Twenty years ago, I used to be a stand-up comedian, even appearing in a reality TV competition to find the best new comic. At the time, I was one of the few gay stand-up comedians and my humour was self-deprecating. I made fun of being fat and I made fun of being an effeminate man.
Highlighting my imperfections on the comedy stage helped me embrace and love the qualities that make me unique. Last month, as a judge for the Auckland Fringe Festival, I attended a show called Bald Man Sings Rihanna, performed by Scotsman Gary Sansome.
As the show's title suggested, Sansome was indeed bald and he did sing songs by Rihanna, which I expected. What I didn't expect was that most of his show would be a stand-up routine and that I would be singled out and made fun of.
Through body language and facial expressions, I indicated to Sansome that I was uncomfortable being the butt of his jokes. He ignored these signs. I even blatantly said "No" when he invited me up on stage to rub our bald heads together. I also didn't appreciate the audience being egged on by a Scottish import to laugh at the only Māori in the room who was getting visibly upset by the unwarranted attention.
It's torture when you're the only audience member at a comedy show who doesn't find the comedian funny. You feel as if everyone around you is laughing in slow-motion, just like in a horror film. It's even more traumatic when you end up becoming the joke.
Afterwards, I approached Sansome to ask why he continued to target me despite my obvious objections. He brushed off my concerns, telling me if I didn't like it, I should have left.
What he didn't know was that I was a festival judge, so felt obliged to stay. Besides, I felt leaving would have put an even bigger target on my back and I didn't want to give him more ammunition.
One audience member who'd seen how upset I was dismissively said, "What did you expect to happen at a comedy show?"
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I complained to the director of the venue, Auckland's Classic Comedy Club, which was a second home to me when I performed stand-up.
The venue apologised, and said that with just 16 people in the audience, Sansome was bound to try to talk to most of them. Banter was very much part of his approach and he had toured the show throughout the country without problems. He "doesn't set out to give offence to anyone".
Yet, the responses from both Sansome and the venue seem to me to reinforce the idea that comedians get a free pass and anyone in the audience is fair game.
When I was a stand-up comedian and made fun of myself on stage, I felt empowered by giving the audience permission to laugh with me. I did not give Sansome consent to make me his punchline.
When I let him know that I didn't want to be targeted, as a gay Māori male who has had a lifetime of being mocked and laughed at, he needed to listen.
Our society has worked hard to address bullying in our workplaces and schools. Maybe it's time for the comedy industry to take notice, too, and for comedians to read their audience and make fun of only those punters who are willing to be part of the act. Perhaps more punters would turn up.
The comedy stage was once the platform I used to express my opinions. Nowadays, I'm privileged to have this column to address important issues. I hate to think what could have happened if a more vulnerable person had been Sansome's target that night. The outcome could have been no laughing matter.