The state of women in comedy | According to one woman in comedy, Sara Schaefer

The state of women in comedy

According to one woman in comedy, Sara Schaefer

What are female comics doing these days? What’s the situation? Did we solve it yet? I’d like to check in and take stock.

But before I do that, I should say this: I’m just one American lady and my experience is, of course, unique. I wouldn’t describe myself as a comedy nerd. I don’t actively seek out shows. I often don’t stick around after my set. I’ll get distracted with conversations in the green room while other comics are on stage. But, I have been doing comedy for 15 years, and I do try to absorb what’s happening in the scene as much as I can. I pay attention in other ways. And I can tell you: I love comedy so very much.

I especially love the women. When I first started out, I was warned by peers to never complain or even comment on what it’s like to be a woman in comedy. Doing so would be like a plague and I’d be ‘that girl’. I’d be… a *feminist.*

But nowadays, feminism is cool. Which is overly simplistic to say; obviously the word is still used as a weapon and we are ever so picky about what ‘type’ of feminist you are, and there are still so many people afraid to call themselves a feminist. The word itself has been beaten up so badly, it’s barely recognisable. It may not mean anything anymore. 

To further complicate things, it’s now officially a brand — sometimes a poorly worn costume in an effort to sell one’s self. Some people complain about this, but I actually think it’s fine. Go right ahead! Wear the feminist costume. Because once you do, you’re going to eventually have to learn about what you’re wearing, whether you want to or not. Labelling yourself a feminist does not exempt you from critique. In fact, it invites more thoughtful discussion about the work you’re doing. Eventually, you’ll be faced with the choice to take off the costume or or let it become part of your skin. I hope you go with the skin option.

These things have had great power in the experience of female comics and over the conversation around our apparently strange existence. I’ve heard male comics moan about how ‘feminism isn’t edgy anymore and now it’s hack.’ (Please do elaborate, I’ve been meaning to find out what taking an Ambien feels like.) 

I’m still, very regularly, hearing the old classics both online or in real life: ‘Women aren’t funny’ (yes, still), ‘all female comics do is talk about their vaginas’, ‘I usually don’t find women funny but you were great!’ or the new classic thing: ‘I am now going to do a side-by-side comparison of your act to Amy Schumer’s act and tell you how you’re different because she is the only standard by which I can judge you.’

These statements have mostly lost meaning to me; they are not based in reality, they are not true, and they are just things ignorant people say for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s as simple as them truly not knowing what to say to the female comedian standing before them, so this meaningless hot air pops out like an unexpected, smelly belch. It’s annoying, often infuriating, and always tiring.

What then, has changed? From where I’m standing, the change is on the ground, in the clubs and the bar shows and small theatres. It’s also online — where women have joined forces and have finally been able to see each other, and realise we aren’t lone wolves after all, and that we aren’t, contrary to what the status quo would have you believe, in competition with each other. We are fucking legion.

What I’m seeing in comedy right now is excellence from women. I’m seeing so much more than vagina jokes.

In the U.S., where I live, I’m seeing women tackle comedy in so many different ways. (For specifics, go here.) Internationally, I’ve only just begun to discover all the amazing female talent out there, and it’s damn exciting. I’m seeing Mae Martin talk about bisexuality in such an authentic and funny way. I’m seeing Josie Long tackle politics and bringing her delightful imagination to everything she does. I saw Celia Pacquola perform in Melbourne last year and was blown away by her skill and a particularly brilliant joke about toe rings. Deanne Smith’s advice to men is not only super funny but one hundred per cent correct. Sara Pascoe’s material on women’s magazine is so smart. I’m seeing Desiree Burch go from small shows we did together years ago in New York to taking the UK by storm. I could go on for hours here but I’ll stop before we both get tired. Just know: I have left out literal hundreds of women across the world.

But also, I’m seeing some boring shit too. Jokes with no point. Jokes that are virtue signalling just for clapter. Jokes about homeless people (sorry, this one’s my pet peeve! we all have them). Jokes I just don’t get. Jokes that are offensive. Jokes that are cliche. 

I’m seeing some women mimic their elders. I’m seeing mini Sarah Silvermans, mini Amy Schumers. Mini Maria Bamfords. Mini everybody. And you might think I’m upset about all of this but I’m not. I find it absolutely thrilling, because it means we’re just regular comics. There are more women to emulate and copy, there is more room to breathe and just exist in various stages of development. There are, more than there’s ever been, a crop of younger female comics hanging onto the ropes before clawing their way to their own voice. An organic process we now have more access to alongside the men.

It’s a diverse, sloppy, textured community of personalities that I fucking adore. And slowly — very slowly — the industry is figuring this out. Comedy Central has been steadily giving more half hours to women every year. Writing staffs are slowly growing more diverse. But we still have 37 talk shows hosted by a man named James. We still have outwardly woke creators who don’t hire women, LGBTQ comedians, and people of colour behind the scenes. We still have a lot of regressive people out there trying to hold us back and tear us down. But we’re in a better position than ever before to leap over these hurdles.

There’s work to do, and I am fucking here for it.

• Sara Schaefer is coming to the Edinburgh Fringe this August with her stand-up show Little White Box, at the Pleasance Courtyard at 7pm. Tickets.

Published: 22 Jun 2017

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