Bobbie Oliver has been performing comedy for 30 years, as long as she’s been married to her husband and fellow comic, Chris. The art form and her spouse represent the two great loves of her life, but in 2013 some disturbing trends in the comedy scene motivated her to open the Tao Comedy Studio — a place where she could call the shots and take a stand against a seeming tidal wave of male comics engaging in extremely sexist and misogynistic humor.
That decision came after spending nearly a decade teaching standup comedy classes at the Ice House in Pasadena, as well as years before that at Pasadena City College. She and Chris had long-established roots in Eagle Rock as well, but at the same time she opened Tao in Los Angeles, the couple was forced by rising rents to move to Pasadena, and she couldn’t be happier with both moves.
“I’d been working on the book ‘Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause’ for years, and it all came together about the time that I ended up leaving the Ice House,” recalls Oliver. “I wanted to have the freedom to create more things and to not just teach, but also do shows my way. I wanted to create a situation where putting butts in seats was the last thing I worried about, and the quality of comedy came first.”
That decision has paid off in spades, as Oliver’s 50-seat venue is packed nightly with comics eager to perform in her shows, open mics or classes. The space is far more intimate than most comedy venues, but standup thrives when the energy between comics and audiences is intensified by intimacy, and Oliver further makes it work by making it clear at the start of every event that this is a place where audiences and comics will truly listen to each act.
One other thing she also makes clear is that “rapey” jokes won’t be tolerated. Instead, Tao is a venue that provides a respite from the often-vile material that can be found at most open mics across the LA area, encouraging comics to put some thought into their craft while being a much-needed home for female comics in particular.
“What my stage has become is this place for marginalized voices in comedy,” explains Oliver. “It’s female-focused, while most clubs around the world are very male oriented. We will have no less than 50 percent women on any show we do.
“We also do a women’s open mic, an LGBT open mic and show, and we give the proceeds from the LGBT show to LA’s LGBT Center and we give the profits from our feminist show to the Downtown Women’s Shelter,” she adds. “We also have a sketch group that has a residency there called Women of Color Anonymous. We do that to make a space and have a voice for women of color.”
The comedy scene and those who report on it have taken notice, with Tao winning the title of “Best Place for Women Comics” in one of LA Weekly’s Best of LA issues and “Best Safe Space Mic” and “Best Place to Do Your First Set” from the Open Mic Reviews blog. The impetus for establishing a home for nonsexist comedy came when she was a guest tweeter for a feminist organization and wrote a few tweets about her struggles as a woman in the comedy world.
“All these women tweeted me saying they’d given up comedy due to being surrounded by rape jokes,” says Oliver. “I don’t want to stop anyone from doing anything elsewhere, but I want to create a space for people who feel left out. When people complain about racist, homophobic or misogynistic comics, people say, ‘Don’t go to comedy clubs,’ and people do stop going.
“How is it good for comedy to tell people to stop going to clubs?” she continues. “I want women to know they don’t have to listen to rape jokes or jokes about beating up women. It got so bad. And when I asked the guys to stop doing it and explained that I’d been raped, they did it more. One in four women have been assaulted, so 25 percent in audience have been raped. Jokes about rape culture are OK — jokes calling out how victims are treated, how society treats rape victims — but pro-rape jokes, making light of rape or victim-blaming jokes, are not allowed.”
Oliver’s hardline stance helped quickly clean house on the worst offenders, but she was gratified to find that even many male comics thanked her for putting a stop to the vile wing of their ranks. She has also produced a feminist comedy festival for the past five years, a move that came about after she was excited to be chosen for a Las Vegas festival but found that one meet-and-greet session with a club booker was held at a strip club.
A Georgia native, Oliver first took the stage at the Punchline club in Atlanta on her 21st birthday and instantly fell in love with the experience. Upon graduating from college, she performed full-time for six years across the Southeast before opting to move to LA in 1997. She and Chris — who’s also an English as a second language teacher at Pasadena City College — have an easygoing partnership, as he helps run shows and open mics while she teaches all the classes.
“It took me a couple years to figure out I liked the LA comedy scene, because I had to start all over again and I didn’t know that LA clubs don’t pay comedians much,” says Oliver. “I got a real job and just started doing comedy contests and shows, started working at PCC and it occurred to me that I might have something to offer as a comedy class teacher. At that point I’d been doing comedy for 15 years, and now I’ve been teaching 15 years.”
Oliver’s fascination with applying the Chinese philosophy of Taoism to comedy came from the belief system’s focus on “dedication, mindfulness, being in the present moment, and being authentic and organic and not contrived. When I first started teaching at PCC, I had to learn how to teach and I realized I was answering people with what I learned from studying Eastern philosophy. Someone asked what their persona was and I said ‘who’s asking the question?’ To me, the answer is yourself.
“For too many people, comedy became a marketing scheme, a means to an end,” says Oliver, who has four comedy albums, including her latest “Rebel Grrrl,“ available on iTunes and other streaming sites.
“Thousands of people have studied with me now, at least over 2,000,” she continues. “I do private sessions over Skype with people all over the country and even overseas. I feel I and everybody else forgot I’m a comic first and foremost, but that will always be my first love.”
The Tao Comedy Studio is at 131 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles. Visit taocomedystudio.com.