conversation, criticism, interview

laura davis: on comedy, personal attacks, reviews and misogyny

I write so much about the beautiful, positive aspects of critical culture but last week I was at a friend’s house and Laura Davis, award-winning comedian, bonsai grower and all-round fantastic lady, started speaking about how she experiences criticism in the comedy industry. What she said was so compelling that less than a week later I was sitting opposite her with a microphone. This isn’t about the joys of critical culture.This is a different story. And it is important. It is about what it is like to be a solo performer in an incredibly brutal industry. I wish I could convey her tone of voice, which was so blasé as she spoke of rape threats and reviews rife with misogyny. She just gets it done. She makes comedy. And she is fucking good at it.

Laura’s most recent show, Ghost Machine, recently won Best Independent Show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) and is returning to the Butterfly Club for a brief season June 2nd to June 7th. If you are in Melbourne, go and see her work. She is a fierce and hilarious storyteller. I’m so happy to bring you this interview.


GHOST MACHINE, photo: Esther Longhurst

FLEUR: In the early days of your career, how did you cope with the opinions of others?

LAURA: I realised what I was walking towards. I won the Raw Comedy competition in Perth and was being sent to the national finals here in Melbourne. It is a huge part of the industry and yet it is a very small thing. Essentially it is just people trying five minute sets, doing their first, second, third gigs and being judged on that. I won and there was just a tiny little news article online announcing it. Friends started saying, “Don’t google yourself. Don’t look anything up online. Don’t type your name in.” And I was like “Why? Why not?” “Just don’t.”

So I didn’t. I didn’t until I got back form the national finals but when I got back it just felt a little bit unfair that everybody had been reading these things and I was not involved. So I googled it. And about half an hour later I vomited.

It was probably people that I knew, people in the industry and friends of people who didn’t win. It is a very small community in Perth and it was just a very long thread of hate speech: very misogynistic disgusting opinions on my body, some threats, “I hope someone rapes her so she learns a lesson” and stuff like that.

I’d just turned twenty. By the time I did the Raw final it was my fifth gig. That has – It has never happened when a man has won that competition. That scrutiny was because a woman had won. People didn’t like that. And, you know, if they didn’t like me that is totally allowed but I remember at that particular point going “Ah. This is going to be personal forever.”

I speak with my voice. With my face. That’s what I like about the art form but, at the same time, any criticism is very targeted and very personal.

FLEUR: Yes. I feel like the difference between theatre criticism and comedy criticism is that if someone doesn’t like your show in theatre, they don’t like your show. If someone doesn’t like your show in comedy, they don’t like you. As a human being.

LAURA: Yep. As a person walking around in the world. As the product of your parents.


PILLOW OF STRENGTH, photo: Stevie Cruz Martin Photography

FLEUR: How did that early experience inform how you went forward?

LAURA: I think it was good in a lot of ways. It just felt… It was a shallow lesson to learn. It wasn’t cutting or brutal. I remember it did hurt and it did make me feel sick that people had been so preoccupied with me. But in your first shows, you get reviewed and you still don’t really know what you are doing and they are very personal criticisms. I think I just got to learn fast that it really doesn’t matter. It is one person’s opinion.

I remember doing my first solo show and being nervous about getting the reviewers in and then going “Oh. It’s just one guy.” Like, they sit in the front row and it is just one man. And if we hung out, I might not like him either.

This year I told the reviewers “no” a whole bunch. All the other years I’ve always gone “Everybody! Everybody come! Of course, please review for your blog!” I’ve had a few negative experiences of that. One said, “With her brightly coloured poster and high-pitched voice you would expect Laura to be this and she’s not.” I can’t help what my voice sounds like. It’s just my voice. I’m not comping them to come and write what they think I should talk about.

FLEUR: To me, a lot of what criticism is about is having this documentation of your work and audience and engaging in this critical dialogue. I feel like you don’t trust them to have a dialogue that you have an interest in participating in.

LAURA: There is a comedy reviewer, Steve Bennett. When he comes to review my shows, I’m interested in his opinions because he reviews all the shows in Edinburgh and all the shows in Melbourne. He is one of the only people in the industry that actually reviews comedy. I know he has seen my previous work and I know that he has seen everybody else’s work in the country and the UK so I’m interested in what he thinks of it. If what you’re trying to make isn’t translating and you get reviews that are all confused than it is fair enough to doubt yourself.

FLEUR: What don’t you want to see in a review?

LAURA: Please don’t mention anything that I can’t help. Please don’t mention that I’m young unless you have a point as to why that relates to anything. Don’t mention that I’m female: my name is a girl’s name so people will be able to infer that themselves. Don’t mention what I’m wearing. Don’t refer to me by my hair colour! “The brunette enters the stage!” Don’t refer to any woman by their hair colour!

Don’t critique the venue. I didn’t mind people mentioning it for Ghost Machine because it was part of the show and added a lot to the experience but if it is just in a little theatre, just know that the comedian is paying a ridiculous amount of money to hire that space. There were 580 shows in MICF this year and that’s how many venues we need to find. You get what you get.

Don’t just compare them to other comedians that you like or don’t like. Don’t go “Oh she was good but she was not like this one that I really like!” That’s fucking useless. Don’t give away my punch lines. Don’t butcher them if you do.

Don’t make assumptions. Last year’s show was a personal story about an abusive relationship but don’t write extrapolations on my character based on that: “Laura must be this now because she was this.” “Because of her nature as this, Laura was in this relationship.”


LOOK OUT, IT’S A TRAP!, photo: Stevie Cruz Martin Photography

The Age this year gave me 4 stars, which was nice but there were big gaps in her attention. In the review I could tell that she was not listening for parts of it. There’s one part where I’m drinking from a large bottle of ‘wine’ but it is water and I say that. I say, “This is water, by the way. I can’t drink any alcohol. It makes me too introspective.” In her review she writes “Laura stands there shrieking and swigging from a bottle of cheap wine” and you’re like “No. No. I relationally explained exactly what was happening and, whilst I’m loud, I’m not hysterical.” She wouldn’t participate. There are a lot of audience questions in that show. They are not mean and they are not intrusive but they are part of the show. I had asked several people around her and I turned to her and asked “How about you?” And she goes “Oh no!” and points to her notepad. So you can’t participate in the show that you’re reviewing?

FLEUR: You can’t be a part of this thing when the whole experience is being a part of it?

LAURA: Yeah. That really frustrated me. To have her ignoring the show because she was focusing on writing the review.

FLEUR: Going back to that incident after the Raw Comedy. I just think it is fucking gutsy to read all of that and just go “well, this is what my industry is” and keep going. I can’t imagine enduring that at such a young age.

LAURA: I wanted to do stand up so badly. It just felt unfair to go “Well these people think this so therefore I can’t do what I want to do.”

The industry is brutally personal so you just have to learn to deal with it. It has only been seven and a half years that I’ve been performing. These days there aren’t a lot of social consequences that you can deter me with. I’ve had a room of 2,500 people hate me when I know that I have to perform for fifteen minutes to get paid and I’m only at five. You just have to accept that 2,500 people don’t like you today. They don’t like you and you’re not sure why but you’ll work it out later.

It is the same with reviews. If you tweet at me and say something nasty and then ask me out, I can make a pretty good guess about what you’re like as a person and whether or not I value your opinion. If you are too uptight to participate in my show when I ask you a question, I’ll factor that in when I read the review. That feels like the best way to do it: factor in someone’s personality. If you have an old creepy man who wants to ask you out in a review, factor that in when you read his criticism saying that you were short, shrill and frumpy but he would still like to bang you. And if a woman is screaming at all the venue staff that she is menopausal and then writes that you are too young, it is probably because she is menopausal and she hates the fact that you are “too young”.

The only joke I had for that was that if I’m too young she should come back and see it again because I’ll be older then. She’ll like it more and more every night by a fraction.

conversation, intimate portraits, Sex

on the challenge of bisexual identity, reconciling one’s own masculinity, grindr racism and off soy chips

Another anonymous conversation

The Setting

– Describe where we are.

– We are in a park. There’s – like – surprisingly lovely green grass. There’s a plane flying overhead. This is an audio recording, I didn’t need to say that. Oh wait, it’s getting transcribed.

There’s one of those weird early 90s playgrounds that’s entirely vivid McDonalds-coloured plastic and it’s kind of amazing. I’m kind of really into that aesthetic. There’s also this weird sketch old dude with a really fat shih tzu. Me and Fleur have just had a long conversation about whether we’d be able to run from him and we’re pretty sure that we could.

There’s also one of those coin-operated barbeques, which hold an incredibly fond place in my immigrant heart. We honestly couldn’t believe when we moved to Australia that there were coin-operated barbeques. That’s fucking amazing. That’s the most Australian thing. Like, how are you meant to deal with that? That’s insane.

Yeah. And that’s where we are.

By Sarah Walker

By Sarah Walker, as usual

Men kissing men

– Tell me about kissing men in public.

– Ha! God dammit, Fleur! Um… I mean I guess you would just dive straight in with that.

– Yeah.

– Look, I guess I have an anecdote: My boyfriend moved continents this week. It’s weird when you find yourself as a bi-sexual man, who has kissed girlfriends goodbye at the airport, getting anxious about how you grieving a partner leaving is going to play out in the public sphere. Yeah…

It was a pretty grim day. I mean, I cried a bunch but I was pretty okay by the time I got to the airport. We were hanging around waiting for the gate to open and then it opens and suddenly he’s not okay. And he just looks at me, hugs me and says, “Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself,” and then bursts out with tears hugging me in this airport.

I was wearing this t-shirt that said “Thieves in the Night” and the security guard had already told me off and there were these two random, rat-tailed bogans who thought it would be appropriate to tell me off for it as well. And they were sitting just there and here I am, getting hugged by this crying man. He pulls back and he kisses me.

There’s something about kissing men in public that just is completely transcendentally affirming. Like, you know that you’re absolutely not meant to and going through the back of your mind you’ve simultaneously got these images of people getting bashed post-Pride but, at the same time, thanks to your Wikipedia addiction, you’ve also got the Bash Back! slogan going through your head. It’s this weird place where you’re so ready for it and you’re also so ready for what will happen when it ends and when nothing happens it just… Yeah. It’s something else.

And I guess that’s my anecdote. It’s feeling anxious about kissing my boyfriend at the airport while wearing an inappropriate t-shirt with a bunch of scary, rat-taily people watching, and it being totally okay.

– Do you remember the first time you kissed a guy in public?

– Oh my God! I’m not sure that I do! Wait! No, no, no, no, no! Oh! Wait! Ahhhh… Yes! I do! I do! It was the only New Years party I’ve ever thrown. It was 2009. There was this friend who I’d been crushing on as a teenager who I’d kind of forgotten about but he turned up. And we kind of did that thing where eighteen-year-old heavy-scare-quote “straight boys” do where we joke kissed.

He tasted like cigarettes and Jack Daniels and it was the most surprisingly erotic mix. God help me: if you smoke a pack-a-day and drink whiskey, I’m there for that! And it’s bizarre because it wasn’t meant to mean anything but it was really nice, actually.

– So at that point, you’re still thinking of yourself as straight? Was that the bizarre part?

– No!

I’m bisexual. Oh and I’ve always known that I liked guys and girls and I’m reluctant to tell stories about my sexuality to start with because I think that is a narrative that straight people expect of us and want to hear. I think that they want us to be like “no! No, I am so sure of myself!” because it re-affirms that their heterosexuality is sure and set in stone in the way that our society says that it should be.

Look, I found myself attracted to men first, then I found myself attracted to women but this was all in my very early teens. But for a long time I really just hated men. A lot. Most of my early romantic longings were for women but most of my early sexual longings were for men. I mean, look: men are bastards. Don’t get me wrong. We are.

I think at that point I thought of myself as “Straight Plus.” It was this thing where I was like “loooooook: more than likely gonna end up in a relationship with a woman because girls are just wow. But guys are stupidly attractive.”

– I know, right!

By Sarah Walker, as usual

By Sarah Walker, as usual

The challenge 

I’m really interested by that idea of straight people wanting a queer narrative to be a particular way.

– Yeah, it wasn’t something I really thought of until I read Shiri Eisner’s book, Notes on the Bisexual Revolution. Shiri Eisner is a fantastic, gender queer, bisexual, badass, Israeli author. She talks about it a lot in the context of transgender people’s narratives and, talking about how men especially want you to tell them that their gender is stable. She goes on to talk about it in the context of bisexuality, which is obviously how it most pertinently relates to me.

But I mean, it is challenging! Straight people are challenged by this because this is stuff that’s contentious in the light of how we frame this hegemonic straightness in our society. “Yeah, no, no, no, you have to be one thing.” It’s not how it works. At all, actually.

I think fluidity of sexuality is a kind of dangerous concept sometimes. My sexuality isn’t really that fluid at all. It’s been the same for a while. But, at the same time, it kind of is. I feel like a lot of these terms are designed to destabilise bisexual identity – Anyway! I don’t know where I was going with that but yeah.

– That sounded like a good sentence that you just threw away at the end there.

– I’m sorry.

– That’s fine!

Reconciling by disowning

I was thinking about what you were saying about men being bastards. How do you reconcile your own masculinity with this sense that – That’s such a big question!

– No! It’s a big question but it’s a big question that I’ve been asking myself a lot. Yeah – Look – Honestly – I think – Like – What I’ve been slowly coming to terms with is – I’ve been basically…

Reconciling your own masculinity is actually mostly dealing with your own internalised misogyny. If we’re honest. Like – it is. Like –

Oh God, I have another fucking anecdote:

So my brother got married and he had a Buck’s Weekend. Let me just repeat that: Buck’s. Weekend. In a little country town.

The other fun thing to preface this with is that my brother is a – My brother is not a dick but he is a moderately conservative Christian. Like, he’s a really cool guy but he fucking loves Jesus! And also, had absolutely no desire for there to be any strippers. At all. He was like, “look. First of all, I think it’s gross. Second of all, I’m getting married. I don’t want to see another woman’s vagina ever again. That’s literally the point.” And I was like, “I don’t think it is. But that was a cute sentence.”

He had one other gay co-worker. We drove up together and we drove back together. We’re good mates now. I’m not incredibly masculine but his co-worker is just a glorious, glorious dude. He has wonderful blue hair, he’s in a long-term monogamous relationship with another man and just completely fucking owns his gender performance in a way that – like – I am not at a stage that I can do.

So it was this fascinating thing having drunk straight men tell me that they liked me more because I was less “girlie”. That was the first thing. And I was like, (puts on an overtly effeminate voice) “Well, first of all darling, she’s exhausted! She’s fucking tired! She’s had a long fucking day hanging out with you dickheads. And you’re sitting there drinking your UDLs and drinking all of her Coopers Pales and it’s fucking tiring her out, Darling! It’s so tiring! It’s exhausting! She’s practically aching for a drink.”

(He returns to his regular speaking voice.)

And it became this thing: we both just ended up using female pronouns for the entire weekend, which was incredibly fun. They got really angry about it at one point. There’s nothing like someone yelling at you that they accept you but you’re being really fucking annoying that tells you everything you need to know about how straight masculinity works. So that was really fucking funny.

So I guess that’s how I reconcile my masculinity. Like, fuck, I am a man. I just don’t think that being a man is anything to be proud of. I am a man. I am a gross, sweaty, hairy man and I food poisoned myself as a vegetarian by eating soy chips I’d left in full sunlight on my desk for two weeks. I’m a disgusting twenty-something dude but there is nothing to be proud of in that. Like, actually at all.

I guess my big thing has been coming to terms with understanding that there is absolutely no reason for me to defend that or have any interest in perpetuating my own masculinity. And yeah, when I’m confronted with people who do that, my basic response is just to be as feminine as possible because, like, shit! Like, actually fuck it!

Oh, another story from that weekend! There’s a shit load of textas around and one of the shitfaced guys decides he wants to tag the house. So it’s this old surfer sort of hostel thing. White weatherboard house. So he tags on the side of the house in blue texta “Gay House” then, after about thirty seconds, realising he is in mixed company, hastily scribbles it out. And that’s it: that’s my effect! That is the effect that I have had. Someone who is enough of an idiot to draw on the side of a fucking house was like “oh, I probably shouldn’t say ‘gay.’” That is my good in the world.

– You have carved a safe place that is those three inches of weatherboard on that weird surfer house.

– Fucking funny. It was one of my favourite of my brother’s telling off rants. He cares for intellectually disabled children for a living and he was like “I have never had to tell one of my kids that it is not a fucking good idea to draw on a fucking wall, you fucking idiot.”

I’m making this sound like it was no big deal! I’m pretty sure I cried at least once that weekend. I had to build myself up to it for weeks. I watched drag queen insult videos for a solid week beforehand just to prepare myself. I think my favourite one was from Veep – this isn’t even a drag queen insult but it’s great: “You’re like Frankenstein’s monster if Frankenstein’s monster was made entirely out of dead dicks.” That was probably my favourite insult I dished out that weekend. But it was pretty fucking horrific. Fun times.

That’s how – that’s how I reconcile my masculinity: by actually disowning it most of the time.

One of my own photos. From many year ago. I regret the martini glass.

One of my own photos. I regret the martini glass.

– What role does feminism play in your life?

– Look, okay, feminism isn’t my space to intrude on. Which is to say, I’ve read a lot of feminist texts and I love them to bits. I owe a shit load to feminism but I’m not going to call myself a ‘feminist’ purely because that is their space. I’ll call myself a decent fucking human being who espouses the same beliefs! But honestly it’s a space for women to be allowed to speak without men present. It’s so important that women have these spaces. Feminism plays a huge role for me in terms of how I educate myself but I do honestly believe that there should be spaces that women are allowed to go without men.

– Do you think that there should be a space for men just to be amongst other men?

– You mean the entire world!

– Well done.

– I’m sorry but all spaces are men’s spaces by default in our society.

– Are there conversations though, that men should be having amongst themselves?

– Absolutely. I mean I can’t speak for straight men – I’m not even gonna pretend – but yeah, as gay men we need to have some serious conversations about race and misogyny within gay circles. Absolutely. I mean gay men who think they get a pass from being a white man because they are gay shit me the fuck off because most of them are still misogynistic pricks. And if Grindr has taught me anything, it’s that there are plenty of racist gay men. It’s fucking horrific. “You don’t want three billion people? Three billion people disgust you sexually?” Wow. What a nuanced fucking worldview, you cunt! I’ve so got zero time for any of that. And we need to have those conversations really desperately in gay circles.

And misogyny is a huge deal. I think this is because a lot of gay men are very protective of their masculinity because that’s a reasonable response to have when people are trying to feminise you in society: to try and sure up your masculinity. I mean, women do this, too. They do! “No! I’m not a silly woman! Look at me in this blazer!” I don’t know. I actually don’t know. I assume there are blazers. But it is actually a reasonable response… if you’re fucking twelve. We need to get to a point as a community where we are less precious about what straight people think of us. It is such an issue. Yeah. This is a bad direction for our identity to go in. We’re enforcing the same systems that made us feel like shit when we were kids. It’s just not acceptable. That’s my feelings. On that.

I’m upset now! I get bummed out when I talk about queer identity politics. I need to remember that a significant number of people I talk to about this whole-heartedly agree with me. Just because dickheads with muscles and haircuts on Grindr are as big dickheads as people with muscles and haircuts outside of Grindr doesn’t necessarily write off a significant amount of wonderful people. It doesn’t.

Hello 2015. Nice to meet you. Let’s be friends. 

Speaking of friends, go and check out Sarah Walker’s website for more of her outstanding photography. She is also running a year-long project called The Art Olympics, which is all about pushing us to work outside of our comfort zone and in different mediums. Go and sign up. 

Thank you to my outstanding interviewee. His words were a delight. 

Politics, Sex

Many of you are not Australian so perhaps you are unaware of the murder of Gillian Meagher last year in my home city but if you are Australian or Irish (Jill’s country of origin) you will know every detail of the case. Jill Meagher’s murder touched my city deeply.  She was walking home after a few drinks with workmates in Brunswick.  The distance was very small (barely a few hundred meters) but after leaving her friends she was brutally raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley and her body was dumped in a shallow grave.  A week after her disappearance 30 000 people walked down the main street in Brunswick in her memory and to speak out against violence towards women.  To reclaim the streets.

Her murderer turned out to be a man with significant history of sexual violence who was on parole at the time after raping several sex workers.  This week he was sentenced to life with a 35-year minimum non-parole period.   This is far from the maximum sentence for such crimes.

Her incredible husband, speaking to ABC said this of the sentencing:  “I don’t know what the maximum penalty is for if it’s not for that man. I don’t know who else could fit the bill of a maximum sentence for rape than Adrian Ernest Bayley…. This man is unrepentantly evil. He’s been let off too many times by our justice system…  It sends out a really dangerous message to society, I think, if you do this. I mean, I’m aware that his previous victims in the previous case before Jill were sex workers and I’ll never be convinced that that had nothing to do with the leniency of his sentence, which as I said, send as very disturbing message. What it says to women is “Be careful what you do, ’cause if we don’t like what you do, you won’t get justice.” And then what it says to people like Bayley is not, “Don’t rape”, but, “Be careful who you rape.””

Tom Meagher. What an amazing man.

In a recent interview, an unnamed stripper whom Bayley used to visit and simulate strangulation on said tearfully that she thinks about “how if it had been me, the publicity wouldn’t have been the same. There wouldn’t have been 30,000 people walking down Sydney Road because of it. There wouldn’t have been this massive uproar about it and trying to find out who it was and trying to find her body and things because there is that attitude that she’s just a stripper, she’s just a sex worker, she’s a slut it doesn’t matter.  I’ve thought about that a lot of times.”

I can’t help but think back to Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, 1969 one of my favourite books in existence) in which a trashy sci-fi writer writes of an alien race who come down to earth and see that the New Testament is full of loops. They can see, with their outsider’s wisdom that the intent of the Gospels is to teach people to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low but, what they really teach is that before you kill somebody, you’d better make sure he isn’t well connected. Christ didn’t look like much but he was the son of the most powerful being in the universe.

So they write us a new gospel. One where Jesus is a total bum with no connections but he says all the lovely, puzzling things he said in the other Gospels. And one day the people amuse themselves by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground because, well there couldn’t be any repercussions, could there? Jesus was a nobody. The Gospel of the Plumber’s Friends-shaped aliens told us so. But just before Bum Jesus died the heavens opened and there was thunder and there was lightening and the voice of God came crashing down and he said ‘Hey’ and he said he was adopting Bum Jesus as his son and giving him full powers and privileges of The Son of Creator of the Universe. He said ‘Bum Jesus will punish horribly anybody who torments Bum Anybody from now until all eternity.’

It is heartbreaking how little consideration is given to the rape of sex workers. My heart goes out to Tom and Jill’s family but it also goes out to the sex workers, the homeless and the addicts who are seeing this as further proof that nobody cares what happens to them.

We are living in horrifically misogynistic times.  Hatred of women is rife.  Victim-blaming is still a big part of our culture.  In Australia, our female Prime Minister (our first ever) is regularly objectified and sexualised.  (If you are not up to date on Australian politics, try googling ‘Julia Gillard menugate’ but, be warned: if you have a moral bone in your body, it will enrage and sicken you.) One in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.   In America, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes.  A couple of months ago we were visited by a peeping tom.  He watched me through my bedroom window until my housemate coming home surprised him and he ran off.  That he was getting off on seeing me completely unguarded terrifies me and his sense of entitlement, to invade my home and privacy sickens me to this day.   We now have a big padlock on our gate.

Last night, friend of mine told me that she had been having panic attacks all week.  She went to her therapist who told her that women all around Melbourne have been exhibiting similar PTSD-like symptoms recently and that she and her fellow therapists have been inundated.  The combination of the sexual vilification of our Prime Minister and the sentencing of Bayley filling our papers and news outlets has just reminded women all over the city/country how unsafe we feel.  Even the most powerful woman in the country is abused in sexually explicate terms.  Whether you disagree with her policies or not, this should be unacceptable.  It is shameful.  It shames me.

I want to draw your attention to an incredibly important project going on right now on the Internet.  It is so timely and so important.  These are students from beautiful Oxford University holding up signs explaining why they personally need feminism.   Read it and speak up.