By Gab Bonesso
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
I feel the need to start this week’s This Tastes Funny with a slight disclaimer. The comedian being featured is a very close friend of mine named Arvin Clay.
How close are we? He often casually throws around the phrase, “I wouldn’t even be doing standup comedy if I didn’t stumble into your Brillobox show. It was Valentine’s Day 2016, I’ll never forget.”
Clay has been doing standup comedy since May 2016, but he’s been a part of Pittsburgh’s art scene since the late ’90s. He’s been a goth DJ, a photographer, and a horror film makeup artist specializing in silicone. He even co-authored a book on the subject! And these are just a few of the cool professions he has had through the years.
When I asked him to be this week’s lunch date, I had a feeling that he’d want to have lunch at Taco Bell. Truthfully, I have only ever shared a meal with Arvin at Taco Bell. I assumed it was the only food he ate.
I guess things have changed now that some new information has been released about Taco Bell and its Political Action Committee donations.
“Donald Trump is so awful he’s taken chalupas from us!” Clay says. “Taco Bell had a PAC. A PAC, Gab! They gave all of their money to the Trump campaign. Who knew that a corporation that was built on culturally appropriating Mexican food would be so against immigration?”
No more Taco Bell, gotcha! Arvin suggested Doce Taqueria in the South Side. It has the same fast food vibe, but without (hopefully) funding Trump’s campaign.
It’s probably already clear that Arvin’s comedy treads into political waters. He told me early on that his biggest hesitation with starting standup was that the last thing comedy needed was another white, straight, cisgender, male voice. He explained that if he was going to do it, he had to speak up and out for marginalized voices.
He tells me that most of the open mics around town can be a frustrating experience, with white dudes recycling the same material. Clay goes off on a rant, “If I have to hear another large man repeat the same joke about lifting up their arms and their shirt raises above their belly, but doesn’t fall back down after dropping their arms, I’m going to lose my mind!”
At a recent open mic, Clay says a comedian spent his entire time complaining about a woman before publicly calling for her to be sexually assaulted.
My chin hits the Doce Taqueria counter. He says, “It got worse. The guy then said that he doesn’t even like women, but he’d like to rape her.”
At this point, flies were entering my wide open mouth because I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I didn’t even understand what the punchline was supposed to be. It was horrifying to hear.
Clay says this kind of behavior is why he’s looking to move to New York City. He says it’s the only place where he can grow professionally. He doesn’t plan on becoming rich and famous, but he’d like to be able to work as a comic part-time at the very least.
Our food arrives. Clay ordered two vegetarian tacos that look way better than Taco Bell. I ordered a Walking Taco. I had my choice of chips and my choice of protein, so I went with Cool Ranch Doritos and vegetarian toppings (because I’m hella healthy). We devoured our food in minutes. It was so delicious and so fresh and so fast. Like, way faster than Taco Bell which is allegedly “fast food.” Talk about false advertising.
I wanted to know if Clay finds performing political comedy extra frustrating here in Western PA. I was curious if he felt the need to avoid it at certain shows depending on the audience.
“I don’t avoid it because I can’t, but I definitely try to read the audience and deliver it in a way that we all can live with,” he says. “I say my piece, but I don’t do it in a way that criticizes who they are. It’s something that I’ve watched you do time and time again. Read the room and adjust your material. Don’t cut, edit.”
We both agree that it’s really hard to avoid being at least somewhat political in today’s climate. He speaks the truth.
As we finish our lunch, the place begins filling up with people. There is limited seating and everyone is looking at us like, “if you’re done eating, then get out.” But I have to ask Arvin Clay one final question.
Why do you think you prefer comedy to all of your other artistic endeavours despite doing it for the least amount of time?
“I have never felt any high better than the first time I got off stage,” he said. “Yes, I was using an iPad to remember my jokes, but the first time I felt someone laugh at something I wrote, I was hooked. It’s like that Monsters, Inc. bit where laughter is more powerful than being scared. If you can laugh at what scares you then you’ll be fine.”