Sooooo, last summer a participant asked me if our workshop was a "safe space," and I told her it wasn't. That was probably a lie.
What does it mean, safe space? This is a big messy subject, and chances are I'm going to get stuff wrong and miss stuff, because there's so many nerve endings that this issue touches, and I know I'm not going to touch them all right. Anyway, we'll go in together.
If we choose to define safe space in the most broad terms, as in, A space in which you will not be bullied, harassed or assaulted, then of course, our workshop is a safe space. And in these times, I'm going to venture a guess that most comedy workshops are.
But that's not what my workshop participant was asking. She wanted to know if our workshop was A wink-nudge SAFE SPACE wink-nudge, which probably means something different, something more along the lines of, A place where intolerance is not tolerated.
That is where things get very sticky, because then how do we define intolerance, how do we define not tolerated, and for that matter, how do we define IS... you see where I'm going here.
The truth is, I haven't had to think very much about this question, due to a very excellent screening process that happens almost independently of anything I'm doing. First of all, I'm a female-coded person (as the kids are saying)—so whoever has signed up for my classes already thinks that a female-coded person might be able to teach them something about comedy. That disqualifies a whole buncha douchebags right there.
Second of all, I'm teaching a class called Naked Comedy. People signing up for such a class are both (A) not freaked out by the idea of nakedness; and (2) already very open to being vulnerable.
That seems to be a potent cocktail in terms of getting ideal people to my class. Who knew? It doesn't appear to be a particularly elaborate screening process, and yet, my classes are full of really awesome people, like, almost without exception— awesome after awesome after awesome. That's just who signs up. Just because of my gender and my class's name.
So what I'm saying is, you can ask me if my class is a safe space, and I can squirm at that idea and get all rabble-rousin' and Del-Closey and bray out, Naw, man, this shit ain't SAFE! We're all punk rock and Not-Safe-Spacey round THESE parts!
But I'm full of it.
I'm playing with a majorly stacked deck (and you should see the stack on this deck! jk).
But, see, there are plenty of other comedy classes. Those classes are called "Generic-Sounding Comedy Training" with teachers' names like CHET and CHAD and CHEVERETT. Those classes might not have the same self-selection in their signups. Are those classes safe spaces? Should they be?
I'm going to venture a guess that, in times like these, most comedy classes are going to strive to have some safety in them. Comedy schools are no doubt doing everything they can to define safe space as Not Inviting Lawsuits.
A variety of people sign up for "Generic-Sounding Comedy Training." Some on the woke-r side, some maybe less so. But the comedy world is generally, as we all know, full of liberals (ed. note: I'm using the Amurkin definition of liberal here, which is synonymous with leftie. But it is fun for us to remember, Amurkins, that liberal elsewhere in the English-speaking world actually means conservative. Whooda thunk?) So while there might be a few non-liberals in our comedy classes, no doubt they will smell the leftie-leaning odors in the room and keep their dumber instincts to themselves. Mostly. Maybe.
Everyone is coming into their comedy class carrying varying amounts of privilege and garbage, both. And how do we create an environment that checks our privilege and garbage, that doesn't perpetuate the same-old same-ol? How do we create the space in which it feels like the master's tools are available to everyone?
I wonder sometimes about the safe spaces that are safe in some ways and unintentionally problematic in others. Comedy is still largely a rich man's game—it's changing, but there it is. Most of the "comedy authorities" out there are, at this point, still privileged men. Do these men know how to cultivate the funny of those different from they? Some do, right? But some...? You've been in those classes, right? Where it felt like the alpha white dudes were the only ones the teacher really "got," because he himself was an alpha white dude, and so, while he really wanted to support, he just didn't have enough of the master's tools to loan out.... And so we all paid our money and did our time, and nodded our thanks, and left the class saying, "Yeah, it was ohhh-kay..." But we felt like we were watching somebody else get to use the fancy hacksaw. And that feels unfortunately familiar.
It's not that the space wasn't safe. It was safe. Nobody got harassed, nobody got abused. But still. It wasn't enough.
Should your comedy class be a safe space? Obviously.
Should your comedy class be a wink-nudge safe space? Yes and no.
Yes, your comedy class's infrastructure and facilitation should be making every effort to privilege the voices of the less-privileged in a way that doesn't single anyone out or make anyone feel weird. That is a mighty difficult balance to strike, but it's a priority. Affirmative action is necessary for our comedic evolution. We need different voices, desperately, right now. If your class can only cultivate the comedy of the privileged, then it might be a Don't-Sue-Me safe space, but it's not a Ultra-Mega-Major-Fluffy-Kitten safe space. And maybe, we're all at a point where Ultra Mega Major Fluffy Kittens are mandatory.
But no, your comedy class should probably not keep you safe from the potential ignorance or unconscious violence of other participants in the class, provided nobody's doing anything on purpose to be an asshole. Our comedy classes are an ideal battleground to meet those monsters. If you feel challenged by somebody else's comedy in a comedy class—whether they're being misogynist, racist, phobic or just dumb—it's an opportunity. And your class environment should provide for and welcome those opportunities. That's why the right facilitator is so important: making sure that the space is held in a way that allows us to all try out and test and fail and explore and confront and see.
Our comedy deserves a cozy environment in which to breed and grow. It is our armor, our great weapon against all the little psychological blows in life, and it can get bigger and tougher the more we use it. It's time to use it. We have the scimitars of resistance, the martial arts of mischief. It is the time to kick comedy ass and wipe the floor with somebody else's ignorance or unconscious violence. That's the only way any of us will truly be safe.
We are here for the soft battle, and we are ready.