There’s an adage in comedy: “Don’t punch down.”
Simply put, it means don’t make jokes at the expense of those who are marginalized or vulnerable.
At one point in her career, comedian Melissa McGillicuddy realized she’d been punching down at a particularly sensitive target: herself.
The revelation came as she read Jen Sincero’s self-help tome You’re a Badass and saw herself in its pages, reluctantly at first.
“She talks about being self-deprecating and I was like, ’That’s silly, I’m just making jokes,’” McGillicuddy says.
A regular in therapy, though, she learned the subconscious doesn’t really have a sense of humor. “You, on the surface, can differentiate, but your subconscious can’t,” McGillicuddy says. “It’s easy to make fun of yourself, [but] what if I was depressed because I was saying self-deprecating things? Was I helping or hurting myself?”
Now, she says, it’s not so much that she doesn’t joke about herself, but rather, “I really try not to say anything that I wouldn’t want to be true.”
These days, McGillicuddy has a bit that encapsulates that mindset.
“I do a joke about going camping for the first time as an adult. It’s like, ’Hey, I know I look like a butch lesbian,’ so I’m kind of poking fun at myself, but really I have a look and I’m just acknowledging that,” she says. “I’m not really putting myself down because I don’t want to bring that on stage.”
McGillicuddy’s interest in comedy sparked as a child, watching comedy specials with her family; at that point she thought she might become an actress or a comedian.
By college, however, she’d settled on a career in accounting.
When she reached her 30s, however, McGillicuddy experienced a slow change of heart. She signed up for one comedy class and then another. She enjoyed it but didn’t take it further for a while.
Then, a year or so after that first class, she was at a party when someone asked her to tell some jokes.
“I had some notes on my phone and I ended up doing a set,” McGillicuddy says. “It made me realize, this was something I wanted to do.”
For a while, a fear of being on stage still kept her back. Eventually, the fear of something worse made her press forward.
“I was genuinely afraid of getting on stage and for a while I let the fear own me,” she says. “I didn’t want to look back on [comedy] my whole life as something I had wanted to do.”
Since she committed to comedy, her career has fast-tracked. In 2015 she won the Sacramento Comedy Festival’s Wildcard Competition. She co-produces the Moving Van Show, a monthly comedy pop-up and recently co-produced the Sacramento FemmeFest, an all-female comedy festival. This fall she’ll head out on the road to take on the college campus comedy circuit.
McGillicuddysays she may move to Los Angeles eventually, but for now just wants to help shape Sacramento’s scene. Part of that, she says, is recognizing and addressing some of the same fears that initially held her back.
“I want to create a culture of bringing people together to be less competitive,” McGillicuddy says. “I’ll try to do more as as new comedians come onto the scene to make them feel welcome.”