Aida Rodriguez on Comedy, Wokeness, Sexual Assault
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Earl Gibson III/Shutterstock
Over the last five years, the cynics have hijacked comedy’s freedom of speech, asserting that comedians can say anything because comedians can say anything. Who cares about the ends; it’s just means. If you hurt people, it’s not collateral damage, but the point — it’s proof of how far the freedom can extend. And in their defense, they compare themselves to the people who have used a microphone to actually say something, something that helps foster social change.
On the other hand, you have Aida Rodriguez, a stand-up whose debut hour-long special Fighting Words premiered on HBO Max this year (Vulture named it one of the top ten comedy specials of the year) and who believes progress is hard-earned, coming only through difficult conversations. Her audience is a safe space but not a comfortable one, not even for herself because, to her, that is the only way forward as a community, as a country, as a village.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Rodriguez discusses her new special, what she learned from Paul Mooney, and why it’s important to talk about difficult subjects onstage. Below, you can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
An audience can take refuge in someone who they know is across-the-board liberal, and they’re going to talk about being liberal and what liberal people do. I’m not a liberal. I’m not a conservative. When I’m onstage, I’m a comedian that’s observing liberals and conservatives. I wanted to create a real environment where people are reacting authentically. You can put in the laugh track, you can hide the audience, you can cut from both specials and say, “I’m going get the best laughs here.” But I thought it was important to let people see that some people didn’t react to the jokes the way you wanted them to.
The point was that you can’t say anything because people get all weird, and this weirdness is causing a really bad comedy experience. You should be able to laugh at things that are uncomfortable and inappropriate so long as it’s not being harmful. There’s always been this daredevil in me, if you will, that goes out on this stage and says, All right, let’s see what happens. Because for me, that’s the only way that we’re having an honest conversation. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the choir. If you just want to get a bunch of people in your audience that are gonna high five and salute you, that’s cool if that’s the experience you need. But for me, I don’t feel like I grow as a comic that way.
When I opened for him, I wasn’t as seasoned, and I saw Paul Mooney being his authentic self. The people at the club told me every time he comes, the same thing happens: He sells out, and then people start to walk out. But they still come. They’re like, “These people like abuse.” Some people like to feel it, and some people don’t. If you know who Paul Mooney is, you know that this is always who Paul Mooney has been. I don’t think anybody thinks, Oh, he’s had this major change in his life right now.
He told me, “Lean into who you are. Don’t be afraid. Go deeper.” And I was like, “Oh man, I already think I’m already doing too much.” But he was like, “No,” and “I used to tell Richard [Pryor], ‘Just go deeper.’” And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, Well, if he told Richard … Like, I’m nobody. It was also validating when he told me to just be who I was, because I was all dressed up when I opened for him. He was like, “Keep doing you. Don’t ever change. This is who you are. They’re going to let you walk onstage, and they’re going to think you’re going to talk about giving head and getting banged and who you want to marry, and boom, you punch him in the neck. That’s what you do, that’s who you are, and that’s who you need to be.”
It’s so funny because I don’t perceive it as punching them in the throat. I just see it as having an honest conversation with the audience where it’s a safe space. I grew up in the inner city of Miami, and I grew up in an apartment building that my grandmother managed, but I lived with my mother and my stepfather. It was an impoverished neighborhood. We were on public assistance. I shared a room with my three siblings. That was my life. You have a conversation with somebody and they’re like, “Well, at least you had your mom and you slept on a bed.” And I’m like, “So now my experience is not valid because it doesn’t look like yours? Sure enough, yours was worse because sometimes you slept outside? But does me sleeping in a pissy bed with three other kids become ideal? It’s ideal to you, but to me it’s hell.”
Not being able to have conversations that are uncomfortable has become part of the unhealthy environment that we live in now. If we don’t have the uncomfortable conversations, we won’t move forward, because we’re not unpacking. But “unpacking” usually means “Let’s have a conversation in a way that’s comfortable for me.” There will be no mass exodus. Groups of people are not jumping in planes or boats and going back to where they originated from. That’s not going to happen. So for me, it’s like: How do we have a conversation to talk about this stuff that’s actually going to lead to some sort of real solution? I don’t have a savior complex, where I think I can go save the world, but I would like to influence that.
I had quite a few emails from women who had been sexually assaulted and molested who understood my joke. When I talk about certain things, it comes from the perspective of a village. We are village people, and that’s what I aspire to be. We take care of each other, right? But we’ve gotten so far away from that. I was talking about sexual assault and how there are three men in my life who are queer men, gay men who have been my protectors, my whole life: my best friend, my uncle, and a very good friend of mine. The people who have always said, “I’ll walk you to the car. Make sure you let me know when you get home.” So my idea in the joke was we’re talking about allyship and how everybody has privilege. Gay men have privilege in the fact that they’re men in the world. I’ll stand up for your rights to get married. I want to stand up for your rights and love and to have everything you deserve. Can you stand up for my safety?
And a writer said that that joke was homophobic. I’m sitting there seething, thinking about the fact that you only prioritize your situation without thinking about mine, when women are getting sexually assaulted at an alarming rate. It’s still going up. During COVID, it has gotten worse. I was like, Oh, you’re blind to any experience other than your own. And I don’t want to be that. When I talk about the things that I talk about that are uncomfortable, I do it because I want people to understand that they are not alone. And I say that a lot, because I feel alone a lot. I was sexually abused, I was raped, I was mistreated. I was unhoused. But the most traumatic part of all of those things is that I felt alone. I felt like I was suffocating: I can’t talk about these things because I’m going to be embarrassed. When I started talking about them is when I felt like I was healing. My self-esteem started to rise, and I started to be free because I’m no longer in bondage to the people who victimized me. That feeling was so freeing that I was like, Oh, I’m going to write about this. Because I want people who’ve been sexually abused to know the comedian on Netflix got sexually abused, and she’s okay. And I see you. When I get these emails, I feel better because it’s like being in group therapy.