke about being Jewish, I never owned it, and I especially never did material in bars about it because I have always been afraid to.

When I say afraid, I don’t know what I expected would happen if I spoke about being Jewish in a bar in Melbourne, but for a very long time I didn’t want to take the chance and find out.

Then recently I have seen other comedians talk about being Jewish in comedy rooms and let’s face I founded the Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival, so I was well and truly ‘outed!’
There have been many times though when I have left out any reference about being Jewish because the vibe is wrong and there has been as strong current of racist and misogynistic material spouted, so I omit the material.

In Melbourne, so often there is a slip stream of humour which is so racist and misogynist it makes me feel sick. I have removed myself from those spaces, those rooms where the overt tone is so iniquitous it is nauseating. I have vacillated between needing and wanting stage time to try out new material but refusing to go to those rooms because to be there and not say anything feels like I condone the words.

So, I do the flip there in a comedy room in Amsterdam. Leave it in, or take out the Jewish material.

I am equal parts disappointed and angry that I travel to the other side of the world and the sentiments are the same and those sentiments go unchecked. And just like many rooms in Melbourne there’s no payment for the gig, not even a free beer.

Over the years you gather more material, so you can always go plan b, or c, or d should the need arise.

The day before I go the comedy room in Amsterdam I visited the Jewish quarter, the Holocaust Museum, the Jewish Museum. The information is laid out, the candle of remembrance burning, the truth still unfathomable.

I do the flip and decide to do my Jewish shtick.

My stomach lurches.

Effect a change, say the joke out loud in a public space.

Tell the audience that you are Jewish and say it with a steely nerve.

Effect a change.

Call out racism, sexism, anti-Semitism.

Comedy is my vehicle to do that.

In many rooms like this one in Amsterdam the sets are around 5 – 10 minutes. When you have done your allotted time, there are various ways that the room operator lets you know; they play music, or flash their spotlight on their phone at you, or a red light comes on and it’s your time, to get off stage.

In this room a red-light flashes.My time is done.

I stay and listen to the next guy, an American, confident, competent, not stand out, but ok. Just in from Paris, traveling through on his way to Berlin.

By way of thanks I shake the hand of the guy who runs the room, the guy who did the light and sound and nod goodbye to one of the other comedians.

I go out unlock my bike and ride fast into the dark night in Amsterdam.

I don’t stay till the end of the night, because then a crowd would disperse and they know that I am Jewish.

And then what? I don’t want to know.

And of course it’s not just anti-Semitism, it’s racism, sexism, rife in comedy rooms going unchecked. Because it’s just comedy, right? And we shouldn’t censor comedians, right?

Back in the hotel room I sink my teeth further into Shrill notes from a loud woman by Lindy West (Quercus, 2017). Her writing is so erudite it makes me want to cry.

She writes long lucid tracts of texts about why rape jokes in comedy rooms aren’t a good thing.

Page 201 ‘Dave bought a switchblade and a gun to a comedy club because of a disagreement about whether comedy clubs are safe for women.’

Page 171 ‘And right now comedy as a whole is overtly hostile towards women..’

And blacks, and minorities and Jews I add in my notes I am making for my Masters Degree thesis.

Page 190 and this is what stays with me. It is Lindy’s response to television debate that she was part of about why rape jokes aren’t ok:

People like Jim believe that the engines of injustice run on outsized hate, stranger rapes in dark alleys, burning crosses and white hoods but the reality is the indifference, bureaucracy and closed door sniggers are far more plentiful fuels.’

I did some comedy for 6 minutes in a comedy room in Amsterdam. To have said nothing would have been complicit. But to say something that would change things, feels like I would need a lifetime.

*This is an edited version of a piece first published on funnywomen.com 

Article by Author/s
Justine Sless
Justine Sless is a comedian, award winning writer, creative director of Melbourne Jewish Comedy Festival. Kvetch with Sless Podcast can be found on ITUNES. Justine is undertaking a Masters in research in creative writing at Latrobe University looking at the intersection of gender, ethnicity and comedy.

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