By Quinn Welsch
Be honest, be humble, be yourself.
These are words to live by for local standup comedian Nick Portier. Standup comedy is about having the guts to get onstage, getting zero laughs, and still having the hunger for the spotlight, Portier said.
“I can get my friends to laugh any time, but there’s something about being on the stage and having all these people you don’t know staring at you, and then making them laugh – it’s such an incredible feeling,” Portier said.
For the past year, the 19-year-old LSU theatre student, also known as the “Bearded Lady,” has worked the stage, telling stories about her life, and her experience as a transgender woman.
Part of being a standup comedian is learning how to gauge the audience, how to understand what they want and then being able to deliver. For Portier, that means being completely honest with herself and her experience as a woman living in a man’s body.
“The only thing I know better than any other comedian is myself,” Portier said. “As long as I focus on myself and I’m completely honest with the crowd – even if they don’t relate to me – they understand that where I’m coming from is a sincere place and they respect that and it makes it easier for them to laugh.”
Though Portier discusses many aspects of herself onstage, her gender identity is what she derives most of her material from. Talking about gender can be tough, but it’s what makes her material original, and is the most interesting aspect about herself, she said.
“If you say the word gay, the crowd knows what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter what their opinion of the subject is, they understand it,” Portier said. “Being transgender, not everyone knows what that means.”
When she first started standup comedy, her material focused on her being bisexual, not transgender. It was easier for her to talk about, she said. Bisexuality is more commonly understood, and arguably more accepted, than transgender identity. She has been out as transgender for about a half a year now, though she’s felt this way for the past three years, she said.
Standup comedy has been a learning experience, and one that she admits she is still fairly inexperienced with. Her first five minute set at The Station, located off College Drive, was hardly a success. She had five jokes to tell in five minutes (an eternity onstage). The first three bombed, she said, but she managed to get a few laughs before leaving. What began in terror ended in determination, she said. “Right when I got off the stage I wanted to get back on.”
While the LGBT community has made its mark in comedy, the “T” is often the least known. It is uncharted territory for many people, not just comics. It is also what separates Portier from the rest of crowd in Baton Rouge.
“It’s been very therapeutic for me, getting up stage and talking about it after so long of holding it inside,” she said.
People are sometimes reluctant to talk to her about gender because it can be a “tense” discussion, she said. Her audience can also get a little uneasy when she brings it up too, “not because they think you’re weird or something, it’s that they don’t know what they’re allowed to think is funny.”
“I’m not going to tell you how to feel about me, I’m going to tell you how I feel about me. If you think it’s funny, don’t try to hide that,” Portier said. “I’m not taking myself seriously.”
By having these conversations onstage, she might be inadvertently raising awareness, or even advocating, but that’s never her aim she says. It’s a process of normalization, for her and for her audience. She doesn’t want to be “defined by an adjective,” or labeled as the transgender comedian. Being transgender is just being honest, and honesty is what she finds the most funny.
“You might be confused, but everyone else is confused about it too, so feel free to ask questions,” Portier said.