“It’s Political to Be Who You Are”: Trans Comic Ian Harvie on His Standup Special, ‘May the Best Cock Win’

Transparent fans will recognize Ian Harvie from the show’s first season: In the episode “The Symbolic Exemplar,” Harvie plays a trans male teaching assistant who goes on a date with Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann). But the 48-year-old is also a veteran standup comedian, and today his first special, May the Best Cock Win, premieres on NBC’s comedy-specific streaming platform, Seeso.

As the title indicates, the hourlong special is personal and provocative (and very funny): Harvie opens with a joke about gay hunters, talks about being “a man with a vag,” and confesses to the one thing he misses about being a woman: the ladies’ room. Flavorwire spoke to Harvie about “cock shopping,” getting a leg up from Margaret Cho, and his mission as a comedian.

Flavorwire: How did you get started in comedy? I know you toured with Margaret Cho about a decade ago.

Ian Harvie: I started in Portland, Maine, at the local comedy club in Portland, which closed quite a while ago. I have a friend who was a contributing writer to The Daily Show, and he started offering a comedy writing class, which in a lot of cases is a really terrible idea. But he was really brilliant and he basically just taught joke-writing structure. That was 15 years ago. I moved to L.A. ten years ago this past June, and a few months after I got there I met Margaret. She was doing a set at this little tiny bar in Silver Lake. I said hello to her after the show. She gave me her card and I sent her my stuff, and a couple weeks later she invited me to a show at Largo, which was in a much smaller venue at that time, and right before we walked in, she said, “You’re gonna do a set.” And I was like, fuck! I thought I was meeting her to see her do a set. I was so nervous that it really kind of wrecked my game, but I did get a couple laughs. And she said you know what, I’m going to do a show — she was just like, “Come with me, I want you to open for me.”

So I did that for the next three years, and it was unbelievable. At first, I remember saying to her, I’m scared that your audience is going to — I mean, I’m telling people that I’m trans but I don’t look trans. To the naked eye I look queer of some sort, maybe dyke — I had this short haircut, I was a big old butch. And I just thought, they’re not gonna believe that I’m trans. And she was like, “No. People need to hear your story, and people need representation.” It was something that was so profound to me. It really released me, in a way, onstage. I needed this representation. What if I had a platform to tell people this story in a funny way that could also help people identify?

Did you always approach comedy as a way to work out your shit, or was that impulse separate from the appeal of getting up onstage and making people laugh?

It’s both. And there’s actually one more element to that — I also learned that you can change people’s minds about something that they may have thought they had an idea about. I am a comic, I’m trans; I talk about that a lot. Yes, I am working stuff out about myself onstage. I’m not wagging my finger about politics — it’s political to be who you are. I hope to lower some people’s shoulders from their ears, relax them, open them up. Laughter is very, very intimate. People think jokes aren’t hitting your heart space, but they are. If someone can make you laugh, your shoulders go down and you open up. And if you can do that with somebody or to somebody, you can probably reach them in ways they’re not even realizing. So I have a bunch of different missions: I want to make people laugh, I want to share my story, I want to work stuff out about myself, and I want to maybe teach people something that they don’t even realize they’re being taught.

There’s a bit in your set about “cock shopping” and it made me think about the scene in Transparent where you and Gaby Hoffmann’s character do the same. Were you involved in writing that scene?

I was, actually. I went into the writer’s room at the beginning of the season. I was one of probably hundreds that they invited into the writers room, by the way — I was special but I was not special. I’m honored, but I’m also honored that they asked so many trans people into the writers room. [Creator Jill Soloway] asked, “Can you tell me your story,” and then after they had me in the writers room. Jill’s sister [Faith] wrote the cock-shopping scene — she’s also a lesbian, has also had experience cock shopping, so it was a blend of both of our stories and experiences. I was so stoked that it hit the page.

There’s another joke you tell in your special about revealing to audiences that you’re trans, and everybody’s eyes just drop to your crotch. Any standup is putting him or herself in a vulnerable position — you’re up there alone and you have to make people laugh — but I wonder if you feel extra vulnerable in some circumstances, or if you’ve ever felt unsafe during a show.

I’m most vulnerable telling a new joke. Any comic is. If you’re a new comic, you’re vulnerable getting onstage. But if you’re a comic that’s been doing it for a while, telling a new joke is scary as hell. I’ve had people say fucked up things at shows, or yell out shit. A long time ago, I remember I used to sometimes start my gay hunter’s joke with, “Any hunters in the audience? Great, I’m gonna keep doing this joke.” And then I finished the joke, and someone in the audience was like, “I got my gun in the truck right out in the parking lot!” And you’re like, shit [laughing]. There’s definitely a moment like, “Can you guys walk me to the car?” But those kind of moments are actually so rare. The truth is, I’ve made the very people that say that kind of shit laugh their asses off, and that’s how I win them. I had somebody right before I went onstage a long time ago be like, “You fucking dyke.” It didn’t bother me, I was just like, “I’m gonna make that fucker laugh.” That is my mission. I’m gonna win them over, and they’re gonna either wish they hadn’t said it or feel like a bit of a jerk afterwards, because I’m gonna make them laugh.

I haven’t felt unsafe physically, necessarily, and that’s one of the privileges of being a trans guy versus a trans woman. My friend who’s from New York, Jaye McBride, she’s a trans lady comic, she’s so fucking funny. And I worry for her after a show. It’s a different game for me because I’m a dude, because of male privilege. I’m also white. I look like this burly dude with a beard at first glance — it’s one of the privileges of being a trans guy over a trans girl.

In your set you mentioned that you transitioned some time ago.

I came out when I was about 32, and it wasn’t until I was about 39 that I started taking hormones. It’ll be nine years this coming March that I had sex surgery. I didn’t look like this until probably about four or five years in.

What has it been like for you to see this become such a public issue in the past few years, something that people are discussing on TV and in newspapers and magazines?

I’ve been wanting this dialogue, because people have so many misconceptions about who trans people are — that we are somehow tricksters, that it’s a costume and we put it on during the day and take it off at night. Again, that’s more of a misconception for trans women; I walk down the street and nobody knows, so I have this invisibility safety that trans women don’t always have. I’ve been waiting for this conversation to be more public. You leave that stuff in the dark and nobody knows — they’re left to draw their own conclusions, and that’s never good, you know? You just make shit up! I don’t mind discussing it with anybody who’s curious about it and genuinely wants to understand. I don’t want to debate it, because it’s not up for fucking debate. That’s the difference in the conversation. I don’t even engage with people who want to debate my story, because it’s my fucking story.

When you say debate, do you mean, questioning that you are who you say you are?

Yeah, exactly. Exactly that. People want to debate who I say I am, and it’s just not up for debate. I did a TED Talk last November about how everybody is trans. At the end, I have everybody look at each other — if you just stop and look at each other, everybody has sort of these gender fluid pieces about them. I started seeing in the comments, you get that person who calls a trans person an “it,” and they call me “she,” and it’s just so intentional. You want to talk about it because you want to learn, that’s one thing. You want to talk about it because you don’t believe me? I don’t give a fuck.

May the Best Cock Win is now streaming on Seeso.