The Language of Comedy: On Defensiveness and Being Wrong

I know people say that words don’t mean anything and that we ’empower’ them by being hurt by them. Especially comedians. I hear “no topic is off limits” all the time. Everything/everyone is game. And while I believe that’s true for many performers and obviously a part of what stand-up has been and still is for some, I don’t agree with this philosophy. Words can be powerful, especially hateful ones. Transphobic, homophobic, racist, misogynist, sexist words can and do hurt people. The painful origin of these words does not come from the fault of the one hurt by them, but from the history surrounding them. Each of us carry different experiences with these words, some painful, some not, or maybe no experiences at all and these things affect how we receive them.

Once I performed comedy at a liberal arts college and stayed after the show to participate in a Q&A with the students in attendance. A student asked me what it was like to be a female comedian. This lead into a long discussion, but in particular I brought up some comments I often heard from audience members and other comedians that really pissed me off. One was when I have been told by people they like my style because I’m “not a girly girl.” This terminology really bothers me, which I explained by sarcastically commenting, “I’m a girl, how much girlier do I need to be for you to recognize I’m a girl. I have a vagina, how much more feminine does my vagina need to be for you to consider me a woman?” I considered this an off-hand comment at the time that came out of a sarcastic rant. The students laughed and I was sort of proud of myself. I really felt as though I had made a poignant statement that made people think about misogyny and the language of gender.

Afterward some students approached me to give me praise and accolades about my stand-up performance, which was obviously awesome for me. Then, after uncomfortably waiting in my line of appraisal for some time, one student approached me, shook my hand and said, “I thought you were funny, but what you said about women and vaginas was really FUCKED UP.” I was taken aback by this at the time. They continued, “As a trans person, that really hurt me because that is not how gender is defined for me. Some women have penises and some men have vaginas. You should think about the language you use before you hurt people.” This was extremely awkward for me at the time. Inside I was REELING. I felt my defenses going up as angry retorts filled my brain, but I thanked them for their feedback and apologized if what I said was misinformed and hurtful. They seemed to appreciate my response and thanked me for otherwise making them laugh and left. Other students apologized and seemed embarrassed for this student’s behavior. They continued to praise my performance and my comments in the Q&A. It didn’t make me feel better.

On the drive back home, I was angry. Why did this person have to yell at me?! I didn’t mean any harm!! I thought I was making a good point about sexist language! Why can’t I make that point?! And why does some white teenager get to yell at ME about sensitivity?! I thought all these things aloud to my friends. Then when I got home, I REALLY thought about it. What was I SO mad about? Why did I think they were rude for sticking up for themselves? Then I realized, I wasn’t mad at them, I was mad at myself. I was embarrassed for being called out for not knowing something. I was being so egotistical about the breaking up of a series of compliments with a moment of criticism that I was projecting all my insecurities on this person at once. They were younger than me, so I was angry about being schooled by a younger person. It’s a huge fear of mine as I age that I am slowly becoming inconsequential and out of the cultural loop, so to have a much younger person tell me I didn’t understand something, it made me feel old. Also, I like to pride myself on being totally open and educated on transgender issues. It was embarrassing to know not only was I wrong, but I unknowingly contradicted everything I want to stand for in a public space and with ZERO awareness. That’s really embarrassing. Most terrible, I hurt someone. Someone who came to a comedy show to laugh and forget their troubles, and instead I made them feel bullied and marginalized. I don’t want to think I’m a bad person and those are the kind of things I do with my comedy, but that’s exactly what I did. Thus, the defenses.

As a QPOC, I’ve experienced a lot of terrible shit in my life. In this moment, I compared those struggles to that person. And why? What does that accomplish? Most importantly in my defensive tirade of personal excuses I failed to recognize the most important issue… I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE TRANSGENDER. Yet, here I was, thinking I knew more than a transgender person about what language is appropriate for them and what they should or should not be offended by. Why did I think I would know more than they did??? The answer is I don’t know. I don’t know anything about this… and that scared me. I don’t want to be ignorant of something. Being confronted about my ignorance was humiliating, but worse off, I made the whole thing about me. How they made ME feel by confronting ME like that. How shitty I felt in that moment when it should have been about them and how I made a whole room of their peers laugh at their struggles and then feel obligated to apologize for their choice to bring it up. This is fucking terrible. This is not what I want my comedy to be and this is not the kind of person I want people to think I am.

LANGUAGE MATTERS. In the same way a racial slur brings back a SLEW of painful memories for me and a reminder of the entire history of those words and what they have meant to people and how they have been used to hurt people. I was wrong and it’s important to accept when you’re wrong. No matter how stupid, old, embarrassed, and ignorant it makes you feel. Why do people fight so hard against progression and change? Whatever pronoun a person prefers other people to use to address them, why not do it? After all, we are talking about WHO THEY ARE. Why should we not respect who people are? It’s like someone REFUSING to pronounce my name correctly after being corrected. “I know I said ALISHA and your name is really pronounced A-LEE-SEA-AH, but your actual name is hard to pronounce and hard to remember. I want to call you Alisha because it’s easier for me.” It’s ELICIA. AH – LEE – SEA – AH. And when you call me by any other name, you’re not really talking to me. So why not just respect people for who they are, respect that they know what is best for them, they know what they have experienced in their own lives and that they deserve to feel happy and safe just as much as you do? The suffering of others is not worth your brief moment of convincing yourself you’re right, especially since you are only lying to yourself in the long run.

As a comedian it’s upsetting to be told you aren’t funny. More so, it’s upsetting to know that someone came to your show and not only didn’t laugh, but felt attacked. Some comics would say you shouldn’t kowtow to those that are overly “sensitive” and want everything to be “PC.” We need freedom to explore our craft. There is no way we can please everyone. All of this, I understand, but at the same time, I can’t expect I don’t have to take responsibility for the things I say. I made that comment and it made half of the room laugh, but one person felt gutted. Not just offended. GUTTED. Harassed. Laughed at. Mocked. How could that possibly be worth it? And how do I know how many more people were hurt by that comment and maybe didn’t say anything? I know I can’t please everyone and I know FOR SURE I am not funny to everyone that sees me perform, but what I can say for sure is my goal is to TRY to be. I want you in the best case scenario to leave my show feeling happy. I want to help you forget your troubles and laugh at mine. The last thing I want is to create them for you. If I do that, I have FAILED at my job and that is ANYTHING but funny.

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El Sanchez

Elicia Sanchez is a stand-up comedian, a comic book reader and practically an adult. She has performed at the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival, the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, the All Jane No Dick Festival and is a regular opener for comedian Hari Kondabolu. She produces three monthly Seattle comedy shows (Wine Shots: Comedy's Happiest Hour, The Enematic Cinematic: LIVES and The Good Fun Show) as well as hosts a podcast about terrible movies titled, The Enematic Cinematic. She also happens to be the lead singer of Seattle’s premiere Michael Bolton cover band, Lightning Bolton. Elicia currently resides in Seattle, WA where when not performing, she splits her time between panic attacks on the bus, watching creepy forensic crime shows and dusting her action figures.

El has written 5 articles for us.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I also often find myself apologizing when I call my friends and loved ones out on transphobic/cissexist language, when I shouldn’t have to feel sorry for it.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I feel like I’ve undergone a similar thought process about a million times. It’s difficult and it’s uncomfortable. But so important.

  3. Thank you so much for this. I appreciate the power and flexibility that it takes to step back from an event like this and learn, as opposed to digging in deeper defensively. It’s hard to do, and while I say I love any learning experience, I can say that well after the “oh god oh god did I fuck that up” stage is over. :)

  4. This was a wonderful essay, thank you. Way, way too often narrow-mindedness gets wrapped up in supposedly outrageous humor (and hipster irony) as a method of deflecting any possible critique of it. As though just because someone intended it to be funny it can’t possibly be perpetuating oppression and ignorance or be mean-spirited. It’s also important to acknowledge how so much of our national model of what’s considered funny (especially in standup) revolves about being an unapologetic smug anti-‘pc’ a-hole which is deeply rooted in the patriarchy. There are many ways to be funny and outrageous without taking that cheap short-cut. Big props to you!

  5. If only all comedians/humans responded by thoughtfully considering others’ feelings and where their defensiveness comes from when they’re called out. Elicia Sanchez: funny person, beautiful empath, lady hero ❤

  6. Some spanish stand-up comedians should really read this article. Some of them don’t care at all about the language or how many people they’re hurting by what they’re saying. You can be funny without being a misogynistic prick, or racist or transphobic or homophobic, etc.

    • Yeah… I totally agree with you. I think the thing gets more cultural rooted in spanish speakers countries… Like, reading AS I’ve learned A LOT about issues that are not even being discussed where I live, so the general ignorance IMO is what causes some really annoying, a-holish, bad comedy down here. Or is at least one of the main reasons.

      • You are so right! Ignorance is key to each and every problem our culture is facing right now.

        And just as you say, since I found AS I’ve also learned so much about many things, and it’s helped me know myself better than I used to, and know LGBTQ community better too.

        Many times I find myself using english words for some topics because I don’t know how to express myself and what I’m trying to say in Spanish, since I have no idea if there is a word for it in Spanish. Language is necessary for visibility, and I feel like in Spanish culture there is a lack of words and terms to refer to many things related to our community.

  7. What an awesome article.  I’ve often felt appalled at the cheap excuse of “everything’s up for grabs” that’s so bandied about in comedy.  It inherently assumes that nothing in the world matters more than getting a cheap laugh (even as many things quite obviously do).  I love to hear that some comedy performers actually care.

    Even being trans myself, I’ve made the genitalia-linking mistake, to my great shame… in anger rather than humour but still the same thing… it hurt my friends when I retold it to get all the bad feelings out of being beaten up… with the emotion behind the situation, I hadn’t noticed the mistake I’d made.  But it rightly shamed me and my best friends are the ones who will call me out on my bullshit, same as I would on theirs.  Don’t feel too bad, everyone does stupid things like this.  It’s where you go from there that really shows your character.  :)

  8. People need to learn this shit and love it:”Why do people fight so hard against progression and change? Whatever pronoun a person prefers other people to use to address them, why not do it? After all, we are talking about WHO THEY ARE.” I can’t STAND people who complain about having to be “PC”. “Sorry for not being politically correct enough for you” = always sounds like I’m not sorry for being a bigoted asshole. Because that’s what “anti-political correctness” people are. They’re assholes who want to continue marginalizing whichever oppressed group is ALREADY the target of insults and witless, insensitive jokes. It’s as simple as “checking your biases” and “avoiding derogatory and hateful speech”. I’m not sure why people find the idea of being conscientious and affirming to marginalized human beings wrong, but they need to check themselves.

  9. Bless this post. As I’ve heard other comedians explain it, it’s about punching UP, not punching down. One of the beautiful things about this post is that it unearths the core feelings of discomfort on the side of the comedian/”puncher,” and I hope others can use it to truly examine their own feelings instead of just staying in a defensive space w/ zero room for questions. <3

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  11. Great essay, and I’m bookmarking it to show the next person whanging on about “censorship” and comedy to shut them the heck up.

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