Bonnie McFarlane, the stand-up comedian and director of the crack documentary Women Aren’t Funny (available on Netflix) has written a fine and funny memoir as well — You’re Better Than Me, published last week by ECCO/Anthony Bourdain Books. Unlike many comedians' memoirs, hers isn’t a padded transcription of her stage act, or degenerate tales of road life. The unmapped roads we get to travel don’t need punching up. She’s a generous narrator and a wickedly smart young woman in search of her comedic tribe. (One of the chapters is titled "Equality is for underachievers, am I right, ladies?") On the way, she comes to enjoy the company of herself. It’s an equally happy thing as a reader to be let in on McFarlane’s discerning mind as she makes her way to New York, and Hollywood, from the Canadian farm where she and her sisters were raised. She’s as dry and acute on stage, with a stoner’s puff of charm. You’re Better Than Me should also easily earn its place as one of the best modern guides to a career in stand-up, not only because it’s honest and sharp, but because it offers no prescriptions, only a red light — glowing and a little grungy — the light real comics shine, which can only be their own.
You open your book by comparing yourself to a serial killer and you close with discussion of the joke that got you booted from Last Comic Standing — a joke that included the quite intentional use of the word “cunt.” ("I don’t mind when men call me sweetheart. I guess when you’ve been called a cunt as many times as I have, 'sweetheart' doesn’t really have much of a sting.) Both obsessions involve premeditation, which strikes me as a critical skill in comedy. Would you agree? Actually, it seems that a number of comedians I know are obsessed with serial killers …
It’s the shared interest in looking at fringe elements. When I started, comedy was such a fringe … thing to do — no one believed that you did it, that it was a real job, you were a weirdo. People thought you were so bizarre .… When you went to parties and people asked you what you did, and you said, I’m a comedian, you might as well have said you were a serial killer. But the whole world is about killing and destroying.
As far as premeditation goes, I have to know exactly what I am saying, and be completely prepared to not say any of it … Since you can’t know what that audience is going to be, you have to be reading them the whole time. To somebody I was talking with today, I was saying how Donald Trump knows what he is doing the whole time. “But it’s so spontaneous!” That’s a skill that you develop …
Much of the book is about your longing for friendship, and what struck me were the ways friendship among comedians inoculates against some of the risks of show business. It’s a tricky thing — how the very process of being developed in show business can curb the very qualities that make the comedian singular, which comedians — especially young ones — are still discovering themselves.
I needed somebody to like me for me, and I felt it was something I could get out of a female friendship … With men it’s already something, Are they really liking me for me? With women … if I was being silly and funny and they were liking it, then I could think, Ah, okay, … these thoughts aren’t so crazy … Women gave me a little bit of confidence in those ideas … and they shared little tiny things that I could trust that a friend would say to me like “They didn’t laugh because you mumbled it.” That made my stand-up so much better.
Throughout the early part of your career, especially in Hollywood, your managers and agents advised you on transactions around your look — to comb your hair, wear a dress, and not wear your baseball hat — or, at least, wear it backwards. But they never explained the nature of the transactions — like the table read for your first TV show. They want you to wear lipstick, and yell at you that you can still be fired after a table read, even though you have been cast, but they never even explained what a table read is.
It’s an important conversation to have, This is how it works … Once I find how it works, I’m very accepting: "Okay." I’m not delusional about things. I’ll try to figure out what I want to do work within the system that’s already set up .…
You’ve also been told again and again that your stand-up is not personal enough — that the audience doesn't know much about you when you step off the stage.
Yes, I like distance from myself. If I talk too much about myself it seems rude.
There is still a lot of discussion in the female comedy community about what one should wear onstage, and you compare your style to a “local fifteen-year-old farm boy.” I admire how you give yourself room: “I don't want the audience to think about my sexuality, not until I've figured it out for myself."
I've never dressed especially sexy anywhere, ever. The most makeup I ever wear is for a TV show. It's amazing what Spanx and some contouring can do. But I don't think it makes stand-up easier. I’ve heard some comics say they dress sexy to get an audience’s attention. That seems equivalent to giving out money. I throw money into the audience then I start to really get their attention. Then I'm funny!
Is it a fantasy to think women have any real control over the way their sexuality is judged?
I have no idea.
Is "figuring it out yourself" a way of mentally claiming space that you can then replicate in relationship to the audience? I.e., a way you can "wear" yourself differently?
At some point you have to be consistent in your character onstage. You can't just be you up there, you have to perform an act. But it's a lot easier if you can figure out the parts of your personality that the audience likes, the parts you like. It really doesn't matter what you wear because you have to get through all that anyway. The irony is people like Dolly Parton because [breaks into a Dolly accent] “she’s so real.”
You address political correctness and incorrectness (depending on the group policing the comedy) and how nothing scares you more — as a feminist — than backlash from feminist organizations. You empathize with men's recent caution, writing, "First of all, men aren't used to being scared all the time the way we are." How might we help men get familiar with our ordinary daily fears? Or is there a better way to go?
I just wish people were more into the discussion of stuff and less about the rules of everything. I think the last step in feminism is that we should now be able to make fun of ourselves. After a hard day on the battlefield, I think we owe it to ourselves to put down our weapons, have a few pints, and do gallows humor about it.
You’ve said you have something like a seven-year delay when it comes to appreciating yourself or something you’ve done. I wondered if you would time-travel and speculate on what you aren’t able to appreciate now.
I was killing it seven years ago. I was a new mom, making a movie. I don't know. I think I was skinnier back then and that's really what I'm thinking about.
Do you have any suggestions for writing mothers?
Put that goddamn baby down and write! No, I don't know.
This interview has been condensed and edited.