Often times, when someone finds out I’m a comedian; they’ll ask me what kinds of “stuff” I talk about in my act. There are a whole lot of questions that put a comedian on the defensive, but this one, where I’m asked to reduce what I do into some sort of theme or category is my least favorite. Once in awhile, I wish I could sum up my comedy as “shrewd observations on the ironies of religion, politics, or a general commentary on everything that’s right and wrong about the world we live in.” But that’s not the truth. My comedy is rarely, if ever, NOT about me and deals largely with dating and relationships—a single woman who in many ways refuses to grow up, makes a lot of the same mistakes, and tries to somehow make sense of it. I’m ok with it for now, because while it’s not always entertaining, well written or well executed, it’s always me. I don’t want to talk about things that don’t interest me and luckily, I always interest me. However, when this question is posed to me, particularly by a man, I hesitate to reveal that I talk about relationships and dating because I feel like their response would be something along the lines of, “of course you do, you’re a woman.” Not to say I care greatly about a stranger’s opinion of me, but it can be frustrating to constantly defend the two biggest misconceptions about female comedians--which I believe to be that all we talk about are relationships, and of course, that we’re just not funny.
I don’t want to spend too much time trying to dispute the notion that female comedians are generally not as funny as male comedians because it seems as useless as trying to defend any other kind of stereotype. Some women are funny, some aren’t, and it really is that simple. Perhaps there’s a male trait of being bolder, more direct, and less meandering than women, and these attributes can serve one well in comedy. But these can be remedied as you get more comfortable being on stage, become a more proficient editor, recognize your limits with time, audience attention span…etc, etc. Male or female, if you are talented, people will recognize that and all the preconceptions become irrelevant. If the audience is laughing and entertained and to some extent you’ve done what you set out to do, then you’ve succeeded. Bombing does not discriminate based on breasts or the presence or absence of a penis.
That being said, attitudes and resentments between men and women within the comedy community is another story. I’m speaking in generalities here, and understand that the word “some” can be placed before each statement--but just to name a few:
* Female comics feel outnumbered and mistreated at open mics, which can result in not attending them as often.
* Female comics tend to think there is a certain “boys club” that exists and some women feel largely alienated from it.
* Male comics think women can simply get onstage looking cute and talk about sex, and they themselves don’t have that kind of cheap strategy at their hands the way we do.
* Male comics think women don’t work as hard and are rewarded more often for being a woman than by virtue of their talent.
To some degree, I believe every one of the above statements. Not necessarily because there’s so much bias and tension between men and women in comedy, but because I believe there’s bias and tension between men and women in life. To address each briefly and individually…
* Any circumstance where men outnumber women runs the risk of making a woman feel reduced and objectified, It’s fun at a bar, but not so much when you’re trying to be taken seriously.
* Cliques in comedy exist, but men can feel excluded from them as well. Like anything else in life, there will be moments of feeling included and moments of feeling excluded and I think we all left the worst of it behind in middle school
* Yes, some women get onstage and talk about sex in gratuitous and unimaginative ways. I know this for a fact because I’ve done it and certainly still do it when I haven’t done the work and know firsthand it doesn’t hold up for very long. However, I’ve heard both male and female comics tell some very unfunny sex jokes and maybe in the short term a women can get away with it more, but it’s not sustainable, particularly when it’s not authentic.
* For the most part, myself included, female comics don’t get on stage and practice with the intensity and tenacity of some of the male comedians I know. For reasons mentioned earlier, I think women may find them counterproductive because it can feel like an unsupportive environment. In the end, it’s really what an individual feels like they need and is willing to do to improve. I know amazingly talented comics that get up twice a week and amazingly talented comics that get up 15 times a week. I believe there’s some level of natural talent but also think if you’re not working hard enough your work will reflect that. I know I don’t get up as much as I should, and in a moment of truth also know there isn’t any man, boys club, subway construction, happy hour or lack of preparation I can blame it on. If I want this, I will do the work, no getting around it.
So if the end is the point where I’m supposed to make a point, I guess I’ll finish saying this--it doesn’t really fucking matter and I think we all know this. By and large, if you are a comedian, male or female, it’s likely you haven’t had it easy. I think besides the obvious rewards--success, fame, a writing job, a TV credit…we’re all trying to work through something. And in doing so, will hopefully learn a little about humanity, both the world’s and our own. All of us are fighting obstacles and limitations, with comedy and within ourselves. Instead of blaming each other we really should come together and take the more noble approach, which is of course, blaming the audience.
Update: "Why my fellow females don’t do stand-up" is Kate Hendricks view on the same topic.
The act of ‘stand-up ‘ is – your material aside – an aggressive art form. It’s aggressive because you have to have control of a room, and you have to be comfortable knowing that you’re in control of that room. It is my personal belief that this type of ‘desire to command attention’ is not something that is inherent in women. It is a learned trait: something you gain (or don’t) based on life experiences.
Kate's whole piece is good and worth a read.