Women In Comedy
A Little Yin with Your Yang
Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards… and in high heels
- Bob Thaves
Every comic who hits the stage has a set of challenges that they must overcome in order to do stand-up. Women who do comedy have all the challenges men face, plus a unique set of our own.
The fact that the term “female comic” is so prevalent supports my point. You don’t often hear “female doctors,” “female lawyers,” “female senators” - even if men do outnumber women in those jobs. Working in comedy can feel a bit like working in the NFL (National Football League, for non-Americans) and sometimes you get harassed in the locker room. This is not meant to disrespect male comics or male industry at all. Many men in this industry support women - in and out of comedy. Many do not. Many women in and out of this industry do not support women. But, that is their baggage. I just want to make you aware of some of the challenges faced by women in comedy.
I write this chapter on the heels of interesting developments in comedy. Within a few months in 2012, Daniel Tosh had his “rape joke” scandal, and we heard Adam Carolla tell us that women are always the least funny on the writing staff of television shows because of our “mediocre” sense of humor. Eddie Brill was kind enough to share that women aren’t “authentic” and go on stage and “act like men.” Long ago, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Lewis and John Belushi told us flatly that women just aren’t funny. If that is not evidence to you of discrimination against women in comedy, you need to look up the words “evidence” and “discrimination.” I’d be willing to bet that a similar story comes out between me writing this and you reading it.
According to Huffington Post, of the 48 spots given to comedians on late night television in the first half of 2012, only two went to women (Late Night TV Stand-Up Demographics: First Half Of 2012 Still Overwhelmingly Male, White: Huffington Post, July 28, 2012). You can turn on any stand-up show, see a comedy show live, look at the roster of comedy agents and managers and see a huge disparity between the number of men and women. Some people say this is because more men do comedy than women. True, but not nearly to the extent that we are underrepresented. Maybe not many women in Kansas do comedy, but I would say my experience in Los Angeles is that about 25% of comics are female. I would guess New York would be similar. Last time I checked, TV shows cast out of LA and NY, not Kansas. Yes, there are a ton of women who aren’t funny or who are just not my cup of tea. But, there are also a ton of men who are not funny to me. People who say that women aren’t funny are not always getting the most exposure to comics who are women. My funny friend Rosie Tran pointed out to me that if all you watch is Comedy Central, whose dominant demographic is 18-34 year-old males, and you only see live comedy shows rarely, you aren’t getting a whole lot of exposure to female comics. There also seems to be a double standard when judging women. How often do people see a painfully unfunny male comic and say, “Men aren’t funny?” That’s the same as seeing a black comic you don’t like and saying “Black people aren’t funny.” Each woman does not represent all women’s abilities and should not be judged as such.
I’ve heard it said that “women aren’t as funny as men” because we aren’t raised to be funny, that our culture does not encourage women to be funny. That may be true about our culture to some extent, but it’s not the 1950s anymore. It’s ok to be funny now. I think that our society does not encourage women to be empowered, to stand up and speak out and own their Selves and their thoughts and opinions. Women are encouraged to be submissive and sweet and quiet. I think that’s why I often hear the ridiculous accusation that women talk about sex (or their body parts) more than men on stage. All I can say to that is: WTF? Sit through night after night of watching men hump mic stands and stools and use the mic as their dick in a joke or do ten minutes of masturbation and blow job jokes, and then tell me men don’t talk about sex on stage. I think our culture does not see men talking about sex as unusual, and therefore, we don’t notice it as much. It’s unusual to see a woman publicly talking about sex, so it sticks out in our minds. Don’t let society norms fool you (or remain intact).
It’s great that TV shows like Girls, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, Two Broke Girls, Whitney, The Mindy Project and Veep are out there and that more movies are also being made by women and starring women (in three-dimensional characters), especially since the success of Bridesmaids. But, is it a trend or are women here to stay in a big way? We have to work to make sure this is not a flash in the pan, and that diversity is achieved in the types of women and points of view that are represented. Also, I would like to see many women being given opportunities rather than (or in addition to) a few select women given many opportunities. There are going to be female projects that are weak, just like some male projects are not funny. When “female comedy” is not all lumped together in one package, we will be closer to having succeeded. I recently saw a cartoon that reminded me of the “women aren’t funny” debate. The cartoon had two panels. The first panel had a boy watching another boy trying to solve a math problem on a chalk board and failing miserably. The boy watching said, “Wow. You suck at math.” The second panel had the same scenario except the person trying to solve the math problem was a little girl. The watcher then said, “Wow. Girls suck at math.” That’s what we are trying to overcome.
Comics who are women face issues that men do not need to consider often:
· Safety: Is the club safe for me to go to at night and walk to and from my car alone? Am I putting myself in a threatening situation? When on the road alone in a strange state: What if my car breaks down? What are the accommodations like? Will I be in a trashy hotel in a scary part of town? Will I be in a comedy condo with two male comics I have never met?
· Motherhood: Small children are harder to leave for women than men regarding dependence. Being on the road and doing comedy in general while pregnant is very difficult (and impossible toward the end). Mothers are typically considered the ones that stay at home and don’t travel all over the country rarely seeing their children. I know lots of male comics who rarely see their kids, but not a lot of moms on the road. A lot of famous female comics are childless or have children later in life, after their careers are established.
· Sexual harassment: I could tell so many stories here, but I will be brief. Female comics face sexual harassment on a regular basis from other comics, club owners, bookers, club staff and audience members. We are given and denied jobs based on our “fuckability” and willingness to play along. We are intimidated, harassed and assaulted, verbally and physically. Some of us have been frightened and some of us have been attacked. I have personally been attacked on stage by a male audience member three different times; each time being groped in front of the whole audience. I know women who have been assaulted by other comics in the comedy condo and by the club staff or audience members after the show. While not always the norm, the level of harassment can be threatening and intimidating and, at times, overwhelming.
· Discrimination: We face the stereotype that women aren’t funny by some male comics, audience members and industry gatekeepers. I have had a gig canceled at the last minute after being told, “We already have a girl. We don’t want two chicks in one week.” Women face a huge lack of opportunity on television, in agency representation, writers’ rooms and live shows. Sometimes when a woman goes on stage, you can almost feel the “oh great; a woman” attitude from the audience. Then she has to prove herself doubly: as a comic and as a female comic.
· Misogyny: It’s hard being a woman and following male comics on stage who: do fifteen minutes of rape jokes (and not the insightful ones); talk about how women are all bitches or whores; use their entire set to dis “ugly girls” and “fat chicks.” The maleness of comedy (particularly at open mics, in my opinion) can discourage women from starting or continuing comedy. I have heard it described by more than one female comic as “soul stealing.” Women have to work twice as hard to earn respect from our peers, audiences, and many factions of the comedy community.
I am in no way implying that women don’t make jokes about men. We do, and many of them are harsh, unfair generalizations. I believe you typically make jokes about who you date or mate. But, with so few women in comedy per male comic, men don’t have to listen to as many jokes about themselves as women do. They can feel safe in the sheer numbers of men vs women, especially at an open mic, putting them in a power position. I am also not saying that being a female comic is one big rape waiting to happen, or that most male comics, club owners, staff, industry gatekeepers, agents and audience are jerks. Most people in the comedy business are friendly and accepting. But, like in the real world, these are things you must be aware exist so that you can prepare yourself and get tough. Be smart, aware and safe. But, most of all, grow a thick skin and brace yourself for a rough business.
We often think of male comics when naming our biggest influences or favorites in comedy. There are tons of male comic role models (for me, as well). Women also have so many positive role models in comedy and those names should not be forgotten: Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, Elaine May, Anne Meara, Gracie Allen, Mae West, Rusty Warren, Roseanne, Elayne Boosler, Wendy Liebman, Judy Tenuta, Lizz Winstead, Sandra Bernhard, Janeane Garofalo, Maria Bamford, Sarah Silverman, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, Carol Leifer, Caroline Rhea, Ruth Buzzi, Margaret Cho, Brett Butler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lisa Kudrow, Kathy Griffin, LaWanda Page, Laura Kightlinger, Cloris Leachman, Whoopi Goldberg, Joan Rivers, Kristen Wiig, Bea Arthur, Minnie Pearl, Madeline Kahn, Thelma Todd, Jackie Kashian, Amy Schumer, Sally Mullins, Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, Jane Lynch, Melissa McCarthy, Paula Poundstone, Rita Rudner, Margaret Dumont, Nikki Glaser, April Macie, Jane Curtin, Goldie Hawn, Diane Ford, Kathleen Madigan, Julia Sweeney, Tig Notaro, Rosie O’Donnell, ZaSu Pitts, Carol Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Laurie Kilmartin, Tracey Ullman, Kristen Schaal, Emily Heller, Wanda Sykes, Susie Essman, Merrill Markoe, Gina Yashere, Cristela Alonzo, Morgan Murphy, Garfunkel and Oates, Beth Lapides, Samantha Bee, Chelsea Handler, Fortune Feimster, Anne Beatts, Lena Dunham, Eudora Welty, Julie Klausner, Aisha Tyler, Sara Benincasa, Jen Kober , Katie Halper, Mindy Kaling, Rachel Feinstein, Erin Foley, Michelle Biloon, Jena Friedman, Jen Kirkman, Jessie Klein, Chelsea Peretti, Kelly Oxford, Jenny Johnson, Aubrey Plaza, Sara Schaefer, Amy Sedaris, Maysoon Zayid, Janine Brito, Kim Coles, Aparna Nancherla, Christina Pazsitsky, Jessica Kirson…. I could go on and on. This list is far from complete and is not intended to be. You are likely thinking of someone I left off right now. Good.
I include this list because it is important to me to encourage women to go into comedy and stay in it, despite the challenges. Comedy needs both male and female voices. We need the balance, the yin and the yang. I don’t want fewer men to do comedy. I want more women to. Women are 51% of humans, but only about 25% of the voices in comedy. When people are saying that women are not funny and not giving us opportunities in and out of comedy, when they are discounting the experiences and reactions of rape victims, when women continue to get paid less than men for the same job, when laws are being passed stripping women of rights to our own bodies, when harassment and violence against women happen in large numbers each year and are swept under the rug, when countries around the world oppress women and misogyny reigns – the voice of women on the microphone (and behind the scenes) becomes more and more essential. The more they tell us to shut up and sit down, the more we should stand up and shout. Pick up a pen. Pick up a mic. Your voice matters. Use it.