Good Things: Rhea Butcher on softball history and comedy

| Senior Sports Editor

Rhea Butcher is a Los Angeles-based comedian from outside Cleveland, Ohio. They have appeared on Adam Ruins Everything, Comedy Central, Conan and more. Butcher, their debut album, hit No. 1 on iTunes. They will be performing at the Ready Room on Sunday, Sept. 15. Doors open at 7 p.m. In a conversation on Monday, I spoke with Butcher about baseball, softball and, of course, jokes.

Student Life:

Sorry about any background noise, I am currently in an alley by The Improv Shop of St. Louis.

Rhea Butcher:

Oh, I understand. No biggie. Oh shoot—my dog just turned the TV back on. Sorry.

SL:

You’re good. Alright, how long have you been doing comedy?

RB:

I’ve been doing stand-up since 2011, so 8 years.

SL:

Had you done any other kind of comedy before that?

RB:

Yeah, I took some improv classes before that. I always really loved stand-up, and then improv classes were something some other people I knew were taking, so I figured I’d try that. And then through those improv classes, I met some folks that were also into stand-up. We started doing stand-up, and I haven’t really done improv since.

SL:

What kind of jokes do you like to write?

RB:

That is such a big question. That’s hard to answer.

SL:

Fair.

RB:

My material is from my life, you know? From the experience of my life. I try to keep things positive these days, because I’m trying to give people an hour out of their day to have a good time and not think about terrible things. That’s kind of my approach.

SL:

Yeah! Sorry for that question being really broad, I’ll narrow it down a –

RB:

Oh no, that’s okay!

SL:

I know jokes about baseball.

RB:

Yeah, sometimes.

SL:

Why jokes about baseball in particular?

RB:

Well, baseball is something that has been a part of my life ever since I was a kid. I grew up watching it. I grew up playing it in my neighborhood. And it’s a really a lens through which I experience life. I’m a big baseball fan. I’ve been playing on a team for like five years now. It’s just like a part of everyday life for me. I find it relatable in that way, that we all have lenses distinct [to] our lives that we look at life through. It’s the language, you know? Those kind of things are a culture and a language. My experiences within those cultures and languages I find to be pretty relatable to people. Even though I’ve found a lot of acceptance and growth and evolution in those places, there’s a lot of sexism and misogyny and those types of stuff. I like to talk about both of those things because those things exist everywhere.

SL:

Are you a fan of the team from Cleveland?

RB:

That’s a loaded question for me. I grew up liking that team a lot. And then as I’ve gotten older, it’s just harder to root for that team for a lot of reasons. They’ve recently gotten rid of that logo, so that’s a move in the right direction. But it’s a difficult team to root for when you feel not so great about saying their name, you know?

SL:

Yeah.

RB:

I’d love to see that team win the World Series because I’ve watched them lose the World Series three times in my lifetime.

SL:

Oof.

RB:

I would love to see Cleveland win a World Series, but am I like every day, day in, day out, cheering for that team? Not really. But will I ever not pay attention to them? I don’t know. They’re just like the team that I grew up with. Living in Los Angeles, it’s very easy to be a Dodger fan because everybody’s talking about them. A lot of my friends are Dodgers fans, and I like a lot of the players. It’s been easy to have a second team. I’ve always had two teams in my baseball fandom: an American League team and a National League team. It just so happens that now my national league team is the Dodgers. Who I’ve also seen lose the World Series twice. We’ll see if they make it three.

SL:

That’s very optimistic, still, to say that they might make it to a third.

RB:

Yeah, you never know. You’ve got to look on the bright side, you know?

SL:

Um-hmm. I’m from Kansas City, so one year was great, but every other year of my life has been terrible for baseball.

RB:

Hey, you got the one, man.

SL:

I’ve also heard you do a joke about softball being a tool of the patriarchy.

RB:

Sure, yeah.

SL:

Do you think is a softball is a worse sport than baseball or do you think they’re just different?

RB:

I never said it was a worse sport than baseball, so definitely don’t misquote me there. Because it’s not.

SL:

Gotcha.

RB:

In that bit, I never say anything about it being worse or bad or anything. The sport itself has been used as a tool of the patriarchy to keep women out of baseball. Because they are two different sports. They’re not the same sport. They look very similar, but they’re not the same sport. The distances between the bases is shorter, the distance between the pitching mound and home plate is shorter, the mound itself is flat, they only play seven innings, the whole field is slightly smaller, the ball is bigger and it’s pitched underhand. It’s [a] different sport that requires a different skill set, which is a skill set nonetheless. But women have been kept out of baseball and put into softball, because it’s been made to seem as though it is the same, and it’s not. It is actually historically true that softball was used to funnel girls and women out of baseball in the late 40’s and 50’s. After the All-American Girls Professional Baseball league ended—not because it fell apart and nobody wanted [it], it was actually mismanaged by the executives—women were consistently playing baseball in this country and a lot of men were playing softball. Everybody was playing all the sports. And then Major League Baseball pushed women into softball because they wanted them out of baseball. Period. That’s just the historical story of it. Girls were kept out of little league. There’s actually a young woman who sued because she got kicked out of little league and won. That was in the 70’s, but she never got to play again. It was all pre-Title IX. All of the softball friction was before Title IX, so they got away with it. Which is why college softball is so big. Now they can point to it and say “This is the equivalent. We put as much money into it as we do baseball.” But they’re not the same sport. There are women who play baseball.

SL:

Yeah. so –

RB:

That’s my short answer

*laughter*

SL:

Ideally, would you [like] to see more women start playing baseball again and more men start playing softball again, or would you like to see them merge into one sport? What’s the ideal to get rid of the disparities?

RB:

Well, the ideal is that if a kid wants to play baseball, then they should be able to play baseball…there are a lot of women and girls playing baseball, we just don’t see it. I see it, because I pay attention to it, you know. That’s a neutral statement, I just mean that I’ve opened myself up to that world of girls and women and kids in baseball.

SL:

Yeah, you’re looking for it.

RB:

Yeah. My friend Justine Siegal was the woman to ever throw batting practice. She threw batting practice for Cleveland. Her jersey is in Cooperstown for doing so –

SL:

Cool!

RB:

She has a baseball non-profit called Baseball for All, and every year they do a tournament. It’s up to like 200 kids now. That’s a lot of kids.

SL:

Yeah.

RB:

That’s a lot of girls and women playing baseball and they’re coming every year. It’s getting bigger every year. Ideally, for me, [it] would not be the first woman in the MLB or whatever. I don’t look at it top down, I look at it bottom up. That if a child is six years old [and] wants to go play baseball, they should be allowed to go play baseball. And at 13, if they’re still at the talent level of a 13-year-old, they should be allowed to continue playing baseball and not be told, “Well, you’re 13 now and you’re a girl, so you have to go play softball.” That is what I would like to see changed. If a girl is already playing baseball and is talented and could have a continued path down baseball, then why not? Girls are being told every day at 13 “Time’s up, you gotta go play softball,” and I just don’t think that’s fair.

SL:

Gotcha.

RB:

Yep.

SL:

Moving away from baseball and softball, I have a couple questions back towards comedy.

RB:

Yeah, that’d be great.

*laughter*

SL:

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of comedians complaining about college kids and colleges not being a great place to perform comedy.

RB:

Sure.

SL:

I’ve noticed a trend of them being white males, and they’re telling jokes that aren’t exactly endearing themselves to the audience. Do you have an opinion about this controversy they keep trying to make?

RB:

I mean, I really don’t. I’ve played colleges. I made a joke about “Home Alone” and nobody laughed and I was like, “Oh, I’m old.” That was the conclusion I came to. Kids in college don’t really relate to my “Home Alone” jokes because they were probably watching “Elf.” I think these people that are trying to make it a thing just don’t realize that maybe their jokes aren’t funny to that generation of people. Sometimes, you’re maybe not making jokes that relate to the audience or whatever. But, I don’t know. I really haven’t had that much of a problem other than my “Home Alone” jokes. I think it’s some people being sad.

SL:

I’ve noticed that comedy, at least in the open mic scene that I’m in, seems to be a very straight male thing. How do you carve out a space for yourself in that kind of environment?

RB:

That’s a great question. Are you asking as a straight male how do you that or are you asking me as a non-straight male?

SL:

I’m asking you for your perspective.

RB:

Okay, great! I think my answer regardless of what your answer to that question was going to be is the same. No matter what, you have to find a unique perspective, and you can’t find that by not doing it. So you have to keep doing it. You have to keep going to open mics. You have to try the same material different ways. You also kind of have to put blinders on when you first start out and not really think about what other people are doing as much as you think about what you’re doing when you’re onstage. I think it’s good to be present at an open mic, in a community and make friends and be kind and open. It’s hard to do that because you’re all competing with each other, trying to be the best. The less that you try to compete with other people and really just participate in the community that is that room and try to make it like a fun place to be, as opposed to an awful place to be, is going to pay off in the long run. It really is about find[ing] what is specific to you that is interesting to you, and then testing that out and seeing if other people can relate to it. You know?

SL:

Um-hmm. I have one last question for you.

RB:

Great:

SL:

What advice would you give to somebody who was just starting out in comedy?

RB:

Well, other than what I just said.

*Laughter*

SL:

Oh yeah, definitely.

RB:

The advice I would give somebody who was just starting out in comedy is don’t be too hard on yourself. Have a good time. If you don’t have fun on stage, then what’s the point? There’s really no point. If you’re just having a terrible time every time you get on stage, then maybe take a break and come back to it. Just be open to the full experience. Be kind to your fellow comics because they are your coworkers, but they are your friends, too. If you’re going to keep at this, you’re all going to be together for a while. So it’s a good thing to be pals and listen to each other’s jokes and like, say nice things about people’s jokes if you like their jokes. Laugh at their jokes. That’s my advice.

SL:

Thank you, that’s great advice.

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