Hand-To-Hand: Combat and Comedy

by Beth Lapides for HuffPo

The Pentagon just announced it’s lifting the ban on women going to the front lines and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. I know this is something that’s supposedly good for women, and something that women in the military want, but it’s something I have such mixed feelings about. Oddly, one of those feelings is gratitude. Because it reminds me why, after 25 years, I’m still so committed to hosting and producing UnCabaret.

The news sent me back to when, years ago, the issue of allowing women on the front lines first came up. I was just beginning comedy career and was performing in what, at the time, was a fashion-forward choice: men’s suits. Partly, I loved the suits for the pockets. Partly, I loved them for the power they bestowed. Partly, I enjoyed the focus on my work which the ease of a uniform provided — much like combat gear.

And then, the issue of women being allowed to fight on the front lines came up. And I started to wonder: Is this where the women’s movement has gotten us? Fighting for the right to fight? I felt like yes, women should be allowed to do everything men do, and I was living proof that, to some degree, things had changed for the better in that department. But I also felt, and still feel, that the women’s movement should have moved us away from war, not towards women being allowed to fight like men. And I saw myself wearing the men’s suits, practicing an art form defined by men, and I thought maybe it’s time to don a dress. That was the actual odd phrase I had in my mind: don a dress.

Then things didn’t happen the way they would in the movie. There was no frenzied montage over the Pet Shop Boys “Shopping.” Instead, I mulled the idea of wearing dresses, flipped through magazines, agonized. Then one night, I followed Andrew Dice Clay at The Comedy Store. I was waiting to go on, watching his women-hating act, hating him, hating the audience for laughing at him, hating myself for hating and thinking, there has to be another way. A better way. I wanted to create a venue where I felt challenged as a comedian but not scared as a human. Where my friends could be as funny as they were on the phone with me. Where I wasn’t lulled to sleep by the rat-a-tat-tat of the gun fire comedy rhythm, where when you did do well, you didn’t kill. When you did less well, you didn’t die. I longed for a venue where instead of a “tight ten,” a locked-in, combat ready set, you could actually play, explore, communicate, experiment, discover, refine. All the things that I knew went into the practice of any art form. All the things I knew were part of the roots of the great stand-ups I so loved.

And so I created UnCabaret. A show where skirted, dressed and even midriff-baring, tight jeans wearing comedians of the female variety were more than welcome to do it slightly differently. Where they weren’t just tolerated, they were celebrated. UnCabaret was very essentially about women. We always loved our boys too. Gay ones, and even straight ones. But UnCabaret is not UnCabaret without women comedians. The show is not the show without the loopier rhythms, the more story based structure, the particular stories, the personal revelation and the fine balance between brashness and vulnerability that every successful woman practicing the art of stand up has mastered. Or should I say mistressed. UnCabaret is not UnCabaret without the particular parade of lovely liveliness that is women in stand-up.

Over the years I’ve been privileged to host a magnificent group of women including Roseanne Barr, Laura Kightlinger, Kathy Griffin, Julia Sweeney, Tig Notaro, Janeane Garofalo, Judy Toll, Casey Wilson, Jen Kirkman, Sarah Silverman, Sandra Bernhard, Karen Kilgariff, Margaret Cho, Kira Soltanovich, Natasha Legerro, Rebecca Corry, Merrill Markoe, Moon Zappa, Diva Zappa, Rae Dawn Chong, Henriette Mantel, Garfunkel and Oates, Selene Luna, Jenifer Coolidge, Melanie Mayron, Beth Grant, Jackie Kashian, Jane Adams, Cheri Oteri, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ali Wong, Carlie and Doni, Kelly Carlin, Sherri Shepherd, Sue Murphey, Arden Myrin, Ileana Douglas, Mary Birdsong, Ellen Cleghorn, Carrie Fisher, Wendy Ho, Maxine Lapiduss, Allee Willis, Michele Lee and boys as girls: Miss Coco Peru and Kelly Mantle.

And if you come to downtown LA’s First & Hope on any given Sunday, you’ll find me in a skirt and, usually, my awesome Alexander McQueen jacket. A happy compromise (is this not the key to less war!?). You’ll find me filling my pockets with what I need for running a show where we make love, not war, with the audience. And while I wish we’d evolved the world into a place where hand to hand combat isn’t a necessity, I guess I’m glad that the women who want to be there can be there. Just like I’m glad that the women comics who want to work at more traditional comedy clubs can. We each do our part to move the whole project forward.

And I pray/hope/wish — pick your favorite verb of aspiring — that we become a planet with more hand-to-hand clapping and less hand-to-hand combat, in the very, very near future. And meanwhile, I’ll fight my hardest to make the world safe for comedy of a different kind.


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