An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'If you want to be funny in 2024, catch up': ALOK talks comedy, trans rights and compassion

A person with orange and purple hair, purple finger nails and a beard wears a black and white patterned blazer and a light blue patterned skirt while holding a microphone.
Jamie Smith
ALOK said they aim to entwine their stand-up comedy with discussions of serious issues while still helping audiences laugh about the state of the world.
"There's often a cruel, relentless, bitter world," they said. "But laughter is how we can live despite it."

ALOK wears many hats. They're a poet, advocate, author and performance artist. Much of their work deals with topics like grief, love and acceptance, and their stand-up comedy is no different.

The comedian, who is gender non-conforming, also spends a lot of time advocating for the transgender and non-binary communities. Despite the current wave of anti-transgender legislation making its way through many statehouses around the country, they say their identity taught them to have compassion for even those people trying to restrict the rights of trans people.

"Instead of shaming myself, I made the punk decision to try to love myself anyways. And through practicing that self-compassion, allowing myself to be me, I unlocked compassion for other people because I saw myself in other people," ALOK said.

"What being trans helped me realize is that there's a bit of me in everyone and a bit of everyone inside of me," they said. "That in my head, I am both the best trans ally I have and the worst anti-trans advocate I have, and I get to make the choice on which one I want to be in a given day."

ALOK is currently on an international stand-up tour and will perform at the Spokane Comedy Club on May 16 at 9:45 p.m.

They spoke with Spokane Public Radio's Owen Henderson about their work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OWEN HENDERSON: You know, there are people out there who might be wondering what the through line is for someone whose work spans so many fields. And to me, what brings together a lot of your work is that you reject the premises set by others. How did you first come to the idea that you didn't need to accept things for what they were?" 

ALOK: One of the joys and delights of being a gender non-conforming person is that from a young age, I got the opportunity to realize that all the preexistent paradigms weren't for me.

I just genuinely didn't fit into any of the preconceived ideas or boxes. Yes, that's sad at first, but then you realize it's a really ripe opportunity to ask, 'Okay, well then who do I want to become on my own terms?'

So I've always seen every single rule, every single category, and every single norm as a suggestion, not an absolute. 

OH: I want to talk about your comedy a little bit. Who were the funny people in your life growing up? How did you realize that comedy was something within your capacity? 

ALOK: Growing up in an immigrant family, I grew up with a lot of Indian people cracking jokes as a way to deal with trauma. So much of my childhood was peppered with laughter, and now as an adult, I'm able to look back and be like, that was how we were dealing with really hard circumstances.

Then when I came out as trans and was part of trans worlds, trans people — especially trans women and trans feminine people — were cracking some of the best dark comedy I've ever seen in my life as a way to get through what is constant and relentless harassment. It's actually possible to have gravity and levity be braided. And that's what I do with my comedy is, I'm joking about really hard stuff.

I'm not trying to say that there's a peachy, go-lucky, happy world. I'm saying there's often a cruel, relentless, bitter world, but laughter is how we can live despite it. 

OH: You know, there have long been comments from different people in the comedy world that, 'You can't say anything anymore.'

But a lot of your comedy does deal with gender and the queer community without being self-deprecating or mean-spirited. How do you walk that line? 

ALOK: My parents and my community members used to make fun of me all the time in a way that was loving.

I like that word you used, 'mean-spirited.' It was about actually being playful with me. I really wanted to bring that sensibility into my comedy because I don't believe any community is above criticism, any individuals above criticism.

What's wrong with comedy right now is that a lot of the making fun is rooted in a vision of the world where certain groups shouldn't be here. I don't believe in that.

I want to poke fun so that we can become closer to each other, and I don't want to give up on that in comedy.

What I actually feel like is happening is that sort of old vanguard of comedians who say 'It's just changed so much, people are so sensitive' — What they're not actually being honest about is 'I'm uncomfortable.' And they can't name that vulnerable truth which is 'I'm worried that I'm going to become irrelevant.'

And what I would say to people who are afraid of becoming irrelevant is: Comedy, like any art form, is constantly changing. And if you want to be funny in 2024, catch up.

If you're going to make an anti-trans joke, make sure it's actually a funny anti-trans joke. And you can learn how to make those from trans comics because we hate ourselves better than you ever could. 

OH: Switching gears a little bit, one thing you've talked about in other interviews is the difference between seeing and witnessing. And I wonder if you could expand on that here, and tell me how, given the current climate for trans and non-binary people in the U.S., that difference ties into the way more cisgender people can be better allies and supports to the trans and non-binary people around them. 

ALOK: Seeing is different than witnessing because to witness means to fully encounter that we may never truly understand each other. When it comes to the trans conversation, we've been seen, but we've not been witnessed.

So we're more visible than ever and yet we have more violation of our fundamental rights and dignity. That's because what's happening is that people aren't willing to change themselves. What I believe we need going forward is less people looking at us and more people listening to us and regarding our humanity.

It's the difference between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance is seen. Acceptance is witnessing.

OH: ALOK, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. 

ALOK: Thank you.

Owen Henderson is a graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he studied journalism with minors in Spanish and theater. Before joining the team at SPR as Morning Edition host, he worked as the Weekend Edition host for Illinois Public Media, as well as reporting on the arts and LGBTQ+ issues.