The challenges women face in comedy compared to other dude-heavy professions

Whitney Cummings on WTF talked about why there aren't more female comics...

Comedy is a very specific thing. It's a very aggressive, very masculine form. There's not a ton of straight female comedians that have been super successful because it's sorta like, "Hey, I'm the funniest one in the room! Everyone shut up and listen to me for an hour while I fucking tell you!" It's aggressive.

...and the "women aren't as funny as men" thing:

My theory: It's not that women aren't funny, it's that women get seen before they're ready. It takes a couple of years to get fucking good and to figure out what your point of view is. And I feel like the best managers of women just slow their women down. So [Cummings' manager] Barry [Katz], for the first three years I was doing comedy, he wouldn't let me showcase for anything. He wouldn't let me do anything. He said, "Just get good. When you kill 10 times in a row, I'll get you showcases."

Interesting take. Usually I hear women complaining about not getting opportunities because of their gender. But here's Cummings saying that gals get seen too quickly, which sounds like the opposite idea. (And can lead to negative comments from male comics when a gal does get something.)

Comedy ain't the only profession facing these issues. Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors:

When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology acknowledged 12 years ago that it had discriminated against female professors in “subtle but pervasive” ways, it became a national model for addressing gender inequity...Now, an evaluation of those efforts shows substantial progress — and unintended consequences. Among other concerns, many female professors say that M.I.T.’s aggressive push to hire more women has created the sense that they are given an unfair advantage. Those who once bemoaned M.I.T.’s lag in recruiting women now worry about what one called “too much effort to recruit women.”

Back to comedy. According to a couple of writers who are ladies, part of the issue is that women focus on different things when it's time to make funny happen. Conan's Sole Female Writer Laurie Kilmartin Talks Monologue Jokes, Women In Late Night:

"Coming from stand-up, I think female comics get on stage for a very different reason than male comics do. This is a huge generalization, but I think guys get on stage to get laid, and women get on stage to get heard," Kilmartin explains. "For female comics, it's such a personal thing. I hardly know any female stand-ups who talk about generic stuff: It's always really what happened to you. It is sort of a big switch to go from that to writing for someone else. And I think that that stops a lot of female comics from making that jump over."

And Behind the Scenes at Community with Writer Megan Ganz:

It's incredible that the room is so balanced. There are four women, including myself, that work in the writers pool, which is only eight or nine people, maybe ten people tops, that you would call writers on our staff. And four of them are women. Those are insane numbers. But it works really well for sitcoms; I don't know if it would have worked as well at a place like The Onion. Because The Onion is more straight joke writing, where Community is more about telling stories and character dynamics and what do we want to say about these characters and how are they going to grow and evolve. And, not to generalize, but I can tell you this specifically about the Community writers room, it's really nice having women around to talk about that stuff. Because they're interested in being true, for instance, to Annie's feelings about Jeff and how she reacts as a girl who is nineteen years old and very headstrong, but hasn't had a lot of experience yet. So I feel like women really come in handy in that respect.

Back to other professions. And specifically, the idea that being the only woman in the room is a bitch. Designers, Women, and Hostility in Open Source:

After working in technology for 17 years now, I can assure you: constantly being the only woman in the room stinks. Since I usually am, one of my career goals is to surround myself with capable women technologists as well as men. It's not easy, but it's important—and not just because I'm lonely, but because I make stuff, and creations reflect their makers. The tech industry is by and large a boys' club, and that's a shame, because homogenous teams turn out one-dimensional products. Diverse teams are better-equipped to make things that shine because they serve a wide range of people.

At Lifehacker I learned something important about creating a productive online community: leaders set the tone by example. It's simple, really. When someone you don't know shows up on the mailing list or in IRC, you break out the welcome wagon, let them know you're happy they're here, show them around the place, help them with their question or problem, and let them know how they can give back to the community. Once you and your community leaders do that a few times, something magical happens: the newbie who you welcomed just a few weeks ago starts welcoming new folks, and the virtuous cycle continues.

So if ya wanna transfer that idea to comedy, it'd seemingly be important for lady comics to welcome newbie females into the fold. And by newbie, I mean new at comedy, not new at being female. (How best to welcome tranny comedians into standup will have to be dealt with in another post.)

And that reminds me of a time I was in Chicago and realized there is an all-female comedy class at Lincoln Lodge. Never heard of anything like that in NYC. Though a step in that direction seems to be Glennis McMurray's new GLOC site.

I admit it—I’ve been bitten by the bug of envy. I’ve looked at another lady and silently raged over her accomplishments. I’ve dogged, catted and birded my way through her wardrobe, hair, mannerisms and material. Somehow I thought doing so would make me feel better, but I always ended up feeling worse in the end. Not to get all after school special on your asses, but what really felt great was starting this blog to recognize the awesome in each and every one of us...

So look to the successes of the ladies around you and let it fuel your own. Because if we can’t bond over a shared comedic sensibility, can we at least get along because we’re all women fighting the good fight together? I think so.

What's the conclusion to all this? Dunno. But yeah, let's all get along. U-N-I-T-etc.


Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem is that its too easy for women to make a room full of guys laugh just by making jokes about her vagina. When there is such an easy out, its hard to work hard on material.

Also, I think women are generally more easily intimidated - by guys, by society, etc... Overcoming intimidation is what gives a comedian their voice, the best comics can confidently say "fuck you" to the world, and I feel like a lot of women don't do that as much or with as much vigor.

ECN said...

So there's one cheap style of comedy that women can do, and another thing some comedians do that stereotypical women don't do.

Good to know.

Whereas there are clearly no cheap styles of comedy open to men, and everyone knows that most if not all men do everything that a comedian does in their day-to-day lives.

You ever stop and think that maybe more women don't do comedy because of stereotypical bullshit like your comment -- and half the comments quoted in this article?

Heck, if I had spent my first year in comedy dealing with a bunch of idiots pontificating about "hey, that guy Erik's a man, so he probably does THIS on stage, and it's unusual he does THAT, because men don't do THAT... and are men even funny, really? I'll believe it when I see it!"...

...well, I would have quit too.

Unknown said...
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Josh Homer said...

I think it's funny that Whitney commented on women having it bad in comedy by saying how one of the most powerful producers/managers took her on when the FIRST started doing comedy. That is Katz's MO, find attractive female comics and give them opportunities like Natahsa Leggero judging other comics on LCS, being next to Giraldo and Kindler, 2 people who happen to be men and paid dues, while jugding great female comics like Kilmartin.

That being said, IMO on a whole women have it much harder than men in comedy, for the reasons mentioned here and a myriad of others that are routed in the audience bias, the unwelcoming male dominated scene, the rapey material they are forced to listen to at open mics, comments by anonymous people on blogs etc.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Well I'm glad men like ECN and Josh are able to recognize that women have it hard, but an inherent challenge is in the eye of the beholder. Consider refusing to accomodate the famous obstacles.

You should be aggressive. (No)
You should be sexy. (No)
You shouldn't be filthy because people don't like that. (No)
You should address what you look like so people will stop judging you. (No)
You should isolate yourself because it's competitive. (No)
You should accept opportunties even if you don't feel ready. (No)
You should put having a family on hold. (No)
You should have kids. (No)

If you put these challenges up to a man and say, "You can't be funny unless you address the above", a man might say, "I've still managed to be funny /successful without doing that stuff." so a woman should be able to as well. There are trade-offs for anyone doing comedy. Degrees of difficulty in achieving a career in stand-up just mean certain people have to work harder. Nothing is impossible.

ECN said...

Josh -- except that Natasha Leggero is a really funny and talented stand-up comic who's been working at it for years and has a unique style, and nothing Laurie Kilmartin has done has ever come close to amusing or impressing me.

And I'm willing to admit maybe I just haven't seen Kilmartin on the right night, and of course she has that writing gig, so who knows what she does there? But attacking Natasha like that is pretty uncalled for.

Josh Homer said...

We'll just agree to disagree on Natasha and Kilmartin. I've never laughed at anything Natasha's said and find the character she does unfunny (and did for only the 1st segment of her CC Presents this year then quickly abandoned) , while I've seen Kilmartin live many times and have always enjoyed it.

To say Natasha was/is on par with Giraldo and Kindler is something I just don't agree with in ANY way and I'm not alone. Many people questioned her being there on so many blogs (even one comic on the show called her out on it and they aired it).

I didn't attack Natasha, just stated my opinion. Comedy is subjective.

myq said...

Girls, girls! I think Natasha and Laurie are BOTH funny. Sincerely.

And that ANY comedian being put in a position to judge others is going to be in a weird situation, which I think all the judges addressed, if not on the show, in interviews and such.

I also think it makes sense to call attention to the incongruousness wherein Andy and Greg both had been doing comedy a number of years longer than Natasha, and were particularly recognizable names in the business as compared to her, mostly for that reason, I would say.

But once again, Laurie and Natasha, both very funny.

Also, I hope there is equality soon, so men can get laughs from talking about vaginas.

ECN said...

Josh -- I know this is a dead horse by now, but I think this may be the root of your confusion: "[you] find the character she does unfunny (and did for only the 1st segment of her CC Presents this year then quickly abandoned)"...

What I would say about Natasha's stand-up, and I don't know if this comes across on the CC Presents (I know those are prone to some dubious sequencing and cuts), is that a large part of the appeal is in the interplay between the "character" bits and the "real" bits.

You're making it sound like it's a stunt she doesn't bother to commit to, when in reality it's a lot more complex than that (and a lot more interesting in my opinion than, say, a Sarah Silverman, who just has the one note, and it's a "character" one.) The "character" is simultaneously a heightened version of the "real" persona, an idealized/aspirational version of same, and a figure of ridicule, and she gets a lot of mileage out of it -- using the "character" to illuminate dubious things about her own beliefs, playing one off the other in a lot of ways, etc.

Again, I don't know how much of that comes across if you only see her a couple times. I'm sure Kilmartin has something more than "generic '80s female observational comic" retread material and inexplicable over-explaining to offer, and I'm willing to concede that maybe I just haven't seen it yet.

Anyway, my objection in that case is to phrases like "2 people who happen to be men and paid dues" -- as though Natasha hadn't paid any "dues" (whatever those are.) You almost make it sound like Natasha is an actor who Katz hired to play the role of a comedian, and that is nonsense. She definitely worked her way up on her own merits, by writing her own material and doing well on shows.

(Unlike some comedians -- indeed, some comedians managed by Katz -- I could name. But I'm not going to delve into that.)

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