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Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Women ARE Funny: Notes from a Feminist Male Comedian
Over the last month four different female comedians have spoken with me about the troubles in being a female comedian. One said that comedy was rough for women because club owners, bookers and producers often hit on the comedians, making it difficult for them to rebuff these advances and still get booked on shows. I, occasionally billed as a feminist male comedian, do notice the difficulties women go through in this business. It is harder for women to get booked than it is for men.
In the early eighties when I started going to NYC comedy clubs regularly as a fan, bookers were less likely to hire female comedians. They said that audiences didn't like women comics, that all they did was talk about their periods and complain about men. Some club owners were even quoted as saying that women simply weren't funny enough. It was very rare to see more than one woman in the line-up, even if the show had a dozen comedians.
And unfortunately, when people see a small amount of truth in something, they may believe the whole thing. The small amount of truth being that in fact there was a percentage of working female comics who did talk about their periods and complain about men. Sure, male comics talked about their girlfriends but they were more likely to say "MY girlfriend stinks" whereas the females were saying"ALL men stink" and for an audience there's a difference between the two statements. I'm not her boyfriend but I am a man, and I'm therefore being insulted for my gender.
Some generalizations may have had a bit of truth twenty years ago, but no longer.
It's been my observation lately that at amateur shows and open-mikes in NYC around thirty five percent of the comedians are female (this is more than a guess-- I've been counting). The percentage of professional female working comics is probably much lower. But before the statisticians start calling, I do need to point out that you can't compare the two-- you'd have to look at the proportion of female amateur comics several years ago vs. working comics now (and not just in NYC) because it takes years to go from starting out to making money. And maybe only one percent ever make it to the professional level.
It takes a long time for things to change. Right now one NYC comedy club, Laugh Lounge, is owned and booked by a woman, and the person who first auditions comedians at The Comic Strip is also a woman. Many other clubs have women who book/produce shows. And if you look at who is booked at some rooms, the proportion of women seems to be on the rise. There's no Title IX in comedy, but there are women who are doing all they can to help other women succeed. Change is happening. Not terribly fast, but faster than it would happen without the women in comedy who are there helping other women. But there is a group of people who can help women comedians even more than the bookers and other comedians can. It's you. How can you help? Keep reading.
Some people say that one reason that men are more successful in the business world is that while women tend to seek consensus, men are more likely to try to win people over to their point of view. Genetics? Upbringing? Sexism? A combination of all three? We don't know. I will say this about comedians-- search for comedians on the web and you will discover a lot more male comedians than female comedians, and the men's sites are more likely to have content that draws you in-- as an example, look at my site (www.BrainChampagne.com) or Steve Hofstetter's (www.SteveHofstetter.com). Of course there are exceptions-- Laurie Kilmartin's website (www.Kilmartin.com) is a good example of a woman's comedy website with a lot of content. But only 15% of the comedians choosing to list themselves on ComedySoapbox.com are women, and an equally small proportion of the comedians who regularly post blogs, one of the site's most popular features, are women. Marketing is very important in comedy-- the more we promote, the more people we get to shows. And it's putting people in seats that gets us booked.
I've learned that the comedy business is half about being funny and the other half is about people. The business really runs on favors. You gave me a spot last year when I asked for one, so I'll tell my agent about you. You introduced me to this booker, so come open for me on the road. You gave me a ride home when I was sick and it was raining, now I have a TV show so come audition for it. Successful comedians have learned to be nice to other comedians-- more than half their help as they start in the business will come from other comics.
Want to know the reason that comedy clubs put on theme shows such as Latino comics or gay comics? Because they attract an audience. Vote with your feet-- if you see that NYC's Gotham Comedy Club is putting on an all-women show, go to it. If the room is full the owners will notice and put on more of these shows. They'll probably also put more female comics into the regular line-up. If you go to The Comic Strip because Judy Gold or Veronica Mosey or Karen Bergreen is playing, mention how much of a fan you are within earshot of the person at the door. Amateur comedians are told that one step in getting noticed is when the waitresses at comedy clubs start talking about them-- they see a hundred comedians a week and what they say carries some weight. More importantly, if you, a paying customer, let it be known why you went to a show, you will be heard. It's not exactly as scientific as the Nielsen ratings, but it works.
Why aren't female comedians getting their share of TV shows? Where's Laurie Kilmartin's sitcom, or Jessica Kirson's? I don't know. I don't think TV executives are geniuses, and surely they prefer going with what has already worked instead of risking something new, but if the few female-centered shows were drawing in huge ratings, the networks would notice. There seem to be a lot of television shows about young women-- they're all on UPN or WB. How are they doing? Obviously well enough that we're getting more of them. It actually took Fox to put on a number of TV shows about black families (after very few of them on network... "Good Times," "The Jeffersons" and "The Cosby Show" come to mind) and now there are a lot of them. And black people are what, fifteen percent of the country? Women, you're are more than half, and I'm pretty sure you all own televisions.
Why aren't there any women hosting late-night talk shows, traditionally a job given to a stand-up comedian? I don't know. Joan Rivers had a shot at The Tonight Show but she blew it. Frankly I really liked her on Monday nights but I don't know if I could have watched her five nights a week because she was, to me, more of a character than a person I wanted to invite into my home on a regular basis. I would quickly get sick of having so much of her. I would have said the same thing about Rodney Dangerfield, by the way. But perhaps this is still the result of sexism. Possibly women in comedy have to be more character-driven in order to get to the top, and then at the top they're locked into their character. Roseanne and Ellen got sitcoms, but Jay Leno got the comedian's biggest prize. I think he does a fabulastic job and I'm thrilled he buys some of my jokes, but when Johnny Carson retired part of me wanted Rita Rudner to get the job.
A long time ago people said that women would never be TV stars, until Lucille Ball proved them wrong. In the eighties people said that the traditional sitcom was dead because it had been done to death, until "The Cosby Show" showed that the problem was not the sitcom format but simply that we needed better sitcoms. For a long time people said that standup comedy as a TV show or movie theme wouldn't work, until Jerry Seinfeld proved them wrong. Some people even say that Kevin Costner will never be in a movie without baseball. Eventually he may prove them wrong too. There will consistently be number one sitcoms starring women. Maybe even, shockingly, with me, a feminist male, as the head writer of one of them. What will make these shows number one? When you all watch them. That's what made Oprah the Queen of daytime TV. Viewers. It's as simple as that.
And before you go completely batty, remember that while the winners of all three seasons of "Last Comic Standing" were men, not one has a TV show. Pamela Anderson has had how many?
You want more female comics to succeed? Get yourself to their shows. There are thousands of comedy clubs in big cities, in little cities and even occasional professional comedy shows in small towns, all over the United States. Comedy is a business; it runs on money. Your money is your vote. Go out and vote.
Feminist Male Comedian (sm)
(Copyright Shaun Eli Breidbart, All Rights Reserved)