Not all comedians are good actors, nor should they be. I was never too taken with any of the great George Carlin’s handful of movie roles, and yet last week I found myself floored by a new movie written by, and starring, Pete Davidson (at 26, a vastly inferior comedian). The trick is to identify your strengths and make the most of them. Gina Brillon, for example, is a naturally gifted performer, and her new standup special The Floor is Lava — which premiered on Amazon Prime Video last month — uses her acting abilities very smartly indeed.
In particular, Brillon’s impressions of well-meaning but incorrigibly snooty white people are priceless. Like the bit where she remembers a white ex-boyfriend who took her to his parents’ lake house (“the first time I realised that white people have houses they don’t live in”). Brillon mimics her ex’s parents serving her fancy food (“food that’s decorated with other food”) and then being patronising towards her when she eats the whole thing, decorations and all.
Brillon talks about cultural/racial “confusion” fairly early on in the show and it sets the tone for a superb extended segment about her identity and how it pops up in her everyday life. The 40-year-old comedian, a “native New Yorker”, grew up in the South Bronx in a Puerto Rican family, surrounded by Mexican friends. In a revelatory monologue, Brillon tells us what it’s like to constantly repress a side of oneself — all in the service of ‘adulting’.
“Being from the Bronx, there’s always going to be a ‘hood side to me. Like, there’s ‘hood me’ and then there’s ‘evolved me’. ‘Evolved me’ knows that hurt people hurt people. But ‘hood me’ just wants to hurt people, she don’t care about your back story. I gotta keep the ‘hood me’ repressed, y’know? Until I’m angry, and that’s when the ‘hood spirit inhabits my body and I can’t control what’s gonna happen.”
Two things about this extremely smart bit: first, when anger becomes the only way to reconnect with a repressed aspect of your personality, you’re likely to take it out on your family. Brillon even says so, much later in the show, when she talks about “annual fights about the same things” at family dinners — after a point, the anger and the fighting are not anomalies, they’re patterns you find yourself shackled to. Second: when repression meets white cluelessness, it’s a recipe for disaster. Brillon, who’s light-skinned, talks about the frustration of being asked to “constantly prove my ethnicity”; it only sounds quaint or innocent the first few times.
She’s equally funny when she talks about her marriage to a white man from the American Midwest. “I got myself a 1978 Caucasian. He’s not just white, he’s Midwest white,” she says, upon which a woman in the audience cheers. Without missing a beat, she continues, “That’s right, that’s organic, girl. That’s farm to table white. I went straight to the source to get my white man.” The farm-to-table bit is such an appropriate way to highlight the racial tensions of the Midwest. That 70s Show, which was set in Wisconsin (pretty much peak Midwest, for the uninitiated), once had a (rare) black character observing, “This is Wisconsin, the only place you’ll see black and white together is on a cow.”
This also leads Brillon to some fairly uncomfortable territory — is it possible for your own spouse to fetishise you, just a little bit? “My husband loves the fact that he married a sassy Latina,” she says, telling us that he drops this little nugget into random conversations with acquaintances and even strangers. Brillon’s tone here is one of exasperated affection, for even the most well-meaning of partners can sometimes fail to see how this is… not ideal. It’s a subtle point, because while romantic choices are deeply personal, nothing and no one is immune to racial/cultural insensitivity.
Latin American women have, after all, been called stereotypical things like ‘sassy’ or ‘fiery’ for ages now, by white Americans for the most part. It never gets old, somehow. This is exemplified, most of all, through the life and works of another Puerto Rican woman who, like Brillon, grew up in the South Bronx—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old congresswoman who’s arguably the most popular young politician in America today. In the bucketfuls of misogynist, ad hominem criticism routinely leveled at Ocasio-Cortez, you can see many of Brillon’s jokes about white people come to life. Most recently, the hallowed New York Times called her ‘disruptive’ in an absolute dumpster fire of a report. Her crime was criticizing a white Republican congressman who called her a “f*cking bitch”.
We are living in the Upside Down, you see. Even the joke that lends Brillon’s show its name — about rich people ‘appropriating’ The Floor is Lava, a “poor person’s game” — is evidence of this. The Floor is Lava is supposed to be a game that requires no money or resources to play — not even a floor, technically, any ol’ terra firma is good enough. It’s supposed to be a small, fun, goofy thing you do with cousins and friends. Instead, 2020 has transformed it into a legit Netflix property: now it’s an elaborate high-budget show with artificial lava and a $10,000 winner’s purse.
What other wounds will this hell-spawn year inflict upon us?
This article was first published in DeadAnt, an online publication and new-media venture focused on stand-up comedy in India.