At some point in the last few years, the media suddenly discovered that ladies can be funny. And while Bridesmaids inspired a bunch of male writers to compose condescending "think pieces" about women in comedy, five years later, actually being one of those women still kind of sucks.
It would be great to live in a world where men and women are equal, guacamole doesn't cost extra, and unicorns poop out sprinkles, but this world is far from perfect. As much as I would love to say female comics have it the same as the male ones, they don't. Being a comedian as well as a lady comes with a different set of challenges and advantages.
Okay, mostly just challenges.
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Let's be clear about this: Male comedians are never asked what it is like to be a guy in comedy. They might be asked what it is like being a comedian, but that is because comedian almost always defaults to "male" in people's minds, just like doctor, astronaut, and assless chaps model.
But, the landscape is changing, and stand-up comedy is no longer the total sausage fest it used to be. That's why when I get asked about being a woman in comedy, I can honestly say, "It's fucking great!" Because you know what, it IS! Walking on stage and making people laugh and forgetting about your own issues for a while is an awesome job to have. But, at no point during the walking/talking/joke-making process have I run into a problem that could only be solved by smacking it with a penis. While some of my jokes might relate to being a woman, the bookers don't need to ask me to drop my pants before hitting the stage.
The stand-up comic and writer Sunah Bilsted agrees, "I don't walk on stage thinking about my gender; I walk on stage thinking about what I want to say and why I want to say it. I don't stomp up there thinking, 'Here comes a pair of tits and a vagina, get ready everyone!' I'm proud of being a woman. I don't try to hide it. But, if I could choose? I'd want to be seen as a human first."
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Go online and find the lineup for the next show at your local comedy club. I'll bet there is a headliner, who is almost certainly male, and three to four acts going before him. One of them might be female, or two on very, very rare occasions, but almost never are there more than that in any lineup. It doesn't matter if it is being held at the Comedy Store or in some guy's living room; four ovaries is the limit.
Unless, of course, you advertise it as an "All-Female Show." You will never, ever see a show advertised as "An All-Guys Show" or a "Boys-Only Open Mic." And, no, it is not because feminists will scream about being left out. It's because there is a (false) perception that male comics cover subjects that everyone can relate to, while women only make jokes about periods and how much their boyfriends suck. You can't expect men to sit through that without fair warning. They probably need to pump iron for a few hours beforehand just to leave with their masculinity still intact.
I don't think the lack of gender diversity in the lineup started off as intentional because, in the past, there were fewer women actually trying to be comedians. If that was ever an excuse, it isn't anymore, because there are tons of hilarious women out there now, but bookers still tend to have an all-or-nothing attitude about this. They want at least one woman on the lineup (so they won't be perceived as misogynists or whatever), but more than two and they'll think, "Nah, I don't want one of those 'All-Chick' shows." Women have actually been dropped from lineups because bookers think they have "too many."
And yet, it is almost impossible for us to complain about this disparity. Remember what I said before about not wanting to be singled out by gender? That works against women here. As Sunah put it, "I really want to see bookers and producers and clubs create more diverse lineups. But, this requires gender awareness -- the kind of awareness that I feel personally challenged by. So, basically, make an effort to book more women please, but don't go all apeshit congratulating yourself when you do."
Explaining this to people is weird, because it can come across as a ridiculous humble brag. Most hosts at a stand-up show have introduced me as "the very beautiful Eden Dranger" or "Our next comic is very pretty -- please welcome Eden Dranger." I'm not going to complain about being called pretty (because I'm vain and I'll take the compliment), but why must they make a comment about my appearance at all before introducing me on stage? Imagine how uncomfortable you would feel at your job if every time you gave a presentation, the boss mentioned how great your butt looked in those pants. And God forbid, what if I wasn't pretty? What a huge disappointment that would be for the audience. How could they possibly enjoy my jokes if looking at me made them throw up in their mouths a little bit?
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Meanwhile, guys, no matter if they are sculpted like a Greek statue or are a Kevin James-esque amorphous blob, are usually introduced as "The super funny Louis CK" or "Such a funny guy -- please welcome Aziz Ansari!"
Already I hear you rushing to the comments to mention women like Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham who don't fit the unbelievably narrow standard of beauty we have for funny women in the public eye. But, how many times have you heard them referred to as "so brave" for going topless or without makeup? That's not bravery; that's making millions of dollars for being good at your job. It's not like they jumped naked into a lion enclosure.
But, you can't win either way, since even being a good-looking lady can hurt you in the comedy world. As writer Daley Haggar says, "If you are even remotely attractive, you are automatically suspect. People gossip constantly about how some girl or another slept her way into a job (I would totally do this if I had any idea how) or got hired because of her looks. It's bullshit." The mostly male writers' rooms on sitcoms can be scary places as well. It's not unheard of for women writers to gain weight on purpose or wear baggy clothes, just so less attention is given to their physical bodies and more to their much sexier bodies of work.
This subject is no joke (pun very much unintended.) Like other workplaces, women face some serious sexual harassment in comedy. But, it's much easier for it to go too far in stand-up, a field where it's sometimes expected for people to shout directly at you that they don't like the way that you are doing your job.
A bit of heckling is fine; it's when it becomes offensively gender-related that it crosses a line. Sunah says, "If a dude talks about his dick on stage (I know this is hard to imagine), it's rare for an audience member to yell out, 'Show us your dick!' But, if I talk about my boobs (again, hard to imagine) and a dude in the audience screams, 'Show us your tits!' the perception of me instantly changes to that of a stripper, not a comic. No offense to strippers by the way -- it's just a different job with a vastly different job description."
I've witnessed audience members yell things about a comedian's appearance and even make rape threats while heckling. They may assume all is fair in comedy and to "just get over it" because heckling is part of the job. But, part of being a stand-up comedian is going on the road by yourself across the country to comedy clubs and bars. It's not the most welcoming environment and is a fertile breeding ground for actual rapes and all sorts of other crime. So, what a guy might see as a harmless insult, female comedians have to consider a possible threat. Just like you wouldn't tell your bank teller that you are going to sexually assault her or ask your doctor to open her top and dance around for you, you don't cross that line with the person whose job it is to make you laugh.
It doesn't end on stage. Harassment is even an issue in the comedy writers' room. Normally, women don't talk about it for fear of reprisal, but Daley says, "I've been sexually harassed at a majority of the jobs I've had. And I don't mean dirty talk in the writers' room or any of that Friends lawsuit bullshit. I mean straight-up Mad Men-style quid pro quo offers to sleep with people (or get fired.) Showrunners straight-up propositioning me (and, as I would usually find out, other women in the office.) I have a joke about being sexually harassed in TV, something like, 'Trying to figure out if you're being sexually harassed by comedy writers is like trying to figure out if you're being sexually harassed by your gynecologist.' It seems impossible, but, on some level, you just know when that shit is wrong."
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There will always be people that think women can never be as funny as men. Everyone from Jerry Lewis to Christopher Hitchens has openly admitted they don't find women funny. Adam Carolla said in an interview that women are only hired to meet quotas and are always the least funny in the writers' room. I've heard similar things at stand-up shows, where people get pissed, saying, "She only got that spot because they needed a girl on the lineup." But, if we make a fuss about this misogyny, we're perceived as "bitchy" or "on her period."
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Sometimes, it feels like we'll never win. If a woman makes jokes about her vagina, she's criticized as "too sexualized." If she talks about stuff men talk about, she's "trying too hard to be a man." Yet, guys talk about their penis and masturbating all the time. When they act like women, it's seen as hilarious.
It isn't just men bringing female comedians down, sadly. The entertainment industry definitely has its fair share of judgmental women who will gladly throw other ladies under the bus (or under the Prius if you're in Los Angeles). Women are competitive, and, since there's only so much room for them on a lineup thanks to reason number four, the competition to get that spot can be fierce. Some women can be incredibly supportive. Others will resort to high school measures and spread rumors about you or just disregard your existence completely and never mention how funny another female comic is for fear she'll steal her spotlight.
But, although women can be harsh to other women, it will always really be the patriarchal society of comedy preventing us from making it to the top. You can help out by watching some comedy specials featuring lesser-known female comedians or by telling the booker at your local comedy club that you want to see more ladies on the lineup. When our culture starts to normalize women headlining stand-up shows and producing lots of blockbuster female-driven comedies, we'll have a lot more laughter in the world. And that's good for everybody, no matter what they have going on in their pants.
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Being a woman in comedy is hard enough when you consider how women are conditioned by our society not to tell jokes. See why in 4 Ways We're Programmed To Think Women Aren't Funny and learn the terrifying heights a tall woman must go through to make it in the world in 4 Reasons Being A Tall Woman Can Be Worse Than A Short Man.
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