Any good comedian knows that if there is something you hate about yourself (or rather when, for otherwise you wouldn’t be a comedian), you turn it into a joke.
Plenty of comedians perform bits about herpes, but often at someone else’s expense. It’s low hanging fruit—as easy, you could say, as comparing a man’s testicles to low hanging fruit. I’ve lost track of how many insecure guys I’ve seen recount sexual encounters at an open-mic, saying something along the lines of, “This girl was gross. And I mean, gross. Like, riddled with herpes gross.” The audience pictures her. Trashy, loose, unkempt.
This is a stereotype that I, unfortunately, also used to subscribe to—until one shitty day three years ago, when I woke up with a painfully swollen, blistered vagina. Overnight, I had become “that girl.” How the hell did that happen? I had done everything right. Responsible sex, monogamous relationship. I graduated from college! I called my grandmother voluntarily! And yet there I was, legs in the air in an exam room, being informed that I was, in fact, a person with herpes.
My boyfriend was shocked, since he never exhibited symptoms. He accused me of cheating on him, of lying to him, and made me feel gross about myself. He also convinced me that because of my newfound STD, we would be together forever—who else would ever love me? At the time, filled with shame and self-loathing, I believed him. If I couldn’t stomach this part of myself, how could anyone else? I locked away my secret, discussing it with nobody but my dickhead boyfriend. Our relationship disintegrated pretty quickly.
I was doing stand-up every night at the time in New Orleans, although not well. My jokes were just jokes, which, like many elements of writing, are just a formula; once you crack that formula, you can make one up about anything. Setup, punchline. Setup, punchline. You become a machine. What I failed to understand at the time was that joke writing is only one—and arguably not the most important—part of stand-up. Your jokes are merely a delivery system for your experiences, your memories, your opinions. The audience has to grasp who you are not only as a performer, but as a person. Good stand-up requires vulnerability.
A year after my diagnosis, I had a show at a neighborhood bar—the kind of place where regulars would occasionally laugh at the inevitably bombing comic, but less at the joke and more at the idea that in that moment, someone else was sadder. On this particular night, four people showed up, none of whom knew they were at a comedy show until the host said, “Hey, folks. We have a comedy show tonight. It’s right now.” I took the stage, beginning to go through the motions of a set I hated. “What’s the point?” I thought, and maybe said out loud.
At some point, I discovered that one of the men in the audience was in medical school. “Can you guys just find a cure for herpes already?” I asked him. “It would make my life so much easier.” For the first time, I had said something real, something humiliating, something that I promised I wouldn’t let anybody know. I felt embarrassed at first, like I had made a rookie move. But I also felt relief. This thing that had haunted me for so long was finally out there, and nobody really seemed to care. A couple of the other comedians brought it up, but they were supportive. They felt for me. A few told me they had it, too. Oh, I realized. We should all be talking about this.
The herpes jokes made their way into my act slowly, one by one. “Herpes wouldn’t sound nearly as bad if the word wasn’t plural,” I began. Then came the jokes about the reactions to the jokes. More and more, as the shame evaporated, I wanted to make it very clear that this was my reality. I imitated incredulous audience members who would come up to me after shows. “You don’t really have herpes, do you?” they’d ask. “No, I’m just making this up to get guys,” I’d reply.
Of course, it’s one thing to reveal your STD status to a room full of strangers; it’s another thing entirely to do so in front of your friends and family. I had been so adamant in my stand-up that having herpes wasn’t really that big of a deal, that it shouldn’t be this humiliating drama, but when I was given an opportunity to perform in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, I began to waver. Did I actually want to do these jokes in front of my mom and dad and brother? Is this really what I wanted people talking about at my high school reunion? If I didn’t do it, though, I would be a hypocrite. I resolved to perform my regular set, herpes jokes and all.
I expected my family and a couple of close friends from high school to be there, and they were. I did not anticipate seeing my first grade teacher, my friends’ parents, my Hebrew school teachers, and virtually every adult I ever had a conversation with from my synagogue. What if my jokes weren’t as funny as I thought? Or what if they were funny, but only to the godless, debauched people of New Orleans? Not everyone in Kentucky is conservative, but that’s kind of like saying not everyone in New Orleans is drunk—it’s only kind of true, and it depends on the time of day.
But I took a deep breath and came out with it, gaining confidence throughout the set. The audience was laughing with me at the right moments, and at me when I wanted them to. I looked people in the eye. I watched a man I’d known since birth slap the table in laughter. There were a few awkward glances, some I-can’t-believe-she’s-saying-this, several are-we-allowed-to-laughs. But mostly, I was right. Herpes didn’t have to be a big deal. I walked off the stage to hugs and congratulations. “I can’t believe you said that stuff in front of your parents,” my former Sunday school teacher told me. My parents? I thought. I can’t believe I said that in front of you.
I should mention that prior to this performance, my parents didn’t know about the herpes. This was how I told them. It was the only way I knew how to talk about it. Recently, I asked my dad what his immediate reaction was that night. Yes, he laughed, but did he feel ashamed? Was he embarrassed for me? “I’ve always thought you were hilarious,” he replied. “You’re brave, and I respect the way you can turn your pain into something joyful. That said, if anyone asks, I don’t have a daughter.” (My sense of humor is inherited.)
This happened two years ago. Now, I have roughly ten minutes of material about having herpes, about what it’s like to date with an STD, about how my current (and wonderful) boyfriend (who does not have herpes—he likes me to include that detail) and I deal with it, about how my parents reacted, about how ridiculous it is that there is such a strong stigma surrounding one of the most common STDs. It’s good, and it’s honest. And strangely, for the year that I was single and telling these jokes, it actually did get me laid a lot after shows.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Ariel Elias is a nationally touring comedian currently living in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @arielselias.