Funny Woman

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Photo by Heidi Kirn

How a political operative uses comedy to stay sane amid the 24-hour news cycle

I used to lose sleep over the sexts I sent in my 20s, but now I figure if those photos ever surface at least people will know how thin I was.

If you laughed at that, thank you. If you didn’t, well, welcome to the vulnerable art of mining your life for stand-up comedy—something I’ve just started to do at the ripe old age of 34.

Victoria Bonney took a big step onto the stage this year to try standup comedy. Here she’s at Space Gallery, practicing her routine. Photo by Heidi Kirn

Maybe this foray isn’t so out of left field. Throughout my life I’ve been described as irreverent. I wasn’t always sure that was a compliment, but I do like making people laugh. And I do share a hometown with comedy legends Sarah Silverman, Seth Meyers and Adam Sandler—all of whom I idolized while I was growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire. A steady diet of Ed McMahon’s Star Search in the late 80s made me interested enough in performing that I begged my mother to let me try out for modeling and acting jobs. That led to a brief career as a child actor with landmark roles such as “Unnamed Blond Girl” in Polaroid and Frosted Flakes commercials. Sadly, my stardom came to an end when I was about 6, after some traumatic incidents involving first a Dorothy Hamill haircut and then a perm that cost me friends on the playground.

Despite these early influences, I never considered that I’d get up on a stage and tell jokes to total strangers. But these aren’t normal times, are they? You know the flood of disturbing breaking news headlines that you just want to tune out? I can’t. It’s my job to consume them. I’m the communications director for Maine’s First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and as luck would have it, I was hired the week Donald Trump was inaugurated. You remember that period when Twitter became the official presidential bully pulpit? It was my duty to immerse myself in it—every covfefe word of it.

Needless to say, this media diet has had an impact. Reading the comment section of every political post drove me to question if there was any common ground left between us, and if satire was even possible anymore. Not to mention having a front row seat for some very disturbing political events, from government shutdowns to visiting detention facilities where children were in cages, shivering under Mylar blankets at the U.S./Mexico border. I could either let all of this make me cynical, heartbroken and speechless or try to find some meaning in it. That’s where stand-up comedy came in.

After two years of Onion-esque push-alerts on my smartphone, my brain needed a creative escape hatch from the 24-hour news cycle. Something—anything. In February, I joined a dozen other novices in an comedy workshop, taught by Tim Ferrell, a former writer for Comedy Central. Over eight weeks, I created, reworked and shaped a nine-minute comedy set that I hoped would allow me to channel my angst into material that could give others relief during these turbulent times.

During the Bush years I found such an antidote in the The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Most mornings in college, I set my VHS tape recorder to record the show. I was so into it, I would research any references in Jon Stewart’s jokes that I didn’t know because I wanted to be in on them. Stewart used comedy to politically engage my generation and demonstrated how to disarm people with humor during divisive times. When I started the workshop, I wanted to find a way to do that, too. Instead of hitting people over the head with the injustice of, say, prescription drug costs, I tried to craft jokes so that people could relate to big social problems. Like the one I wrote about a guy I met on a dating app who asked me as soon as he swiped right how much debt I have. I told him that I had a little bit of cash saved in case I get sick. “Like back pain cash or type 2 diabetes money?” he asked. To which I replied, “Sir, I am driving a Kia in my profile photo, you think I can afford insulin? Swipe left.”

“But writing jokes is wholly different than delivering them. On stage, it’s just you and a mic—there’s no hiding.”

This joke is about health care costs, of course, but also about the economic pressure on Millennials as well as the torture that is modern dating. In short, it’s relatable. I have another joke about how anyone running for president in 2024 should have to disclose whether they’ve ever spent time on Tinder or Bumble because if they haven’t, they do not know true human suffering and should be disqualified. This one always gets a laugh because it’s a universal truth that online dating is hell.

But writing jokes is wholly different than delivering them. On stage, it’s just you and a mic—there’s no hiding. I learned right away that confidence and energy are 90 percent of my act. If I’m going to say something bold, I need to own it. When I first started performing jokes, I would mumble over words and my workshop cohorts would say, “I missed that. Can you say it again?” If it continued to be garbled, that told me I wasn’t comfortable saying that joke. I’d scrap that one and move on.

Like it or not, the moment you walk on stage, a comedy audience makes a snap judgment about you. You’re there to make them laugh and you’re not a famous headliner (yet) so you better own all the stereotypes associated with your appearance or you’ll lose them out of the gate. That’s why I opened my first comedy show with a joke about how hard it is to be a white, blonde woman these days because even though I get easily approved for credit cards, I don’t know how to insert my chip card properly. Although this a joke about privilege and dumb blondes, who among us really can properly insert their chip card? I rest my case.

After two months of workshopping and practicing in front of the mirror, my dog, the workshop participants and my (semi-)willing friends, I delivered my set in front of a crowd of about a hundred at One Longfellow Square in Portland in mid-April. To my relief, I didn’t speed through the act. I took my time, hit the punchlines and guess what? People laughed—some even chortled. Since then I’ve performed at open mic nights around Maine. They’re a bit like Weight Watchers meetings: they hold you accountable and you make progress alongside new friends. And, in my case, I confess to sins like self-medicating with pints of Ben & Jerry’s just to get through a week of Trump tweets.

Friends have asked me if this is going to be a second career. The short answer is no. I don’t have the time or energy to be on the open mic circuit every week. I’m extremely fortunate to have a day job that I enjoy and derive immense purpose from—daily Twitter monitoring duties notwithstanding. I have a boss who appreciates art, respects creative expression and actually made time to come to my first gig. I cannot stress what it means to have that kind of support. But for now, this will remain a passion project, something fun that also feeds my personal growth. In September I’m taking what I’ve learned about public storytelling to a new level. I’ll be participating in Soundbites, Maine Public radio’s version of The Moth. I plan to tell the story of the first time I met my father, even though he had no idea who I was, and the second time I saw him, when he was in a box ready for burial. There might be tears. But I promise, there will also be laughs.

SEE VICTORIA BONNEY AND OTHERS

Sept. 19 at Soundbites at Frontier, 14 Maine St.,  Brunswick.
Show starts at 7:30 p.m. ($12.50; 207–725–5222; explorefrontier.com)