I'm Not Going To Let You Cancel Jessica Kirson

Welcome to "wtf is ashley ray tweeting about now?" a newsletter where I try to explain and defend the nonsense that made up my twitter feed over the last week

LI comedian Jessica Kirson to hold virtual comedy event | Newsday

I’ve been obsessed with comedy for a long time. In middle school, I was glued to the Something Awful forums where you could listen to bootleg recordings of NYC comedy shows. It was the best way to hear the real club comics. Even if it was recorded through some guy’s coat pocket. It was a grainy glimpse into the world of “the comic’s comic.” If you watched Last Comic Standing from 2003-2004, I mean all those real real comics your non-comedy friends only recognize after a thorough Google search, but who are absolute killers. Every week, I’d listen to new bootlegs and make a list of my favorite comedians. It was split by gender, which I admit is problematic, but I was also 13. Every week, there was one name that would always be in my top 3 comics: Jessica Kirson.

Jessica Kirson is one of the best comedians in the history of comedy. Now that I’m 29, I’m not problematic, I don’t break that down by gender anymore. That’s out of all comedians across the entire gender spectrum. She is talented, hilarious and I owe so much of my own style to her, but I was surprised by how many people had never heard of her. When I would listen to all those tapes, Jessica was a breath of fresh air in a sea of white men who all talked about the same bullshit. Like me, she’s not conventionally attractive. She’s also gay. She’s Jewish. And she could hold her own among the Bill Burrs and Louis CKs and Jim Nortons of comedy without backing down. She didn’t care about being likeable. She’s everything I aim to do in comedy. She made me feel like I could fight for my own place in comedy.

So, when I was on Facebook and some black comedians were discussing a video of hers, I was surprised. I couldn’t remember Jessica ever doing anything super problematic or racist in her sets. I watched the video. It was awful. Unequivocally, it was voice-based blackface based on racist stereotypes. It was also four years old and in the time since, Kirson had quit doing the character because she knew it was uncomfortable. She still left the videos up and a few people found them in 2020 and asked her to take them down. She did, but only after protesting that the video wasn’t even offensive and only white women were offended. When black people said they were offended, she deleted their comments. It was a bit of an overreaction to something everyone agreed had aged badly, including her.

I wasn’t exactly shocked by Jessica’s impression. Plenty of comics - white women, black men, gay white men, pretty much anyone who’s not a black woman - see black women as fodder for their jokes. Plenty of shows feature exaggerated caricatures of black women that are offensive because they aid in the dehumanization of black women’s lives. If you see us as illiterate, “ghetto” clowns who are here to be used as entertainment, it’s harder to care about us when we’re murdered or oppressed by the state. Jessica’s impression was the byproduct of that larger system and that’s why it’s disappointing. That’s also why it felt uncomfortable to her and is why she stopped doing it four years ago. That’s why she took it down. If she’d apologized and said she understood that, we all could’ve moved on with our lives.

But instead, she got defensive. She went to Twitter and said only white people had a problem with it and asked how she was supposed to even know it was wrong. I answered her question and posted the video she took down to give context. (I’m not linking to any of this now because we are both over it). She told her followers I needed therapy and they started to attack me. She said I should’ve just DM’d her. I pointed out that her DMs are closed while mine were open and I’d been getting racist messages from her fans. My followers and people who are just generally against racist impressions started attacking her. I was shocked by Jessica’s overreaction to fair criticism, but even more shocked by how quickly the conversation devolved into angry white men saying dumb shit. “Jessica and I are smart female comics”, I thought, “we can handle this situation better than these dumbass men who fight each other at clubs over tweets.” She messaged me and said we should talk, I agreed.

I explained that her impression helped this larger system that endangers black women. I explained that the attacks she got were the consequence of the free speech she says she stands by. Certainly, the attacks I got were the consequence of my calling out her racism, so it goes both ways. And, I explained that I was disappointed because I’d loved her for so long and she understood, because she knows what she means to comics like me. For so long, Jessica Kirson has been one of the only female “Comic’s Comic” for comics like me: weird, vulnerable queer women who didn’t have to prove to anyone that she was funny. She’s had to survive an industry of shitty men and she’s still overlooked. She’s never gotten her dues.

So, in the face of the giant, relentless machine that feels like “cancel culture” Jessica Kirson felt like she was easy fodder. Even though I never asked people to block or unfollow her or to make her face any consequences at all, she was afraid that she was an easy sacrifice. She thought no one would speak up for her as much like they do for white male comics when they’re called out. As much as people criticize “cancel culture,” it is still true that marginalized groups are usually the only people who actually face consequences. She felt like she could be cancelled just as easily as her genius as a comic has been overlooked in an industry that routinely picked less talented men over her. That the Jimmy Kimmels of the world can get away with worse shit than this, but she’s the one who gets in trouble. She got defensive because, as the only woman in the room, she’s had to defend herself for a long time.

And I get that too. It’s a scarcity mindset that the industry uses to make us marginalized groups afraid that our moment could quickly burn out. But Jessica isn’t the only person like her in the room anymore and the rest of us aren’t trying to attack her. We just want to be seen and we’re going to defend ourselves too when you do something that offends us, we learned it from you, Jessica. But, we also bring with us the recognition that you haven’t gotten before and we’re not trying to cancel a fucking trailblazer. There are more of us now and we see her contributions and we know what she means to this industry. Or at least I do. So I’m not going to let you cancel Jessica Kirson. We can criticize and also recognize because we know there’s plenty of space at this comedy table now. Jessica Kirson still deserves a seat at it. We’re all learning and unlearning a lot of toxic bullshit this industry forces you to internalize.

If I ran things, everyone would know Jessica Kirson’s name and not Louis CK’s. I don’t want an industry that doesn’t have her in it. Even after this bad impression and her reaction, that’s still true, because I know this mistake doesn’t define a career. So no, this misstep is not going to cancel Jessica Kirson. If Jimmy Fallon can do full on blackface and host a late night show, Jessica Kirson can learn from this and continue to be the amazing comedian that she is.

There isn’t much on TV right now, but here’s what’s going on:

  • I watched all of The Boys, Undone, and Forever and they were amazing.

  • Legendary ended and it was SO GOOD. I don’t know why everyone isn’t talking about it.

  • I wrote recaps for every episode of Search Party season three! Go read them on Vulture.

  • 90 Day Fiancé: Happily Ever After is having a VERY GOOD season. Fuck Asuelo.

  • Did you know I also write 90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way recaps for Vulture now too? You should read those because it’s been my dream to write about this show for years.

  • Still covering I May Destroy You over at The A.V. Club and it is just getting better and better. Head to my twitter to also catch the visual appreciation threads I post for each episode too!

  • I interviewed Justin Simien, the creator of Dear White People, for Vulture. It’s one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done. We got into so much: blackface, why Netflix is bad at promoting black shows, why Hollywood ignores black ensemble shows - SO MUCH.

  • I made a perfect meme about The Bold Type.

  • I wrote about how polyamory is boring and isn’t about sex and people got so mad about a woman talking about polyamory, The Guardian had to shut down comments! An article by a non-monogamous man was also published that day and they didn’t have to take down comments, but people accused me of tearing down the building blocks of society. Go read this REVOLUTIONARY article. If people can’t handle me talking about polyamory when it’s not about the sex, what will they do when it is about the sex?!

  • I’m starting a TV podcast. Keep an ear out.