‘Female Comic’ Beth Stelling Is Sick of Speaking for Comedy Predators
On this week’s episode of “The Last Laugh” podcast, stand-up comedian Beth Stelling opens up about the personal trauma that helped fuel her first hour-long special, “Girl Daddy.”
Five years ago, comedian Beth Stelling tweeted, “I’ve been called a ‘female comic’ so many times, I’ll probably only be able to answer to ‘girl daddy’ when I have children.”
Now, Girl Daddy is the name of her first-ever hour-long stand-up special on HBO Max.
As Stelling tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, that was just one of many titles she considered. There were straightforward ideas like “Talks Too Much” or “Settle Down” and hilariously profane puns like “Witch Cunt” or “Civil Whore.” But ultimately, Girl Daddy just felt right.
Early in her comedy career Stelling told Splitsider that she thought it was “easier being a girl” in the stand-up comedy scene, “because it’s all a bunch of white dudes and they have to work harder to be different.”
When I bring up that quote, she explains that it was “almost like wishful thinking or projection” on her part. “I got asked that question all the time when I was coming up and I didn’t want women to be scared to start,” Stelling says. “I wanted it to not be hard. I wanted to not be asked about it. I wanted to feel like no, it’s easy, I love it.” Even if that wasn’t always the case.
Noting that the hour special is one of the more “daunting” feats a comedian can take on, she’s reminded of a joke from her first album where she says her mom told her, “If stand-up comedy were an Olympic event, you would win gold... in women’s stand-up comedy.”
“I think anytime you put yourself out there,” she adds, “and I think especially now, feels extra volatile.”
This anxiety manifests most prominently on social media, which Stelling describes as the “opposite” of stand-up comedy. While comedians talk at an audience, Twitter allows critics to argue back. “It is so funny to think that people think that Twitter is a comics’ platform,” she says. “No, they’re not used to your feedback at all. In fact, they despise it!”
The same year she posted her “girl daddy” tweet, and long before the #MeToo movement began in earnest, Stelling used her Instagram account to speak openly about the rape and abuse she suffered from an ex-boyfriend and fellow comedian.
As she explains in this podcast conversation, it was an exceedingly difficult decision to make her pain public, but she ultimately decided she couldn’t stay silent. While Stelling doesn’t address that instance in her new special, she does deliver some of the most searing jokes about #MeToo and rape culture ever committed to film.
Stelling taped her special on a Saturday night, March 7 of this year, just four days before the entire country had a rude awakening to the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. She says it’s “very possible” she was the last comedian to film a special before everything started to shut down.
“The following weekend I was supposed to do some shows in St. Louis and it was down to the wire whether I was going to show up that night,” she says. “At first, it was like, yeah, I’ll be there, of course.” She hasn’t performed comedy in front of a live audience since.
“I remember leaving the stage after the second taping and people were high-fiving me,” she recalls. “And then a guy in the last row put his elbow out and I was like, ‘corona?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah.’ I had no clue what was to come.”
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
How her own experience with sexual assault fueled her #MeToo jokes
“I don’t think stand-up should necessarily be your therapy, but in some ways, I guess it’s how I might feel control over a time I felt powerless. If I can make it funny, then I won. It didn’t kill me because I can make it funny. For me, the way I have to look at it is, it happened, I’ve worked through it and it'’s in the past. The impetus was to protect the women in my community. It wasn't a call out, it wasn’t let’s drag this person, it was here’s what’s going on with me and what I’ll be talking about in my stand-up, even though I was asked by this person not to talk about it. Like everything in my life, I always put it in my stand-up for better or for worse. I think in some ways I’ve learned lessons that not everything should be in your stand-up and you have to protect yourself. But for me, the thing that I had to struggle with most was how public it went. It had been brought to my attention that I wasn’t the only one that this happened to. When I learned that I was the fourth person, I thought, oh no, I just have to say something so people who know will know. What happened afterwards was it went so far out of my control.”
Why she doesn’t want to answer for male comedian predators
“It’s all kind of a blur and your mind oddly protects yourself, but [a reporter] brought up Louis C.K. and whether or not I felt safe at the [Just for Laughs] festival. Basically hinting at the fact that I was public about my own intimate partner abuse and intimating that I would then have something to say about that. And my response was, do you think that when football players come off after a game, they’re asked, ‘How do you feel about [Joe] Paterno? Were you molested at any of the camps you were at?’ And she’s like, ‘That’s not what I'm saying.’ OK, but are you asking the male comics what they’re doing to make people feel safe in the green room? I guarantee you’re not. For a long time, it was really tough for me to have these conversations because I was so ‘triggered.’ And it’s funny, because I don’t really identify with a lot of the rape culture terms. I think probably because I don’t want to be associated with it. You don’t want it to be your only thing, at all. Who would? I’m a stand-up comic. I get plenty of attention on my own.”
On the changing landscape of comedy during the pandemic
“I’ve been avoiding shows at all costs. I was ready for a break because I just filmed this special. So I was so relieved that I wanted to take a break after getting this hour done and then everybody else had to as well. Then cut to week one and comics are like, ‘I bought a green screen!’ And I was like, oh no, I thought we were supposed to rest! So that was annoying to me. But only in that sort of driven way where it’s like, come on, guys, let’s all be lazy together. It doesn't mean I'm not going to do a digital show. I just think it’s just not the same. And I don’t want to put people at risk. I don’t mean to shit on other comics that are out there touring and be mad at them, but it's hard not to feel like you’re ruining it for all of us. Cool for you that you’re out there, but I guess I’m going to be in here longer now.”