It’s a little after 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night, and I’m at Kremwerk. 30 or 40 people sit in folding chairs around a small stage in a dark room. A spotlight illuminates a redheaded woman in a spandex hood cuffed to a bar dangling from the ceiling.
What happens next is unexpected. Tacoma comic Rachel Afflje begins to tell jokes about her five miscarriages, comparing her uterus to a venus fly trap and saying that it has an eject button.
Some in the audience are laughing, some are gasping, some are too stunned to react. She follows up with, “You know, if you’re not laughing, you’re not helping me heal.” The audience roars.
This is Safeword: Kinky Queer Comedy, a wackadoodle combination of BDSM, comedy and improv that’s the brainchild of comedian and producer Bobby Higley (she/her). Queer, nonbinary, polyamorous and ex-Mormon, she opened the show with 30 minutes about being a BDSM brat, her first time eating pussy, and being literally thrown off the bed by a lover while he orgasmed.
From silly and filthy to raw and serious – but always funny – Safeword empowers a diverse cast of comics to bring their full queer and sexual selves to entertain in a way I have never seen.
Intrigued, I wanted to learn more. Bobby and I sat down to discuss Safeword’s past, present and future, her favorite moments, and more
Jason: Tell me more about Safeword: Kinky Comedy. What is it? When is it?
Bobby: Safeword is Seattle’s homegrown kinky queer comedy show. In Seattle it happens at Kremwerk on first Fridays, on third Fridays in Olympia at Cryptatropa Bar, and on fourth Saturdays up at Wink Wink Bellingham.
The format of the show is that I bring in three comedians. They start with three minutes of standup so the audience gets a feel for them. Then, during the middle of their set, we introduce a pre-negotiated kink scene for about 8 to 10 minutes. There’s a range of different scenes, but they’re my version of very common kinks we encounter.
I do a consent pledge at the start just to get everybody on the same page: “Red” means stop, “yellow” means slow down, and “green” means harder daddy!” I want my audience to feel empowered to safeword, too, if they truly feel like something is happening on stage that shouldn’t happen.
That’s also why as part of the introduction I make it very clear that this is playful. I want you to be curious about something you see, and then go take it to the actual next level.
J: When did Safeword start?
B: I started Safeword about six years ago. It was a co-production at the time. There’s another comedian in the city who is very much kinky. I was the sweet little angel that giggled at things, and they were the one who stared into your soul and you knew this person is deeply kinky. It was fun when we had that, but their job took precedence. So, we split, which was unfortunate, but we split amicably. Since then, I’ve been running it myself for about four years.
J: What made you want to combine BDSM with comedy?
B: I felt so nervous walking into my first sex store, as an ex-Mormon. I felt like giggling, also, because I was like, “What are these things?!” I went into Doghouse Leathers for my first sex store, okay? I was fucking terrified!
When I was younger and inexperienced with kink, it was all very scary, and there weren’t a lot of beginner-friendly ways to learn about it. I also never took sex very seriously. I love sex toys, I love kinks, but I’m that giggling brat bottom. I once started giggling when bottoming for sounding, because it looked so funny. I thought, “I’m putting metal in my penis!” That’s so silly to me.
I wanted to remind people who had gotten so experienced with kink that, at one point, they weren’t. At one point, it was silly. I do think that there is more that can be done in the middle, that both ends of those groups are very compatible; it’s just a matter of learning. The most experienced people do sometimes, I feel, need to learn how to make things approachable.
J: Wanting to have an approachable beginner-friendly space and take a look at the sillier side of kink, how did that turn into a comedy show?
B: I had kink in my personal comedy. I was a very provocative comedian in my first couple years, and I was frustrated with being told that my comedy wasn’t clean enough, which was often code for “It’s too gay.” Sometimes I would listen to a recording, and I didn’t swear once. The only thing they had an issue about was me talking about being polyamorous or having done drugs years ago. It was very frustrating to be told that I needed to code-switch to grow in these environments where there wasn’t opportunity.
I started to see that a lot of very specific shows were successful, themed drag shows that would have a Star Trek or a Steven Universe theme.
J: A way to connect the performance with a specific audience.
Exactly! So if I find a lane, and if it’s queer and also true to me, that’s great. Safeword felt like this was my lane. I can do queer and kinky and talk about anything I want. And because this is a show that does most of its posting on FetLife, I know what I’m going to get as far as an audience. I’m not going to have puritanical people come into the show.
J: It sounds like you were wanting to bring your whole self to comedy, and you wanted to provide a space for other people to bring their whole selves to comedy without being told, you’re too gay, you’re too extreme.
B: Also, you don’t know this because you’re not a comedian, but if you have the opportunity to interview other comedians, ask them how much they got paid their first couple of years. I’m pretty sure I pay more than any other independent comedy producer in the city. I would be shocked if there’s another producer that’s putting as many thousands of dollars into comics’ pockets.
My first four years of pursuing comedy, there was very little consistent pay. I lost probably thousands of dollars, mostly in transportation. I would go to dozens of open mics a week, paying for bus fares or Lyfts, because I thought that grind was necessary for me to get good. I would get booked by indie producers in the city, but it would be a cut of the door. If they are a great producer, then that could be good money. But if they are a newer producer, as most are, I’d spend four hours of my life there and make 10, 15 bucks.
Some say that if you want to do comedy professionally, put 10 years in at the club and then you should be able to headline it. I wasn’t spending a decade of my life not being paid properly.
J: How does Safeword break with that practice? What are you doing differently?
B: I’m a hustler: I could see how much the producers were making at comedy shows. I was a server and a bartender, and I know for a fact based on body count that the club is pulling thousands of dollars. There was no quick path for me at a club to get to that kind of access.
I would rather make my own night, and one thing I insisted on doing is paying people more than shows had paid me.
I have a cast of about 20 comedians I work with regularly. One of the reasons I went to a cast was because if I can provide 6-10 gigs to each of these 20 people over the course of the yearhat’s a noticeable amount of money. It’s not paying all of their bills, but it is fairly paying them for their time, especially in comparison to the unbelievably low pay most gigs pay.
Also, I demand diversity in my shows, and I enforce it. Over half of the performers in my cast are queer, and over half are people of color. That’s the other beauty of being the producer, because I can do it, and no one can argue with me. It’s been frustrating because there have been many times where I’ve been booked on an all-white lineup, and I’m the token.
J: You’re the diversity, and you’re still white!
B: Yeah! Everybody else is cis and straight. Ok, well cool: Nonbinary me is killing it. But this is awkward, and I feel uncomfortable.
J: Is there anything that’s off-limits? Is there anything your show cannot or does not do?
B: Impact play was something we really enjoyed doing, but Washington has archaic and puritanical laws about flagellation that the liquor control board actually enforces. Anywhere that you have alcohol, you can’t have impact play. We tried to get away with it as long as we could, but we got caught, and we got slapped on the wrist.
J: Now who’s doing the flagellation?!
B: Exactly! Egg on your face, Washington Liquor Control Board!
I wouldn’t do sounding – even though I would do sounding – or scenes like knife play. That’s beyond the scope of what my performers will do for a hundred bucks!
J: How do you make comedians who are kink newbies or novices feel comfortable doing a kink for the first time on stage?
Most of my cast is pretty novice with kink. That’s actually really fun for the show, because they’re learning. They’re getting to demo a kink that they wouldn’t have, and they get to potentially learn about themselves.
I vibe check before I book a person on the show. I provide sample clips when I’m booking them so that they have an idea of a challenge and see one happen. I think that they’re pretty prepared. To performers who have hard limits like “don’t touch my feet,” I say that I have a plethora of challenges, and none of them are going to involve something you don’t want.
Putting the ball in their court and making them feel empowered about what’s going to happen in the kink scene is the easiest way for us to all be successful on stage.
J: Do they enjoy it?
The thing is, paying $100 in Seattle’s comedy scene, people are going to say yes, regardless. I am not kidding you! I have never struggled to book this show.
I have performers consistently tell me that it’s the favorite show they’ve ever done.
I will also say that there are dozens of comedians in Seattle that have profile photos that are from my photographer getting them in the most beautiful, silly, ridiculous moment on Safeword.
J: What are some of your favorite moments from the show?
One of my favorite moments was with Dan Hurwitz. He’s a hilarious local comedian who runs a show called “The Disabled List” where he highlights other disabled comedians. He was mummified; I had tied him with caution tape to a chair, facing the audience. Then I put ear plugs in his ears, then a hood, then headphones and silly props. And he says to the audience, “Bobby! You made me more disabled!” That comment had me rolling! So good.
There was another time when Rachel Friedland, who is out of Austin, was on the Christmas edition of Safeword. I mummified her in a bunch of Christmas wrap and bows, very tacky-looking. She yelled out, “There any other Jews here in the audience?!” And one person responded, “me!” And she said, “Run! He got me!” It was so good.
One time at a show, an audience member wanted to buy a shirt but we were out of that size. I realized that I was wearing a shirt of that size. But I was so sweaty, and the shirt was so sweaty. I said, “Hey, the only one I have, right here, is drenched in my sweat, so that’s going to be five dollars more!” And she says, “Done! Done! I’ll take it!” I took it off and she started smelling it, like “mmmm!”
I love it when my kinky people come to the show, because they make themselves known.
J: I didn’t think about Safeword also being an opportunity for the audience to bring their kinky selves. That woman openly embracing her sweat/scent fetish, that’s awesome.
I knew it would sell!
J: How do you think Safeword fits into the kink community and the queer community in Seattle?
B: Safeword certainly holds its place in the queer community. The queerness is totally upfront, baring its fangs. The lineups are predominantly queer. I’m very queer. I want it to be something where it’s cross-community but also is still always clearly billed as queer.
I want the young crowd that is still very nervous about even entering a sex store to come and see Safeword. So often in kink spaces, queer people new to kink don’t know where they fit in. I want to make sure that Safeword is always a space for the LGBTQ community to feel totally supported, totally safe, and free of judgment. There’s no yucking of any yums: I tell that to all the performers. This might not be your kink, but it’s a matter of respect.
J: What does the future hold for the Safeword event? What would you like it to accomplish next? Where do you see it in a year, five years?
B: In a year, I would like to have Safeword as a monthly event in five locations. I want a Tacoma venue. I want a Portland venue. I want them to be consistent enough that I can afford to get a car, which is a big part of the next part of my journey. That’s probably the next step.
In five years, I would like to have a gorgeous little tour van that has been paid for by the show that goes up and down the coast and stops all along the West Coast: San Fran, LA, and anywhere I want to stop. And I’d like to occasionally bring Safeword to really big spaces, with bigger names.
There’s some crazy shit I want to do. I want to do a full rope suspension with a performer. I want to get one of those isolation tanks and do full sensory deprivation. Or a coffin! Oh my god, I would die! I would love to put a person in a coffin! Is coffin play a kink? With like a night vision camera and a feed to a screen.
I look forward to those kinds of things, being able to really do something so extraordinarily stupid. Making the audience think, “Wait, why are they pulling a coffin out? What the fuck is this show?” That’s the feeling I want to have with it.
Bobby Higley/Gutter Twink Productions hold Safeword every first Friday at Kremwerk in Seattle, every third Friday at Cryptatropa in Olympia, and every fourth Saturday up at Wink Wink Bellingham. Bobby also co-hosts Fuck Yeah Bingo on Mondays at Ozzies in Uptown Seattle.