Go to any comedy show tonight, and I’ll bet you real American dollars you’re going to hear a helluva lot about Donald Trump. Mainstream comedy is newly—and too often performatively—woke. But Guy Branum, who performs in Portland this week, is one stand-up whose political commentary I actively look forward to. He’s also one of the few male comics I’ve seen take a stand for marginalized colleagues following high-profile revelations of sexual abuse and harassment within the comedy industry. When Branum was asked by New York Magazine to write an article about the allegations, he accepted, and the resulting piece, titled “Tear Down the Boys’ Club That Protected Louis C.K.,” is essential reading.
“At the beginning of my career when I was invited into some lesser comedy boys’ club, I did my best to play by their rule,” writes Branum, describing his experience as a gay man navigating comedy’s fraternity-like system that keeps anyone who isn’t a straight white guy at the bottom of the heap—and, if they’re bankable, can end up protecting serial sexual harassers like Louis C.K. “I kept silent as they denigrated women, or explained to me how I wasn’t like the other gays. It never earned me real respect from anyone, least of all myself. My silence simply empowered a system to treat me and many other people like we were negligible and disposable.”
Of his decision to write the piece, Branum says via email: “It probably would have been simpler, easier, and better if I’d kept my head down and just worked on my own comedy, but marginalized people have been keeping their heads down and focusing on their own comedy for decades, and it hasn’t changed the power structures in comedy. I mostly wrote it so that I’d no longer have the option of safely being quiet while other comedians are disrespected around me.”
The New York piece maps out comedy’s unofficial networks run by powerful male comedians (like the ones who share a table at New York’s Comedy Cellar), and Branum expected consequences for it. They came. “Lots of comedians got pissed off at the article, and thought I was being unfair to the Comedy Cellar for referencing their comic’s table when talking about the overwhelmingly male representations of comedy excellence,” says Branum. “If they’re more mad about that than they are about a comedian and a comedy manager threatening comics who try to talk publicly about sexual harassment, we probably shouldn’t be friends.”
It’s important for male comics to speak out against the hostile environment their industry can foster for women, but there’s much more to Branum than his necessary critique. Simply put, he’s extremely funny, and he’s consistent. His sets are usually goofy, fast-talking delights, and he’s one of those pros I can see perform the same material over and over again without getting bored. His Gay Bash showcase of LGBTQ comics has long been a highlight of Portland’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival.
He’s also a lawyer—or, he would’ve been. It was in “the [law school] class where they take the last piece of your soul (Wills & Trusts)” that Branum realized he didn’t want to part with his soul completely. “I thought I might like to keep a little bit of it for myself,” he says. “I decided that instead of being evil, I’d rather just be benign.” Compared to stand-up, says Branum, “The law is definitely more cutthroat, because lawyers don’t have souls, just a desire to bill hours. Comedians have souls, it’s just hard to tell because all of our souls are broken into little pieces.”
These are off-the-cuff answers, and corresponding with Guy Branum, you get the sense that he’s always standing by with a clever quip. Even his joke about Portland—dangerous territory for an out-of-town comic—is funny. When asked about his local agenda, it’s clear Branum knows exactly what he’s doing. “My plan for Portland is always the same: lots of leisurely coffee breaks, eating a salad made of things that grew in people’s driveways at Ned Ludd, paying straight guys to rub up on my dick at the Silverado, and contemplating the broad majesty of the Willamette River,” he says. “Also, I will tell some Donald Trump jokes that are new.”