Leighann Lord: Courageous Comedy as a Safe Space

February 23, 2015

This week on a special episode highlighting the upcoming Reason for Change conference, Point of Inquiry welcomes stand up comedian Leighann Lord. Talking with show producer Nora Hurley, they discuss how the worlds of comedy and skepticism are not as distant as they seem. They explore the unique dynamic comedy creates for critical thinking, and how a good joke may just be the gateway to discourse and discussion.

Leighann will be preforming at the Reason For Change conference June 11th – 15th 2015. Learn more about seeing her live this summer at http://reasonforchange.org.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February 20 30, 2015. 

Hi, welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Nora Hurley producer, point of inquiry, and I’m filling in for Josh and Lindsay this week because we wanted to do something special to let you know about Reason for change, which is center for inquiries. Big conference for skeptics and humanists taking place June 11th through 15th in Buffalo, New York. We have a pretty epic conference planned for this year’s speaker. Lineup is awesome. 

People like Rebecca Goldstein, Richard Dawkins, Susan Jacoby, Phil Zuckerman and a bunch of others, including my guest this week, stand up comedian, writer and skeptic Leighann Lord. 

If you aren’t already familiar with this hilarious woman, you may recognize her voice from one of her numerous television appearances on dozens of networks. She’s been featured on everything from CNN and PBS to HBO and Comedy Central. You also might recognize her from XM Sirius Radio. Or as the co-host of Star Talk Radio, Neil deGrasse Tyson. And if you want to see more of LeAnn, she will also be performing at Center for Inquiries Reason for Change conference. Thanks for being on the show. 

Thank you for having me. 

So I figured we’d start at the beginning of the year. Beginning is usually a pretty good place to start. 

So a lot of people in this world are funny, but it’s a whole other thing to be able to take that and put it into writing and performing. Yes. So when’s the first time you realized you were funny? And when did you realize that this was something you were actually gonna build a career around? 

I realized it was funny because I think I’m a funny family. Like, my parents are hilarious. They don’t always mean to be, but they’re hilarious. And I mean, I always tell people that I mean it. My my family’s funnier than I am. I just nearly one who wants to get paid for it. But I think I first got a love of being on stage. I don’t think it really happened until college. That’s when I did my first play. And I just fell in love with the whole performing and be on and being in front of people and having fun. And I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t have that. That fear, that little thing that most people have in their brains is danger. Danger. We’d rather go to the dentist. I don’t want to have that. I like I get to stand in front of people and speak. Yay! Let me add it also. 

Not even a little bit like in the beginning, you didn’t have a little bit of apprehension that you had to get over or just it was totally easy. 

No, I don’t think it was ever easy. I just didn’t have the same apprehension as well, because I think there’s I was actually just talking with a friend about this yesterday that there is always a little bit of nervousness. But I guess over time, over the years, I’ve learned what to do with that energy and how Discovery Channel it and we focus it so that I almost don’t notice it. Right. Just that sort of extra bump. That’s when I go out on stage. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. 

So like you, I’m someone who has always been really interested and compassionate about skepticism and humanism. 

And I’ve also been really interested in comedy I’ve done in Provan Scatch for as long as I can remember. And I just started getting into standup. And something I’ve always noticed is that funny people, especially funny performers, have a really high correlation to being secular and skeptical. Do you notice that at all? And why do you think that is? 

I do. I do. You know what it is? We we get very, very used to looking at the world with a different time frame or with a critical eye. You know, as someone who’s interested in comedy or performing or writing is always saying what’s wrong with this picture? So that that opens up the mind to being critical in other areas as well. So it’s an I think it’s a natural. It definitely leads you down that path. 

But and then the other correlation that I’ve noticed sort of on the flip side, especially with Charlie, have you and the shootings in Denmark this past week, why does it seem like conservative religious people are so bad at taking jokes? It’s like the more religious you are, the more things are off limits to laugh. I don’t know if that is a solution to religious conflicts that we all just lighten up a little bit. 

You know, I. I wish I had an answer to that and lighten up is good. I mean, that’s a good place to start. Otherwise, perhaps our own sort of reverse terrorist campaign of perhaps kidnaping people and tickling them. All right. All right. I’ll listen to the joke. This is a joke, but you can get in this bubble, and I think we all have it just in different areas of our lives where we take things a little too seriously. And then it’s almost the barometer of when a joke’s not funny, it’s because it’s too close to you. It hits that nerve. And I think most of us work it going, OK, maybe I should be a little less sensitive. And so people to work on it at all. Yeah, yeah. We’ve got a problem. Conservative people. 

It’s interesting too, because I do. On the one hand, I think that comedy is one of the most powerful tools for changing people’s minds because, yes, the evidence is in the laughter and it’s a shameless way to say maybe I was wrong. But then on the other hand, when you cross that. And you offend someone. It’s almost guaranteed that they’re never going to change their mind because they’re horizon. It’s a hard line. 

That’s the beauty of comedy in all its forms. It really does make it a safe space, which should make it a safe space to laugh and to sort of cleanse the mental palate and take that deep breath ago. OK, maybe we can laugh at this. Maybe we can now talk about this like grown ups. And it does walk that line of what happens when it does hurt someone’s feelings. Because standup in particular is not always very nice. You know, there’s there is a target and it’s great when you’re not the target or your thoughts or your beliefs. 

So it becomes very difficult when all of a sudden that critical comedic guy is aimed on you. That’s what makes standup in particular, I think, so difficult in comics. Who can pull that off and be fair about it by pointing fun, not just at one group or one thing, but going, I’m going to be even I’m going to be open minded about this and go across the board and even poke fun at ourselves. Not putting ourselves above anything like, hey, everybody, we’re all sharing the planet. We all take in all vulnerable. Right. And I think even more important is when it is coming from a genuine place of humor and compassion. And I’m not trying to bury you with jokes. You know, this is really what I’m thinking. And if I’m thinking it, other people are thinking it. Let’s have a laugh and then let’s have a chat. 

Yeah. Which I did. I’ve seen some of your stuff on YouTube, and I love when you talk about religion. I mean, I think you’re very fair. I, I, I come from a very religious family and I can see them laughing at those types of jokes that you make. It doesn’t seem like an attack so much as a commentary on what’s happening. 

Yeah. I mean, there’s there’s the commentary aspect and there’s also the I’m approaching it from this is my experience. This is what I’m thinking. You know, I’m not necessarily going. Let me pick a religion to make fun of it. All right. Right now, you can do that as a writing exercise. But that’s not where I am coming from. And I think people sense that both in my personality and in the end product of the jokes. 

I mean, I’ve I’ve actually had people come up to me, no, I didn’t agree with you, but it was still funny far as although you could still get to that laugh at that because, yeah, we don’t have to. 

That’s the magic that we used to be able to not agree and still coexist. 

That’s my next question, too, is, is there a difference when because you’re gonna be performing at the Reason for Change conference coming up this summer? 

Yeah. Hopefully the snow will be gone by then. Oh, yeah. 

Well, no promising cause global warming, but what is the difference between performing for a secular crowd versus when you just go out to these comedy clubs? 

Do you change the way you deliver or the types of jokes that you present when you know that they’re going to be more receptive to? Right. I will under criticism. 

It’s interesting. I am pulled. I am wherever I’m going. But logically, I’m going to look at the group that I’m performing for and try to at least open with material that builds that box. And that’s already sort of built in with you guys. You know, it’s already sort of a receptive audience, but it’s still a homogenous audience. Sell-by thankfully, one that I feels connected to antibiotics. That makes it a little bit easier and a lot more fun. You know, if it’s just a regular comedy club, I never know where people are coming from. You know, it’s there’s a diversity there. So it’s almost like I like to call it a blind date. Like I’m showing up. And I do. I do. 

And you have no idea who I am. And we’re sort of figuring each other out and hoping this is not going to be a disaster. Hopefully, everyone here likes to laugh on this date. Right, exactly. You know, the fact that we’re all together and have some sort of commonality makes it easier. It’s like we’ve been on a few dates. We like each other. Let’s keep it going. You’re at a comedy show, so hopefully it means that you’re in it for the laugh. Yeah. Yeah. Comedy by surprise is never a good idea. 

Usually not. Usually not. 

It is interesting, though, when you share a bond with your audience, that’s like a step further than just their there laugh. I had a friend who was very I mean, he’s a feminist and he was sort of against women comedians going up and doing all women shows. And I kind of disagreed with them because I felt like, you know, that’s a they don’t have to only do those shows, but that’s a particular show where they’re getting something unique and they have a bond with that audience that’s very specific to them. They understand each other absolutely specific way. 

I love doing all women’s shows that I think the problem is and this is might be where he’s coming from, I don’t know is that if that was our only opportunity. Right. To perform. But this is an opportunity. And women, oddly enough, as audience members laugh and behave differently than when they’re in a mixed group. It’s almost refreshing to see us sort of cut loose when, you know, we’re not worried about being cue for the guy that we brought. This just this visceral estrogen connection that is really. I yeah, I totally enjoy it, and hopefully I’ve interpreted your friend correctly, that might be where he’s coming from and that’s definitely. Yeah, sensitive too. 

Yeah. It was a quote, an equality issue. And I and the other thing I pointed out to him is that it’s it’s a very male dominated fields. And at all times, if that’s hard for women to get up there and she’s just starting out and she wants to perform in front of women first, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. 

Exactly. That was actually my question to being of all women with fellow interests in male dominated fields, which I mean, they sort of dominate all the fields more or less. 

Yeah. Yeah, I’ve noticed that. 

Yeah. But especially things like comedy and skepticism or science in general where women are super underrepresented. What have been your hardest struggles and instances of pushback with gender and those male dominated domains? Because you’re in both. 

Yeah, I guess I do. I guess I don’t know. 

I guess what my biggest challenge is, I guess just being accepted as a human being. Right. You know, really, sometimes I’m asked to sort of show up and represent my gender and. 

Yeah. I don’t think I’m bad or bad ass enough do that. You know, I do have a. 

But it’s like, can we can we be human beings with each other? Can we can we be people. And part of that isn’t necessarily the male community. There are times when it is, but part of it is being comfortable in my own skin. Right. And in my own opinions and having conversations in male dominated rooms and going, no, I don’t agree. And that’s not mean. And we’re gonna fight about it. But no, I don’t agree just because you said it in a deep voice and you said it in sound bite and you think you’re right. So all your Millford. So you’re right. No. 


Do you notice, too, when you’re working on things like skepticism in science versus when you’re in a comedy environment? Is there one that’s more difficult than the other? As far as your gender identity, do you notice that you’re being treated differently in one more than the other, or is it kind of tough all the way around? 

For me, I think that it’s more it’s easier in comedy because I think it’s easier for people to sort of dismiss that. 

I don’t have credibility when it comes to something about intellectual discussion or an opinion. But with comedy, the proof is in the pudding. I mean, if I make you laugh, that’s your evidence. And the only thing that I would say, though, that sometimes because the same reason people think that you’re maybe not as smart, because they’ve a preconceived notion that you’re not qualified. That can happen with comedy, too, or they don’t think a funny joke is funny just because they don’t anticipate that you should be funny. But I think most of the time, if you can break that layer, I find that the more times I make some one laugh, especially men, each time they get a little less surprised. 

Like, have you noticed that that look of surprise on the face, like you said that. What? 

Yeah. You know. You know what it is. It’s weird. We’re agreeing and disagree. We’re about to agree. And it’s where, you know, I still think it’s hard and comedy and because that’s where I spend more of my time. And I only say that because these same discussions and arguments keep coming up. You know, it’s it’s almost cyclical. I can almost market on my calendar, like about it about a year and six months. We can have this discussion again. Somebody is going to say something ridiculous. Women are going to get upset. The men who love them are going to get upset. You know, a couple of women are suddenly gonna get spots on late night TV and then odai down again. Women are funny and I actually get more resistance from women in the audience. More often than not, we’ll have a woman come up to me, go, oh my God, you were funny. And I don’t like female comics. 

Like, it’s a compliment. Yeah, that happens quite a bit. 

I actually welcome it because if you’re I’d rather you say what you’re thinking, then go home and think it right. I made you feel comfortable enough to tell me that. And now we can talk about it. And now you’ve said it out loud. You could choose with your friends that will OK. So I think female comics are funny now. I should go out more. I should have less judgment. You know, not that you’ll say this consciously, but that’s what sinks in. Yeah. It’s also interesting in the skeptical world because people have this notion of what a human is, Dorin, atheist or an agnostic, you know, they diesel terms that it all means you don’t believe what I believe in years. This thing, I imagine, could be. And then people meet me and they talk to me and I like. But you’re nice, which is like, yeah, but it gets to the core of what their preconceived notion is of what other. Yeah, it’s it’s why these conversations are so important. 

I find a lot of people are very they have stigmatism against words like Athie ism and humanism and all of that. But when you have conversations about the things you think about the world, a lot of times people are pretty similar. I mean, there are a lot of people who aren’t necessarily religious and they don’t want to be near those terms, but they’re skeptical, critical thinkers just like you and I. But they don’t want to attach themselves to what they think this whole ideology is. 

Right. The words get scary for people. You know, I’ve I’ve actually had conversations with people ask me, well, what are you, a humanist? Atheist, are you agnostic? So that really depends on how much time I have to have an argument. We end up, you know, if I have the time to argue, I’ll say atheist. You know, if I want to confuse them, I’ll say humanists, you know, because once people go non and they think, oh, that sounds relatively positive and then told off. I think what really surprises them is that my mission in life is not to change their minds. Yeah, I really honestly, I have a hard enough time getting through the day to day all on my own and finding, you know, the answers that I need for me and the people I love to go out and then crusade and change someone’s mind is just extra on my to do list that I don’t have time to do. My hope is that in your acquaintance with me and your knowledge of me and your conversations with me, that might change your mind the same way someone did for me. Plant a little seeds. Yeah. And then you go out and find these things. And I was somewhere on your path. Now I’m on the path of the deep conversation. That’s comedy. You know, if not, I’m not going to beat you over the head with something that probably wasn’t even your fault. You were born into something. Your parents did the best they could and you were indoctrinated like the rest of us. Why am I going to be mad at you? Do you get angry is when you think what you’re doing is something I should be doing right. 

When they push it back on you. 

Now I come out of the shell. Now we’re going to rob. 

Yeah. That’s one to get serious. You said earlier, too, it’s about being human and not necessarily representing a gender or what have you. And it reminded me I was reading this stand up book and I won’t say the name of the book because there’s plenty of positive things in the book as well. But it was written by a man and he had a chapter about female comedians. And the chapter mostly consisted about, I’m a male. How should I know? But I mean, I appreciated the effort. And then at the end, it said, I find that all of the successful comedians that I know don’t make jokes about being female. 

They make jokes about being human. And at first I thought, whoa, that’s deep. And then I thought, well, wait a minute. 

Being female is a huge part of my human. Yeah, it is. That is like saying all the funny black comedians make jokes about being human. They don’t make jokes about being black. I mean that they have to. That’s part of. They are black humans. That’s part of their living. 

Exactly. I don’t think it’s true either. I think there are a lot of successful female comedians who make jokes about their gender specific issues. But there’s still this stigma that female comedians are always told, you know, don’t make any jokes about sex, don’t we? 

Don’t talk about your period. Right. So is that just is that a confirmation bias where people only notice those jokes when they flop? Or is that is there some value to that advice where people aren’t ready for it? Or maybe that’s not the best thing to be talking about. Oh, my gosh. 

First of all, if we wait to do what people are ready for, we’re doomed. We are really doomed. Right. I am always very, very hesitant to tell someone or have the audacity to tell someone how to pursue and develop their art. If you find that what makes you empowered and funny is talking about being woman on stage. Oh, my God. Let loose. You know, why would I deny anyone that? It’s funny. Know, I say that I just want to be a human being. But you’re right as a human being. Do I tell jokes about being woman? Absolutely. So I talk about being a black woman. Absolutely. That’s my experience. But then I’m also gonna talk about my love of teddy bears, which has absolutely no gender, color, whatever. Right. And that people will relate on many levels. They’ll relate because they’re women. They relate because they’re people of color. Although will leap because they had a horrible date, too. You know what I mean? You find I find people come up to me and they would like the same joke, but for different reasons because it’s from their perspective and their point of view. And that’s what good entertainment should do. That’s what our humanity should do for us. 

Yeah. And then there’s another sort of under represented group. 

I feel like it’s really easy for female gay comedians like lesbians are often that’s OK for them to be out there and tell their jokes. But I don’t see a lot of gay male comedians and I feel like maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just don’t know of many. But I feel like they’re being underrepresented. And I feel like people like seeing into a world that’s not their own. I feel like even though I’m a white woman, I want to hear what it’s like for a black man to live his life. And I want to hear what it’s like for a gay man to live his life to say that you’re odd. 

I’m kidding. I’m kidding. The most most people sort of get stuck in their tribe and, you know, they they don’t realize it. I think sometimes you should want to hear about other groups and what what saper space to do in comedy. 

In my opinion, I think it’s more what I mean is that it’s a safe place to learn about those things because we all have our anxiety about different races and genders. But I think comedy is a place where you get to learn about it without having to feel uncomfortable, it sort of relieves the tension. 

It’s not so much that I am on top of things above everyone else to get outside of my tribe. But I think that that’s what I want to see out of comedy. So the groups that I’m curious about, I want to see that through a comedic venue rather than a different one. 

Just because it’s more comfortable, it feels less right. 

Yeah, it it doesn’t get any safer than sitting in the dark and laughing. 

Yeah, absolutely. I guess I was just wondering if it had something to do with it being such a male dominated field and that people, people tend to be more comfortable with lesbianism than they are with. 

You might be. I would not be surprised. I don’t think that’s an incorrect assessment. Right. 

And if I could borrow you as a mentor real quick. What advice would you give? 

Are there any tricks of the trade to building respect despite the stereotypes associated with being a women? When you were starting out and you’re around all these male comedians, if you could go back and tell yourself something that you didn’t know, then what would you say? 

I would say keep in mind that you have as much right to be in the room as they do. They don’t have any sort of a birthright or predisposition or any other place in line ahead of you because they’re male. 

Be there. Be confident. Be aware of comparing yourself, I guess. And that’s to any comic go for the sound of your own. 

Laughs Know what your development path is? You may not know what the path is, but always be working on something. Whether other people could see it or not is irrelevant. Beware of guys who mean. Well, yeah, I think a lot of the MEANWELL. Yes, some of them. Meanwhile, some of them have ulterior motives, but sometimes the ones that are harder are the ones that meanwell that end up talking down to you like hey little lady. Let me tell you what to do wrong. Help me listen respectfully. And you know, sometimes there’s something in there and sometimes there isn’t. 

Yeah. Now I usually the best way I always have the right when he come back to say but I find the best way to handle that sort of they mean well attitude is with comedy. It’s the best way to be like oh ok mister. Looking at my boobs, it’s a show that I’m not offended by what you’re doing, but I’m going to point it out to everyone else and everyone else here is gonna laugh at you when I point out the obvious to me. Right. Without sounding like I’m very upset and be accused of complaining. Right. As I’m a female and I shouldn’t complain about stuff. 

Yeah, that’s that’s the real kick in the head because we don’t have a human resources office. We don’t have an EOC. There’s no place that we can go to complain. Right. About harassment. And whatever we do, it always comes back that we’re the problem. That hasn’t changed. It’s very irritating. 

Are there other things that have changed? Have you noticed some progression in either skepticism or comedy where things seem to be equaling out in regards to gender? 

Oh, yeah, I absolutely do there. It seems that there are more women in both arenas every day, more women who are saying, I’m funny, I want to do stand up. And they kind of don’t have the baggage that comes with, oh, I don’t know if I should do this. They don’t even have the thought that they shouldn’t be like, I’m slutty, I’m doing this, and all they have to do is then make the same, quote unquote, mistakes that everybody else makes in developing and becoming a comic. It’s not any extra baggage of a girl, which is great to watch. So I’m seeing some really wonderful talent that’s coming in and developing and at this point coming into its own. It’s really, really wonderful to see also on the stand up side, on the skepticism side. It’s also wonderful that more women are coming out and accessing that. I think it’s been male dominated for I guess, many reasons, but that I feel particularly proud because we are now less susceptible, so to speak. We’re asking those questions sooner. We’re feeling represented. And you can tell that that’s happening because of the friction. The friction wouldn’t be happening in the skeptical community if more women weren’t there going, hey, you shouldn’t say that, or, hey, did you mean it that way? Or We’re making ourselves known. And in doing that, we’re shaking things up. 

Things are uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s good. That’s where the progress is. That’s where the conversations happen. That’s where we then realize, oh, we need to make room. This is a bigger tent than we thought. Somebody bring in some more chairs away. Big party. 

Now, I like that. I like uncomfortable is good and I agree. Finally, just a more general question for all our listeners, young, old men, women, gay, straight. If someone out there listening right now is passionate about comedy or skepticism or maybe both. What’s the first step in getting your voice out there? What’s what’s your advice for swallowing your pride and getting up on stage and more or less saying, hey, I’m up here because I think I’m funny or hey, I’m up here. Because I think I have something important to say. What’s the. 

Way to put those insecurities aside and just go into performing. Wow. Because I think a lot of people want to know that there’s always something that holds them back. 

Oh, yeah. Advice to make people or inspire them to get on stage. I kind of like to live my life of I don’t have regrets. I don’t want should’ve, woulda, coulda at the end of the day. Nobody cares. No, no. Honestly, they really, really don’t. If you didn’t take the time to realize what your passion or your dream or your goal was and take responsibility and follow it, no one’s going to do that for you. So, I mean, I hate to be dire and say, you know, the doctor comes and you have five minutes to live. Crap. I didn’t get on stage. So you don’t give yourself that gift if you think it’s what you want to do. Go do it. Find out if it is something you want to pursue or find out that. No, this is horrible. I’d rather go hang gliding. Now you’ve gotten it off your bucket list. Absolutely. 

But, you know, I would say if you want to sort of work up the courage step by step, start watching comedy on YouTube, on television, if you haven’t already physically go to a comedy club, because it’s a different experience to watch people live and to see what that interaction with the audience is. And things will happen in a live audience that will not happen on television. Get that feeling and soak that up and watch people do well or bomb or make mistakes or be brilliant and just taken that inspiration and then be one of those people that someone else is looking at and being inspired by great advice. 

And you can see we can perform live at the Reason for Change conference, which takes place June 11th, fifteenth in Buffalo, New York. And you can go to Reason for change dot org to find out more about how to register land. Thanks again for being on the show. 

Oh, no, thank you. This has been an absolute pleasure. 

Nora Hurley

Nora Hurley

Former editor of Point of Inquiry. Comedian and Media producer at Rewire News.