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:
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.