Three years ago, Heather Jordan Ross made the jump from being “one of, like, two female stand-up comedians on Prince Edward Island” to part of the burgeoning Vancouver comedy scene. Since then, she’s co-founded several local shows (Poke the Bear, Comedy Deux Soleils), but none as resounding as her latest project: the show Rape is Real and Everywhere (RIR&E). A brainchild between Ross and fellow comedian Emma Cooper, Rape is Real and Everywhere is a stand-up comedy show where survivors tell jokes about their rape and discuss the humour in an otherwise traumatic experience. Read on to learn more about how telling rape jokes is like “free therapy” for Ross and how she feels about taking RIR&E on a national tour starting later this month.
The Peak: Where does the idea for a comedy show about rape come from?
Heather Jordan Ross: I was raped and I reported it, and then immediately after reporting it I went onstage and did a set, and it was terrible. But I realized that a) I wanted to make rape jokes, because I wanted to joke about it, and b) I never wanted to hear rape jokes again. So it was a really weird place to be in. I was talking to Emma Cooper over beers, and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did a comedy show about rape jokes, but only by survivors?” and Emma said, “Yes, it would. We’re going to call Hot Art Wet City, I have five people we can do this with,” and she just went with it.
P: Historically, rape jokes have been at best controversial. How are the performers with RIR&E changing that standard?
HJR: When it comes to writing a joke, you have to think about why you’re writing it, and who you’re supporting when telling it. Always be punching up. If you make a rape joke and the person who laughs are the rapists, and the person who cringes are victims, you kind of suck. If you can tell a rape joke and you make me laugh, then you’ve done your homework. People doing this show, it’s great for them because they’re parsing through the experience and they’re making jokes about it, which is super cathartic. It’s been amazing for me, like free therapy where I technically get paid.
Funny shit still happens throughout your whole life, through the best parts and the worst parts. So it’s great to be able to talk about it. We want people to be able to talk about their rapes, but also talk about the funny parts. The fact that I got raped in Burnaby is the funniest thing in the world. The only thing worse than being raped is being raped in Burnaby.
P: All three RIR&E shows in Vancouver sold out. How does it feel to have found a topic that’s clearly resonating with people?
HJR: Really, really wonderful. It’s something that’s always been close to my heart, even before what happened two years ago. There’s this conversation not happening, in schools or in the workplace, it’s not happening fucking anywhere. So we’re just living in this epidemic, where we’re casually not acknowledging that one in four of the women and one in every 33 men you know has been sexually assaulted, and for some reason we’re all just cool with it. We’re just pretending this isn’t a thing where clearly, if there was a little bit more conversation, it wouldn’t be such an epidemic.
P: Has there been any negative feedback to the show, or people who struggle with the concept of finding humour in a systemic issue like sexual assault?
HJR: Mostly no. People have been very supportive, even survivors who’ve said they would never come to it themselves. The only negative things I’ve had have been guys I know sending me messages; I don’t even know how to articulate it, sending me messages saying, “I don’t know if I agree with the fact that you call it real and everywhere, and I feel like consent is a very grey area, and I also feel that women are liars.” It’s been really weird. I’ve deleted three people from Facebook who’ve been, “Um, actually…”
P: The show is hitting the road later this month for a Canadian tour. What inspired the transition from local show to a national one?
HJR: When we sold out the first show, we had people asking, “Why aren’t you in Toronto?” We encouraged people that if they wanted this show in the city, then they should do it, and then we thought, “Why don’t we just fucking do it?” People were asking across the country, survivors who liked the idea or comedians who wanted us to bring it to their city. The demand was there.
P: Aside from being performed in different cities, how will RIR&E change when it’s on the road?
HJR: We’re going to have local talent, which will be really interesting because we’re going from, “Hey, I’ve talked to you on the Internet,” to, “Hey, let’s talk about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you,” which is going to get pretty weird, but I’m excited for it. I just hope we reach the people we want to reach. Vancouver was much easier because we had a network already; with these different cities, we have to find people. It feels funny to go through my old contacts and be like, “Hey Charlie from university, want to come to my rape show? Hey Diane who I used to be a reporter with, want to come to my rape show?”
P: If there’s one thing you hope people take away from the show, what would that be?
HJR: Let’s talk about it. Let’s laugh about it, let’s talk about it, and let’s kill this epidemic. Rape is real and it’s everywhere, and it shouldn’t be. Let’s talk this out, let’s find out what’s going wrong, and let’s change this.
The Rape is Real and Everywhere: A National Comedy Tour Launch happens on May 15 at the Rickshaw Theatre, where Ross and Cooper will be co-hosting and performing alongside six other local comedians. Tickets are $15 and can be bought online in advance.