Review: Tom Rosenthal’s Manhood

I stood in the corner of the bar attached to a comedy club on a rainy, late September Friday night in central London, alone. I realized I was about to cry. I managed to stop myself, a decision I immediately regretted. I didn’t want to bawl in the bar. I don’t cry, which I do not admit here to brag. It’s a source of frustration rather than pride for me.

I took a deep breath, and centered myself to quickly understand why that moment almost occurred. It was an unthinking reaction sprung from my depths out of the surprise that I wasn’t alone. I’d just seen Tom Rosenthal’s Manhood, his hour-long examination of circumcision where he demonstrated that he feels about it exactly as I do.

Manhood is, first, a comedy show. “Let me lecture you for an hour on the horrors of male circumcision” is a difficult entryway to challenge someone’s preconceived ideas on the topic. I know this because I’ve wanted to give that lecture so many times and seen the glassed-over “Oh, you’re actually against circumcision” reaction from my answer to an initial question. So, I knew going in there was an hour of material. But I was skeptical because circumcision is not funny. I did not expect to be persuaded that it could be.

After the show, it’s still true that circumcision is not funny. However, Rosenthal’s examination of circumcision, the mistaken ideas around it, and how men are treated for speaking out against the practice is hilarious. He understands the humor is in the preposterous, unquestioned ways we perpetuate this violation. Humor offers a path to the necessary realization and knowledge about what is happening. Most critically, unlike much of what passes as humor about circumcision, he understands that the circumcised male and the foreskin are not the butt of the jokes.

Rosenthal’s mastery flowed through the peaks of finding humor in something as basic as the word uncircumcised to the valleys of anger resulting from the discovery of what’s been done to us. I know that feeling intimately. Seeing it expressed with Rosenthal’s talent and perspective fractured me for a moment before letting me put myself back together with more than I had before.

After pondering the show for more than a month and finally writing to this point, I found this review:

Rosenthal has an engaging, energetic manner, and all is brought together by a theatrical ending that’s memorable, silly and ridiculously over-the-top. But none of this overcomes the tonal shifts between the uncomfortable, serious side of the show and the flippant.

The tonal shifts between the uncomfortable, serious side of the show and the flippant are why Manhood works. Again, circumcision is not funny. I knew this before the show, and I know it after. Tom Rosenthal knows that, too. But I laughed and never felt an urge to stop myself because he’d crossed a line. Unlike every ridiculous joke you can find of a comedian making the man or his foreskin the target, Rosenthal hits the laughs by communicating the absurdity of doing this to normal, healthy children.

The show being in the UK added an interesting element for me, since circumcision is not common there. Most of the audience seemed predictably unfamiliar with the facts and ideas in the show. The gasps at some of Rosenthal’s more shocking revelations about circumcision were enlightening for me as an outsider. I appreciated that it’s possible to find a random group of people who don’t think cutting children is reasonable. They were learning, and in a manner conducive to that. Comedy was the perfect entryway.

I’m purposely not repeating any of the jokes, but they’re fantastic. Rosenthal just announced he’s doing more shows in 2020, so I’d much rather people who care about this topic see the show for themselves. Also, I hope one day he can bring the show to the United States. I would love to see it with Americans to discover if there are differences in the reaction among a random group likely to hold only the superficial belief that circumcision is Good(™). But mostly I trust it will get through to audiences here. That’s what we need.

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