When Olympia’s El Sanchez first started out as a comedian a decade ago, comedy was not a friendly place to be as a transgender, nonbinary, queer, mixed-race, Latinx child of a Mexican immigrant.
Sanchez, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” said they would routinely be in green rooms where other comedians and producers would make racist, homophobic and sexist jokes and comments. Sanchez was asked not to do comedy sets with “gay stuff” or “girl stuff” and asked to make their work “more relatable to men.”
But over the past several years, the #MeToo movement has sparked a re-examining of popular comedians such as Louis C.K. and a greater sensitivity to past homophobic statements by comedians like Kevin Hart, which led to this year’s no-host Oscars. But the backlash to the backlash was also fierce, with comedians including Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais lamenting that people just can’t take a joke.
Sanchez finds this argument frustrating. “The idea of ‘politically correct’ being manipulated into being a negative thing is mind boggling,” Sanchez says. “As if it’s a terrible thing for humans to have empathy for one another. It’s also just the death rattle of a dying brand of comedy, the kind that relies on punching down, pointing at the easy target to get a cheap laugh. It’s the person that points at the person that tripped and gets everyone to laugh at them.”
But things are changing. One local example of this shift is Seattle’s Intersections Festival, running March 21-24 at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in the Delridge neighborhood of Southwest Seattle. Intersections, now in its second year, is a comedy festival focused on equity, inclusion and representation. Each show of the festival combines stand-up comedy, improv, dance and burlesque.
The festival is the brainchild of Seattle-based artists Natasha Ransom and Kinzie Shaw of “Feelings,” a queer, feminist improv theater duo, who wanted to see performers who bring an intersectional lens (looking at how racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination intersect) to their work. Ransom and Shaw were later joined by Seattle’s Jekeva Phillips, who directs the Bibliophilia Storytelling Festival and manages Lit Crawl Seattle, in leading the festival.
The performer lineup for Intersections lives up to its name. “We strive to make sure that all of Seattle’s diverse voices are represented,” Phillips says. “Diversity is not just black and female. Diversity is a tapestry of religion, sexuality, race, disability status, gender, heritage, language … the list goes on and on. When we are viewing applicants, we are always keeping that in mind. Who has not been represented, how can we include this voice or perspective into the festival?”
Seattle-based Monisa Brown, the creator of “QTPOC Is Not A Rapper,” a queer-, trans- and people-of-color-focused curated comedy open-mic and showcase, will perform at the Intersections Festival and is grateful for the inclusive space it creates. She also has seen improvements in the mainstream comedy scene but says she keeps her time there minimal “because I’m not a masochist.”
To those who say the “PC police” are ruining comedy, Brown says, “If you can’t be funny without punching down on a marginalized group, then maybe you aren’t as funny as you thought.”
Sanchez says there has been progress, though they say it’s not due to sudden consciousness raising by those who control the comedy industry. Rather, it’s that, “more and more marginalized folks are banding together and unapologetically knocking even more doors down.” On a national level, a number of comedians who practice “cruelty-free” comedy have gained popularity and opened doors for others, notably W. Kamau Bell, Hannah Gadsby and, of course, Seattle’s own Hari Kondabolu, Sanchez’s touring partner.
For Sanchez, conscious comedy is something to be welcomed, not threatened by.
“Society is evolving and as comedy is a reflection of society, comedy is evolving,” Sanchez says. “Anyone complaining about that is actually complaining about the fact they have to think harder about what they write. That they might have to think outside of themselves and their own experiences.
“Comedy is getting more and more accessible to everyone, which I think should be the ultimate goal because we all need to and deserve to laugh once in a while.”
Intersections Festival, March 21-24; Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, 4408 Delridge Way S.W., Seattle; tickets start at $12; firstname.lastname@example.org, intersectionsfestival.com