Ian Harvie On The Politics Of Being Funny

The trans comedian opens up about standup, acting, and how to laugh in the age of Trump.

He might not be as well-known as other trans entertainers, but comedian Ian Harvie has racked up some impressive credits, including appearances on Transparent, Mistresses, Young and Hungry and The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

He recently snatched the brass ring of comedy: an network standup special. His hourlong show, May The Best Cock Win, is now available on NBC’s streaming service, Seeso.
 

 
Below Harvie speaks to NewNowNext about his comedy, the politics of “passing” and whether we’ll have anything to laugh about over the next four years.

How much does your trans identity play into your comedy?

A lot, at this point. It feels really important to keep it a huge part of my routine. For one, because I’m still learning who I am as a man. People have said to me, “Aren’t you worried about being pigeonholed as a trans comic?” And I’m like, No, everybody is pigeonholed. You know that comic because you remember the topic that they talked about the entire time. Jerry Seinfeld talks about nothing. He’s famous for talking about nothing.

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Seeso

Every comic has an identity that they’re attached to and it’s very much part of who they are on stage. I think it’s going to be a part of my stuff always. I don’t know to what level, but it feels very important to keep it because of the current political landscape and all the things that could happen. It feels more important now, more than ever. We need to keep pushing.

So will it always be part of your act?

As I evolve as a comic, I want to say, yeah, probably. If it’s about my story at all, then you’re going to have to know some of the backstory. And it might be in passing that I mention it. But ultimately, yeah, if I’m going to do narrative style comedy, which is kind of my jam, telling stories about my life.

Once and a while I’ll have a joke that’s about something [else], like: “What do Facebook employees do to kill time?” That’s got nothing to do with anything, but for the most part my favorite kind of comedy to write is narrative. And sometimes that’s got to include my trans identity or it won’t make sense.

Do you have different material depending on whether the audience is queer or not?

Here’s the rule of comedy: if it’s funny, people will laugh. It doesn’t matter what you’re discussing. You have to make it funny to them. So, if I pivot, it’s because what I’m doing isn’t funny. I don’t pivot because the subject material is sensitive and has trans information in it. I pivot because what I’m doing isn’t working. If I target an audience before I walked out on stage as not liking my comedy, or I’m worried they’re not going to like my comedy, then I’ve lost.

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Seeso

My job, no matter what, is to make people laugh. And I think that what makes my comedy palatable for all audiences is that I’m not wagging my finger and telling them they need to believe anything, like that trans people exist. I’m walking proof that they do. I’m not political in any way other than saying this is who I am, which is actually very political. So I’m going out there and telling my story. And my story is inarguable—you can’t argue about somebody’s story!

I think that that’s what makes it easier: I’m not out there like Bill Maher, giving opinions with jokes. I’m actually telling you who I am and how I came to understand who I am, through my experiences. It’s hard for people to fold their arms and go, “No, stop, that’s not true.”

Have you played to a “challenge” audience? How do you pivot—what do you pivot to?

I’ll tell you that the language of “trans” in general is new to much older audiences, like people my parents’ age. I did a show at a church that’s been turned into an arts center—the community that goes there regularly is probably late 60s and older. They go to see art, and plays, and musicals and things like that. They’ll come out and support.

I remember seeing a sea of gray hair in the audience and thinking, Oh, this could be rough. But I think because they didn’t understand what trans was—it was a rural community, it was language they hadn’t heard before.

But I’ll tell you where they did laugh: When I talked about my family, and my mother. Everyone has a mother, everyone has a family. So my go-to stuff is stuff that I know that everybody can relate to.

Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

It does happen, of course. There is a pretty specific audience that doesn’t have the language or vernacular of LGBT culture, [for] which I tend to change my language a little bit. I won’t just walk out on stage and go “I’m trans!” because 99% of old people will look at each other and say, “What’s trans?” So, I might have to explain what trans is, I might have to use a long form explanation.

I have to thank Caitlyn Jenner for bringing the conversation to older people, because they didn’t have that language before, and they didn’t know what it meant. Even if we don’t agree with Caitlyn and her beliefs politically, and how she speaks about even her transition, she did give older people a slice of information that they didn’t have before. I have this little slice of gratefulness that she reached an audience that I would never [have].

Does being able to pass present opportunities or challenges? Do you always “disclose” when performing?

I think passing is male privilege, and I try to avoid passing whenever possible. It’s overrated. If there’s a time when I can not accept passing for male privilege specifically, then I want to out myself so that people don’t give it to me. They’ll still give it to me in many ways but if there’s a way that I can refuse it, it’s by being out. And I try to be as out as I can possibly be in my life for that reason.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 27:  Actor Ian Harvie arrives at the 8th Annual Television Academy Honors at the Montage Beverly Hills on May 27, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Amanda Edwards/WireImage)
Amanda Edwards/WireImage

[I have] a joke about passing as a dude: The very first time it happened to me, I thought I’d be relieved. I was at a gas station and the guy was like, “What’s up bro, getting some gas? Okay, that’ll be $20!” and I was like Woah, WTF, this is so weird, what a weird thing this is. Gross. I didn’t transition for this, no. I transitioned to feel better in my body.

I wanted clarification. I didn’t actually transition to pass. I transitioned to feel better in my skin. And I now do. It wasn’t my intention to pass at all. It just happens to come with it.

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Freeform

Most trans visibility in the media is focused on trans women. Where are all the trans men?

There’s not as much buzz, but it is happening. I was not the only trans guy on Transparent. Every person other than Jeffrey Tambor on that set that was playing a trans character was trans, some speaking some not. Shameless has a young trans guy whoplays Ian’s boyfriend, and The Fosters. Chaz Bono was on American Horror Story.

I think it’s okay if it hasn’t been quite the buzz, because trans people are [still] getting roles in TV and film. But if you think about it, the people whose voices most need to be elevated are trans women. They’re the people who are being attacked daily—with violence, with hatred. I don’t mind at all that they’re getting the buzz. The narrative around who trans women are needs to be changed. So I’m okay with that being the way that it is.

We may be still waiting for that Laverne Cox breakout role for a trans guy, though, like a series regular. That would feel kind of groundbreaking.

Are we overdue?

Of course we’re overdue. There’s no question about that. But I believe that the universe is at work right now for whoever that trans guy is to be that series regular. It might even be next season of Shameless, that kid who’s playing Ian’s boyfriend. It might be him and that’s great. It’s going to happen.

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Tony Rivetti/ABC

We have really great organizations like GLAAD that are pushing for these things, too. When I got got cast to do 4 episodes of Mistresses, Nick Adams from GLAAD went in and did a one-on-one with their writing staff, and said, “You know what you guys should do, you guys should make Ian a regular, make him recurring, make it so he has a really hot girlfriend or hot boyfriend, what ever you’re doing make him legit and human and likable. Bring him back, and do it with grace.”

We have people who are advocating for these kinds of things all the time. Nick regularly goes in to writer’s rooms of TV shows that are writing trans storylines and helps them make sure it’s accurate. The industry is still playing catch up, but there are these stories and [it’s about] trying to incorporate them.

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Amazon

Sure, it’s hot right now to cast a trans person. Hollywood has to have that element—not just doing it because it’s the right thing to do, not only because we exist, but also because they think audiences want to watch.

You’ve mentioned how important it is to be visible in the current political climate. What do you think we’re headed for as a community in the next four years?

My natural state is optimistic and open, and I can usually take anything that you say to me and find the positive in it. [But] I would say that I’m terrified, as are a lot of other people. But I’ve been through all the stages of grief, and I’m now in the stage which nobody talks about.

My really sweet friend Amy Landecker pointed out that there’s another stage of grief that nobody talks about, the final stage, which is action. You can go through denial and anger and sadness, and all of the feels around loss and confusion and all that. But the final one is “Okay, you’ve gone through all of that so now get off your ass and do something about it.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 27:  (L - R) Actors Bradley Whitford and Alexandra Billings, guest, guest, Executive Producer Jill Soloway and actors Judity Light and Ian Harvie attend the 8th Annual Television Academy Honors at Montage Beverly Hills on May 27, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

A lot of people say, “What could I possibly do?” Open your mouth! Show up and being of service to others in need. In a climate where someone is trying to constantly divide us, my job as an artist is to make art that unites us. So thats what I’m going to do.

As a trans person, just being yourself is a political act.

Being kind is a political act, really. This administration does not want us to be kind to each other. I will also say, only 22-25% of all eligible U.S. voters voted for Trump, so when people say half the country voted for him, that’s inaccurate. When people say this country is so divided, I say actually, it’s not. It feels that way because that is what they created.

The large majority of us—and we’ve seen the marches, we saw the numbers, who’s at the inauguration, and who’s on the street—this country is not that divided. Not to the extreme that this administration would like to perpetuate because it feeds their negative machine. I would say don’t believe anything they say about how divided we are.

It’s been both rough and easy these past eight years with Obama. Rough because we have—as liberals, as Democrats, as people who want to be kind to each other—we have seen opposition at every turn. But we’ve also gotten so much done. We weren’t challenged by tyrants. So we don’t know what that feels like. Even Bush before Obama was not a tyrant. He was an imbecile, but he wasn’t a tyrant. So this is a new territory. So it’s absolutely terrifying.

Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Amazon Studios

But I would say open your mouth, call out things when you see them, and stop them if you can safely stop them. Do exactly what Meryl said, “Take your broken heart and make into art.” If you’re an artist, speak out in whatever way you can. And everybody’s an artist.

The one positive thing I can say is, it’s times like this that really great art is made. So I’m going to be part of that movement. And I’m going to show up and be of service to others and be kind. We are much more on the same page than we think.

Ian Harvie’s May The Best Cock Win is streaming now on Seeso.

Film freak. Writer. Journalist. Yogi and yoga teacher.
@MoodyHeching