Photos: Elliott Wenzler
On stage, she’s soft spoken, but speaks volumes. Her delivery comes across as nervous, but somehow completely confident. Kaia Hodo, 23, has a backbone as she tells her jokes.
Sometimes, Hodo even jokes about the fact that she’s a transgender woman. She takes testosterone reducing medication, which makes her have to use the bathroom more often. Ironic, since it seems like people don’t want her in there nowadays, she said.
She gets a kick out of other comics making transgender people the butt of their jokes because “if you only knew how much of a joke my life really is, you can’t touch it.” She’s self-deprecating but also makes sure not to simply affirm stereotypes about herself. Instead, Hodo makes jokes that shed light on what it’s like to be her as an individual.
“The approach I’m trying to take to it is, if this conversation is going to happen let someone who is the subject talk about it,” Hodo said.
Being transgender isn’t all her jokes are about, not by far, but when she does venture there, it’s right on point. She does what most comics are looking to do: makes people simultaneously laugh and think. She has been performing comedy in the Fayetteville area for two years now and has not only watched the comedy scene change in both size and progressiveness; she’s been instrumental in making it happen.
“She has a balance that a lot of comics want to have,” said fellow comedian Chad Chamberlain. “A lot of the best comics have this humility and self-deprecation well balanced with poignant social commentary. She hits that balance better than most. – I really envy that.”
Hodo, originally from Tulsa, did her first open mic a week after leaving an inpatient behavioral health facility, she said.
“I went there and I felt I was qualified to do comedy,” Hodo said. She wasn’t in a good place mentally at the time, she thought “maybe a good way to deal with all this is just get on stage and tell everybody each intimate detail about it.”
Hodo wasn’t totally out at the time she started comedy. A couple close friends knew but she wasn’t talking about it on stage yet. She was worried coworkers would find out and gossip would start.
“When I finally was like I want to talk about these things I want to make jokes about this – I kind of came out on stage,” Hodo said. The repercussions weren’t what she feared though, if there was any conversation happening, she hadn’t heard about it.
She did the open mic a few times and it was immediately clear to those watching she had something special. It wasn’t long until she started getting paid gigs at local venues like Nomads Music Lounge and Cannibal & Craft.
“You don’t often find a comic that makes that much an impression as she did [along with] being that soft-spoken,” Chamberlain said. “Her presence on stage was immediately noticeable.”
Chamberlain, who hadn’t been doing comedy much longer than Hodo, was there the first time she ever got on stage. Now, she’s someone he loves to be in a show with, but hates to follow.
Even though she’s difficult to follow because she does so well, Chamberlain likes having Hodo around to call him out every now and then. Hodo doesn’t have any problem letting him or any other comic know when they’ve said something that crosses a line.
“Not only has she grown since she started, she’s helped the scene grow exponentially since she started,” Chamberlain said. “She’s a really positive force for the kind of comedy scene you should be striving for nowadays in that she’s very receptive, very inclusive, and she’s also very eager to address – situations where people might have crossed the line.”
An example many members of the community remember is the night a male comedian decided to dress in drag as a joke and create a cartoonish character out of it.
Hodo, who was next up on the microphone, thought quickly on her feet and after a few moments standing on stage silently, opened with “it sucks that there’s not like an actual transgender woman with a weird voice to tell jokes.”
The opener was immediately met with loud belly laughs and a huge applause break.
Transphobic jokes are made all the time in comedy, Hodo said. Once she started making jokes about the topic from her perspective, her writing got better and she felt like she was bridging a gap.
“I think it made it easier to connect with people who might have even unknowingly written some pretty transphobic material,” Hodo said.
Whitney Wasson, who is also a LGBTQ comedian, watched the local scene grow when she was a member with Hodo. Wasson, who has since moved to Chicago, booked Hodo in her first Nomads show and has seen her help the scene immensely.
“When Kaia and I started performing at [Ryleigh’s] normally, we brought a pretty queer [and] progressive crowd.” Wasson said. “She’s just totally a mover and a shaker [for] the scene. It’s hard to do that outside of the big city.”
Though Hodo brings a more progressive movement, she doesn’t have a strict policy for what is or isn’t okay to joke about. Wasson and Hodo both agree that nothing is off limits for making jokes, but it does actually have to be funny. Hodo has won roast competitions and doesn’t stray away from being a little harsh, she just thinks there has to be some cleverness behind it instead of just grouping people together based on their characteristics.
“People try and go for shock value because they think that’s what people will laugh about,” Wasson said. “[new comedians] think ‘I’ll just joke about something racy and edgy and then that’ll do it.’”
Outside of calling attention to tasteless jokes, Hodo helps the scene grow by encouraging many female comedians and helping them get stage time. She has produced and been featured in a number of all-female shows in the area and has watched as the posters change from all male lineups to ones always featuring at least a few women.
“If you have a show that’s six men on a bill together, that’s just a comedy show. If you have six women on a bill together, that’s a niche special show.” Hodo said.
For that reason, Hodo produced a show in August of 2016 that had an entirely female bill, but wasn’t advertised as a niche women in comedy show. It wasn’t until after the show happened that someone posted on Facebook identifying it as an all-female show, making it a success in Hodo’s mind in the challenge to change the stigma of women in comedy.
Those that have been in the local comedy scene longer than Hodo have noticed the change, too.
“There’s always been female comics, but there has never been a time when there’s an entire bill of females until [Hodo] came around,” Chamberlain said.
Hodo hopes to one day move to a bigger city, but she wants to make sure before she goes that the Fayetteville scene won’t move backwards after she leaves. Her impact on the scene is likely to mirror the impact of her jokes. A loud burst of laughter followed by a smile and thoughtfulness that remain long after the punch line punches.