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Comedy with a Cause

Stand-up artist Kari Burt discusses blackness, gender, and sexuality in the era of Trump.

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Kari Burt (photo by Nkechi Chibueze at Happy Black Chick Photography)

Stand-up artist Kari Burt is making strides to ensure that Houston’s comedy scene is as diverse as the city it serves.

The 25-year-old black lesbian comedian produces and hosts two comedy shows every month. At Too Soon!, she gives rotating comedians the opportunity to discuss current events, politics, and pop culture. At JK Fridays, she provides a spotlight for local and touring comedians from under-represented backgrounds.

“Most people book their friends and tend to hire people who look like them,” Burt says. “These shows work against that to show different perspectives. That’s one thing I like about the Houston comedy scene—it’s very diverse, which is important to showcase.”

Burt, who was born and raised in Houston, started doing comedy a year-and-a-half ago after her wife, Michelle Qwist, encouraged her to focus on what makes her happy. She credits Qwist as a source of inspiration to continue her work in comedy, despite a difficult start.

“[Doing stand-up] was rough at first, but I think everybody has to go through that,” Burt says. “After I took some guest spots at the local shows Goddamnit! and Lady Bits, I started finding my groove and it opened the gateway to more shows.”

While Burt does use her marriage in her material, she focuses less on being queer and more on the fact that there are cultural differences between her and her Danish wife. Burt says she prefers her sets to be about her race and gender instead, because it allows her to share experiences that exist beyond the stereotypical stories about black women that the mainstream media often spreads.

“People of color learn to empathize with white people because we’re exposed to their stories from an early age,” Burt says, “but the reverse isn’t always true.” Furthermore, she points out that while representation for people of color has been on the rise, many of their stories are based on epic historic events and characters. Burt asks: “Can black people just [travel to outer] space in a fictional world [without having] it be because of Hidden Figures?

The comedian points to the lack of variety and humanization in stories about people of color—especially black women—in mainstream media as one of the key reasons behind the lack of empathy for communities of color. “If you look at the voting patterns, a lot of white women voted for Trump,” Burt says. “We can’t hoorah intersectionality if white people (even those within the LGBTQ community) are always going to fall back on their whiteness.”

Although Too Soon! can be political, Burt doesn’t typically include political content in her regular material. “People are tired of hearing Trump jokes, and I prefer to talk about politics outside of my work in comedy,” she says. “The [most lighthearted] Trump joke I have is saying, ‘Trump didn’t ruin America, Nelly did when he stopped wearing that bandaid.”

When politics do come into play during a show, Burt is ready. She recalls a performance where an audience member yelled, “F–k yeah, we voted for Trump!” during her set. “I just found a way to keep going without getting combative,” she says. “There are shows you can perform in where all of your audience is conservative. You have to be ready for that as a comedian.”

Rather than pushing a political narrative, Burt uses her own unique life experiences to inspire her material. She views comedy as an avenue to both share her own experiences and dispel the myth that there is one only one form of black storytelling.

“[It’s usually assumed that] black people have this monolithic experience, and that’s not true,” Burt says. “We may all have to deal with racism (in the same sense that women have to deal with sexism), but beyond that, we all have vastly different stories. [But] it’s all blackness—[although] blackness doesn’t have to be one thing.”

The Houston native says this is why there is a need for more support of black women in comedy. “If someone gave me money to put on a comedy show of only black women, I could do it in a heartbeat—there are so many objectively funny black women,” she says. “There doesn’t have to be one funny black woman at a time, and that goes for every art form.”

Burt points to Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion as a perfect example of how artists—and specifically black women—can thrive simultaneously, noting that the support between Megan and her peers is something she hopes to replicate with local comedians and performers.

In addition to doing stand-up, Burt is busy writing scripts in preparation for her move to New York, where she plans to represent Houston and put the city on the map for improv and comedy.

Following each Too Soon! show, Burt also hosts Speedball, an open-mic night at The Secret Group. Keep up with Burt and find her event listings online at facebook.com/hellokariburt, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @hellokariburt.

This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Martin Giron

Martin Giron is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine. He is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in sociology at Rice University.

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