What it’s like to be a woman in comedy
Photo: Flickr / overseastom
Photo: Flickr / overseastom

What it’s like to be a woman in comedy

For me, personally, a woman in comedy

Author’s note: See Cameron record her next standup album May 30th in Portland, Oregon. Tickets and info here.

I got a text from my dad a few nights ago. He and my mom were at a charity event hosted by a comic they thought they’d seen me do a show with a few years ago. “Do you know this guy?” my dad asked, sending along a selfie of him and the comic giving his best “I’m taking a selfie with a dad” thumbs up. I do know that guy. He’s a comic I did many, many shows with in Chicago—a dude about my age who works as the house emcee at the city’s longest running stand-up club. I worked as house emcee at that same club while he took a bit of time off to spend with his family. It’s a grueling job.

You start each show with a completely cold audience, try to transition them into show mode with 10 or 15 minutes of material/crowd work, intro the feature act, wait for the feature act to do 25 minutes, reset the room with a joke or two, intro the headliner, wait for the headliner to do an hour, and close out the show. You’re onstage for about 20 minutes, but you’re on deck for an hour and a half. During that time, you can’t really relax; you’re reading what’s going on in the room, controlling any rowdy tables, and making sure you set the feature act and headliner up for success. You host a week of shows: Tuesday through Sunday, with two shows on Friday, three shows on Saturday, and sometimes a few special events. Then it’s Monday night off. And Tuesday back to work. It’s a great job—steady stage time in front of a real, paying audience—and it’s exhausting.

I’m giving all this context on the house emcee only for information’s sake—learning and etc! That’s not what I thought about when I got my dad’s text. The comic in that photo holds a special place in my heart. He was at the center of a casual career milestone for me. It was a few years ago, at that club in Chicago. Maybe I was the feature act that night? He was hosting. When I walked into the green room that night, he was already there watching television. He didn’t really look up—he was engrossed in a basketball game—but he greeted me in his usual friendly way. I sat down and watched with him.

At the commercial, we took a moment to check in. It was a fun, easy conversation, set against a tone of respect and excitement for everything we both had going on, personally and professionally. I asked how shows had been at the club. He asked about some recent travel for me. We talked a bit of shop—headliners worked with, sets gotten in—and chatted on a few things about each of our families. Then the game came back on, and we went back to watching it. The whole interaction took the length of that commercial break. We chatted off and on again throughout the night—about the audience or our specific jokes or whatever. I might have even taken off after my set to catch another set across town.

That interaction in the green room and during the rest of that night stands out to me as one of my earliest memories of a male comic treating me as a comic. Not a female comic. Certainly not a comedienne, a word that packs a verbally dismissive gut punch on par with the final fight scene in The Raid: Redemption. He just treated me as a comic. He didn’t nervously turn off the TV because I walked in, or jokingly flirt with me, or not-jokingly flirt with me, or ignore me completely. He wasn’t overly attentive or at all dismissive. Men and women aren’t necessarily given a thorough education on how to talk to one another. We can have excellent conversations or really terrible ones. Add to this the generally accepted belief that there are men that got into comedy in part because they had a hard time talking to women, and the conversation doesn’t always flow like drink tickets. And it’s not just the male comics. It’s me, too. There are some men I could talk with for hours and hours and some I can’t connect with at all. But comics? Comics I can talk with. And I have a very specific memory of the moments when dude comics realized they could talk with me.

What’s it like being a woman in comedy today? To start, it’s being asked that question in every interview, and occasionally interpersonally, like at a party or something. “What’s it like being a woman in comedy and do you know where the bathroom is at this apartment?” someone might say. It’s not necessarily a bad question. I’d rather be asked about it than hear it be Jerry Seinfelded under the predominantly male rug. To any straight white male comic who addresses diversity in comedy with a big, “Who cares?” I have two answers.

1. Who cares? I do. Diversity matters to me because I don’t hear my experience echoed by the many straight white male comics I love interpersonally and have lasting, close relationships with and whose acts I love. They speak to me. But they do not speak for me. And I, arrogantly, would like to speak. The arrogance built into a career based solely on speaking one’s beliefs and feelings is perfect and astounding. The only thing more arrogant would be insisting that no one believes or feels anything different than you do.

2. Who cares? You should. Straight white male comics should care about diversity and they should love it. By the numbers, there are still more comics that can be described as straight, white, and male than any other way. Comics who fall outside that description, like me, help to break up those numbers. Plainly said: Comics like me help keep the straight white male viewpoint fresh.

The eighth straight white male comic onstage in a lineup of eight straight white male comics should care about diversity. A lineup of six straight white dude comics, me, and a final, eighth straight white male comic is a better lineup for that eighth comic. There are really no new topics and no new viewpoints in stand-up—it’s all been done and it’s all how you will make it yours since it’s already been done—so it helps any comic to not have to follow an identical viewpoint. Dude comics can say fresh, interesting things, and they will always be made more fresh and more interesting by a counterpoint.

This is why it’s so smart of Judd Apatow to spend time producing and writing episodes of Girls and directing Amy Schumer’s new film, Trainwreck, instead of making The 41-, 42-, and 43-Year Old Virgin trilogy. If, a decade from now, he wants to make The 60-Year Old Virgin, there will be a chance for it to be a hit because that story will seem new again. And he’ll have Lena and Amy to thank.

Now, of course, Amy and Lena also have to be good at what they do. There are troll-type figures who, upon hearing that women, people of color, and folks outside the gender/sexual orientation norm improve comedy as a whole, will drag themselves out of the sludge to make the world’s dumbest series of counterpoints: “Are you saying all women/black people who live on streets beginning with the letter S/lesbians who grew-up in North Dakota between 1978 and 1983 are immediately funny and great and should do zero work but still be rewarded?”

No, I am not saying that. Because I do this job and I know that it takes work. It’s a job. No one should succeed in comedy simply because they are outside the norm, and, also: No one does. There aren’t black lesbian female comics with huge careers and massive name recognition who are awful at comedy. There is Wanda Sykes. And she’s amazing.

I work my ass off hoping to become great, and I expect that from all comics. I do not look at the act, career, stage presence, and jokes I have right now and think that I am done and perfect and ask to be given the stage time right out of a straight white dude comic’s pocket. I do not believe that a woman, upon the completion of her first stand-up set, should be zoomed past all men into a mansion made of womanhood from whence she hosts every single late-night network talk show while moonlighting in vodka ads on the side.

Trolls like that ensure that the question—“What is it like to be a woman in comedy today?”—is frequently asked but almost never answered. Any woman who does this job has an enormous amount of respect for her male peers. We are afraid our words will be twisted. It’s that same fear that causes Shailene Woodley to say she is not a feminist because she doesn’t hold women above men, even though that isn’t what feminism is. But, alas, I diverge. Here’s what I, as a female comic, understand about male comics: I know that they have had to put a zillion miles on their cars and pack, unpack, and repack suitcases. I know that they have had to, as straight white dude comics, walk onstage eighth after a lineup of seven other straight white dude comics and sell their jokes fast and hard and every way they can. They’ve had to compete with their best friends for the role of “Hoodie Guy 6” in any number of failed, or successful, pilots.

I know all these things, or, at least, I can imagine them, and separately, here’s what it’s like to be a woman in comedy:

To be a woman in comedy is to be pitted against the only other female comic in the city you came up in for every booking in town and to never share a bill with her. It’s to walk out onstage after this intro: “We’re really glad this next comic isn’t raped and dead in an alley.” (That is an actual intro I have gotten.) It’s to try and describe your body or sex life without being able to use some of comedy’s most beautiful and omnipresent words: dick, boner, jerk-off. To be a woman in comedy is to look a little bit off standing in front of a brick wall telling jokes, only because we have seen and continue to see statistically more men standing in front of brick walls telling jokes.

I’ll speak for myself specifically to finish up. For me, to be a woman in comedy today is to want to be recognized as important to the field, because of my talent and because of my diversity. It’s hoping that comics who happen to be in the demographic majority realize the dominant position they hold and are stoked to have comics like me for running interference on sameness. Perhaps most importantly, it’s wanting to be seen as a comic. Feel free to add my descriptors—gay, white, female—but know that that is a type of comic. In my experience, most straight white male comics are on board with everything I’ve written here. Yes, a few feel differently and get press for spewing nonsense. They are in the vast minority. The rest of us just keep working, and in the off moments, we watch TV together. Occasionally, we take photos with each other’s dads.


Cameron Esposito is a Chicago-bred, L.A.-based stand-up comic and the host of the Put Your Hands Together podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @cameronesposito.

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