When you look at the most successful female comedians today, they have one thing in common that differentiates them from the rest: they keep it real. More specifically, they aren’t afraid to push the boundaries and share explicit details of their life which also in turn breaks down stigma that has for so long been absent from comedy.
Tig Notaro shot to stratosphere-level fame after doing a stand up set talking about being diagnosed with breast cancer, and boldly taking her shirt off while on stage to show the audience her mastectomy. Chelsea Handler has been an unashamed bearer of sex jokes from a female perspective which make some uncomfortable while laughing uncontrollably. Tina Fey’s brand of “not the cool girl” comedy earned her show ’30 Rock’ multiple Emmys and her character Liz Lemon is regular fodder for gif-hungry feminists looking for an easy way to express how they feel at times.
Amy Schumer of course is most famous for her unapologetic confidence in her body image, despite it being the butt of many a sketch on her Comedy Central series ‘Inside Amy Schumer’. There is something about the reality aspect of comedy that makes it so appealing. Which is why up-and-coming New York-based comedian Brooke Arnold is someone you definitely want to keep an eye on.
We first came across her after she shared an in-depth essay for Salon after the Duggar family sexual abuse scandal broke headlines news. While the world dissected the ins and outs of the family’s alleged cover-up, Brooke came forward and shared candid details about her life growing up in the same conservative Christian environment as the Duggar family, and was home-schooled by the same organization that they were part of.
As part of her healing and coming to grips with what she now calls a lost childhood, Brooke opened up to us about her feelings toward the fundamental Christian organization, how it treats women, being homeschooled, and how she is using that experience in her comedy shows today.
It is an honest, sad, hopeful, hilarious and insightful view of one woman’s journey from a sheltered upbringing to the outspoken bodacious woman she is today. She can regularly be seen performing on the New York comedy circuit, filming off-the-cuff videos on Youtube, and appearing on various TV shows to talk about her conservative background.
First up, tell us about your Youtube series and what viewers can expect to see you discuss in it?
It’s going to be a mix of things. I’m creating it, filming it, and editing it by myself so there’s practical limitations. But I want it to be like an ongoing behind-the-scenes look at the life of an up-and-coming comedian. All of the work and effort and process that goes into making not just the material, but also the career. A way for people to get to know me a bit more and connect with me and my work.
Why did you decide to create it?
I thought it would be fun to document my process of being a comedian. Most people only become aware of comedians after they have something really big under their belt, like a TV show or a Comedy Central special. But, it’s a very long road before you get to those stages. Amy Schumer was doing it for a decade before she was a household name. For Louis CK, it was two decades. I thought it would be interesting to show the journey – the crappy smoke-filled shows, the big decisions, all of the little milestones along the way.
Tell us about your writing and comedy background; how did this creative avenue become your career of choice?
The medium of stand up comedy requires that you be a writer and a performer. Most of the comedians that I know come from the performer side – they’re actors or they do improv or even music. I come from the writing side of things. I was trapped in my apartment for days and just got really bored. So in the middle of the night I just started writing an essay about my childhood and it was funny. I read it to my boyfriend and he was dying laughing and I just got addicted to that feeling of writing something and seeing people respond to it immediately. Comedy is so much more instantaneous than writing. I love the process of writing something and then slowly getting it to work. The first time a bit does really well is the best feeling in the world.
You have a very interesting background which you shared about in an essay for Salon. Talk about growing up in an ultra Conservative household and the Christian organization you were part of?
Well, it was only interesting if you didn’t have the experience! (Imagine there’s a winky emoticon here or something else to convey a playful tone.) I wrote a solo show called ‘Growing Up Fundie’ which I’ve performed in NYC and plan to run during the 2016 Fringe Festival. I start with the joke that most of it was incredibly boring with some super duper weird stuff sprinkled in, but people just want to hear about the weird stuff.
For me, it was pretty awful. The easiest way to describe it is if you imagine every thing that you did as a kid or as a teenager – every school day, every activity, every party, every after-school activity or class trip – and then wipe that all away. There’s a sadness there for me. I mourn the loss of a childhood that I never had. The upside is that it’s made me very hungry for life, for experiences.
In an essay for Salon.com you talk about how you could’ve nearly been a Duggar wife. What are some of the expectations that were put on you growing up?
Oh my god – that title. I was so mortified when Salon’s editors named it that. They were really great to me throughout that experience, but the title still makes me a cringe a bit! There were so many limitations, so many rules, so much authoritarian control. My parents and our church didn’t support the idea of women having jobs or educations. I think even after I began living my own life, a huge part of myself was still there in that I kept placing limitations on myself. It wasn’t until I started writing and performing that I started to really feel like I had an idea of who I was outside of being in that controlling environment or the decade of rebellion that I went through immediately after. In the simplest terms, writing and performing has given me a voice which is something that I never had growing up.
In the Netflix series ‘Unreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ we see a comedic take on what has now become a familiar type of news story in America. But in reality, these types of situations are far more serious. What would you want an outsider or the media to do instead of laugh?
I think Kimmy Schmidt simplified the real horrors that many of these groups create. Kimmy is kidnapped because I think the audience wouldn’t be as sympathetic to a character who was born in a poor household in the South and then raised this way. There’s a strong stigma attached to people like me who come from these backgrounds. I’ve been mocked and dismissed by people because of it countless times. I think pundit culture on the 24 hour news channels and the internet has caused public discourse to take a turn towards the contentious. That was a huge reason I wrote that essay – I was horrified by the schadenfreude of the liberal media in place of sympathy for the victims or an examination of how we as a culture are abandoning millions of children in dangerous environments.
How did it make you feel hearing about the Duggar sex abuse scandal?
As I wrote in Salon, I wasn’t surprised. People seem to think that a woman having 19 kids is cute or like a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not exhibit. But they fail to investigate the very dangerous and real beliefs and practices that are present in that culture. If a woman is forced to abdicate both reproductive control and sexual consent to her husband – that’s about as close to the definition of rape culture as you can get. In some ways it reflects the ways in which a small number of women in our country have been empowered but many are still living under conditions that most of us wouldn’t believe are happening in the United States. There are some very clear socioeconomic and racial biases in the way that even critiques of rape culture are framed.
Tell us about the Advanced Training Institute organization and how the environment of homeschooling can often be a ripe situation for covering up such crimes?
One of the defining characteristics of abuse is isolating the victim from others. In that way, home school is inherently abusive because it isolates children from their peers, from adults that are not their parents, and potential romantic partners. It creates an environment in which children who are abused don’t have anyone to reach out to. And, it creates an environment where teenagers are forbidden to date, or have sex, or even masturbate while keeping them basically trapped inside a house with siblings. The potentials for abuse – sexual or otherwise – are quite large.
What was the catalyst for you in leaving the church you were part of growing up?
It really came down to how limited my options were and how much more I wanted for my life. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to have friends and boyfriends. I wanted to listen to music and see movies and travel. I knew that my future was pretty much lined up for me: marriage and kids. I wanted more than that for myself.
Do you find comedy has become a great avenue to help you deal with what you experienced?
Yes and no. I think it’s given me a confidence and a voice that I never had before, definitely. But, it also requires more of me than anything else I’ve ever done. I think people underestimate the amount of effort and courage and thought that goes into not only writing great material, but performing it in front of strangers, and using your body and your voice as a precise instrument to make people laugh. It’s that challenge that I really enjoy.
I was so lonely growing up – I didn’t go to school, I didn’t really have friends. And the people I did knew always scared me because there was so much judgment and comparison that I never felt like I was able to relax around people or just enjoy their company. When I’m on stage and the whole room is laughing and we’re connecting with each other, I don’t feel lonely. I feel the buzz of human connection – even if we come from different places, even if we never speak one on one. It’s a beautiful experience.
Repressing or controlling women’s (and men’s) sexuality is a major part of some religious cults or extreme religious sects. From an insider perspective, why is this important to churches like the one you were involved in?
Such a big question! On a basic level: sex is life. Sex is wild. Sex is about connection. It can be twisted, but if it’s good then it’s not about control or power. I think institutionalized religion finds sex dangerous because it has the power to challenge them. [Civil Rights activist] Frederick Douglass writes in his autobiography about how the woman who owned him got angry at her child when she saw him teaching Douglass to read. And so, Douglass decided right in that minute that the most important thing he could do for himself is learn to read because if his slave owners didn’t want him to do it, then it had to be something powerful. I think that religion’s relationship to sex is similar.
Now that you have left that type of church, what would you tell the leaders or parents about education children about unbiased healthy sexuality if you had the chance?
Well they would never give me the chance because I’m a woman and therefore my opinions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences mean absolutely nothing to them. But, in the spirit of your question: I would tell them that the message of Jesus is love and yet their message is about fear. I think they lost the plot somewhere.
What type of reaction have you gotten from sharing your story and from using it in your comedy?
I’ve been really fortunate so far because 95% of the reaction has been extremely positive. When the article first went live, I read the comments through my fingers because I was so terrified. One of the very first messages I received was from a girl that went to my church growing up but I haven’t seen in over a decade. I was absolutely terrified to open her message, but then I noticed that the first line was “Boy, was our childhood fucked up or what?” and I knew she was on my side. Quite a few other girls from my church have written since then and it’s been so comforting to know that their experiences overlap with mine and many have the same perspective that I do. It kind of made me feel not crazy for the first time in my life.
What would you say to all the women in the church you used to go to (and others in similar situations) if you had the chance?
Oh gosh – I’ve thought about this so much since that article came out. I got literally thousands of letters from women and gay men and men who identified with what I wrote from every religious or social background that you can imagine. So many of them suffered so much worse than I did that it honestly made me feel guilty that I was they were writing. I tried to write as many of them back as I could, but I didn’t have the time. But, I read every single message and I cried along with them.
I think so many churches are focused on fear instead of love and that causes people to fear themselves or to fear what others think of them. I would say that no matter who you want to be, it’s okay. And, you will find people who like that person who you truly are you just might have to look for a little bit longer than most people.
It’s a tough question and I wish I had a better answer. Maybe the best thing I can say is: you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. There are a lot of us out here. More than you realize.
Finally, what makes you a powerful woman today?
I don’t know that I am a powerful woman today. I hope to become one someday. In many ways, I feel like a teenager because so much of my life passed me by and I missed out on so much. I’m still raising myself in certain ways. I think the process of finding something that I love to do and being successful at it has made me feel more powerful. Having a loving partner who encourages me and thinks I’m amazing has healed me a lot. I have friends who support me and who I can be honest with and that makes me feel powerful.
I’m in this process of getting to know who I am more and more outside of other people’s expectations or other people’s disappointments and that feels pretty powerful. I think all women are asked to be small and to be nice – just in ways that weren’t quite as explicit as the ways that I was. I think it’s powerful to be big – in body, voice, or personality. I think it’s powerful to be mean or honest or speak up when you don’t like what’s happening. It’s like what I said before – I think the things that make women the most powerful are the things we’re the most discouraged to be.