Robin Tran: How You Tell an Irreverent Transgender Joke, Respectfully
In the polarizing debate about whether or not trans people should ever be the butt of jokes, Robin Tran’s work offers the answer: Yes, so long as the jokes are actually good.
When comedian Robin Tran came out as transgender in 2015, her friends stopped making fun of her because they were worried about causing offense. She hated it.
“Whenever I would come around, they’d be walking on eggshells around me and I really didn’t like that at all,” she tells The Daily Beast. “I felt like I was being erased or I was being condescended to.”
Among Tran’s circle of friends and fellow stand-ups, the comedienne explains, roasting each other is a way of showing love, so to be suddenly cut off from that social ritual was alarming. But Tran has since learned how to invite mockery—and how to make fun of herself, too—without perpetuating the sort of cruel, overtly transphobic comedy that some of her peers do.
Within the span of a month, Tran has had two breakout moments: a hugely memorable appearance on season three of Jeff Ross’ Comedy Central series Roast Battle and a new hour-long Hulu special Don’t Look at Me, one of six specials by Asian American comics in the Comedy InvAsian series.
“I don’t mean to brag,” Tran jokes in her new special, “but I think that I’m the best Vietnamese transgender lesbian comedian in the country.”
In the often-polarized debate about whether or not transgender people should ever be the butt of jokes, Tran’s recent work offers a confident answer: Yes, so long as the jokes are actually good. In Don’t Look at Me, she often veers into self-deprecating territory, saying that she “look[s] like a giant baby that found a dress” and hoping that she’ll get a “half-off discount” for sex reassignment surgery because her penis is small.
She boasts about once getting a crowd to laugh for 30 seconds—just by walking onto the stage.
“It’s this kind of radical self-acceptance, I think,” Tran says of telling so many jokes at her own expense. “Everyone looks kind of funny.”
Tran has been frustrated by recent controversies over transgender jokes in comedy. On one hand, she explains, “it was always the people who liked to make the worst jokes that wanted to make the jokes”—jokes that were simply “mean” or that invalidated transgender identity. On the other hand, Tran remembers, and not fondly, the subsequent “backlash” in which “any joke against trans people” was deemed “wrong.”
“I felt like that was bad, too,” Tran tells The Daily Beast, “Because, hey, I’m a human being and everyone gets made fun of, so do I not exist anymore?”
Tran found the balance she was looking for doing roast battles in the Los Angeles comedy scene over the past three years. At first, she was nervous.“(They’re going to make trans jokes,” she thought. “Am I going to be able to take it?”)
But after she earned her first big laugh insulting someone else, she knew that she had found her home.
“I felt really empowered, and I felt a lot of love in that room,’ she tells The Daily Beast. “Even the jokes against me were done with love.”
That is certainly the case in Tran’s appearance on Jeff Ross’ Roast Battle—the first episode to feature a transgender comic. Competing against fellow Asian comedian Alex Duong, Tran brings her A-game, calling Duong “the only Asian to disappoint his parents more than I did.”
Most of the jokes that Tran tells about her rival double as self-owns.
“I’m just like Alex’s girlfriend and family,” Tran jokes. “Because we all have a useless dick we want to get rid of.”
Duong, meanwhile, proves that stand-up comedians can dress down transgender people without misgendering them or implying that they are mentally ill.
For example, Duong said that Tran looked like “an alpha female” and then corrected himself, clarifying that she looked like “Alf if he were a female.” Rude? Absolutely. But also oddly affirming of Tran’s womanhood. Duong ends up winning the roast battle, in part, because of his deft approach to his opponent’s marginalized identity.
“You had jokes and you came at her but in a respectful way [so] that we could laugh, and she could laugh, and we could all feel good about it,” Roast Battle judge Anthony Jeselnik says in his review of Duong’s performance.
Tran’s appearance on Roast Battle has brought her a deluge of new fans. She tells The Daily Beast that she has been a bit overwhelmed by all the new Facebook friend requests, Twitter followers, and Instagram likes.
“I’m not used to having a big life,” she says. “Now that I’m getting more exposure, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted but it’s pretty scary at the same time for me.”
But the Hulu special didn’t come about as a result of the Roast Battle exposure; in fact, it was recorded a year and a half ago after Tran got scouted by talent agents while performing at at a comedy festival.
“I just got lucky that they happened to be there for the best set I ever had,” she recalls. “Then they asked me if I could do an hour and I totally couldn’t but I said yes.”
Tran, who only had about 25 minutes of comedy at the time, says recording the special was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But she did it—and well, too. Her finished hour of comedy covers topics as wide-ranging as public urination, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, and the movie Memento.
She gets personal about bipolar disorder, coming out, and suicide—but never overly serious or saccharine. Her style is miles apart from the sobering autobiographical comedy of, say, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, but it manages to be just as revealing in its own irreverent way. Most importantly, the special is funny—in precisely the sort fashion that can only be appreciated by watching the damn thing.
And for anyone who believes that political correctness is killing comedy, Tran’s comedic prowess proves otherwise. No one could watch an hour-long set in which Tran admits to having previously masturbated to photos of Facebook friends and accuse her of being too “PC.”
This is a woman who has no interest in projecting an image of propriety or moral superiority—even if that means some critics might accuse her of being a bad representative of transgender people.
“I figure we’re all flawed people,” she tells The Daily Beast. “I don’t understand why, if I’m flawed as a transgender woman, it somehow means I’m no longer transgender to people.”
Tran does think sometimes about how few transgender comedians there are—and about the burdens that come with breaking new ground: What if a joke she tells reflects poorly on her community? Is she furthering transgender representation? Complicating it?
“I do think about it but it always takes a backseat to what I want to do as an artist,” Tran explains. “All that stuff—it does come to mind, but whenever I think about that too much, it makes me a worse comedian.”
Instead, Tran says, she chooses the same path she chose three years ago: Being herself, and letting everything else follow.
“I have to push all that [stuff] out and think, ‘What do I want to do as a comic right now? What is my truth?’” she says. “When I do that, usually good things come out of it.”