NEW YORK CITY: I’ve never considered myself someone with a particularly “edgy” sense of humor, but when I heard about Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It—billed as a standup comedy routine based around rape jokes, performed by Truscott, known for her choreography, writing, and circus skills as much as her humor—I was intrigued.
The full title of the show, Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else, pretty much sums it up. Truscott makes a grand entrance dressed only from the waist up and ankles down, clad in a pile of enormous wigs and a number of denim jackets, which she takes off one after another. As she tells rape joke after rape joke, the rhetoric about assault becomes fuzzy, as Truscott challenges all our expectations about what a standup comedy routine about rape would be. Gleeful puns abound; audience interaction feels dangerous yet encouraged; rape perpetrators are (verbally) skewered.
Meanwhile, when she’s not delivering cutting one-liners, projections of the faces of male comics and other men who have addressed rape in their art appear on her torso, casting her naked vagina variously in the part of a goatee or, in one inspired acrobatic feat referencing Travis Bickle, a mohawk.
Hurtling forth at a lightning-quick pace, the show packs the biggest punch in the wake of its performance, when we reflect on the horrifying facts and statistics that inspired the show.
I initially caught it at the Wild Project’s Special Effects Festival, one of many experimental theatre festivals that hit New York every January. The Malcolm Hardee and Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy award-winning show will next appear at the Creek and the Cave in Long Island City, Sept. 23–Oct. 3, in a coproduction with the Chocolate Factory. I caught up with Truscott over an omelette this summer. Here’s what we discussed.
ELIZA BENT: Tell me about the genesis of this show. I understand it happened while you were on a cruise ship?
ADRIENNE TRUSCOTT: This piece was a long time in the making in a very informal way. It had been on my mind for years and years without ever being a thing I was going to make at all.
One thing goes back to when I was in university. I was in a pretty small seminar English lit class on race/class/gender at Wesleyan. Lucky me, I was at a radical-lefty, smart university. The professor was male, a super-smart guy, and he was trying to bring in contemporary statistics to relate back to violence and race with a 19th-century novel we were reading. One of the statistics was how 2 in 5 women are sexually assaulted or raped. He was trying to instigate us. There were probably 10 women and 2 or 3 guys in the class, and he said, “Look, in this class that means four women were raped, statistically speaking.”
It was really confronting and the room went awkward. Then he said, “Doesn’t that make you angry? What do you have to say about that?” And I said, “I’ll tell you what I have to say about that. I’m really sick of hearing about the women. So there’s 3 male students and you—I want to know which of you raped. Did each of you have a go randomly? Or was it a gang bang? You’re in a position of authority—did you do all four? Looking at victims, not that interesting. But this is a more interesting question.”
What happened after that?
It went back to awkward silence. No one was like, “OK, suppose I raped everyone!” That lack of switcheroo has always been on my mind.
Then many years later, Tanya—my partner in the Wau Wau Sisters—we were on a cruise ship owned by a lesbian travel company. So we’d go to sea with 1,800 traveling lesbians and all female performers, most of them comedians or comic in some way. We found it to be quite a P.C. environment and sensitive to everyone’s needs, which was beautiful in general but not that useful to a comedian.
After the shows, the performers and comics would retire to a dark corner and we’d get all of our un-P.C. jokes out on each other and not put them on the lady travelers. I remember making a rape joke with that group. I made the first one and then I riffed again on it. Then another comic made a joke, and there was really hearty belly laughter. And it felt like there was some “I know of what I speak” cathartic element to it. Whether there was actual “I know of what I speak” or just “I’m so sick of how this is talked about” I don’t know.
I kept joking about, “Imagine if you could do a whole standup comedy routine about rape.” Eventually I said to a couple ladies, “I wonder what to work on next.” And they were like, “Duh, you’re working on it.” I was like “Eww—have I been trying material out on you at the beach?” And they were like, “Yeah.”
I’m almost loath to mention the Daniel Tosh thing that happened, but that solidified the show.
He’s a very acerbic, “envelope-pushing” comic. He said, “Let’s do rape jokes” in a gig and a lady from the audience said, “Rape jokes are never funny.” Who knows what her reason was. And his comeback was, “Wouldn’t it be funny if five guys raped her right now?” It didn’t go over very well. And the responses from the comic community, especially the initial very reactionary male comics, was pretty vile, in a very “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t say” free-speech way. Several of those comics have come around and have a more interesting take on that moment and its fall out.
When I made the title Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It it was a joke on the grammar. But then this really savvy guy I know in Edinburgh was like, “That’s really great, because your name is Adrienne so your show will come up first all the time.”
I love the fact that the development of this show came out of a joke in itself. How did it take shape—did you go to open mics?
I never did open mics. I pictured the whole thing at once. But I had never done standup comedy. At some point I had what I thought was the opening and closing. In Australia I began doing 10-minute cabarets where I came out with no pants on and disrobed layers. I’d come out to the first song and then I’d do a tight bit of comedy. “Anyone here been raped? Anyone raped anyone?” I’d comedically let them know what it was all about and then I’d end with the whistle bit. But it’s changed so much.
In what ways?
The first music was creepier, and I used to do the “A lady walks into a bar” bit in different sections.
Now you tell it all at once, right?
It’s both a terrible and great joke. I was told that joke by a lovely lesbian: A lady walks into a bar, orders a case of Coors Light, and by the end of the night everyone in the bar has fucked her. Then she goes back to the bar the next night and orders a case of Coors Light and everyone fucks her. She goes home and thinks about it. She goes back a week later, and the bartender is like, “I remember you! Case of Coors Light.” And she says, “Better make it a case of Heineken; that Coors Light really hurts my pussy.” It’s offensive and hilarious and works perfectly as a joke.
At a certain point I realized the show has to be light on its feet the whole time, because otherwise it gets weird and heavy. So then I took the Linda Ronstadt song that makes people happy, and then I do the “Lady walks into a bar” joke off mic and the song sweeps back in. That became a real mechanism for the show—to make really craven easy choices of music and volume. The show works best if people laugh and then think about it on the way home. They can’t think about it in the room because then I sacrifice the audience for what I want to say.
I saw your show at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday in January surrounded by festival presenter and industry types, but you were so aware of the inappropriateness of the venue and the time.
It’s not a matinee show for a theatre with 90 seats.
It had such a breakneck pace that there was no time to think, and so the laughs were like, “OMG, I can’t believe she’s doing that!” Then when you were standing on your head with the mic projections on your body, on a technical and conceptual level all the audience can think is, “How is she doing that? How did she think to do that?” How did you think to get those projections on your body?
That was fun; it uses the one-two-three rule of comedy. I knew I wanted to open with George Carlin’s rape bit, which very much comes from a free speech place of “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t say about rape,” which I’m on board with, but it doesn’t mean all rape jokes are funny. It sets up “I’m not saying, ‘Don’t joke about rape.’” I’m not saying it’s not possible to like a comedian without liking all their material. Then I do the Carlin bit with a bunch of different faces on it. Then I thought, How far can I go with this device in terms of the faces and my vagina?
I saw on a news thing that Rick Ross had gotten in all this trouble because he’d joked about putting Molly in someone’s drink, plus it was rap, so it was another sound to Linda Ronstadt’s singsongy vibe. And it introduced race and the different ways that you get in trouble, or don’t get in trouble, about free speech. As a white woman, is it edgier for me to do rape jokes or to project a black man’s face on my pussy?
I don’t remember how the DeNiro thing came up beyond asking myself, “Is there anything else my pussy wants to say before the show is over?” That’s one last trick—it’s not a beard, it’s a mohawk! And I get to do a headstand.
It’s hard to talk about, because the show isn’t saying all rape jokes aren’t funny—it’s not saying you can’t joke about it, because the show itself is joking about rape. It almost becomes a dog that bites its own tail in a really cool way. What have responses been like? Do they change from city to city? Have you had people who haven’t taken it in the right way? What do you feel your responsibility is as an artist?
I remember thinking, If I make this right and work hard and am smart about this, I can pull it off. But if I don’t pull it off then I’m fucked. And I’ll be asking for it from the critics and I reckon they will give it to me in the worst way.
But my only fear before I did it was wondering if a brilliant male heckles me and they are better and funnier. So then I had go-tos…
You had an ancillary script of comebacks?
Right, but because I am kind of an absurdist I only thought of abstract responses.
People say very different things in response. At one of my first showings someone said, “Thank you for doing that show,” and it felt like the person was saying, “I have experienced sexual assault and that was a cathartic way to process it.” In the same evening, there was a friendly Indian man in his 30s and he was like, “Have you done that in schools? In universities?” And I told him I hadn’t done that yet, but I’d like to do it in the comedy world first. Add then he said, “I’m Indian, I’ve been raped—I mean, we’ve all be raped!” And I was like, “Right.”
There is a joke in the show about India. “By all means go out in a miniskirt and makeup but if you do, just be careful because you might be asking to get raped.” And everyone is like, “Eww, that’s gross,” or they laugh heartily. And then I say, “The good news is, just don’t do any of that stuff and you should be fine. Like in India or Iran.” He also said that he liked that joke. He was just so matter-of-fact about it. I realized, “I’m gonna get this after every show.”
A few people have misunderstood moments. One young woman was so angry; I think she was young and didn’t get the layer of satire and was crying a bit. Her mother was with her, and I turned to the mother and said, “What did you think of the show?” She said, “I love and support my daughter, but I thought the show was fucking hilarious, and it’s one of the only ways we can talk about this.” It feels amazing because I’m happy to be challenged. I’ve just had my say onstage; let other people have their say.
I wanted to do material about this topic in a way I could pull off; I didn’t want make a serious piece of theatre for a serious audience, because it wouldn’t have been in as interesting a context. I want to do this in bars. But when I do interviews about it I’m not lighthearted.
The other somewhat consistent thing that happens is a guy will take photos. Sometimes to show off in front of other dudes, like, “Ha ha, my rambunctious self won’t be quieted in this atmosphere!” Other times it happens at the top of the show: I’ll come out and greet everyone and I’ll see the click. It’s 2015; if you’re naked onstage, chances are someone will get a photo of you. I usually find the camera and then point it out and make it a bit in the show. That guy never realizes that he’s walked into a trap he’s created for himself, which is that he doesn’t get to take my vagina home with him without my permission. I keep it really cheery: “There’s always some guy who comes to my rape show and thinks he’s in charge! Now gimme your camera. Wow. That’s a lot of pictures. We’ll talk after!”
I have to address it because if the audience sees it they feel like, “Eww, she’s vulnerable, she’s not in control.”
In Melbourne a guy said, “Just be funny,” and I said, “Well, sir, I’ll do my best. Tell you what: You try to be charming and I’ll try to be funny.”
And then he said something else later and I gave him the, “Oh my goodness, are we still doing this?” The third time—this really came off the top, I said, “I’ve given you two chances to be quiet and you’ve kept going so we can keep doing this if you’ve thought about it as long as I have. Or I can give you this little piece of information: It’s getting a little awkward to be the one guy in the room who keeps heckling the rape lady after she’s asked him to stop. It’s really rich with irony, and it’s giving us some information about who you are.”
The biggest difference in responses depends on context, whether its performed in a theatre or a bar. Theatre-y spaces tend to invite more politically correct people. The more mainstream the venue, and the less the venue pre-curates the crowd, the more fun I get to have. When the audiences are more diverse there’s more at stake with the laughs. I find that room more dangerous and subversive.