In the standup comedy world, it’s a long-held goal of many young comics to build their act to where they finally get to “be themselves” on stage.
You can take that premise and multiply it by 10 for Columbus native Riley Silverman.
Coming up through the underground basement open mic and suburban one-nighter scene, Silverman was not unlike any other Ohio comic, talking about the foibles of Midwestern life, but in 2009, she reached a dual breakthrough on-stage and off.
Comedy, as it turns out, facilitated coming out as trans for Silverman.
“I went from being someone viewing the world from a place that was inherently false, to being someone who was being completely open,” said Silverman, who moved to Los Angeles in 2010. “I was getting so much more honest and open in my act and I eventually just a hit a wall where if I didn’t do it, I would just be stuck in the same place forever.”
Since then, Silverman has been far from stuck in one place. With a full-length album under her belt (Intimate Apparel), as well as a recent appearance on Comedy Central’s Not Safe with Nikki Glaser, she's’ become a staple in the L.A. scene, and through her personal website (rileysilverman.tumblr.com) and Twitter page (@ryesilverman) she's also become a loud voice for the trans community beyond her local area code.
Ahead of her return appearance this month at Shadowbox Live’s Backstage Bistro, Silverman let (614) go backstage with her thoughts.
Where does the current standup world grade in terms of misogyny and transphobia?
I think we’re really in a sea of change. I think not just as a trans woman, but in general the world of stand-up is finally getting swarmed with so many different voices, it’s an amazing time to be part of it. There’s all this backlash against comedy being too safe or too politically correct, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as people who were previously kept quiet finally pushing those voices out there.
Recently that you performed and visited around your hometown as out. Can you describe the feelings that flooded you during those times? Your parents got you Star Wars makeup for Christmas, which must have been surreal...
SO surreal. Yeah, getting that makeup from my parents made me tear up Christmas morning. What is happening with me is difficult for them to understand, and we butt heads on it sometimes, but that was like a shining beacon of awareness that they do ultimately still love me and we’re gonna adjust to our new normal.
As far as the rest... there’s the saying “you can’t go home again,” and I am that to an extreme. I came out in Columbus but hadn’t decided to transition yet, but coming back now when I’m openly living as a woman, and with a different name, it’s like I came back as a different person, and the city is so different too. Whenever I come home it’s like I’m living a weird reboot film of my life. I’m Ghostbusters.
Or trading bra talk with Nikki Glaser…
Ha! That was actually strangely very comfortable and relaxed. It was funny because I met Nikki at the FunnyBone like eight years ago when I was still closeted, and we hadn’t seen each other since but kept in touch via the internet. When I got to set for the episode, the director actually purposefully kept us apart because he wanted us to reunite on camera. But I don’t know, maybe it’s the special bond of road comics, but it felt like we picked up right where we left off.
Have the comics that you look up to or admire changed as your life has?
Oh definitely. I think a lot of that is moving to LA and having a new pool of peers and influences. When I first started in Columbus in 2001, there weren’t a lot of female comics, a situation that has thankfully changed. There really weren’t any women in the generation of established comics before me to look up to. Eventually there were some amazing talents in my peer group like Laura Sanders and Nickey Winkelman, which was great, but most of the comedic role models I had were still men. But as a female comic in LA, I’ve got an embarrassment of riches in talented ladies to admire and now that’s who populates the list of comics I’m eager and excited to see. Comics like Maria Bamford, Eliza Skinner, Jackie Kashian or Beth Stelling for example—who is an Ohio girl too!
You’ve become a very active fighter of transphobia and injustice. Is that a hard thing to balance on social media as a woman who is passionate about equality and has a voice, but also someone who loves silly shit and making fun of pop culture?
The weirdest tweet to send is the first silly joke after going on a bit of a rant. I’ve actually had to actively kind of take a step back from it a little bit, really think about what I want to put out into the world energy wise. It can get really easy to get caught up in online arguments, and fighting can be pretty toxic mentally. I still believe very much in equality and social justice, but I just try to consider where my voice would be the most useful. I think it’s through comedy. A lot of people like to use the term “Social Justice Warrior” as a pejorative, but I tend to think of myself as a “Social Justice Bard.” My goal, and I’m not saying I’ve achieved this, is to sell my vision of the world through silly shit and pop culture jokes.
After years of feeling that your assigned gender didn’t fit your true gender, is it borderline surreal now to write jokes and find humor in your everyday activities more associated with females?
It was at first, I think I’ve settled into a good place with that though. When I first came out I was paranoid about being “too trans” in my material, I didn’t want my marginalized status to become my entire act so I’d limit how much of it I could talk about. But now that I’m past the point where everything is new and exciting, now this is just my life so that’s the filter through which I view the world and write comedy.
Who is the modern-day ally for the trans community?
Funny story about that, when I was home for Christmas, I did comedy at the FunnyBone for really the first time openly as woman, and was really excited about how well the show went. Afterwards, my friend Maria and I went to the mall restroom which I was SUPER nervous about—this was even before “bathroom bills” were a major national distract— er, topic. So I’m in the stall, actually a bit nervous and wishing I’d gone back to the club, and Maria is washing her hands at the sink when a loud drunk lady comes in and seems to be looking for me. So I get really tense and stay in the stall till she finally leaves. And Maria gets tense because she’s thinking she may have to get defensive for me in a second. Then the lady leaves. Then we do. And as we’re walking through the mall, this same lady sees me, stops me, and it turns out she had just been at the show and enjoyed my set and was trying to come get me to join her group for drinks. I think that’s the ideal ally. Someone who wants to buy me drinks. Or, at least just views me as a person instead of something that they have to deal with.
Is this the year Riley Silverman blows up, considering it’s prime time for the trans community and nerd girls are way in?
Riley Silverman is definitely blowing up this year, but that has more to do with chicken fingers and cheeseburgers than anything.
Silverman performs at Shadowbox September 6.
Editor's note: An unedited version of this story was printed earlier, resulting in a misgendering of the subject's identity. We apologize for the error(s) and will print an extended retraction in our next upcoming print issue.