Hi. I’m Maeve Mardsen and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQIA storytelling night I host and programme in Sydney and Melbourne. This story was recorded at Giant Dwarf, as part of my monthly Sydney event. Next up – Zoe Coombs Marr is a performer, writer, artist, and comedian. She grew up in Grafton, where she and her best friend staged a musical instead of going to Schoolies Week, so she’s a woman after my own heart. Zoe has performed all over Australia, the UK, and in New York.
Her solo show, Trigger Warning, won the 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Barry Award, as well as the Golden Gibbo, and two Green Room Awards. It was also nominated for best show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and the 2017 Victoria and Premier’s Literary Award for Drama. You can see her in the theatrical masterpiece that is Wild Bore, and she’s also touring her new show, Bossy Bottom at the moment. With a title like that, it sounds like a love of musical theatre isn’t all we have in common.
Last month I got recognised at the dentist. We were midway through the clean and the dentist has his hands in my mouth, and he suddenly went, “Oh! Are you a comedian?” This is unusual because I rarely get recognised, and never get recognised by someone with their hands in my mouth. I said, “Yeah, I am.” But my parents actually tell people I’m a dentist.
Then I laughed, and laughed, and laughed because I was pretty high on gas.
Now, my parents do tell people that I’m a dentist, and this is mainly because they think it’s funny, but also because it was their genuine advice for me to have a back-up. It was either dentistry or welding. This was advice that I did not take. Now, everyone gets career advice from their parents, but because I’m a comedian and not a dentist, now the advice is about jokes that I should use. It’s just an endless stream of, “You should use that. You should use that, Zoe. Put that it one of your shows. You should put that on stage. That’s quite funny.”
It’s not. It never is.
*Imitates strong Australian accent in a higher pitch* “There is comedy here. There is comedy here. Oh, yes. There’s comedy here!” That’s actually how my mum sounds. She’s sort of a bit like the magpie from Blinky Bill.
“You should use that, Zoe. You should use that!”
“No, Mrs Magpie, there is not. There is no comedy here.”
But, sometimes when they say, “You should use that,” I imagine actually using it, and it’s a literal nightmare. So, that’s what I’m going to do right now.
So, guys, over Christmas, Molly, the youngest… So, it was quite hot, right? And, um, Molly goes, “Does anyone want an ice cream?” And, I didn’t because I’ve recently gone vegan, but that’s another story. But, um, Dad says, “Oh, I’ll have one,” and Molly says, “Do you want the waffle cone or do you want the other cone?” And… you guys are going to love this. And, Molly goes, “Okay. Waffle cone. Dad wants the waffle cone.” I don’t know if she said that, but, “Dad wants the waffle cone.” And then, Molly’s in the kitchen. She gets out the packet, pulls out the waffle cone, and she goes, “Oh, they’re a bit soft.” And…
Dad goes, “Nah, it’ll be right.” Then, Molly… So, then Molly goes, “Are you sure?” We all look over at Molly. So, Molly’s in… So, the kitchen’s here…
We’re outside. We look over. Molly’s there, she gets the waffle cone, holds it up. All look at Molly, and she just unravels the whole thing, like just comes apart, it’s so soft. Then, um, so it’s so funny. I’m so glad I’m using it.
Dad then says… Sees the waffle cone, and he goes… Wait for it… He goes, “Oh, better have the other one.”
*Audience laughs loudly*
I know! Fuckin’ comedy gold.
And, so, I was doing this essentially for my dad. Well, my whole family, but I was kind of going, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’ll use that. I’ll put that on stage,” and look, I did. Yeah, I’ll use it. But I was making fun of him. He was like, “Oh, all right. Okay. You know best. *Chuckles* But, you know, in all seriousness, you know what you should use? The nativity.” I said, “No, I’m not going to use that.”
Anyway, there was a time when I did think that my dad was a comic genius. On my first day of school, for instance, an older kid looked me in the eye and said, “Kindergarten baby, stick your head in gravy.” Now, this was only the beginning of a stream of much worse bullying to come, but as it was the first time, I was crushed. I was inconsolable. At home time, I recounted the story to my parents. I was kind of going…
*Imitates panting, upset child* “She… called… me… a… kin…der…”
You get the idea. Eventually, I got to, “Gravy!” And Dad looked at me, blinked, and then started to laugh. He said, “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” He did have a point. It is pretty dumb. He repeated it and I started to laugh too, and then we ended up singing it together and laughing, and laughing, and laughing. Look, it’s not hilarious, I’m not going to write it into my next hour of comedy, but it did work. The spell was broken, the child was happy. Peace was restored, and I was set up for a lifetime of bullying. This was the first time that I had seen that special alchemy that laughter can have over a bleak situation. I saw its power, and I little voice inside of me said, “You should use that.”
And I have ever since. Now, I’m not sure if Dad knew exactly how much I would need that particular superpower, but, oh, my God, I did. I was a weird lesbian child with comedy arms, which is this.
Comedy arms and a boy’s haircut in a rural town, and I stuck out like a fuckin’ sore thumb, which I also frequently had, due to my childhood hobby of carpentry. True to stereotype, this little dyke wasn’t just in the closet, she was installing shelves in there.
*Audience laughs and applauds*
Used to sell stuff at the markets and everything. Now, when I came out I was about 16, and my folks were great. My dad took a little bit longer than my mom to come around to it. He just thought that I was too young. He didn’t want most to lock anything in. He didn’t want me signing any paperwork too early; my membership to Club Lez. And he said – I’ll never forget it – He said, “Oh, look, Zoe, we love you. You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner.” You don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. I found that really upsetting, you know?
I had to sort of say to him, “Dad, I just told you I am a lesbian. As if I would fuck up a home improvement project!”
Jesus. It’s offensive. Now, that’s obviously a joke. And the first time I talked about being gay on stage was also a joke about my dad, and it goes, “I was so nervous coming out. My dad’s a beekeeper, so when I told him, I came out in hives.”
*Audience laughs and groans*
It’s terrible but it went fine. Afterwards, an older comic who did a lot of gear about how his wife wouldn’t fuck him, and, “Where’s the clitoris?!”
Two jokes, which I think are connected.
*Audience laughs louder*
He said to me, “You should do more of that; that lesbian stuff. That’s good stuff. You should use that.” And, as he kind of licked his lips and winked at me, I knew it was less, “That’s good comedy material. I respect you as a colleague,” and more, “Oh, yeah. Lesbians, I love lesbians. I’ve got some of your videos.” But, as a result, creeped out, and ever the contrarian, I did not use that stuff again for years.
But, I didn’t take away nothing from guys like him. After years of performing alongside what seemed, to me, to be the same guy… You all look the same to me.
*Audience applauds and whoops*
Same guy doing the same act. I started just doing the same thing as them; just performing as a man, in costume, but on the same stages as them. An amalgam of all the worst sexist, hack, lip-licking stand-up comedians and that was Dave.
You know what? Once I became a man onstage, it did wonders for my career. People fuckin’ loved it. Well, some people. Now, usually I would do this in the very hostile environments of comedy clubs for bucks nights and the like, but last year I was in London and I was performing, as I sometimes do, in a queer club. This was part of a drag king night. I was doing a joke bemoaning the “Major flaw in the female anatomy,” I.e., the clitoris, which is impossible to find. Classic gear. I was just up to the bit about how women are such bitches for being so deceptive with their genitals when two women started to heckle me, yelling, “There’s nothing wrong with women’s bodies!”
Now, I’m used to heckling, I’m a comedian, but this kind of came as a bit of a surprise. It was quite special because it’s quite hard to find a comeback to a heckle that’s essentially an aggressive statement of exactly what your point is.
Because, obviously, not only were we in a queer club in a drag king night, but I was also, as I am now, in a woman’s body. So I broke character to point this out, and explain that what I was saying was not what I meant but in fact the opposite. But this literal explanation of irony – how ironic in itself, really – didn’t quite get across, and I was again met with, “There’s nothing wrong with women’s bodies!” To which I said, “Yes, there is! They’re disgusting!”
Now, obviously that is a joke, but they did walk out, and as they were leaving, I yelled, “I made this for you!”
The comedian part of me was fine but the queer woman bit was kind of upset. It felt like I was watching them cut off their own life rafts because, for me, comedy has always been a refuge. Not that my comedy needs to be their refuge – it’s clearly not and that’s fine – but, there’s an especially pungent irony in a queer female comedian being heckled by queer female audience members for satirising a sexist male comedian in a performance space designed to be safe for queer women.
I mean, don’t think about it too much. It seems that everyone has an opinion on what you say, what you should say, what you should use, what you shouldn’t. Lots of those opinions are valid, but you know what they say about opinions: They’re like arseholes, you can make a lot of money putting yours on the internet.
I’m not quite sure what mine is. Anyway, then I was in the car with Dad over Christmas. He was banging on again about the nativity. He’s going, “Virgin Birth! There’s your opener. Bloody how did that happen, aye? That’s just for openers. And Bethlehem, don’t get me started with Bethlehem!” And, he’s doing this while sort of doing that Dad thing of being intermittently sidetracked by local landmarks and their backstories.
*Next paragraph: Zoe speaks fast, words rolling into one another*
He’s going,” Oh, Bethlehem! Don’t get me started on… He wasn’t born in Bethlehem. He’s only said to have been born in Bethlehem because that’s the City of David. You see that house? That used to be quite a pretty house, but it’s changed ownership. It’s all fucked up now. I think it’s heroin, it’s become quite a problem in the community. But, Bethlehem, the City of David, “Where we will say he was born?” “Oh, how about Bethlehem?” Because the Roman Catholic Church… Well, see that hotel, Tropical Towers? Now, I knew a bloke, I was working with a bloke, Bill – not the Bill that you know – Bill Johnson. Bill. Bill got me to do some work. Called me up, “Peter, can you do some work for me? I’m in a bit of a pickle. Can’t get down here. Can you do it for me in the afternoon?” And I said… He said, “It’s just a minor job. It’s just a minor job.” I said, “It’s not a minor…” I got down there. It was not a minor job. It was a bloody major job. Completely fucked me. I found out later, the reason he couldn’t be there was because he’s been bonking some Sheila up in bloody Tropical Towers. I never spoke to him again. He’s a bloody grub. What are you writing?”
And I just said, “I wrote down, “Bill – not the Bill you know – Bill Johnson.” And he said, “You can’t use his real name!”
And I really shouldn’t, but since when have I listened to anyone else about what I should use? Thanks.