This might sound odd to say about a person who makes people laugh for a living, but Monna is no nonsense. The Fort Worth-by-Fort Wayne, Indiana comedian deals in hard truths, and she does not fuck around. I know this because I’ve seen her perform, and I’ve listened to her albums, and I know how she runs her open-mic night.
“We have, like, airplane rules for being onstage,” she said, referring to her focus on physical safety and zero tolerance for any hateful or discriminatory material.
Her open-mics are now way more than that. They’ve also launched a slew of live albums, including three new ones: Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Dad by Alvin Newsome, No Contest by Kim Wadsworth, and Monna’s third, Unfiltered, recorded at The Dive in Denton this past December.
This all happens under the banner Claws Out Comedy, Monna’s business that started by putting on events featuring established local professionals. The open-mics happen on Wednesdays at Twilite Lounge on the Near Southside and Mondays at Arlington’s 1851 Club, and on Thu, Jan 19, Claws Out will host a show at 1851 with standup from Monna, Hugo Gonzalez, Maggi Mayfield, and Josh Johnson and drag performances by Lady Monroe, Dulce Strutts, and Kiana Lee.
Showcasing local comedic talent might have been Claws Out’s original purpose, but “then the pandemic hit,” Monna said. “Quickly after I started it, it became clear that [Claws Out] needed to exist to normalize mental health. I recorded my debut album, Unstable, that year, and since then, Claws Out has been … claws to the wall, I guess.”
Like much of her material, her recent 5-minute single “Miss Diagnosed” is uncomfortably, unflinchingly about herself.
“I’m one of those annoying people during COVID that got my life together,” she says. “Because when everything disappeared, I had an amazing time realizing that the problem in my life was me.”
What Monna is talking about is her being diagnosed in 2020 with Borderline Personality Disorder. “The only people who know what that is are people who have it or people who love someone who has it.”
In the recording, an audience member shouts out “loved,” and Monna draws attention to the guy’s use of the past tense. “Loved. Loved! I mean, with BPD, you’re either holding the knife or running from it. Those are your options.”
The crowd cracks up. As her bit continues, she dives into how she decided to discuss her own mental health issues on her 2021 comedy album, Unstable, and then, in January 2022, much to her surprise, she received a wholly new mental health diagnosis: Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). “Maybe this entire time my whole problem has just been being a woman!”
She gets some laughs and cheers at that and even more when she makes a remark about how “quickly” the bipolar people “turned” on her. “I guess it shouldn’t have been that surprising.”
I note two things about this bit. The first is that this story is a pretty good representation of Monna’s comedy. The personal truths — the crazy experience of enduring PMDD, the inconvenience of being a cutter and wanting to wear a tank top when it’s hot out (“I’d rather have scars on my arms than pit stains”) — seesaw between wince-inducing and hilarious, but above all, they’re completely unapologetic, plunked in front of you in her Indiana-bred tired-of-this-bullshit twang. Hers is a voice weighted with a bass note of perpetual irritation, blunt as a mallet, the tone you use when someone cuts you off right before two freeway lanes merge or when you have the frustrating realization that every prick who asked if you were on the rag because you were acting insane was actually kind of right.
For Monna, when it comes to mental health, it’s the symptoms rather than the label that matter, and this is the other thing I note about “Miss Diagnosis.” She lets her audience know that having a mental illness is out of their control but not doing something about it — which includes putting it out in the open. By using comedy to deal with her illness, Monna has indeed put her issues out in the open. But she’s also managed to turn her comedy into a thriving business.
Claws Out is definitely a full-time gig. “Entrepreneurs are the only people who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week for someone else,” Monna said. “I eat, breathe, and drink comedy. I would work 24-hour days on this if I was allowed.”
Her obsessive work ethic has paid off, though Claws Out enjoyed success initially. “It was entirely funded on the first show we did and the first workshops I put on. It’s been enough to keep rolling and keep doing bigger things.”
Most importantly, it has allowed her to compensate comics fairly. “I try to pay everyone a decent rate. For the first year Claws Out was in business, I paid everyone double what the clubs did.”
She said that paying comedians to talk honestly about their mental health struggles onstage often surprises people. “Something I’ve noticed lately that is incredibly frustrating that I don’t think people realize they’re doing … [is] we exist to normalize conversations about mental health. Even at the Twilite mic when people talk about being depressed, they get a ‘woo’ from the crowd. You get people creating an environment in solidarity, letting you know you’re not alone. … I’ve noticed that people get taken aback when they hear that I pay people and that we’re a for-profit business. Creating safe spaces isn’t charity work. It’s a business that plenty of other people have capitalized on. I’m just trying to carve out a space where performers are actually compensated for their time.”
Especially in the digital space. Though she and her stable of comics hand out download cards promoting their albums and shows, Claws Out’s business model is largely online. “It’s so important to me to get all my artists set up with their artist profiles and make sure that they’re making passive revenue on something, because something I was told a few years ago that I believe to be true is that if you can’t find a passive stream of income, you’re going to work paycheck to paycheck for the rest of your life. When it comes to the albums we’ve done this year, I just want to help my friends get to the next level ’cause it does show a piece of evidence that says, ‘This is the amount of time you have that is good,’ and it shows your commitment, that you’re serious, and it also gives people the opportunity to find you and become a fan. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s still money.”
Of course, in addition to running Claws Out, Monna does shows, and last year, she embarked on her first tour.
“I like traveling,” she said, “but I don’t feel the need to be on the road for months. I can make money and do cool things in DFW. I wouldn’t mind flying somewhere and doing gigs, but I like being home with my cats. I also need a regular schedule, because otherwise I’d stay up until 4am editing things. I put in a lot of work putting out these albums because I believe they are by people who deserve to be seen and heard.”
Finding a purpose — normalizing discussions about mental illness — has also helped evolve her comedy. “When I first started in 2015, I was a one-liner comic, and this next special I’m releasing [Unfiltered] is probably the heaviest, darkest thing I’ve ever done, stuff I’d never thought I’d talk about onstage. It’s interesting that between [all three albums] … I used to be terrified to talk about my mental health onstage, and now that’s where I feel safe.”