Behind the Curve on Women in Comedy

I’m always behind the curve. First off, because I’m one of these navel-gazing artist types: head up my ass, chasing visions and ideas into the ether of my own thoughts. Secondly, I’m a straight white male, so my privilege insulates me from being burdened with the suffering of others, from knowing what’s up. These two factors combine to keep me perpetually out of certain loops unless I make a conscious effort to look beyond my own fairly comfortable reality.

To shut oneself off from the experiences of the oppressed means you’re missing out on all the hot new shit: women pioneered the early art of film, Black people forged American popular music, Jews invented standup comedy. Once these genres proved profitable, affluent white men moved in and made it their own, no late pass requested or offered. We see this process happen daily. Consider hipsters’ rapid—and often troublingly ironic—appropriation of black slang: YAS QUEEN IT’S LIT AF BAE.

I really do try to gaze outside my own navel. I know it’s not easy being a woman in comedy, especially lately. The Shitlord Brigade is mounting a last gasp charge over Rape Joke Hill and making the internet an intolerably hostile place. Last week Leslie Jones became publicly distraught over the avalanche of hate tweets she got as a result of Ghostbusters Castration Hysteria, the least offensive of which compared the successful comedic actor to a gorilla. This week feminist writer Jessica Valenti withdrew from Twitter after she received rape threats on her five-year-old daughter.

I know all this stuff. I keep up on things! But I can choose to pay attention to it or not. I have deadlines and a comedy show and dogs to walk and a baby to take care of and…I’ll get back to you on the whole “anonymous violent rape threats” thing when I get a chance, mmkay?

Besides, I’m a good guy, y’all! I sometimes produce my own comedy shows and I’ve always tried to make sure women and people of color are represented. A couple years ago I vowed to never have a show that was just white dudes and I’ve mostly been able to stick to that. Having different types of people onstage is good for the show and it also has the excellent bonus of placating my conscience, so it's win-win.

Last November I read a Facebook post by Emma Arnold pointing out that a comedy festival in Houston, the Whatever Fest, had booked only three female comics out of 50 performers. Six percent. What followed were hundreds of comments ranging from dismissive to vile, many coming from the dudes in the Houston comedy scene whose festival she gently and offhandedly criticized.

These shout-‘er-down bros are the same ones who ruin everything. They derailed the hopeful idealism of Bernie’s campaign with their ugly misogyny. They take a medium as valuable as Twitter and use it as a tool for blind mob hatred. They rage impotently over the casting of commercial Hollywood blockbusters, for fuck’s sake. They are always and forever the worst. (Incidentally, Arnold just came off a one-month hiatus from social media after the shout-‘er-downs converged on her for daring to point out on a podcast that shock jock Anthony Cumia deserved to lose his job over racist and sexist remarks.)

After seeing Arnold’s post about the Whatever Fest I decided to do take some action, if only to console myself about the horrors to which my dear friends and respected colleagues are subjected. At the time I had a monthly show at the Comedy Underground, and I decided that I would book it majority-female for the foreseeable future.

The last thing I wanted was come off as paternalistic, so I consulted with some badass feminist friends and decided that I’d book more women (and non-male-identifying) comics than men but without advertising the shows as such. The last thing the world needs is another marginalizing Ladies Night/Lipstick Laffs/Ha-Ha’s & Hoo-Hah’s showcase. I’d treat it like an experiment and report on my observations after a few months.

This is that report and there’s really nothing to reveal, other than the fact that the shows were definitely better. I will enumerate the ways:

1. The green room experience was vastly more chill.
Instead of the ball-busting and alpha dog jockeying for pecking order for that is the norm in a room full of insecure swingin’ dicks, women are generally more supportive and considerate. Or as Bri Pruett put it oh-so-painfully-ironically:

2. The audience enjoyed the shows more.
Comedy club audiences are 50 percent women. They want to see their viewpoints represented onstage. This is just basic math.

3. The comics were great.
I booked mostly newer female comics and they got the job done, with standout sets by locals like Evelyn Jensen, Maddie Downes and L Henderson, plus Portlanders Bri Pruett and Chelsea Binta.

I write about this not to call attention to my “altruism”—after all, I made money on the shows and they were fun so no actual sacrifice was made on my part—but to admit that I was behind the curve once again. If I’m being totally honest, I was surprised at how good the shows were, and that’s on me. Women are busy getting better and making shit happen for their own damn selves, and it’s paying off whether I happen to notice or not.

Currently in Seattle there’s a host of shows run by women. There’s the Comedy Nest open mic at the Rendezvous, a female-focused-but-not-female-exclusive offshoot of the Comedy Womb, whichwas massively influential in getting a whole new generation of non-males onstage.You’ve got Loudmouth Cunts, a monthly all-female showcase at the metalhead vegan Highline Bar. And of course there’s the many shows produced by Elicia Sanchez including Wine Shots, Not Too Late with Elicia Sanchez and The Enematic Cinematic. Beyond that you’ve got the female-fronted comedy podcast Sexual Awake’n’Baking with Maddie Downes and Natalie Holt and the new comedy webseries Northern Belles with Downes, Isabella de Campos, Lael Rogers and Christan Leonard. 

At this point, you could experience Seattle comedy solely through shows put on by women and you’d be in good hands. That wasn’t true five years ago or even two years ago—these things are built up with successive waves of ambitious new talent and the ongoing efforts of tenacious veterans. Female comics need their male counterparts less than ever. I’m not sure when that tipping point occurred, but that’s where we’re at.

The only thing I really learned from putting together comedy shows with more women than men for a few months was that it isn’t that big of a deal. It’s so un-revolutionary as to be a no-brainer in retrospect. Realizing that, I felt a little ahead of the curve for once.

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

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