Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Comedy Equals Puberty Plus Time

Guest Post by comedian Erin Judge

I don’t think most male comedians are sexist. I just think they don’t always know how to react to a woman who, like themselves, is trying to be funny. You know, on purpose. My pseudo-scientific faux-anthropological theories about it go a little something like this: 

We discover our senses of humor around puberty. The development of sex organs and body hair and vocal fluctuations leaves us painfully exposed and uncomfortably aware of ourselves. But at least we can crack jokes about it, deflecting some of those casual humiliations. And we’re finally far enough along to understand adult references – not just sex jokes and drug jokes, but political humor as well. 

The problem with all of this is that puberty is also an almost entirely homosocial time. Boys roll with boys and girls roll with girls. And being funny carries much more weight in male social circles than in female ones. Sure, adolescent girls like a good laugh, but they prefer manipulative Machiavellian back-stabbing triangulating evil drama. While cool girls consolidate their power by capriciously excluding, humiliating, and character-assassinating others, cool boys are the ones with the loudest and most hilariously-timed farts.  

Around middle school, it always seems that girls are much more interested in boys than boys are interested in girls. But in truth – and I’ve only learned this as an adult – boys are so interested in girls that they’re borderline nauseated with terror and embarrassment over it. Everybody always talks about trivial changes in adolescent males, like voice cracking. But the horror that comprises boners and sex dreams and carnal impulses must not be understated. Pre-teen girls develop crushes on the cute boys and the funny boys and the polite boys for all these wholesome, socially accepted, public reasons. Meanwhile, (straight) pre-teen boys are having involuntary X-rated fantasies about these sweet young ladies, and, sadly, sometimes feeling pretty guilty about it. Until boys get a little bit older and feel more control over all that sex stuff, I think it’s just really damn hard for them to let their guard down around their female peers the way they do around other boys. 

I remember being a different kind of girl back then, and I’m sure lots of other female comedians occupied the same strange place in the middle school social hierarchy. I preferred quoting Monty Python to scribbling rumors in slam books. The click of irony and the satisfying rush of cracking a joke thrilled me more than learning how to put on make-up. Maybe all female comics were as inept as I was at female social games back then, but as far as I can tell, we were just smart and uninterested in being particularly sweet or particularly mean. And holy crap, was life frustrating back then! Sure, I could get laughs here and there, but half the time the guys wouldn’t even hear my jokes and would wind up unconsciously repeating them as their own. The popular girls looked at me like I had three heads when they even acknowledged my existence at all. 

Fast forward to the stand-up comedy scene circa today. Male comics tend to be the most successful funny dudes from middle school mixed with the comedy-obsessed nerdy guys. They’re the irreverent geniuses out of the gifted classes or the wisecrackingest (and smartest) kids among the troublemakers. On some level, male comics rely on the skills they acquired in middle school in order to do their jobs and make people laugh. And maybe there’s a teensy bit of regression going on, and maybe they revert to a state of wariness and confusion around females and supreme comfort around an all-male social group.  

Female comics, meanwhile…well, let’s face it. We are still the overwhelming minority in any city’s scene. We have a harder time coming to comedy and a harder time sticking it out long enough to get good because we feel like outsiders and get treated differently. We’re still fighting the same adolescent-era battles to be heard and appreciated for our senses of humor by our male peers and by the community as a whole, now represented by the audience.  

I used to work for a nationally-known comedian, and he asked me not to sit in on writing meetings because he found his male collaborators wouldn’t be as free and open if a female was present. Even now, when some of my (straight) male comic peers tease me, they backtrack or apologize. Worst of all, they can’t tell when I’m teasing them.  

Guys, I know girls are confusing. But do me a favor. Respect us more by “respecting” us less. We’re not in the comedy business to get handled with kid gloves. We’re not wilting flowers who gasp and say “Well, I never!” Trust us. Listen to us. Make fun of us, and we’ll make fun of you, and we can laugh at each others’ jokes and give each other notes and write together and make everybody’s comedy stronger, more relevant, and just plain funnier.  

Oh, and P.S. – If we like you, you’ll know. We’ll hit on you. That’s just the kind of girls we are.

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