Jibes at little people answered with jokes

Even the most boundary-pushing comics are loath to attack certain groups. Others, though, for no explicable reason, are fair game. All French people are arrogant. All British people have bad teeth. All Catholic priests fondle little boys. And all little people are midgets who only exist to be the butt of jokes.

The trend toward midget jokes may stem from the fact that, as Doug Stanhope and Sarah Silverman have pointed out, we don't fear them. There's no chance an angry mob of little people will go on the attack after a show.

But Tanyalee Davis, who will be performing at Lafflines in New Westminster tonight through Saturday (December 15 to 17) and again on New Year's Eve, is sick of it. And not just because she's three-foot-six and the only little-person standup comic working mainstream clubs in North America. Davis has heard them all-on and off the stage-and other than Stanhope's equal-opportunity screeds, she isn't impressed by any of them.

"They're all so lame," she tells the Straight by phone from her Las Vegas home. "There are really no smart midget jokes out there. It's the same joke rehashed from a different angle."

Davis started her show-business career while attending university in Winnipeg after a standout performance in a children's play as a penguin. ("Nobody else could capture a role like that. I couldn't sing worth a damn, but I squawked out a pretty mean tune.") The woman showed her mettle after earning a sociology degree by working in a men's prison for three years counselling convicted murderers. After a move to Calgary, she volunteered with delinquent kids.

"I'm really fascinated with criminology and that sort of field and helping people, but I'm just too emotional," Davis explains. "I can't handle that. I would always take work home."

So after a brief stint at UBC, she quit to concentrate on standup comedy. Little did she know how prepared she was for it. "When I was growing up and being teased a lot by kids, I was trying to think of funny things to say to combat the negativity coming at me. And I thought 'Someday this will come in handy.' And I didn't know why."

Davis started out doing "my face is in your ass" kinds of jokes before evolving into performing more personal material about her life and the obstacles she faces. She stands on a chair to deliver her act so everyone can see, and punctuates the jokes with lots of physicality.

"A good majority of my act is about my life and me, and maybe it's from a little person's perspective but I don't feel it's hokey midget shit anymore," she says.

After a move to L.A., Davis started turning up on TV once or twice a year, most recently on NBC's Last Comic Standing. She's also appeared a few times in little-person segments on Maury Povich's sensationalistic Maury show, which drew the ire of her community. But Davis is quick to point out that she's not an ambassador for all little people.

"If I inspire you as a little person, great. If not, I'm not your leader," she says.

She considers her act "edu-tainment", calculated to make people laugh but also to come away with an understanding of what it's like to be short in a big person's world. And if you're going to persist in using the M word (as she still does on-stage), just make sure the context isn't negative.

"I may be the midget comedian," Davis says. "If that's how people want to remember me, fine, as long as they say she was the funny midget comedian."