Porn and comedy have a lot in common, so why is it so hard to go from sex work to stand-up?

·9 min read
Former adult film actress and director, Sovereign Syr
Former adult film actress and director Sovereign Syre has tackled a new type of entertainment in becoming a stand-up comedian. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When you’re nervous to speak in front of people onstage, a common tactic is to picture the audience naked. But what if the crowd has not only seen you naked but they’ve watched you have sex? It’s a possibility for comedians like Sovereign Syre, who is among the growing class of L.A. comics who’ve made a transition from starring in porn to doing stand-up. Luckily, snickers in the crowd never faze Syre when it comes to getting laughs.

“If you’re a porn person that does comedy and you talk about it, it’s not a gimmick because it’s about your life,” Syre says. “In the first two years I did somewhere around 600 sets anywhere I could get on a stage. If people were uncomfortable with me doing stand-up and porn, they weren’t saying it to my face.”

Despite being seemingly worlds apart, comedy and porn have always been linked in some form or another. From the goofy humor of X-rated spoofs to the beloved crassness of edgy comics who live to shock the prude out of us, both styles of entertainment require a certain level of fearlessness. So in theory, an adult actor transitioning to the stand-up stage isn’t all that strange. However, those who’ve made the switch say it’s a lot different in the real world.

Starting in the porn business in the mid-aughts, the L.A.-based Syre says, she never thought about how long her triple-X career would last, and admits she was naive about how long it could follow her around if she ever tried other forms of entertainment.

“I just thought I’d travel around Europe. I had no idea it would lead to a 10-year career in porn, honestly,” the writer, comedian and former adult performer says.

Coming from a small town, and trying out her jokes at open mics, Syre couldn't wrap her head around the option to become a stand-up comic, so she kept that dream on the shelf. After being a model student in college and grad school (sociology, English literature and creative writing with an emphasis on poetry and creative nonfiction), Syre traded the books for magazines by “doing something wild,” submitting a few pictures to racy pin-up and soft-porn sites like Suicide Girls and God’s Girls. That trajectory ultimately led to her shooting her first porn movie in 2011. Several award nominations and a decade in the adult industry later, Syre decided it was time to work on a different kind of entertainment, maybe even dust off her childhood dreams of doing stand-up full-time.

In 2014, she started podcasting; the following year, she amped up the writing and set a goal of doing stand-up one to three times a night every day at clubs in L.A., New York and any state in between where she could get stage time. Since then, she’s shared the stage with mainstream headliners including Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Theo Von and Big Jay Oakerson.

"I went through a bad breakup in 2018 and stepped back from stand-up for a little. Marc Maron and Jim Norton both texted me during that time to ask if I was still doing comedy, which encouraged me to keep getting up onstage," Syre says. "I remember thinking how funny it was that two comics I'd watched on TV and admired were now friends, and looking out for me in the way comics do. It made me feel like I was a peer."

Attempting to step out of a fantasy world that's based on looks to reach a status based on humor can be difficult for those who’ve come up in the porn industry.

New York-based comedian and podcaster Alia Janine did adult industry work, stripping and feature dancing for six years, before getting into porn. When she retired four years later, she put in the work to hone her comedic craft while ignoring people who couldn’t let her outlive her X-rated past.

“I think I’ve been more successful with comedy than with porn, but transferring from porn to mainstream has always been easier for men,” Janine says. “I don’t hide what I used to do, but there are still comics or hosts who will pull up old videos of mine to watch on their podcasts or an open-mic [comic] will tweet a video out like, ‘Look at my friend’s porn!’ I’ve been in comedy eight years, we’re not friends, and you’re behind a paywall doing this to me? There are so many things wrong with that. There’s a level of respect missing.”

A woman sits on a hardwood floor in front of open French doors.
Sovereign Syre dreamed of being a stand-up comedian from a young age. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Entertainment publicist Lainie Speiser, who has repped many adult stars, credits Janine for inspiring her to add more mainstream comics to her client roster. “When Alia quit porn to move to New York, I took her on as a client because of the type of person she is," Speiser says. "She has a bunch of degrees, she loves learning and she’s someone who really puts the time in.”

When Speiser started working with Janine in 2015, there weren’t any porn stars who'd switched to comedy in New York, so people were very interested. There were also some radio shows that would pull up her porn and play it while she was a guest. “Kind of like, this is Alia Janine and she’s a stand-up comic but let’s look at what she used to do,” Speiser says. “It’s especially disheartening when there’s disrespect amongst comics that have these girls on their shows.”

Though an audience at a comedy club may be inclined to hold a performer’s porn past against them as they transition out of adult entertainment, studies show the public’s participation in porn, as well as its consumption of it, continues to grow.

The pandemic has seen a notable spike in the number of online sex workers. According to an IbisWorld study, online porn is projected to grow 6.5% in 2022, with projected revenue of $856.2 million. With mobile consumption at a high during the pandemic, the tables turned, and sites like content subscription service OnlyFans became flooded with people from all walks of life — even comedians — posting semi-nude and adult content for cash.

“Sometimes it can be touchy with female comedians that have, or have had, a lot to say about porn stars,” Syre admits. “Porn is a job. It’s blue-collar labor. Most of the female comedians I’ve seen take to OnlyFans are comics who do blue comedy and are sex-positive. If it helps you eat, good for you. And if it helps you discover something about yourself, even better.”

Yoshi Obayashi, comedian and former producer for porn distributor Evil Angel, says that despite the ubiquity of sex work online, even among comics, the stigma facing porn actors who do stand-up still lingers. "People make fun of porn people doing stand-up as if it’s different from any other job,” he says. “There’s a judgment situation that is built in when it comes to people who just have sex on camera. The porn business gets so little respect, and they’re some of the most decent human beings.”

Award-winning adult actor Tommy Pistol (born Aramis Sartorio) took the opposite path, getting his start in sketch comedy and then transitioning into porn in 2005. He applied his humor to movie titles such as "A Wet Dream on Elm Street," "XXXorcist" and "Evil Head," proving amid a sea of DILF and MILF porn, if you lighten up, you may also enjoy the satire.

Pistol did sketch comedy for more than a decade in New York before he got into porn. Predictably, that’s when the judgment started from friends. People decided he must be broken, or had become a drug addict or been forced into it, or something must have happened to him at a young age.

“I had a lot of friends tell me that people would approach them and be like, ‘I hear Aramis is doing porn. Is he OK?’ It was funny to me. I’m stable. Going into porn having a sketch background made me instantly stand out, so it was perfect. I could be funny with the timing and I get to act, which actually ended up being the most standout thing in my career. I'm fine with being remembered for my acting and not what size my genitalia is,” Pistol says.

Going on nearly 20 years in the porn business, Pistol says he’s still comfortable with his career choice, which allows him to do his own form of comedy. “What we do for a living in porn is ridiculous and much like sketch comedy — you never know what scenario you’ll be in. But you’re having sex. You know, everyone questions if they made the right choice moving into porn. I pay the bills, I get to laugh and have fun, and it gives me time to be a dad. It’s given me so much that I am grateful for.”

It’s estimated that, on average, an adult actor earns $61,000 a year. But instant success doesn’t always mean an easy path moving from one spotlight to another.

Even though one might never pair the two, the immediacy of selling your work is common to both porn and stand-up comedy. “In a porn scene, I had to actually look like I was having fun while pretending to be turned on or attracted to my partner. You have to sell it like it’s a genuine moment that is happening,” Syre says. “In comedy, you have to deliver it as if it’s not a monologue you’ve written. It doesn’t seem like they’re written jokes yet they’ve been conceptually decided before you even sit down in your seat. That’s the mark of a good comedian.”

“I think people’s two greatest fears would probably be having nudes leaked and public speaking. They both require a certain level of vulnerability,” Janine says.

When she moved over to comedy, a lot of people were looking to see if she would take it seriously. Like any actor who tries to do stand-up, it’s a process. Just because you’re relevant in porn doesn’t mean you’ll be successful with stand-up.

"You have to build up a rapport in any job you do,” Janine says. “So even though coming from porn is different, it’s also the same.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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