When Stormy Daniels announced her first gig as a stand-up comic in March, some comedians recoiled. Though news reports suggested her appearances were more akin to book-tour stops than comedy shows, the fact that the pornographic film star was getting headlining gigs on her first try rankled. After all, Daniels was in the news because she claimed to have an affair with the president, a dalliance he denied.
“Doing standup is not a reward for being famous, please leave the weekend gigs for actual female comics,” the comedian and “Conan” writer Laurie Kilmartin tweeted.
Doing standup is not a reward for being famous. Please leave the weekend gigs for actual female comics. https://t.co/nR6YExAZ5d
— Laurie Kilmartin: Atlanta June 15th! (@anylaurie16) March 3, 2019
Given the attention paid to Daniels’s stand-up debut, it might seem as if she’s the only sex worker-comedian out there, but in fact she’s one of dozens of current and former such stand-ups, and they’re part of a long tradition.
Sex work and comedy have been intertwined for centuries. The plots of many ancient Greek and Roman comedies revolved around prostitution (like Menander’s “Sikyonioi” and Terence’s “Hecyra”), and American comics performed in burlesque and vaudeville shows in the early part of the 20th century. The comedians Margaret Cho and Roseanne Barr have been open about their sex-work pasts.
Aaron Berg, 46, a former stripper and current stand-up, pointed to “a very strong history between burlesque and comedic timing,” adding, “There was a lot of stand-up in strip clubs.”
In some ways, it’s a natural fit. Both universal and taboo, inherently ridiculous and emotionally fraught, sex is a staple of stand-up routines.
When he was a stripper, Berg said, it was his sense of humor that saved his job. “They tried to fire me four or five times, and they only kept me on the cast because I would entertain” customers by making them laugh.
Recently, there’s been a shift from comics making prostitutes the butt of jokes, to sex workers poking fun at their own profession. Wendi Starling, 37, a sex worker and comic, starts one of her bits, “I’m a terrible girlfriend but a great employee.”
Kaytlin Bailey, 32, a former sex worker, current stand-up and communications director for Decriminalize Sex Work, said that sex workers and comedians occupy a similar role: “You’re allowed to do things that normal citizens cannot. You’re like a celebrated rule breaker.”
Even so, many sex workers told me that like Daniels, when they first entered comedy clubs, they weren’t particularly welcome.
“I had people tell me that I wasn’t a real comic,” said Silvia Saige, 35, a comedian and adult film actress. “A lot of clubs wouldn’t book me, a lot of female performers still won’t work with me. They think that I’m selling a bad image of what women should be and not empowering to women. And I think it’s completely the opposite.”
Stand-ups advance to bigger stages by honing their material night after night, and criticism of sex workers who enter comedy usually focuses on whether they’ve paid their dues, as Daniels learned. Actors and musicians who try to make the transition to comedy can face similar critiques, but the backlash seems to vary based on gender and background.
Jeremy Piven’s foray into stand-up didn’t generate the same level of outrage as Daniels’s gigs, argued Alia Janine, 40, a former adult-film actress who is now a comedian. She added, “Because Stormy was a woman and a sex worker, a lot of people were like, ‘She shouldn’t be doing this.’”
Actresses who go into stand-up also sometimes face skepticism. Mary Lynn Rajskub, 47, said that when she was performing stand-up while her hit show “24”was on the air, she heard “there were some comedians at the comedy club that were like, ‘Oh, she’s going to come take our spots now because of her name.’” Rajskub had been doing stand-up for more than a decade at that point.
Rajskub, who recently toured with Fred Armisen, said that she supported Daniels. “I think the more women onstage, the better,” she said, adding, “If you have a story to tell and you have a voice, then by all means, find a stage and get on it.”
Although other comics may bristle, established names, whether from the mainstream or from adult films, are appealing to club owners because they bring in customers. “Stormy Daniels sells tickets, which helps keeps the club open,” said Billy Procida, 30, a former sex worker who’s now a comedian and podcast host.
Being a stripper is actually good training for being a comic, Berg argued. On a club stage, “I never really get nervous, because I have been naked in front of 400 people.”
Though looking sexy onstage is its own issue. Several told me stories of being advised to desexualize themselves, or of choosing to do so.
Janine said she did one set wearing a revealing V-neck shirt, and the audience wasn’t laughing; later that night she “put on my sweatshirt and did the exact same set. And then I killed.”
Even a male comedian like Berg was told he was too muscular to be a comic. In response, he said, “I literally got fat. I put on 30 to 40 pounds.”
Still, Saige and others say standup gives them a chance to dispel misconceptions about themselves and their work.
“I feel like we’re the most judged group of people,” Saige said. “And comedy is a nice outlet to kind of get our story out there and be more relatable.” One way to disarm a potentially judgmental audience is to point out their preconceptions, said the director, comedian and former adult actress Missy Martinez, 32. “It kind of pokes and prods at their own biases,” she said, adding that she jokes onstage, “Yes, I’m a porn star. And no, I wasn’t molested, no matter how hard I tried.”
The goals of sex work and stand-up aren’t so different: Both want to elicit a physical response in the audience. Even Sigmund Freud wrote that comedy has “the unmistakable aim of arousing pleasure in the listener.”
But killing is just as difficult for sex workers as it is for stand-ups from more traditional backgrounds.
“Anyone can get in front of a camera and perform intercourse, and someone will watch it,” Martinez said. “I think I actually have to work harder to make someone laugh than making someone orgasm.”