It turned out to be open mic comedy night. I’d met a priest I know at a new microbrewery in his parish, and after an enjoyable time and enough beers he went home, while I finished my last one. The comics started after my friend (who had come dressed as a priest) had left, which was probably good for priest and comedians.
I’m sitting well off to the left, at a table against the wall. The first comic, a young man, has a diffident style. He looks down, delivers his punch lines as if he were apologizing, and shrugs. He isn’t very funny. He tries to be transgressive. He begins, “I’m really supportive of women breastfeeding in public.” Short pause. Looks down. “I just think they should give free samples.” Shrug. A few people groan.
A little later, after more such jokes, he asks, “What’s the best thing about necrophilia?” Pause, looks down. “There’s no performance anxiety.” Shrug. A couple more groans.
He also tells a series of jokes that assume the reality of Transubstantiation. They are oddly reverent, except for a blasphemous one, which he tells as if disowning it. A couple of people groan, and he quickly goes to the next joke. He seems, unexpectedly, to be a believing Catholic.
Touching on Abortion
The second comic, an older man, isn’t much better. He tries wordplay jokes and sad-sack life jokes. He does have one good one. “I was really nervous about my colonoscopy. I walked out about half-way through. So I suppose I could call it a semi-colon-oscopy.” I laugh. I am the only one. He thanks me from the stage.
A young woman comes on next. Hers is the enthusiastic story-teller style, mixed with the female-comic style of honesty about body parts and functions. She’s much better at performing than the two guys before her, but not as funny as they were. She’s not funny at all, to me, though some people laugh a lot.
Then she talks about her father calling her “Butthole baby” her entire life, and riffs on that. Her father meant it to hurt. Her riff is rude, and scatological, and candid about those body parts and functions. She seems to be telling the truth. Her pain comes through too clearly for her to be funny.
She tells a series of jokes about a nightmare that involves having a baby that is half-spider, and she tells it animatedly, but the jokes aren’t funny. The story includes abortion, but half-heartedly, mostly with a couple of throw-away lines like “I couldn’t take care of this in Alabama.” A few people laugh.
The MC takes the microphone as she finishes and yells, “Abortion is wonderful!” No one laughs. A couple people between him and me look up at him suddenly, then at each other, both frowning. He quickly goes on to introduce the next comic.
I leave about half-way through the fourth comic’s routine. He had begun by saying that at twenty-nine he’d just moved out of his parents’ house. He wanted to thank the women who’d had sex with him with his parents at home. People laughed at that.
A Hipster Place
The three younger comics had mostly tried to make transgressive jokes, the kind that make people groan or jeer. But this was a crowd not likely to feel offended by much. Not because they were cool, or stylishly ironic and distant, I think. Because they aren’t offended by much, and maybe because—this is working class Pittsburgh, not hipster Brooklyn or cool LA—they hadn’t come looking to be offended, but to laugh. The comics couldn’t do much to transgress.
Except with jokes about abortion. The third one had her throw-away lines, delivered as part of a rapidly-told story, and not really all that transgressive. The first comic got closest to real transgression when he said, “You know what a swing voter is? It’s someone who’s okay with killing babies and killing old people.” Several people did groan and jeer. But he couldn’t bring himself really to push it, really to transgress the crowd’s pieties. He veered away to a lighter topic.
Except for my friend and me, the second comic, and a few other people, the crowd was mostly late twenty- and thirty-somethings, spending Friday night in a hip microbrewery in one of the older, poorer, working-class Pittsburgh neighborhoods. It wasn’t one of the hipper, wealthier places with a lot of college kids and upwardly mobile twenty-somethings. You had to know the place and drive into a slum to get to it.
Judging from observation of other places, and conversations over the years, I think most of them had been raised Catholic, though they probably hadn’t been to Mass since sixth grade, except for Christmas Eve, weddings, and funerals They once would have said the “Hail Mary” with complete, uncomplicated belief, and prayed to a statue of a half-naked man being tortured to death by the powerful. Most had been raised in families that remembered the old days of union and working-class solidarity, and the feeling of being on the bottom, facing powerful people who didn’t care about their well-being.
At this point, they may be running on the fumes of those memories, but they have some feeling for human dignity, solidarity, sympathy with the marginalized and endangered. And some sense that the unborn come to us as human beings. That may account for their muted reaction to the abortion jokes. You may believe in choice, but you don’t laugh at it.