A dark bar is perhaps not the most appropriate place to discuss comedy. But if anyone knows about the benefit of being inappropriate, it’s Leah Bonnema.
Tucked into a corner of the Bourgeois Pig down in the East Village, Leah nips at an espresso the way some women nip into chocolate. She’s a New York City comic, the kind that leaves a trail of “Oh-my-gosh did she just say that?” in her wake. The answer is: Yes, she did.
And here’s why.
“Humor normalizes everything,” she says. “We have a thing as women — we’re told that we shouldn’t talk about something, that it’s not appropriate. This makes whatever it is, worse, because no one’s addressing it, whatever the ‘it’ is.”
Leah has a short but powerful list of the ‘it’: Current cultural standards of beauty, a woman’s right to choose, animals’ rights, and healthcare reform could be in her set for the night. Her statement is delivered in a quiet and considered manner, a contrast to the Leah Bonnema on stage. The onstage Leah is brash and bold, leaving no prisoners and issuing no apologies. “You got a problem with what I’m saying?” she says, gesturing to an imaginary audience. She understands the emotions behind an audience’s argumentative nature. “Let’s talk about it. That’s what I love about comedy. Talking about things takes the power out of whatever is weighing on you.”
Born and raised in Maine and receiving a more cosmopolitan education at McGill University in Montreal (major: women’s studies and cultural studies), Leah learned the value and fear of strong women. She was introduced to the concepts of well-known feminists and female artists by her mother, which was the foundation of an education that made her sensitive to the inequalities inherent in society. “But I feel that I can do something about that,” she says, “Because I have comedy.”
The commitment and passion for her work and messages are communicated through big blue eyes and an opinionated stance – a stance that is both physical and verbal. She knows that certain topics, coming from a female, are often offensive. But Leah knows that the offense stems from ingrained cultural expectations of women, and in so offending people, Leah has achieved something: She holds up a mirror that says, “Why do I have to uphold your expectations of what women are? Why do I have to be virtuous and pious? I can be nurturing and still tell dick jokes.”
She has plenty of those, but they neatly express her thoughts on such issues as a woman’s right to choose. “My favorite joke is the pharmacist,” she says. It goes something like this: A pharmacist refuses to sell birth control, which results in what Fox News will call a “Belly Button Holocaust.”
“I’m not referring to the Holocaust, but holocaust, with the little h,” she is quick to point out. Unable to find humor in people’s pain, Leah personally knows the power of humor. Her mother was in a car accident and subsequent coma, leaving Leah and her family to cope with emotions and a frightening situation. To better understand that time, Leah turned her experience into a show she calls Wake Up and Yell at Me.
“The comedy isn’t from my mom being in a car crash and coma,” she says, sipping her second espresso, “it’s from the weird ways that your brain works while you’re trying to deal with what life’s thrown at you. It’s a way of coping and getting through. And I’d love to make it into a movie or a book. Other people have been in a similar situation, and I got the nicest emails. It was very cathartic for them. My ultimate goal in comedy is to find, in the dark places, levity and what is human in all of us.”
Delivering serious topics in a way that makes an audience laugh, argue, commiserate and heal, takes more than talent and timing – it requires an unwillingness to accept cultural norms, a desire to help others, and an appreciation for the human condition.
“We write our own scripts,” she says, referring to life in general. “I drifted after college. I wanted to do film school… No, I wanted to do theater school… No… So I joined a spoken word group, and was encouraged to take a class in standup comedy. At the end of the class I delivered a standup routine, and when I felt that rush, I knew – this is it. This is what I want to do.” And she’s been doing it ever since.
Leah’s just returned from the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. For upcoming shows and events, visit www.leahbonnema.com.
Photo credit: Anya Garrett. © Leah Bonnema / Anya Garrett Photography. All Rights Reserved.