Ian Harvie has a story in his Seeso standup special, May the Best Cock Win, where he recounts hanging out at a gay bar and another guy hits on him. Harvie looks, in his own words, “like the lost member of Wham,” but before things go any further, he replies that he’s trans and has a girlfriend. “Oh, that’s cool that’s cool,” the guy says before turning around and asking, “Wait a second. You mean you have two holes to choose from?” Harvie waits a beat. “Um, that’s rude. He didn’t even acknowledge my third hole,” he says, pointing to his mouth.
Harvie got his first big break opening for Margaret Cho, and toured with her for years before landing a high-profile gig on Transparent. (He played Dale, Ali Pfefferman’s love interest in the first season.) He got representation soon after that, which led to the Seeso special. “Everything has come out of these great women: Margaret Cho, for allowing me space on her stages, and then Jill putting me on Transparent. That has really helped propel and elevate my voice,” Harvie told Vulture. In a phone conversation before the holidays, Harvie talked about being himself onstage, comedy in the Trump era, and why everyone is a little bit trans.
So much of comedy is about analyzing gender roles. Do you think you bring a unique perspective to standup because of your identity as a trans person?
If it’s a guy, it’s, “The difference between men and women is …” If it’s a female comic, they’ve been like, “You know what the difference between men and women and women and men is?” Now you have a guy who’s like, “Listen, I’m going to tell you both sides because I know both sides.” It will never get old, as long as people can write from their perspective. My perspective is that, actually, our separateness is an illusion, you know? As a butch dyke, a female-bodied person, I really wasn’t any different than I am today. I’m on testosterone, but I just feel like we’re the same people with or without hormones. I’m not a different person. I’ve never been really asked that question, but I’ve never really thought about it that way.
I enjoy your jokes about interacting with gay men, for instance. It seems like you’ve had access to multiple spaces in your life, because people assume that you’re part of their group, and so there’s this comedy of misrecognition.
I do feel like a chameleon, fitting into all of these spaces that, inevitably, I will end up drawing material from. There’s just no way that I can’t, which is actually great. I don’t know if that’s some huge advantage as a comic. There’s some connectiveness because of my female history, which I don’t deny. I don’t say, “I was always a boy and I was never a girl and I was never a woman.” I had all of those experiences.
I’ll tell you the newest one and the most foreign one, because I was never looked at by gay men. I was never sexualized by gay men. I talk about an induction to men’s culture, I’ve also been somewhat inducted into gay men’s culture and it’s still foreign to me. I really do feel like I’m in a primate study, you know? Like I’m Jane Goodall and I’m watching gorillas in the mist, watching what’s happening and how men who love men intimately navigate each other. It’s a totally different experience. It’s aggressive and playful and brotherly and it’s wild. It’s like no space that I’ve ever experienced before.
You talk very openly about your cock and vagina. How did you decide to approach that in your standup?
It is how I am as a person. I like to try to dispel misinformation about people like me. Everybody else is fucking talking about their dicks and pussies — why can’t I? These are conversations I have with my friends, so why wouldn’t I talk about it onstage? It is very much who I am and how I speak in real life, so it’s just an extension of that. I’m not just being gratuitously vulgar onstage. It was a decision to be myself and to be vulnerable onstage and talk about real things. I’m just not that comic who’s going to talk about nothing. Jerry Seinfeld is the comic who talks about nothing. He never leaves an intimate part of himself on stage. You never really access him. That’s not who I am. I would say I’m an identity comic — everybody’s an identity comic — and for me that identity is about talking about real things. I do want to answer questions from people, too. There’s a natural curiosity for trans people around sex and sexuality. Who do we want to fuck, how do we want to fuck. To answer some of those questions from my perspective through comedy is a pleasure.
I think it can be complicated when straight people ask questions of queer people and trans people, but it feels like you embrace that role and do it on your own terms.
Absolutely. I mean, the moment that I say that I’m trans, I know that everybody’s eyes generally drop to my waist to see what’s going on. And so, I comment on that. I know you have some questions and we’re going to get to that. Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. I’m going to share my story with you. You’re going to get some of those answers through some of my material, but you’re also probably going to be left with a bunch of questions and that’s okay too. I’m aware that I’m an educator as well as a comic. I don’t have a problem with that. I know a lot of trans folks are fucking tired of answering people’s questions. I’m just not one of those people and I’m not at that place.
I love how you acknowledge that bodies are really weird. Does that free people to tell you stories about their bodies?
That is probably the number one thing that happens after shows. People — not trans people, but people who are cisgendered — coming up to me, telling me their awkwardness with their body. That is the shift that I want. I want to make them laugh, but I want there to be a shift. Hey you know what? No one feels fucking okay and that’s okay. We all wake up in the morning and look down and go, What the fuck? And we decide to put on whatever sort of gender presentation for that day that makes us feel good in our bodies or good enough in our bodies to step outside the door. So yeah, I think that it has provoked a lot of self-reflection on people’s own continuum of their masculinity and femininity and their gender.
I’m looking down at myself right now. Yeah, this is just weird, but isn’t it all weird? Isn’t it all beautiful? Isn’t all awkward? Isn’t all amazing? Isn’t all of those things? I used to think, I’m the only one. And then I met a guy like me and I was like, Okay so there’s a few others. And then when I moved to L.A. and realized how many people were in discomfort around their bodies and modifying their bodies, I was like, Oh, this is everybody’s thing. This isn’t my thing. You think you’re so fucking special, but no. Everybody’s looking around at everybody else and themselves and thinking what a freak they are and they’re right. We all are. And it’s amazing.
You have a provocative statement where you say “Everybody is a little bit trans.” I assume what you mean is that everyone struggles with their gender and gender presentation in their lives.
Yeah, without a doubt. I have a super redneck uncle. He gets up every day and puts on fucking Wranglers and boots and a fucking giant flannel jacket and one of those mesh baseball caps. That is a conscious choice. He is making an absolute conscious choice to be this extreme version of what he thinks is masculine. He can lie and say, “Oh no, this is how I am.” No, that’s actually not just how you are. You thought about this on some level. It might be habit now, but you have clearly thought about this.
Everybody has some preoccupation with where they are on that spectrum. Every day. And when I started thinking about that, I wanted to talk about that a little bit onstage. If I have the microphone, I can make you laugh and then say something like, “Hey, if you feel 100 percent okay about your body, in relationship to your masculinity, your femininity, gender, then you’re the fucking weirdo. Because everybody else is struggling. Everybody else is thinking about this. You’re the anomaly. You’re the one in a million that isn’t.” I wanted to acknowledge that for other people in the audience.
Do you feel like comedy has a political responsibility in the coming years under Trump?
Absolutely. I do think the comedy world has a responsibility, but I feel like that’s been a responsibility of the comedy world for a long time. I think we’ve had times, politically, where we haven’t had to be as vigilant. We’ve had Obama for eight years. There’s been lots to be political about, but we haven’t had a racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Twitter-happy numbskull. He’s been moderate and hasn’t been able to get a lot done, but he hasn’t been a tyrant. So we haven’t had as much material to work off of.
One great thing that can come out of something like this happening is that really great art is made in times like this. It provokes artists to create, writers to write. I was just reading an article about people de-transitioning because they’re afraid of what will happen to them. Too late for me with that. That’s not an option for me. I realize that that is an option for other people, and I respect anybody’s choice to do whatever they need to feel safe. But as an artist, it is political to dare to be yourself. As a comic, my response might just be absolutely never wavering from who I am. I might write material about him directly, or I might just continue on my path of revealing who I am onstage and not allowing myself to be swayed by fear.
What was the toughest crowd you’ve ever had?
There were two shows in particular. I was probably three or four years into my comedy career. I had to do a 20-minute set opening for this guy from Boston — a really, really funny guy named Jimmy Gunn. There’s this performing arts center in Bath, Maine called the Chocolate Church. Bath is a small, ship-building town. It was a couple hundred people, but the age demographic was much older and I think my material at that time was just out of reach. At the risk of sounding ageist, there were a lot older people who probably didn’t even know what the acronym LGBT stood for, let alone my telling them, pre-transition, that I wanted to transition. It was rough. It was rough because they looked at me and saw a masculine female. It was rough because I was nervous after my first couple of jokes didn’t land and then I was scared they were scared. You end up mirroring each other: If you’re scared, they’re scared. If you’re having fun, they’re having fun. If you’re an asshole, they’re cold. You’ll get back whatever you’re putting out. So it was a much older crowd who hadn’t had a lot of LGBT experience. And not that my stuff was that sophisticated, but it was stuff that people had just never heard. It was too much for both of us.
I had a show in Tampa, at the Improv there in Ybor City. I was doing my gay hunters joke and sometimes I would start it out by saying, “Hey, any hunters here in the audience?” Some guy in the upper balcony said something. He had his gun, he was going to meet me in the parking lot after the show. That was a little weird. It wasn’t a rough show; that was a rough moment. I think I just said, “Okay, me and this entire audience will meet you there.” Just to shut him down.