Consensual Comedy: An Interview with Comedian Heather Gold
Heather Gold is a comedian living in Oakland. She’s shared the stage with (among others) Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Margaret Cho, Bill Irwin, and Judy Gold. She’s best known for her one-woman hit show “I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie”, an “interactive baking comedy” that’s made the rounds in Austin, New York, and most recently played to sold-out audiences in Berkeley. So far she’s baked over 50,000 cookies with audiences.
She also co-hosts the weekly web series Morning Jew with NYC-based comic Katie Halper.
I asked her to talk with me about she’s messing with the hyper-masculine conventions of traditional stand-up in her work and how women are becoming an important–and importantly different–audience for comedy.
Hi Heather! I’m thrilled we get to talk about women in comedy—in the audience as well as onstage. Thanks for doing this!
Your work has been described as being closer to “consensual comedy” than traditional stand-up. How’d you start developing that?
Years ago I was hosting the Internet Roast at SXSW. I asked the room as part of setting up for a joke, “who here has had Repetitive Stress Injury?” Someone yelled back “We can’t raise our hands!” It was so great.
I thought, in that room with a lot of early Internet folks: “what if I didn’t write all the jokes?” I’m taking this idea of participation—the idea that anyone can participate and even talk with each other—from listservs and the net. I’m pretty obsessed with emotional connection and storytelling and threading the room. I still do stand-up, and it helps me practice certain skills. But I am really driven by creating a unique live moment and by sculpting the social space: getting the feeling in room to get from one place to another.
Threading the room. This metaphor, Heather, it’s so careful and generous. It’s hospitable. Would you say there’s a specifically domestic slant to your comedy? Are you gendering it towards women and baking on purpose?
I’m using what makes sense to me and what I’m compelled by, and I’m a woman. I love baking. For Cookie, I’d done a lot of stand-up and had no idea what to do with my hands on stage. Baking seemed like a good idea. Originally, I thought I’d have about fifty Easy-Bake ovens on stage. A lot of light bulbs.
I love Easy-Bake Ovens as an overkill solution to awkward hands.
I’m working to invert certain things I wanted to change about stand-up in these shows. I wanted it to feel inclusive. I wanted other people to want to tell me their stories. I wanted people to feel comfortable. Hell, when I started, *I* wanted to feel comfortable. I made it up as I went along.
What you do is pretty obviously different from what most people think of as stand-up. How is it different from traditional crowd work?
Well, it has a good bit in common with it. But one of the basic goals I work toward is that this is a room full of people that mostly enter as strangers, and those people have a chance to get to know each other and I can help make that happen. Sometimes I’m trying to set the conditions for a really poignant moment. I’m working toward a social goal as much as anything else. And I’m also often setting people in the “audience” up for *them* to get punchlines. I do this when I have enough time on stage or in one of my shows or talks. It takes time.
You’re giving them the punchlines? That’s pretty radical, dude.
Yeah, I spend time trying to flip the authority of traditional stand-up. And I really try hard to invert the bullying that crowd work in some stand-up situations can become.
I love that. Last question about genre: when I think of a collaboration between comedian and crowd, I think improv. Is this improv?
Kind of. The participatory style of the web, especially the culture of the early web (and live events with the people making the early web) really influenced me. So, this can mean I’m not driving to a joke every 20 seconds, although once a show is really developed it can get there. But the point isn’t only laughs. It’s to get the room to the place laughs get us to: open, closer to each other. Oy, this is sounding like some kind of hippie encounter session.
Ha! Well, I mean, hippie encounters are rarely funny.
It’s really critical that people can find what I’m doing to be full of shit. It’s never a true conversation unless someone can tell you you’re full of shit. Then it’s just pure social manipulation. I’m trying to do this together. I’m genuinely interested in knowing the people in the room. It doesn’t feel that weird when I’m doing it. I wanted to change the feel of the room.
Well, I wanted more intimacy. I’m a lesbian. And a Jew. I mean, come on.
Your journey into funnyland has been really idiosyncratic. How’d you get into comedy?
There were a few key events, including: law school frustration and a feminist backlash, my response to some mean girls, studying at Groundlings, the early alt-comedy venue UnCabaret, and producing an early alt-SF show called Tangent. I started after alternative stand-up began. I saw comedian and then performance artist Beth Lapides’ alt-comedy show UnCabaret at Highways Performance space in the early 1990s. UnCabaret became a big show, which Patton Oswalt did quite a bit. It’s where I saw first him. As far as I know UnCabaret was the first alternative show, or one of the first.
Was that your main influence?
It got me obsessed. It got me feeling maybe I could do it or there was a place I could make sense. Seeing Janeane Garofalo with a notebook on stage was so great. I took class at Groundlings and with Cynthia Szigeti too. Improv in LA had a big impact—it taught me about not going lowest common denominator, and writing on stage. Mostly, though, it showed me that the space helps create what’s going on in it, which is why, if you want to do something different, you often have to leave and make your own space.
Who’s Cynthia Szigeti?
Oh, the number of women who aren’t known. It’s endless. She’s an improv teacher in LA. Groundlings sent me there after I took the intro class telling me, “you’re really funny but you’re not BIG enough.” It was the first time I’d heard that in my life. Conan O’Brien studied with Szigeti. So did Lisa Kudrow and many more.
Yeah. Groundlings classic style is big: Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig. Big and cartoony. Cynthia was all about commitment. It was hard. I’m bigger now, but being huge will never be my strength. I know there will always be these other great people way bigger.
Who else is big?
Jennifer Coolidge. I wrote a few sketches with her when she was in the company, and I’m a huge fan of her comedy. I doubt I’ll ever be as big as her. She is the BEST. We wrote a lethargic dominatrix sketch together, which I still love.
Ha, that seems totally right for her! How does “big”—taking up space that way—intersect with your brand of communal comedy?
I’m not sure. I know I need to leave room for others but still carry the show. I grew up in this little shtetl in Niagara Falls. That’s the opening story in Cookie, and my tiny world was all about community, and baking, and you had people over, and these women—including my mum—they showed me how you made a community work. I wanted that. So I try to make it in the room. My grandmother would call me a ballabustah, which looks like ballbuster in English, but was about cooking, and making a hamishe room and having it feel “soulful.”
It’s Yiddish for “down home.” And like, you can be warm and welcome. Hamishe. I think it seems there are often Jewish women (probably not just us) who like to make salons. Gather.
I never saw her perform, but I’ve read Sandra Bernhard talk about Lotus Weinstock, and I talked about her with Judy Carter, an early female comic, and I’ve heard she was like that—very nurturing and encouraging. I grew up with these ladies in the kitchen being funny. I was funny first at the Shabbat table and in the kitchen. It’s a world of comedy all those dudes who write about comedy entirely ignore.
Oh, wow. That’s so true.
My mum had all those Erma Bombeck and Judith Viorst books. Mrs. Van Rijk was hilarious. My aunt Fraida, who I’m determined to get on Morning Jew, is the funniest person I’ve ever known. Ever.
My mom and my Tia Rosy are too.
All these “thinky” theory pieces about comedy from dudes about how comedy is a mating thing, comedy is aggressive, comedy is only men. Please.
The interesting thing about stand-up—even the dudeliest kind—is that there is a shared experience of comedy, a warmth, but a) it generally comes with an ugly edge, and b) your role as spectator is clear—and if you violate it in any way, you are a heckler and there is no worse thing to be.
Yeah. I’m interested in something different. I found that being open and vulnerable was opening up people in the room too. I even used to do a talk show built around audience inclusion.
Help me understand what “openness” means here. Describe Cookie for people (like me) who haven’t seen it.
Oy. Okay. So, the show is sort of a solo show. I call it an interactive baking comedy. I tell stories. There’s an emotional arc. I structured the stories around the baking process: DRY – WET – MIX – FORM – BAKE. That happened over time. When I first began working on that show it was called Live! Naked! Truth!
Baking is such an interesting metaphor for what you’re doing because it’s so notoriously precise, whereas the process you’re talking about—improvisational, conversational, isn’t. How do those two energies intersect?
I try to open source the baking in a little way. For example, when someone comes up to chop nuts with me, they can do whatever they want. Once someone smashed them with the meathammer. They could choose not to chop.
Has anyone ever not chopped?
No. No one has not chopped. Ever. I do give them a knife and ask them to chop, but I try to make clear to the room with early interactions that I am not going to make anyone do anything. I say that very explicitly once I’m asking someone if they want to come up. If someone is hesitant, I really check in.
YES!!!! LESBIAN CHECK IN.
I was thinking about this the other day with all the rapey talk on Twitter. Why doesn’t someone tell these guys about checking in?!? IT’S NOT THAT HARD. Just know that what you want is an enthusiastic yes! So if you get anything else, check in and find out if it’s a real yes. It’s about energy and affect and a willingness to be open to no.
So what does it mean to make comedy consensual? Because a lot of crowdwork isn’t, right?
Yes. I love crowdwork.
But the trouble with using The Laugh as an indicator of consent is that it’s also an indicator of discomfort. This is what makes comedy the great blurry mess it sometimes is.
Oy, I could talk about this forever. I like to improv. I’m better responding to the moment. I’m MORE interested, so I tried to respond to whatever I get.
So, is Cookie crowdwork?
Cookie’s a mix.
It took me a while to learn this mix of things. I’m mixing from crowdwork and other influences. I go into those more and what I’ve learned about creating social space when I give talks or teach and on tummelvision.tv, the podcast I co-hosted with Deborah Schultz and Kevin Marks. It’s material, but it’s also a social emotional goal. I have an arc, a story, an emotional journey (lesbian more lesbian).
Is it a coming out story?
It’s really not. It’s a kind of coming of self. And near the end of the show, I slow dance with someone from the audience. I actually touch someone. They touch me. I sing to them: Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.”
And then I have the room join in on the chorus. Then together, at the end—I suppose it’s not giving anything away—I eat a cookie at the end. You see me devour it baked, out of the oven—so hot, it’s an issue will I be able to get this thing in my mouth.
During the show, the dough goes around the room. Everyone stirs, or whatever they want to do. I tell them you can do what you want, but you will be eating this. We all will. So it’s this line: you can all talk but we can only hear if it’s one of you.
It’s comedy communion.
Yes. I’m creating a space for communion and conditions for it, but to have communion other people have to want to create it too. So that’s the co-creation. But it’s fucking so amazing to feel that to go back to only jokes by themselves feels like the same thing as a pick-up instead of a love affair.
One thing that strikes me about this is how huge a departure it is from comedy etiquette, which I want to talk about, because the question of The Heckler became so vexed, what with the Daniel Tosh rape joke and the Louie heckler scene. The really strange thing about that phenomenon—to me—was that you had these comedy fans with an incredibly strict definition of what the relationship between comedian and audience ought to be. And they literally threatened people with death and rape for violating it, and considered that legitimate.
Right. They were offended people were offended because you’re never supposed to be offended. Unless you’re offended by people taking offense. Those angry guys are kind of conservative. They are sure they know how it works and how it has to be. I am not.
Listen. It is a fucking privilege to be listened to, and for people to give you their attention. And I work to deserve it. And I give it. I give attention in these interactive shows. But bear in mind, in some venues—like traditional stand-up ones—it is very difficult to do that. They are not set up for it.
You’re doing a really particular experiment with intimate comedy. The other comic who comes to mind when it comes to comic intimacy is Marc Maron, whose podcast WTF is seen as the standard for confessional comic Real Talk. What do you think of his approach?
I listen to his show a lot, and it’s part of what will ensure I do my own. But his gender issues… well, it’ll be a different thing. My brilliant girlfriend Mariko Tamaki has said—I’m quoting her here—that Maron and Louie represent a moment where they are part of things moving “one click forward” barely, but there’s nothing revolutionary there. That’s absolutely OK. They’re doing great for themselves, being independent, doing what they are doing. But…
Hm. Here’s the thing; I don’t think it’s productive to just be all you’re sexist and you’re sexist; I think the bigger question that is often ignored from a performance standpoint concerns being with the room and the room being diverse. A certain kind of rapey joke doesn’t play in a room with many women. It’s certainly not subversive or brave. It’s not aiming at power. But most of all it says to some in the room (and the room can extend online–sometimes the room never ends)—especially the women that are in it—I didn’t think you were here. Or, I have never considered what this would be like for you. Or, as Louie’s character said in that episode on some level, “You’re a bad person.” Again, my performance goals include beginning with the room and connecting to it. If I’m busy not giving a shit about peoples’ experiences in general then it’s going to make it a lot harder to be with people and hear their stories.
Yeah, in both Tosh’s case and Louie’s fictional one there’s this deep sense of having been aggrieved.
Right. Because the subjective sense of being shut up—which is clearly what these very solid comics are complaining about—they feel put-upon, and like the little guy, etc., and in their own experience of the world it’s true. But it’s true for others too. And the amount of what they’re up against can be relative. Women are the audience too. Transfolk are the “audience.” (I’m putting “audience” in quotes because I want everyone in the “show” together.) I get tired of hearing this stuff, so I’ve made a different kind of show.
What’s interesting about this is that it’s both kinda revolutionary and also kind of basic: you’re saying your sense of whether and how a joke works changes as a function of who you think your audience is, right? That your jokes change—not because of censorship, or political correctness, but because that’s what good comedy is?
Yeah. The thing that the media always goes on about is usually censorship, this word or that word, can you say this or that. Louie and Maron are big fans of “what’s in your heart and intention,” but there’s also the reality of the room and the world for some folks.
So the wacky thing to me is to hate censorship but not want anyone to complain. I mean, isn’t that what we’re in this for? It’s a weird balance. It’s not that I think everyone has to be comfortable with everything you say; it’s that I think it’s really important to know that the person you’re talking to is there. I hope a comic gets that if he makes a certain kind of rape joke, he also gets that if there are enough people like me in the room, that joke won’t work. Maron found his own place, and hopefully I’ll keep finding mine, and make room for other people.
Sheesh. I’ve been complaining about certain patterns in comedy for a long time, but I didn’t go out and make a new kind. I want to switch subjects now to the problem of negative audience feedback. Comics in general have historically been pretty buffered from their audience, as you’ve said, but that’s changing—thanks to Twitter, in part.
Yeah. And, I mean, I’ve been on the other side of that. It’s hard, because comedy does mean you need to be free to go wherever, and in a conversational style show that will happen. So the initial instinct to say whatever in comedy almost never feels that bad to me coming from a comic, but the reactionary bullshit afterwards does.
How do you deal with angry feedback?
It’s hard to have people mad at you, but I try really hard to consider it always. Though you can’t be responsible for every person’s feeling about everything or you’d never write or say a thing. I try. I think. I can even end up building jokes around it—about my concern about fucking up or hurting someone. I can always be wrong.
I want an example of this kind of joke-building, if you have one.
Of a joke? Um. When I talk in Cookie about being in San Francisco and trying to date, when all of a sudden tons of people around me are transitioning. “How’s it going Julie, Jules, J?” “I avoided pronouns for 6 months because I don’t want to be inconsiderate or rude. Canada would take my passport away.”
I wanted to express how confusing it was for me (also because it seemed I was not getting dates because I wasn’t transitioning or genderqueer which seemed pretty much what many women I wanted to hit on were looking for) so I talk about having a woman in a bar tell me, “you’re too consistent with your original gender.”
I said, “Could you please tell my mother?”
“Also, what kind of fucked up over-educated white way is that to turn someone down?”
2 CIS 4 LUV.
It’s all from the POV of me trying to figure it out, connect with someone. The cookie is a metaphor for wholeness, wanting all our pieces smushed together.
Lili Loofbourow is a writer splitting her time between Oakland and Austin. She tweets as @millicentsomer.