A monthly column, Funny Feminism features conversations with feminist-identifying artists who use humor in their creative work.
“I’m a very busy lady. This lifetime I plan to do the work of 600 lifetimes. I don’t have a linear scope. It’s all mashed up in there together. I do everything at once. This is just the business of being Sarah Adams. And that is the work of high comedy. Mostly because I’m just a dork. Just accidentally funny because I’m falling down. And even though I look like a stylish babe, I’m really just an overgrown child fumbling around. So I have to primarily focus on that. Just feeding and bathing myself. Wiping my nose and making sure I have lunch money. With what little time is left over, I give people psychic readings, I sew clothes, I write a horoscope column, I emcee events, I’m active in city government, I’m a nearly professional coffee drinker, I give people tattoos, I make movies, I’m an activist, I run a fashion label with a retail location, I’m a really bitching DJ AND I do stand-up.”– Sarah Adams
33-year old Olympia, WA comedian Sarah Adams remembers her first stand-up performance very clearly. She performed with a PowerPoint presentation, which provided visual gags such as an image of a brick wall behind her. While Adams admits she’s “seen enough stand-up to know that there’s some weird shit out there—it’s a very generous art form,” the ubiquitous brick wall background helped mark what some might see as performance art as stand-up comedy.
At her first performance, Adams remembers hearing her name announced as she walked out to the stage and purposely falling down, using the struggle to literally stand up again as the icebreaker for her first stand-up routine. This part of the performance wasn’t planned, but occurred to Adams in the moment, like so much of her material still does.
Adams’ material is that wonderful mix of self deprecation and too-much-information that makes stand-up comedy work. She looks up to comics like Louis C.K., Erin Markey, and Maria Bamford who aren’t working to set up hilarious one-liners, but instead are really working out what is “ironic, hilarious and fucked up about the world we live in.”
Adams connects the honesty of her comedy to feminism: “The shit I say on the microphone is hard for people to hear…the world has a really hard time seeing a woman in her power and in her truth.”
The sort of truths Adams expresses on the microphone are not that different from the truths she expresses as an activist: “Once (in Olympia, WA) the director of Planned Parenthood came and asked for clinic support. You didn’t have to ask (me) twice. The thing that strikes you the most as a person with a vagina who is holding a sign in front of their actual doctor’s office is that those who would deny you healthcare are primarily wealthy white males. Men without vaginas. Men who don’t need low-income clinics. Men with ideas about what they would do if they were pregnant, but ultimately men who will never be pregnant. They will never know what it is like to have a baby-making machine constantly conspiring to do its job. Birth control gives women choice and it gives women power. That’s what they are standing up against when they bully Planned Parenthood patients week after week. I felt righteous as I took that picture and rubbed their stupid faces in it. Then it went viral. I’m really dogging him so hard in the photo. That’s what people like/dislike about it. My expression. Don’t you think? We made fun of the anti-choicers a lot. We had a great time doing clinic support in Olympia. We were very creative. All about showing love. Pizza. Waving. Hearts. But, there was a dark edge to it. An anti-choice maniac started bringing a microphone and bullying people. So we brought a bunch of tambourines and drowned him out! That’s I knew we’d reached the breaking point because at that point we were no longer creating a safe or anonymous place for patients. So we stopped doing the tit for the tat, even for the twat, that’s not what it’s about.”
Last year, Adams instead took a PA system to Planned Parenthood and led a marathon dance party with a mash-up of songs from Salt ‘N Pepa’s “None of Your Business” to Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Friends joined her in dancing, and helped Adams create the positive atmosphere she was hoping for. “(It was) so powerful to step out of time and be in your body as a woman on the street just dancing and dancing in front of the clinic that is your actual doctor’s office.” Adams said, “It’s not about the counter-protestors and making them uncomfortable. It’s about feeling empowered in our bodies as women, celebrating our bodies.” She plans to definitely provide this type of clinic support at Planned Parenthood again this year.
Audiences may have a hard time with Adams material because “it is real and there are just so many things we don’t hear about from women. There are those unspoken rules of ‘Do not talk about your vagina or your period or your feelings.’ There’s kind of a script people expect women to stick to, and it makes people feel uncomfortable to hear women tell the truth or to be themselves unapologetically.”
Having worked on her stand-up for seven years now, Adams now feels “brave enough” to drop the visual gags and “over-rehearsed” language she once relied on, and is now in the place she wants to be as a performer—one without sight gags or rehearsing—a place of just jumping in. Adams used to write out her routines before she performed them, but found that trying to recite her jokes verbatim got in the way of her having fun onstage. This led Adams to the looser approach of writing only bullet points for her jokes. “That’s the incredible thing about it,” Adams says, noting that so much of stand-up comedy is about audience response. “It’s a performance that you can’t practice. It’s a real concert between you and your audience, which plays into the nervousness and fear of performing standup—there is no practice except just to do it.”
Being confident behind the mic doesn’t mean that Adams isn’t scared when she gets on stage. To combat her stage fright, the comedian performs a meditation before each act to remind herself: “This is a hard thing you’re trying. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things in the world for people to do and it’s OK to be a beginner and it’s OK to be scared and it’s OK to fail.” Adams sees failure as a healthy, even necessary, part of an artist’s craft. She says that sometimes she thinks failing—truly bombing—onstage would be good for her. “It would maybe knock some of the fear out of me, like ‘Okay, you failed. That’s what failing feels like and now you can stop being so scared of it.’”
Adams says she has a hard time in the stand-up comedy world because there aren’t a lot of stages she’s interested in performing on. She doesn’t feel called to go down to the local open mic, noting that whenever she does it feels like “such a sexist, racist joke-fest”—not where she wants to share her most intimate thoughts and jokes.
The first time I realized how funny Sarah Adams was when I saw her acting in Kanako Wynkoop’s short comedic 2008 film, Butthole Lickin‘. For Adams, acting was another way to put off doing the inevitable: stand-up. Adams made her own short comedic movies, which were a great way to practice her jokes and craft. Adams finds the medium of stand-up works best for her because of its ephemeral nature, which is gratifying for her as a performer.
Adams grew up without a television in a small Wyoming town and doesn’t watch TV at all in her current home in Washington state. She identifies as “a little bit media-illiterate.” Up until recently, Adams had never spent much time thinking about legendary comic Joan Rivers. But the night before Rivers died, Adams had a lucid dream that totally changed that.
“I had a dream that Joan Rivers came to me and she said, ‘You’ve got to continue with your comedy’ and we talked about why she had gotten so much plastic surgery and the relationship that a woman has with her beauty or to her face when she’s a celebrity like that. We talked about female beauty standards and then when I woke up, I wrote it down. I went to work. I saw something about Joan Rivers on the Internet, remembered the dream and clicked the link.” Rivers had just died an hour before. Adams cites this dream as one of the most affirming psychic and comedic moments of her life.
She felt high on life for weeks after that dream and walked around feeling like “Joan Rivers wants me to continue!” and began watching every Rivers stand-up special and documentary she could get her hands on. Adams’ research led her to discover that she and Rivers share the same birthday, which was an unexpected coincidence for the young comedian who now identifies Rivers as one of her heroes.
When not performing standup, Adams is a business owner of a popular Olympia vintage and local designer-made clothing store called Psychic Sister, which also doubles as a psychic and tarot reading shop. I can attest to the fact that even Adams’ tarot card readings are funny as well as spot on: During my reading, Adams told me, “You need to see beautiful things this summer because your life is going to be too busy for you to travel next year.” I spent the summer road tripping between artist residencies before getting a job across the country causing my next year to be busier than I could have ever imagined. Knowing little about my life, she also told me my ex was “too boring” for me and not to waste our time getting back together. I laughed and knew she was right.
“I’ve got a store and I’ve been trying to make money off of (designing and making) clothing for a long time and it takes up a lot of my creative energy, but my whole thing has been ‘You’ll build the business and that will afford you time and money to work on your art,’ but it’s interesting the ways which we find to distract ourselves from our art. It’s just really easy to put my writing and performance on the back burner. The dream about Joan was a really great message that I need to stay focused on that.”
Adams seeks alternative venues for performing stand-up because so much of the traditional comedy scene is comprised of a “mostly white entitled dude-fest… with a real stroking of each other’s egos.” While the comedian acknowledges the edge that so many jokes teeter on before becoming offensive, she also acknowledges that sometimes audiences laugh simply because they’re uncomfortable. “I am interested in making fun of myself,” Adams says, “but I’m not interested in making fun of other people.” The lack of accountability in so many comedy clubs is what Adams finds unacceptable. Adams’ interest in finding alternative physical and intellectual spaces to perform and enjoy comedy is a rejection of the “norm” of so much comedy, which can often be sexist, racist, homophobic, ageist, sizeist, and so on. She’s currently at work organizing her own monthly comedy show, 80085 (BOOBS) where she can have total control over the night’s artistic integrity.
Recently, Adams performed stand-up for an audience of 25 in a living room. She left the performance feeling satisfied with her path as a comedian, and says that, at age 33, she is surprised by how fulfilled she felt entertaining such an intimate crowd. Adams finds that being able to write the kind of material she wants to and deliver it to people who get it is what makes her feel successful. Especially meaningful to her is when audience members come up to her and remind her of jokes she made as far back as her very first show—moments that they haven’t stopped thinking about. She says, “Butthole Lickin’ is a great example of that sort of compliment because it’s a movie that you don’t forget after you see it because it’s so true, the butthole licking conundrum. And I think that’s part of my form—it is kind of conceptual—I’m leading my audience through, by laughing at something, a larger idea that keeps playing with you long after the laughter dies down.”
Sometimes Adams thinks what would really be good for her is to be a preacher. “That would be the ideal form,” she says, “if I could have a house of people on Sunday and I could hilariously delight them while inspiring them to be better citizens of the world. But for now I’ve got a bar of people drinking cheap whiskey—and you’ve got to start somewhere.”
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See Adams on the big screen this year in Butthole Lickin’ as part of The Stranger’s Best of the Hump film festival curated and hosted by Dan Savage. Click here for tour dates and more information.