Taking space: how a trans comedian is owning their narrative with jokes

Host of Vicious Poodle's Queer Comedy Night Zane Oak tells honest, sometimes uncomfortable, accounts of being trans in a binary world

By Ryan Hook
August 21, 2021

Taking space: how a trans comedian is owning their narrative with jokes

Host of Vicious Poodle's Queer Comedy Night Zane Oak tells honest, sometimes uncomfortable, accounts of being trans in a binary world

By Ryan Hook
Aug 21, 2021

Taking space: how a trans comedian is owning their narrative with jokes

Host of Vicious Poodle's Queer Comedy Night Zane Oak tells honest, sometimes uncomfortable, accounts of being trans in a binary world

By Ryan Hook
August 21, 2021
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Taking space: how a trans comedian is owning their narrative with jokes

“Just remember when you go home tonight that you spent an hour laughing at a trans person.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if that statement reads weird to you. Even while I’m writing it, it feels weird. But it is a joke—a joke that trans-comedian Zane Oak tells me they used to close their standup shows with.

And that unexpected feeling you might get—the feeling that makes you unsure whether to clap, laugh, or cry—well, that’s something they’re used to.

“When people see my shows, I don’t get the sense that they’re uncomfortable with what I’m saying; it’s more that they aren’t expecting it,” Oak tells me.

Oak sits, sipping on a Corona on the patio of the downtown gay pub, the Vicious Poodle, while Cher’s “Believe” bellows from the front door.

I can’t say I’m not a fan of theirs.

At this point, I’ve seen Oak do stand-up comedy more than I’ve heard that same Cher song play at a gay bar—meaning, a lot.

Perhaps I enjoy listening to Oak—a small-statured, 57-year-old, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, almost David Beckham-looking character—because they’re owning their narrative as an out-trans comedian; and that’s something you don’t see that often.

As the host of the Queer Comedy Night at the Vicious Poodle, Oak navigates their comedy in a space void of binaries—if there is a binary, it’s whether you prefer to sit or stand in the bathroom.

From discussing the parallels of hormone therapy and their partner’s early onset menopause, to coming out mere weeks after Caitlyn Jenner, Oak’s comedy is both hilarious and uncomfortable.

Oak delivers jokes like a mix between a punk comic troubadour and a character on Seinfeld. These jokes, from anyone other than Oak, would probably prompt a wince; coming from Oak, it’s honest and risqué, and to me, it feels therapeutic.

Personally, my depth of trans friends runs pretty shallow, and for those within my circle that are non-binary or trans, I don’t push or prod for them to share with me their lived experience—it is theirs to share if they choose.

And that’s why I find Oak so bold—they’re sharing it openly in the toughest art form there is: standup.

Oak's stories of their life and the day-to-day struggles of being trans—coming out to their float home community or getting a new passport—is refreshing and didactic, and sitting outside the Vicious Poodle with them feels like peering beyond the curtain.

Taking space

Oak began doing comedy in 2011 after moving from Winnipeg.

At that time Oak tells me they were living as a woman, and they began a comedy class as something to do rather than something to achieve.

But being the natural performer they were, Oak did the first showcase and something struck a chord.

“I’d done improv but I saw a comedy class in the paper, and thought ‘I’ll do it but I won’t actually become a comic,” Oak tells me, “At that point I was quite ill, I wasn’t sleeping, but at least I had this comedy class to keep my mind active.”

I ask Oak if there is a difference between when they performed as a woman to where they are now.

“Now, knowing who I am,” Oak says, “performing, and being on this journey as a trans person, has given me confidence to take up more space.”

But Oak’s journey as both a comedian and a trans-person didn’t come without a few bumps and scrapes.

Standup is difficult because you have to worry about the two hardest things to do—connect with an audience and make them laugh. For Oak there’s that added risk of coming out as trans.

“Sure [comedy] is therapeutic for me, but it’s mostly scary,” they tell me. “I’m in dark places and often very binary spaces.  I have to come out as trans right away, or people don’t understand my material; that’s the scariest part, ’cause then I have to worry about whether they want to kill me.”

As a comedian, Oak has to ask themself how they can make things funny; as a trans person, they have to ask themself how they connect to an audience.

Oak tells me, “People laugh at my jokes cause they go, ‘it’s so true.’ But in all honesty, if you haven’t shared my lived experience in a trans narrative, then how can you connect to me?”

Oak tells me that comedy has helped serve their narrative as an out trans non-binary man for the past three and a half years, but for over four years, trauma therapy was the real force behind their healing.

In the after-effects of coming out in 2015, Oak learned they had complex PTSD—a mental illness often misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder which commonly affects trans people—at which point, they took a break from comedy to focus on therapy.

It took a lot of work, Oak says, but since finishing trauma therapy at the beginning of last year,  there was nothing left that wasn’t already put on the table.

After a year and a half break from comedy, Oak returned to it in 2018.

“At one point, I was doing trauma therapy every two weeks and comedy every week; it was an interesting juxtaposition,” Oak says. “I’m healthier now than I’ve been in my life, and it’s taken a lot of work, but it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. You have to be willing to go deep and dark.”

It’s the deep and dark dives and glimpses into their life that really attracts me to their comedy and it’s that which brings me to the Queer Comedy Night every Monday night each week.

Photo: Submitted

Queer Comedy Night

When you walk into the Vicious Poodle, you might get a nightclub vibe: the bar sits in the middle of the room and the decor is mostly black, aside from multiple six-foot photos of local Drag Queens covering the walls.

On Mondays, in the corner near the hustle and bustle of the kitchen staff, the Queer Comedy Night begins like any other comedy night—a single microphone stands in the middle of the stage, the crowd gets quiet, and Oak introduces themself.

Oak tells me there’s not much of a difference between a regular comedy night and a queer comedy night, other than giving queer people a space to go see comedy.

For comedians coming into the space though, it is different.

I sat down at the comic’s table, ordering cheap lagers and cracking jokes, nervous that I have to somehow be funny in order to fit in.

Weirdly enough, the comics had that same concern over performing in a queer space.

Before each show, Oak tells me that they send a gentle email reminder to comics to be mindful of the space they’re coming into.

Comedian Lucia Ribeiro tells me, “While I've had experiences that have traversed both sides of the spectrum, I do feel comfortable expressing myself in this space, but I also worry about saying things that are inappropriate.”

She adds, “Because of the prevalence of pronouns these days, I want to make sure I get that right, I don’t wanna fuck that up.”

“Oh my god, yes,” comedian Darren Millar says, “When I got that email from Zane, I was horrified I’d fuck something up.”

Comedian and pun-enthusiast Curran Dobbs adds, “I’m still working on amateur nouns.”

What was me half-expecting to be lauded with stories of a gender-free expressive utopia, quickly became a lesson that we’re not there yet.

And that’s OK, we’re getting there—Oak knows that too.

My time in the Queer Comedy space is as much a learning experience for one’s own blind spots as it is entertainment—and that’s the point of comedy, right? Comedy is standing up, grabbing a microphone, and forcing uncomfortable topics on an unsuspecting audience.

The hope with this night, Oak tells me, is that more queer folk start doing comedy and feel safe attending a live comedy show. The night, they say, is a chance to unite everyone in another fun show in an amazing queer space.

And I’m here for it, because the reality is that when I see Oak perform we’re not laughing at Oak, we’re laughing with them.

Article Author's Profile Picture
Ryan Hook
Food, Arts & Culture Reporter

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