Because amateur stand-up comedy can be so bad—and not just shoddy, but unabashedly racist, sexist and homophobic—it can sometimes seem like the purpose of getting up on stage at all is to provide an antidote to commonplace offensiveness. That’s partly the case for Bozeman comedian Aislinn O’Connor.
“No matter how long you do comedy, you’ll always see people who are geniuses, who you know you’ll never be as good as,” O’Connor says. “But the majority of people who are going to open mics are just oozing confidence and saying these terrible, offensive things. I’m sad this was a motivator for me, but it made me feel like, ‘Why should I ever feel embarrassed to say the things I want to say?’”
O’Connor also says that starting to do stand-up at the age of 40 made saying what she wanted to say much easier.
“I think most people are pretty bad the first time they try it,” she says. “But one of the things I like about being older is that you already know you’re not supposed to be good at stuff right away.”
O’Connor started doing comedy just three years ago, while she was living in Portland. She was featured in some of the city's top-shelf showcases such as Fly-Ass Jokes and Keep It Like a Secret, doing funny routines that include social commentary. When she moved with her husband and two kids to Bozeman in 2016, she quickly gravitated to the comedy scene there.
In one clip from a comedy showcase at Portland’s Brody Theater, O’Connor tells the audience about finding out that her young daughter had been playing “doctor” with a neighborhood boy and they’d showed each other their “parts.” That kind of setup often leads a stand-up comic down one of two routes: she can go full-on crass, or act scandalized. O’Connor feigned scandalized, but the joke was in the misdirection.
“Playing doctor?” she asked with horror. “Well, did you take turns being the doctor? And was it for equal pay?”
This week, O’Connor has organized a comedy show in Missoula that rides that line between serious and funny. The Roe v. Wade Anniversary Comedy Benefit at the Roxy celebrates the 45th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion.
“I think abortion shouldn’t be a serious topic,” O’Connor says. “The idea that abortion is this heavy, deeply, emotionally torrential issue is a false narrative. The fact is, one in three women have abortions by the time they’re 45. It shouldn’t be a big deal, it should be a basic part of reproductive health care.”
The show has an all-women/non-binary lineup featuring, along with O’Connor, host (and Indy calendar editor) Charley Macorn, Keema Waterfield, Becky Margolis and Indy contributor Sarah Aswell, who is co-organizing the benefit. O’Connor says the comedians planned the event for the night before the Missoula Women’s March. Proceeds go to the Susan Wicklund Fund, which helps provide funding for abortions, and Planned Parenthood of Montana. (O’Connor is on the board of the Susan Wicklund Fund, but the event has no official tie to the organization.)
“Everybody raises money the way they know how,” O’Connor says, “so part of the idea for me is, do what you love and use what you do for good. But part of it is just logistical. I’d rather get up on stage and tell jokes than call people and ask for money.”
The event, O’Connor says, isn’t just a celebration of a landmark legal case. It’s also a means to maintain the right to abortion in the present. Even as the legal right to an abortion has held up, access has dwindled in recent years. As clinics have closed across the country, it has become harder for women to afford the travel, expenses and lost wages associated with access.
“So the idea of this show is, ‘Yay, Roe v. Wade anniversary!’” O’Connor says. “But it’s not just a victory lap. We also can’t stop fighting for the basic human right.”
O’Connor lived in Missoula in the early to mid-1990s, and so she has some affinity for the place. But mostly she picked Missoula to host the show because she wanted Aswell to help organize it. Aswell has been hosting a monthly comedy workshop for women and non-binary people looking to learn about comedy since last summer. Already, those workshops have created more diversity in Missoula’s comedy scene. The stand-up scenes in both Bozeman and Missoula are relatively new, having popped up in just the past five years, but they tend toward the same male-dominated makeup that bigger, national scenes exhibit. That’s beginning to change as Montana-based female and non-binary comedians have started touring the state and making connections with each others, bolstering their profiles. The Roe v. Wade show puts the spotlight on some of those comedians, who often use their minority experiences as a point of entry into jokes about uncomfortable topics.
“Comedy is funny, but also comedy is a way to talk about social issues, too,” O’Connor says. “Some of my favorite comics make you think about those issues in a new way, and that’s the best possible pairing.”
The Roe v. Wade Anniversary Comedy Benefit takes place at the Roxy Fri., Jan. 19, from 7 to 9 PM. $8. Tickets available at theroxytheater.com.