What I Know: Say It Out Loud
by Travis Lindsay
Travis Lindsay is the most prolific writer in East Coast comedy. He has been captivating audiences with his great mix of jokes and storytelling since the early age of 16. Lindsay was named Best Nova Scotia Comedian on Bell TV’s Comedy Boot Camp in 2016, and then went on to win at CBC’s Hubcap Comedy Festival, which was heard on Sirius XM,. He has appeared on CBC and at the Halifax Comedy Festival, and he hosted the 2020 African Nova Scotian Artist Showcase and Awards. He recently released his debut album, The Kid is Alright, which went to number one on iTunes comedy charts.
Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the passing of a staple in Maritime comedy and my best friend, Andrew Vaughan. Check out his album, Too Fat to Go Kart. Rest in peace, Big Cat.
You may have noticed the world’s a weird place right now. Between a global pandemic and the loudest cries for equality in quite some time, my job as a comedian and my responsibilities as a Black man are colliding like never before.
My name is Travis Lindsay, and this is what I know.
I’ve been performing comedy since I was 16 years old. In the 11 years I’ve been doing it, I’ve won awards, worked with comedians I admire, been featured on national television, and recorded a comedy album (The Kid is Alright) that went to number one on iTunes. I’ve done all of this while living away from major scenes like Toronto, and while being the Maritimes’ only working Black comic in a predominantly white industry. The road to those achievements has involved a lot of shows in a lot of small towns... and a fair share of casual and blatant racism.
“You’re mulatto,” yelled at me five minutes into a corporate Christmas gig. Honestly, it wasn’t even the worst thing I’ve experienced at a show. Hell, I even have a joke about the word “mulatto,” but that moment was the moment I realized that before the audience sees me as a comedian, they see my skin. Just like they do when I’m off stage. This was the only time a show almost made me quit comedy. I had always thought that if I’m funny enough, they’ll just see who I am and not what I am. I was wrong. Why are white guys just viewed as comedians, but everyone else has an asterisk in front? Black, female, gay, etc., then comedian. My entire life, I wanted to be a comedian (or wrestler, but my ankles are trash). Richard Pryor made me wish I could do it. Eddie Murphy made me know I had to do it. I’m proud that I made that dream a reality, but at the same time that asterisk, *Black, has always followed me. When I started doing comedy, I never wanted to offend. The slightest groan would make me abandon a joke or bit, but then one day, like most comics, I reached a point where I was tired of not being authentic. I became less worried about what the crowd thought of me. When I hit that moment, I really felt like I was finding what some comedians call (and others roll their eyes at) my voice. Looking back now, I see that despite being more honest and truthful in my material, I was still holding things back.
“Take your shot, BLACK BOY!” a drunk old woman said to me on a bus from Summerside to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. It was after a show, and she was shoving a bottle of Fireball whisky in my face that she had been passing around the entire bus. To be fair, this did and still does make me laugh. Inappropriate? Yes. Racist? Most likely. But not as hurtful as the mulatto comment. Still, there’s that asterisk again. Black first. Comedian second. Just like life. Black first. Person second. Working in the towns I have, I’ve always gotten a feel for which way they swing politically. Trying not to isolate most if not all of the crowd, I would gauge them using a test joke to see what kind of material I could get away with: “I come from a pretty mixed-race family. My dad was Black, my mom was curious.” And depending on how that joke went, I knew exactly the type of show I’d be about to perform. If it got a good response, I knew I could be more authentic. If people laughed a little too hard, I knew that “isn’t it funny that I’m Black” humour was my key to survival. Believe it or not, there’s a right and wrong way to laugh at jokes. I once had to stop doing a bit/story at a certain venue because it involved a man saying the N-word to me while covering his mouth (something which had happened at that same venue). Now, the joke is not that it’s funny he did that, but that it’s funny because he thought that would make it okay. Unfortunately, people in that venue did not get this. They would come up to me after the show, with their hands on their mouths and say the N-word to my face. I loved the joke, but at that venue the message was lost. The asterisk felt bigger than ever.
I just want to be seen as a comic. Still, I was not quite brave enough — as my hero Pryor was — to fully express my pain through jokes. It started to feel like onstage was becoming the same world I live in off the stage, the world where I walk into stores holding my cash or credit card so they know I don’t intend to steal. The same world where, when I’m driving to or from a show with a white comic and we get pulled over, I have to explain why I make sure the hood on my hoodie is down and my hands are completely visible. The same world I’m afraid to acknowledge onstage because it might make an already small market even smaller. Fast forward through a few more N-bombs and every small town telling me about the one Black person they know, and we arrive at COVID-19. Comedy has completely shut down, and the death of George Floyd has sparked a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement. For the first time, people with nowhere to go are forced to listen. But with cries to end racism, cries of hate disguised as “All lives matter” also emerge. As comedy slowly opened back up, and after seeing one too many of these posts, I realized I could no longer remain silent to avoid ruffling feathers. Sure, I’m still going to tell Disney and d**k jokes, but I have a new responsibility. I’m Atlantic Canada’s only working Black comic, and I now have an obligation to tell my story, to express the pain and realness of racism through humour in hope that maybe my community will have a few more people on our side after the show is over. I can no longer be scared of the asterisk, or that I have too much “Black” material. If you’re going to see me as a Black comedian, then you’re going to have to listen and understand what that asterisk means.
So here’s what I know.
I know I can’t change people, and that it’s ultimately up to them to do so. But I do know that if I can get a room to listen, they may learn. They will definitely laugh, and through that they might just leave with a more open mind than the one they came in with.
I’m Travis Lindsay. The Maritimes’ one and only BLACK comedian.