This Non-Binary Comedian Is Finding Humanity in the Pandemic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they’re the anti-Louis C.K.
By Shaan Merchant
- Jes Tom is a fast-rising New York comedian who is breaking ground as a non-binary person on stage who uses the pronouns ‘they/them.’
- Tom’s uplifting brand of comedy stands out — particularly during the pandemic.
- They are part of a movement of non-white LGBT comedians gaining popularity on the scene.
Amid feeds filled with feuds and outrage on everything from pandemic-defying spring breakers to actress Gal Gadot’s take on the song “Imagine,” the comedian stands for a selfie in front of a budding cherry blossom. “Fighting racism by being Asian and hot,” declares Jes Tom, a joke that garnered an unexpected response.
In came hundreds of replies from Asian-presenting people with their own selfies, dutifully retweeted by Tom, in a strike against soaring anti-Asian racism that represented a rare uplifting moment — both for comedy and for Twitter.
But unexpectedly uplifting is not new for the 29-year-old comedian. A non-binary, transgender Asian American who uses the “they/them” pronouns, Tom also practices a kind of comedy that doesn’t slash and burn in the manner of Dave Chappelle or Louis C.K., and one that might be finding a new voice in 2020. “To me, humor is very algebraic,” says Tom. “You’re solving for X. … Things right now are so bad, and getting worse, and I want everyone to be able to laugh about it.” During the pandemic, along with virtual shows on Zoom and Instagram Live, Tom is working on a new hour about searching for the humor and humanity. “What does it mean to have a crush in the face of a global pandemic?” they ask.
Tom grew up in San Francisco surrounded by extended family and close friends. An early performance memory was a Christmastime puppet show of dinosaurs singing to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music. “I remember my aunt just absolutely losing it, and I was like ‘Yes, I’m crushing it. I’m crushing it.’” It led to a theater major at Smith College, then to the New York stand-up comedy scene. “I figured I could try acting, improv or stand-up, and stand-up was the one I could go do immediately, so I did.” They advanced to performing three to four shows a night on both coasts alongside names like Awkwafina and Rosie O’Donnell. But lately Tom’s repertoire has expanded and includes shoots for upcoming HBO series, audiobook recordings and several short films.
I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely.
Whether sharing recommendations for Filipino restaurants in Queens or delving into topics of intersectional inequity, Tom carries a magnetic energy. “Even just a walk with Jes [becomes entertaining] … because they will notice and observe things in a way I never would have,” says Lauren Zelaya, curator at the Brooklyn Museum and a longtime friend.
Tom’s observational style and identity is core to their comedy: “I do go by the gender-neutral pronoun they/them. I like when people call me ‘they.’ It makes me feel less lonely,” Tom joked during a recent set. “I do find people have a hard time reading me. People tend to think I’m this hot, cool dyke, and I think I’m a little twink. Like, people think I’m an Ellen Page when really I’m a Michael Cera,” Tom said at another. With this wit, they make often-difficult themes of identity approachable. “There’s a level of trust and care and self-awareness Jes has,” Zelaya says. “They’re able to invite audience members in, in a funny and caring way.”
But this comedic education doesn’t come without difficulty. They have given up on correcting people about their pronouns in certain parts of their life. “Because of that, I have the energy to go on stage and explain this over and over and over again,” Tom says. “My dream is to get past the point in my career where I have to use my comedy educationally.”
Rosa Escandón, a fellow New York stand-up and comedy writer, says the work of Tom and others will change the future of identity-based comedy, so it “doesn’t have to teach you, but pushes new narratives and makes you think.”
Tom is part of a growing movement of non-white queer comics like Bowen Yang, Jaboukie Young-White, Julio Torres, Sydnee Washington, Ana Fabrega, Joel Kim Booster and Dewayne Perkins. In the past several years we’ve seen white LGBTQ comedians such as Tig Notaro, Hannah Gadsby and John Early become stars, and Escandón notes the “trickle-down hierarchy” of who society allows to tell jokes. She sees this as a societal shift rather than one specific to the comedy scene: “We’ve opened the doors of culture for people to say it on stage.” Yet she warns not to overplay this surge: “There are people who want that ‘good old boy’ comedy. I don’t think that’s going away … there are now just also newer and more interesting things going on.”
Tom adds that the power of humor as a coping mechanism draws in people with traditionally oppressed identities. “Something really bad will happen to me and I have to be like, ‘This is so funny.’”
Lately, Tom has discussed on stage how they’re taking testosterone. It’s been commended as brave, but Tom says it’s no more so than other comedians opening up about taking antidepressants or getting an abortion. “Everyone has their shit,” Tom says. “I just take a shot every week and now I’m really strong and hungry all the time. That’s what’s going on in my life, so I talk about it.”
OZY’s Five Questions with Jes Tom
- What is the most recent book you’ve finished? Well, I didn’t exactly finish, but Stone Butch Blues. It’s such a sad book with so much trauma, and I got to a happy part and put it down because I didn’t want to see what happens next.
- What do you worry about? Well, it’s a highly worrying time right now. … I’m worried about our slowing morale. I’m worried about all the people whose lives are going to get worse. I’m worried about when we’re going to lose hope.
- What is one thing you can’t live without? Bubble tea. That’s my vice.
- Who is your hero? I don’t have heroes. Heroes disappoint you. My heroes are my peers, are my friends.
- What is an item on your bucket list? I want to go to Tokyo Disneyland. … And I want to do an HBO special.
- Shaan Merchant