Up close and comedic with burlesque performers.
Laughter is an important part of being human. We use humor to navigate unfamiliar territory and to make bad news more palatable. We use it as an outlet for stress and to make others and ourselves feel better. And of course, we use it just for fun. Is it any wonder that humor also plays a key role in burlesque?
“Burlesque’s far-back history is that of comedy,” said Paige Rustles, a burlesque performer from the Pacific Northwest, in an interview with Crixeo. “I think that using comedy in current-day burlesque is so important because it allows us to tackle big and important topics in a highly accessible way.”
Early burlesque was more about lampooning or satirizing social and political figures. The acts also involved scantily-dressed ladies to add to the appeal of the show. The striptease, as we know it, came much later. Actors would perform skits featuring thinly-disguised caricatures of famous people. Even existing and well-respected literature and music weren’t safe. The Weird Als of the 17th century made fun of it all — and showed their ankles while doing it.
Performers of neo-burlesque, the burlesque of today, agree that comedy still plays a key role in their art. Humor is used to build bridges of understanding, to bring a sense of camaraderie to an uncertain crowd and to make value-challenging performance pieces more accessible.
Some performers still adhere to the more traditional style that most people associate with burlesque: the sensual, dead-serious striptease. But many neo-burlesque performers prefer to turn the tease on its ear, to make it fun and to use it to challenge expectations of sexuality, empowerment and politics.
Rustles said that she is known as The Social Worker of Burlesque. She’s been performing for about six years and honed her craft at Seattle’s Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque. She said that when she first started, her acts were very straight-comedy-oriented: “performative storytelling with a funny twist.” One such act titled “Hot Nuts” starts with Paige dressed in an old-fashioned candy-seller’s outfit, including Cracker Jack pasties and peanut panties. “The longer I have done burlesque, though, the more I’ve incorporated social commentary into my acts, both the serious ones and the comedic.” One of Paige’s most frequently booked acts is called “The Squishy List,” a performance of body positivity that “involves a bunch of wiggling of all my jiggly bits!” she said.
Neo-burlesque is sexy, but it’s also political. It’s sensual but also challenging. It invites the male gaze and empowers the performer. In fact, many burlesque artists might argue that the comedic elements of their acts are just as important as the sexiness.
“I believe that comedy makes everything possible,” said Lola Pistola, the founding member of VivaVoom Brr-Lesque (the first neo-burlesque in Alaska) and cofounder of Freezing Tassel Burlesque Festival (the first and only burlesque festival in Alaska). Pistola has been performing and teaching for about 13 years and incorporates comedy in nearly every aspect of her work. Even in her sexiest act, she said, there is a lot of comedy, because “it gives the audience a moment to breathe and enjoy.” Pistola has seen plenty of serious acts that were pure striptease, but she said they take a certain amount of experience and skill to hold space like that, without laughter to break the tension. “I’ve done one act like that, and it was extremely difficult. The audience wanted to laugh and were waiting for me to do something to break the seriousness, but I didn’t. I held them through the very end of the song in that tension. Though it was difficult, it was very rewarding.”
Of the styles of burlesque, Pistola definitely prefers the comedic. “Laughter is very sexy to me,” she said, “and I want to share that with the audience as much as possible.” She explained that laughter makes people feel good about themselves and helps to draw them into the act. “They’re in on the joke, and that feels great with live theater.”
New York–based burlesque artist Jezebel Express agreed, adding that a performer’s body type sometimes influences the types of acts they do and whether they choose to do a straight striptease or add humor. “It’s a little scarier for everyone when a fat woman simply serves sex — people don’t know how to process a fat woman doing sincere, intense, seductive striptease. If that’s uncomfortable for people, that’s OK, but they can sit with that and figure out those feelings for themselves. I don’t choose to use humor to defang that situation for them.”
Express has been performing and teaching in New York City for over 10 years. She is a regular performer at The Slipper Room and teaches at the New York School of Burlesque. Express said comedy, when used in more political pieces, can even help the audience process what’s happening in the world. “Comedy can provide people with an affirmation that they are not struggling alone,” she said, “or give them a new lens through which to appreciate the world, or simply offer a fantasy that lets them laugh and forget their troubles, and that can be very powerful.”
Express said comedy can even be its own kind of social statement. “Comedy has been interesting for me to navigate as a plus-size performer,” she said. “The ‘fat funny lady’ is definitely a trope in our media culture, so people have models for how to do it, and audiences have models for understanding it.” For many performers, these models are ripe for subversion, and challenging these models is a terrific way to build a new act.
And this is where comedy comes in again: It offers a release and can soften a serious topic to make it more palatable for the audience. “Sometimes comedy is used to challenge or subvert expectations,” said Express. “I do an act in a fat suit, and I strip out of it and I’m still fat, and then I do a duet with the fat suit. It’s strange and silly but also unsettling, and it lets other people into the experience of living in a world where your body is a punchline.”
Rustles agreed, saying, “Comedy is a way to make both me as a performer and also the sociopolitical statements I’m making more accessible to a wider range of people.” Rustles is a self-identified fat femme, queer, disabled person and sometimes performs using a walker or a cane for support. “Simply being onstage taking up space is an act of resistance,” she said. “Frankly, some audience members — especially those new to burlesque — may not know how to react to seeing a woman onstage proud of her fatness or using a mobility aid openly and without apology (and in sexy ways).”
Express concurred: “Politically, it’s always going to be meaningful when women take up space, crack jokes, talk politics or simply act with irreverence. I think women should be able to do whatever the fuck they want to do with their bodies, and burlesque is one channel where that becomes possible.”
This is where the use of comedy in burlesque can really make a difference. Pointing out rude and antisocial behavior can also be softened with humor, especially when real life becomes inspiration for a performance piece. Express said it can be frustrating when you are performing, only to see half the audience on their phones. This recurring experience led her to create one of her current favorite acts. She calls it “Astronaut FOMO,” and it’s set to Aerosmith’s “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing.” Her character enters dressed as an astronaut who has just landed on the moon. “Initially, the act is about the wonders of space, but about a minute or so into the act, we hear a phone notification. And I take out my phone and start scrolling…” She continues to stare at her phone, typing away, ignoring the audience for a good half minute. “It’s long,” she said of the pause. “It feels long. And it completely changes the energy in the room — it’s never occurred to the audience that I could ignore them. Everyone laughs, but I also see people who are buried in their phones look up and see me texting onstage, and they recognize that in themselves and put their phones away.”
This, ultimately, is the greatest gift any sort of art can give: the ability to see oneself reflected in art and to even feel inspired to make a change or reconsider a long-held belief.
Pistola said, “To me, burlesque is all about laughing at ourselves. It’s about making fun of the things we hold sacred. The things we think we hold sacred. In the end, we are naked, frail and flawed. If we don’t laugh about anything, we will cry about everything.” Pistola also feels burlesque is empowering. “The thing that thrills me the most is when, after a show, a woman says, ‘You are so sexy! I feel like I could strip in front of my partner!’” She said her students also note her genuine enthusiasm and the enjoyment she gets from teaching others burlesque and body confidence. “I truly believe that, no matter what, if you’re onstage and you’re not entertaining, you’re not doing your job.”
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