Why It Sucks to Be a Woman in Comedy
Men never think about this stuff—at least until you bring it to their attention.
A couple weeks ago, I attended a screening of rare clips hosted by a comedic "authority" who recently released a book on the history of comedy. I watched, in horror, as he refrained from playing one solitary clip of a female comedian and only made reference to the mere existence of less than a handful. I can tell you the handful, because I was keeping track:
- Minnie Pearl, who was only referenced in the context of being one of the guests on a '60s talk show George Carlin did a set on.
- Elaine May, who was referenced in passing as part of the comedy duo Nichols and May.
- Lily Tomlin, who he placed in a trifecta of the "most important political comedians" of the '70s, along with George Carlin and Richard Pryor, yet showed no footage of (don't worry, he showed copious footage of the two men).
- Lucile Ball, who, along with her husband, Desi Arnaz, was tangentially referred to as the subject of a roast Albert Brooks' father did immediately pre-death.
That's it. No one else. Not even Joan Rivers, for fuck's sake! Right before the intermission, he played a compilation of rare clips of comedians before they "made it big." Surely he'll have at least one woman, finally, I thought before said compilation played. But, alas, there was not a one. Jerry Seinfeld and Adam Sandler were featured twice, however.
If you're a broad without a Netflix special to your name, the chances of you being able to monetize your stand-up is miniscule.
I later learned that the three women he had intended on including were cut for time, presumably so he could double up on the Seinfeld and Sandler clips. It was clear to me that he didn't even think about the implications of their absence. Men (and sometimes women) in his position never, it seems, think about it. Until, of course, it's brought to their attention.
Whenever anyone asks which comics I idolized as a child, I'm forced to confront the fact that my comedic idols were overwhelmingly male. As someone who considers herself a feminist (sorry, Reddit), this may come as a surprise, but it is the truth. Sure, I could lie and say I owned every Moms Mabley album when I was eight, but what would be the point? It's hard to consider female comedians when they're not in your immediate purview. I didn't even think of Joan Rivers as anything but a plastic surgery disaster until I bought Mr. Phyllis and Other Funny Stories, her first album, in high school. In the liner notes, Bill Cosby praised her by patronizing her: "the beautiful part about [her]," he wrote, "is that she's funny without doing all the stereotyped things that blondes do to get a laugh." Thanks, creepo.
It is—stop me if you've heard this before—hard to be a woman. It is harder yet to be a woman in the entertainment industry, specifically comedy. Which is not to imply the thankless tasks mothers, teachers, nurses, and whatnot do is less important than telling clit jokes, but still: being a female comedian is uniquely difficult.
There are, for starters, very few A-list female comedians (or, if you're still living in the Cold War, comediennes). The existence and success of Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler, Iliza Schlesinger, Tig Notaro, and Sarah Silverman are often cited by clickbait journalists as proof that female comedy is experiencing a renaissance; that the "problem" of women in comedy no longer exists. These exceptions, however, do not prove the rule.
If you're a broad without a Netflix special to your name, the chances of you being able to monetize your stand-up, in even the piss-worst clubs of the most obscure Midwestern enclaves, is miniscule. If you're a male comedian, however, the bar for being considered at the Laff Dumpster in Left Bend, Indiana, is not particularly high. Men with vague, non-specific credits like "Comedy Central" (Read: Had a tweet featured on @Midnight once) and "MTV" (Read: Was a contestant on Next in 2008) are consistently flown out and put up with room and board without a second thought. But what do they have that women don't, other than cocks they can't shut up about?
One of the problems with most mainstream, regional comedy clubs is that racist, homophobic, and misogynistic material continues to be seen as acceptable in club environments. In light of this outright hostility towards women, it's understandable that many modern female comedians choose to go the alternative route, performing instead in rooms where they won't get patted on the ass on their way up to the stage or sexualized by tired old "road dogs" in the green room.
Even in the world of alternative comedy, however, inequality between genders exists.
To wit: a friend of mine once booked me on the last iteration of a very popular, consistently diverse stand-up show. Despite this consistent show of diversity, I was the only woman on the bill. When I casually informed him that I was indeed the only woman he had booked for such an important send-off, his face contorted into a look of horror. He had simply not thought about it. He wasn't being malicious, it wasn't intentional, it just hadn't occurred to him. This type of stuff happens all the time in the comedy world.
Often when I perform in Los Angeles, even for no pay (by and large, most stand-up is done for no pay, regardless of gender—some could say exploitation is the great equalizer), I am the only woman on the lineup, or one of two. (Let the record show there are more than two female comedians in Los Angeles.)
I've come to realize that this practice, while infuriating, is not intentional. The non-booking of women (by both male and female bookers) is rarely done maliciously. The cause, rather, is something even more insidious than maliciousness—it is unawareness.
Last month, my Facebook feed was a-titter with indignation over the Whatever Fest in Houston—people shared, in disgust, an image of the festival's lineup, which showed that, out of over 40 booked comedians, a laughable three were female. Emma Arnold, an Idaho-based comic, posted said flyer on her personal Facebook page, which in turn triggered a slew of support and vitriol. She recalls that many of the negative comments were "mostly of the women aren't funny, name-calling variety, with a few 'joking' violent comments thrown in for funsies."
Arnold is used to such online abuse. Responses to a blog entry wherein she described being sexually assaulted ("like full puss contact") by an out of town comic were horrific (e.g. "It's always the nonfunny female comedians that have these problems though" and "Maybe don't hug guys after they've slapped your ass if you don't want hands up your skirt? Duh."); she made memes of the most egregious offenders. It didn't scare her away from posting about her issues with the Whatever Fest lineup, though, which resulted in her creating a dialogue about the fest's overwhelming maleness with the fest's booker, Andrew Youngblood, who she describes as "pleasant and respectful."
Youngblood says he learned something from the exchange. He told me he "didn't anticipate" the blowback, and that the booking inequity was decidedly unintentional. "I put in offers for both males and female headliners for the fest," he claimed. "But due to scheduling, budget, and other reasons, we ended up with this lineup."
Which is all well and good, but out of 40 comics, not all were headliners—why, then, was the inequality so stark? (For what it's worth, Whatever Fest's music bill was similarly gender-lopsided, though the female-fronted band Metric was among the fest's headliners.)
"I never even realized how few women we had on the festival until it was brought to my attention," he says. "I'm glad people like Emma Arnold and Emily Galati [Editor's Note: Galati is another comedian who engaged with Youngblood on Facebook about his booking practices.] brought it up and said something about it." Youngblood continued, "That being said, I didn't make sure I had a larger number of women, which ultimately was wrong. Moving forward, I look forward to working with both female and male comedians and I hope that I can be considered part of the solution, not the problem."
Pleasantness and respectability aside, Arnold says she "was disappointed that [Youngblood] seemed to treat the whole thing like it was worse to be accused of sexism than it was to be sexist. And that if sexism was accidental, it didn't count and shouldn't be acknowledged." His initial kneejerk reaction to the criticism, and his horror over being accused of accidental sexism, indeed seemed a bit maudlin — he acted as though he was being persecuted merely for maintaining the status quo. But the only way to make it not the status quo is to create a dialogue. In the grand scheme of things, the fact that the fracas ruined his weekend meant little. It certainly didn't ruin his reputation.
"I can't pretend to know what it's like to be a women in comedy," Youngblood told me. "I will never know. [But] I sympathize with the struggle and can do my best to understand. I can listen, and I can learn, and hopefully I can help everyone move forward." Let's hope he's sincere. Because if so, that's one down, three billion to go.
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