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How One Joke Evolved Along With Rhea Butcher’s Gender Identity

Rhea Butcher Photo: Kim Newmoney

One of the absolute most compelling things about following comedy is getting to see how a comedian evolves as their life does. A comedian might have jokes about never wanting to have kids in their early 20s and then have jokes about the funny things their three kids did in their late 30s. For comedian, host of the Three Swings podcast, co-host of the Put Your Hands Together podcast, and Take My Wife co-star and co-creator Rhea Butcher, this evolution centered around one punch line about having to enter rooms just shouting “I’m a woman,” in which they used in two different jokes, with two different contexts, a little over a year apart. First, it was the center of a joke from their 2016 album Butcher, used as a response in a story about a flight attendant calling them “sir.” But then, on their 2018 appearance on 2 Dope Queens, in a story about a Lyft driver calling them “sir,” Rhea used the punch line as an example of something they no longer do, as they now identify as nonbinary, and because in general they try not to correct people anymore.

All that went into these jokes onstage and offstage is the subject of this week’s Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Read a short excerpt of the conversation below, and tune in to in to Good One every Monday on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What was the initial spark that made you want to talk about strangers evaluating your haircut and thinking of you as a man?
It happened to me all the time. The first time somebody said that to me, I was 6 years old. And the crazy thing about it is it was a man in the women’s bathroom, cleaning the bathroom, yelling at me for being in the wrong place. In what world does that make any sense? It’s something that not everybody experiences, but it’s something that a lot of people I know experience. It started with a bathroom bit that’s on the album, and my perspective at this time was angry, and I think rightfully so.

So, this happens to you a lot, but there’s one flight and one flight attendant in particular, and you’re like, “This is the one.”
This is the one, and also you take collage pieces of different experiences into it. I had a lot of experiences of people saying “sir.” Then they realized “the mistake they made.” And then they laugh at me. And it’s like, Well, how did I become a bit part in your personal sketch-comedy thing? And that experience in particular was, I think, a turning point for me — whether I knew it at the time or not, which I don’t think I did — of just not responding with, “It’s okay.” ‘Cause ultimately it is okay because it’s all arbitrary. We just made all of this up.

This joke is very conversational, and it seems the purest release of the joke is shouting “I am a woman!” in certain situations you feel you might be misgendered.
That was a time that it felt right in my life to be like, Women can look like this. I was still participating in this binary of thought that exists. I still speak in that way because the majority of people understand or have been taught to understand the world that way. What I try to do now is make jokes about it where it’s pulled out one extra level.

I’m not a woman, but I’m also not not a woman. I base that belief system on the fact that when I walk through the world, that’s what the world tells me. And I am existing in it with a completely different belief system. I can expend energy trying to bend the world to my belief system, or I could just find out how my belief system exists in the world. I am not saying everyone should operate this way. The binary can also be very interesting and powerful. But when you exist outside of it, whether it’s from the inside or outside or both, it’s valuable to open yourself up to the possibility that the world isn’t just two things all the time.

The first part of the joke is when they apologize. Then they immediately blame you for having your haircut and your clothing and everything about you. How do you manage a tone where you’re not just being like, Let’s dunk on this idiot?
The thing is, there’s probably somebody in the audience or hearing it that has done that. When a human being is scared, that makes sense. You make it about the space around you and you want to blame the person for making you do this thing. It’s a very human reaction; it’s a very emotionally abusive reaction. Do I think this woman was purposefully emotionally abusing me? No, but was she? Yes. Both of those things are true. And also, everything she’s saying is also true. But you don’t need to tell me that ‘cause I already know. I chose this. The very tried-and-true lesbian joke of, “Oh you look like a …” “Yeah, I know, dude. I woke up in the morning and put my clothes on.” But that speaks to that person saying, “Well, it’s your fault because you dress like this.” It also hints at this neutrality of that person, that they aren’t getting up and making any choices. What they do is natural, and what I’m doing is weird and it sets me apart, and, well, I should expect it. And I just don’t think I should. I think that we should all be able to keep our goddamned mouths shut.

And at minimum, you shouldn’t be a villain for doing it.
No, and I’m also not some victim. What’s interesting now is that I don’t correct people when somebody says “sir.” Are they saying “sir” because they’re in a retail service position and it’s part of what they’re supposed to do to me from behind? It doesn’t bother me the same way it used to. I know for a lot of people it’s still very scary and dangerous, so I don’t want to be dismissive of that. But I have gotten to a point where I spend a lot of time in public because of traveling that I’ll just turn around and be like, “Oh, no, I’m good; I don’t need any help.” I just leave it for that person and they get to decide what they do with it. If they think, Oh, this is a trans man, or, Oh, this is a woman who doesn’t care about being called “sir,” or, Oh, this is a man — I literally don’t care what is in that person’s mind, as long as they go, “Sounds good.” And then they walk away and they process that experience for themselves. I can’t control what they take away from it. I can only hope that they go, like, Huh. Oh, and then have an interaction with a person that they hear talked about on the news all the time. The fact that I don’t identify as a trans man doesn’t mean I’m not a trans man to people in the world. So the thing I would like to do is just express my humanity to people. And not be angry all the time.

The one about the Lyft driver transitions from a joke about how people see you to a story about a person who likes Frank Sinatra.
It allowed for me to play, not a role, but yeah, for this car ride, I’m a man. For all intents and purposes, yes, I am. I used to say all this shit about Frank Sinatra, and I was like, This is bogging everything down. Frank Sinatra is such an iconic, like, This is a man. That’s the whole point. It’s Frank Sinatra. How can you not like Frank Sinatra? Well, because he’s an abusive asshole, but other than that, the music, you know, I could do that whole thing. The whole point was not like, Oh, I’m macho or anything like that, it’s like, Yeah, we can just talk to each other now. Like you’re just talking to me, and you’re not even talking to me like a man. You’re just talking to me. For that car ride, because then the punch line is that he still thinks I’m man, and he’s telling me what a great man I am. What I’m leaving the audience with is: What does that even mean? What he really means is, You’re a great person to talk to.

You like to make complicated issues seem complicated.
Because it’s complicated. Because we don’t live in a time where nuance exists all the time. We were talking about these things, and as soon as you think you pin it down, it’s like playing Whack-A-Mole. As soon as you get one then some new thing comes up. And I’m talking to a bunch of different brains over the course of a lot of time. I might feel different tomorrow. You might agree with me now, and then you might change your mind. But it honestly comes from queerness and talking about queerness, because for the first time maybe ever, we can talk to each other in real time — globally, inter-generationally, inter-racially, inter-ethnically. This wasn’t happening. We had gay bars, so you’d have like a salon, but that was 100 people? Five people? I don’t know. I’m talking about endless amounts of people that can experience what I’m talking about. So to try to boil it down to one thing would be to always fail. My intention is not to complicate the matter. My intention is to say these things are complicated, and for me to try to boil it down to one simple punch line wouldn’t make any sense. But ultimately, that Lyft bit does. I not only boil it down to, Fuck yeah I am, I make fun of a movie. How stand-up shticky is that?

How a Joke Evolved Along With Rhea Butcher’s Gender Identity