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Chi Lives: what's so funny about pain and suffering

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"I think comedy is all that's kept me from becoming a felon," says Gail Stern. A professional stand-up comedian by night, by day she runs a program for victims of sexual and domestic violence at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After six years on the job, she's come to understand just how indifferent the system can be to the women she counsels. "At this point, I'm creating a list of people I'd like to go out and shoot."

Rather than dabbling in homicide, Stern blows them away onstage in her one-person show, Merge. It's a mock lecture-demonstration geared toward answering one simple question: How do you date Gail Stern? "I'm the director of a program that helps victims of rape and domestic violence," she explains in the show's opening minutes, "so you can pretty much fuck up on a dime on a date with me." She takes her audience on guided tours of her two worst dates--with men named the Asshole and Dickhead--then straps on a pair of plastic breasts and asks what sexual objectification looks like. She conjures up a fraternity party called BYOP--Bring Your Own Porn--where she discusses misogyny with the fellas as they finger through girlie mags.

Stern wanted nothing more than to be a comedian when she started college in Urbana-Champaign in 1987. She did a fair amount of improv and stand-up in school, but by her senior year she decided to be an activist: "I realized I could put all my self-righteousness to work." Fresh out of college, she took a job as the assistant project coordinator for UIC's newly created Campus Advocacy Network. "Essentially, that meant I filed stuff," she says. The program was designed to help students who had been victims of hate crimes on campus, but it soon expanded to address domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and stalking. Within six months, everyone else working for the project quit.

"So I went to the administration to ask if I could run the program," Stern says. "And they said, 'If you can fund it, you can have it.'" She spent the next five years pursuing grants and functioning as a one-person operation, handling a sobering 40 to 50 cases a year.

At first Stern was reluctant to use her comedy skills in the straight world. Then in 1994 the university got a contract to teach Chicago police sergeants cultural sensitivity. "My boss said, 'Why don't you do it? And use your stand-up comedy.' I thought he was insane."

After nine months of research, which included tagging along on a drug raid in Englewood, she walked into her first class sporting a bulletproof vest, terrified. She knew the sergeants didn't want to sit through three hours of sensitivity training--and they were armed. "Before I begin my talk on cultural sensitivity, you should know I think you're a bunch of hypocritical bigots," she began. "You're racist, sexist, homophobic, doughnut-eating, coffee-swigging, baton-clubbing, evidence-planting bastards. By the time this course is over, you're going to learn to kiss an officer of the same sex, hold his hand, and recite poetry." She was a hit.

These days comedy is a routine part of Stern's work, especially when she's accompanying a student to court to secure an order of protection. "Court is a terrifying place, so I try to crack my client up before we go in. I can't imagine what other people think of me, cracking jokes in the halls before a court appearance.

"Then I watch the attorneys doing their thing, and I think, 'I'm a comedian, I could do that.' Because what is comedy? It's setting out a set of assertions and justifying them. 'Did you ever notice this? Why is it that way?' And you're leading your audience along in a series of logical progressions so they get your point. That's what lawyering is. You get the judge to say, 'Oh yes, I see how beating a woman up is consistent with the domestic violence act.'"

Some judges need a bit of guidance. "One time we were in before a judge who had never handled orders of protection before," Stern says. "My client had been stalked by her ex- boyfriend, and he had sent her tons of letters, icky poems, and drawings. We gave them to the judge, and he was like, 'Wow, this is really very pretty! This is darn creative!' And he starts reading the poems aloud in court.

"So we tell the judge that this guy has also been seen circling her block repeatedly, driving really slowly right in front of her house. And he says to my client, 'Did it ever occur to you he's just trying to see if you're home?' It was the perfect setup for a joke. And I'm dying to say, 'You see, judge, that's sort of what stalking is about.'

"My heart is always pounding a million times a minute when I'm in that courtroom," she says. "Because if I die onstage, the worst thing that can happen is that I beat myself up for a week. If I die in court, she doesn't get her order of protection and maybe gets beaten up for real."

It's not only judges who don't always understand: Stern says she's discouraged by the university's inertia as well. "It's frustrating when some university staff members don't advocate for the victim and feel they need to take a neutral stance. Most of the time students who are found guilty of academic dishonesty seem to be treated more harshly than students found guilty of violent physical acts."

Stern's also faced her own limitations. "I remember walking home after being in the emergency room for four hours with a student who had been raped. I walked through all the cops, walked to the train, and just cried. Because they are my kids. I like to think that as long as I'm there, nothing bad will happen to them."

Merge runs as part of the "Best of the Fest" at the Factory Theater, 1257 W. Loyola, Thursdays at 8 through March 12. Call 773-274-1345 for tickets and information. --Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gail Stern photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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