Comedian Zoë Coombs Marr on cancel culture, transphobia and her new show, The Opener


The other day I found myself muttering “hack” under my breath at my Twitter feed. (Oops, “X” – did I just deadname a social media corporation…?!) Elon’s algorithm had fed me some “gender critical” transphobic nonsense and in among the usual hurt and anger at the ongoing vilification of my community, I was overcome with the strongest feeling – “Haven’t we been here before?!”

As a queer in their 30s, it’s a very strange kind of deja vu to see the transphobes of today recycling the same gear that the homophobes used when I was a kid. They called us paedophiles, groomers, an unnatural dangerous misinformed mentally ill fad. This is all hack material. That it’s even getting airtime is baffling – like turning on the latest episode of Live At The Apollo to see a young comedian doing “take my wife” jokes – yet somehow, here we are.

And the only way I’ve been able to process this strange moment of backlash is to recycle my own hack gear – an old character, named Dave.

Some of you might remember him. But if not, Dave is a parody of every bad male comic, every cliché and trite joke, every leer and lean on the mic stand as he says, “Fellas know what I’m talking about”, in his neckbeard and graphic tee.

Born in 2012 after a decade of slog in the toxic misogyny of standup comedy at the time, Dave became a way for me to exist on those stages. And, at a time, when I was trying to figure out how to exist in the world, Dave, in many ways, saved my life. It was cathartic, fury and frustration, turned into fun. And then – slowly, things began to shift: We progressed. Comedy became more diverse, inclusive and funny and suddenly I didn’t need Dave anymore. My parody of a loveable bigot became, mercifully, less relevant…

In 2016, I put Dave to bed. But then… plot twist!

A bit over a year ago I was at dinner with some friends, talking about Dave Chappelle’s latest special, The Closer, which I can only describe as a nouveau-transphobic cry against “cancel culture” consisting mostly of his gripes with the LGBTQIA community, which is so oddly out of touch it feels like it was written by someone frozen in time for the past 10 years. Someone asked what Dave would have to say about it, and I jokingly said “Oh, he’s just come out of a coma, so he’s got a lot of hot takes.” 

Uh oh. Once that idea was out in the open, it just wouldn’t quit. I could feel Dave rising from his slumber, awoken from the dead by a lightning bolt of sudden new relevance. And then, he was back in full force. 

As a comedian, it goes against every atom of my being to say this, but I don’t want this act to be relevant. I was hoping it would be brief moment, but every time I have done this show, I have had to update it to include the latest palaver. It started as a comment on Dave Chappelle, then Ricky Gervais joined the chat. This year in Edinburgh, Graham Linehan jumped on the lineup, and now Roisin Murphy’s slid in too. I wonder who it will be next week. Unfortunately, we are living in a time of backlash. It’s just like Dave – the same bits recycled over and over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Hack!

Because as long as there have been queer people (forever) there has been a never-ending debate about our inclusion in society: in schools, in government, as teachers, as parents? Should gay convicts be allowed alongside other prisoners? Queer sportspeople in changing rooms? Lesbians in the women’s movement? Right now we’re experiencing a mainstreaming of transphobia. Disguised as “concern”, it’s the same old bigotry. The target shifts focus, but the script remains the same.   

Again – may I stress I am a comedian. I do not want to have to talk about this stuff. I would far rather be doing silly jokes about my dog. But as a queer person, I have no choice. Last week I wrote a joke about mushrooms, and it made me giggle my silly head off. This is where I want to be, so please lord make my show redundant. 

Dave Chapelle called his show The Closer because he decided it was the end of the conversation. I don’t think that’s a decision he gets to make. It’s certainly not a luxury afforded to queer people. For us, it’s not just rhetoric. We’re not fighting for anything special, just our right to exist. 

So if I must go round in circles, I will. And though we’ve been here before, and I’ve got greys in my neckbeard now, I’ll put on the graphic T, and embody the fury and frustration and turn it into joy again, because right now, again, we need that catharsis. Because we do exist, we always have. And the line to progress isn’t straight… but then again, neither am I. 

Zoë Coombs-Marr: Dave – The Opener

12-16 September

21Dean Street, London, W1D 3NE


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