A failure of imagination

First, let me say that I’m enjoying my first JSConf very much. It’s obvious the organizers and speakers have all done a ton of work to make it a great event. I hope this post doesn’t come across as ungrateful or dyspeptic. But I feel like I should say something, and I don’t think I’m alone in my reaction:

@JennLukas tweet

There was a little lunchtime performance that just went places it didn’t need to go. There were jokes about “transvestite hipsters in downtown Portland” and about women in technology. They called out women in the audience, and said they were going to bring one up on stage by picking a woman’s name at random. First they brought up a man whose name looks like “Jan” and then asked him questions as if he was a woman (really, this was the level of humor). They asked him how it feels to be a woman in technology, surrounded by “smelly, sweaty men.” They joked about how they only discovered that this guy was a man “late last night” (get it?). Then they did call up a woman; I don’t know if she’d agreed in advance.

The questions they asked her were pretty tame. All in all, it wasn’t particularly out of control. But the whole time I was sitting there just praying it wasn’t going to get worse. And I imagine there were women in the audience feeling nervous that they were going to be called up and embarrassed or humiliated.

I’m sure the people putting on the show were nervous and just trying to give the audience a good show. And I’m sure they felt they didn’t cross any lines (even though the queer jokes pretty much did). But this is the part that I find really sad. It’s a failure of imagination, especially as a performer, not to be able to empathize with the audience: how were we supposed to know in advance how far it was going to go? Why would you make some of your audience feel intimidated or anxious just in the name of cheap laughs?

And let’s face it, this humor is cheap. These are the kinds of jokes you use when you’ve got nothing else. Comedy is really, really hard. If you aren’t a professional comic, maybe you just shouldn’t try. But at least stay away from jokes that isolate and intimidate your own audience. Some places are set up for raunchy or deliberately offensive humor, and that’s fine. But this is a technology conference.

Update: I hope this post won’t lead people to generalize about the JS community or JSConf. I stand by what I said; Chris and Laura work to make JSConf fun and inclusive for everyone, and I don’t think the guys who did this bit yesterday lived up to that. But as I said in my post, JSConf really has been incredible.

6 Responses to A failure of imagination

  1. Comedy is really, really hard. If you aren’t a professional comic, maybe you just shouldn’t try

    I think that’s the key thing. Professional comedians are really good at knowing where the line is, and even they occasionally overstep and go down in a blaze of outrage. Amateurs probably shouldn’t even try, or at least should play it cautious…

  2. Well said. It sounds like it was a most unpleasant experience.

  3. Thanks for writing this. Agreed on all accounts. I know a few of the people on the stage at the time and I’ve known them to only be supportive of women in tech, so it was just a bit surprising to me to watch what unfolded.

    I think some people underestimate their influence when up on a public forum/stage. Speakers are chosen for their intelligence and awesomeness (items the folks up on stage have on their resume) and I think as speakers we need to respect that fact and make sure we respect our audience as well. It’s definitely a tough job, and sometimes we all say things we wish we could take back and never would’ve said if it wasn’t in an improv type position. I believe that is the case here. I think more prep in the future can help avoid situations like this.

  4. I’m glad people are willing to call this out when it occurs.

  5. A Nonymous

    As a programmer I have met a lot of transvestites (99% of Ts that I meet outside of a club are programmers) so I think the derogatory comments about transvestites seems unfair to the community as well.

    There are many notable Ts in Perl community and we value their contributions (I’m not going to name names because people get sensitive about being outed so to speak).

  6. A Nonymous, I believe you’re conflating transvestites with transsexual or transgender people. Not that any of these groups should be a target for derogatory humor, but they are different.

    (Hoping this comment didn’t post twice — computers, how do they work?)