In 2007, Vanity Fair published an article by Christopher Hitchens entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Today this column would be diluted by the immediate concurrent publication of “16 Pictures Proving Women Aren’t Funny” and “Women Aren’t Funny But You Won’t Believe What’s Not Funny Next.” But 2007 was pre-click-bait era. Incendiary magazine articles could still brew up a Stormnado (when Storm makes a tornado), and this one did. Hitchens’ points were debated on every news medium—TV, newspaper, magazines—alongside statements made by professional female comics on the topic. That’s right: Women who were funny for a living were asked to take time out of their workdays to confirm whether they thought women could be funny for a living. I don’t specifically remember a farcical Ghostbusters logo drawn around a picture of Lucille Ball stuffing chocolate in her mouth, but that was the vibe.
And in 2007, I lived in Chicago—a full-fledged stand-up boomtown. One could have lined the comics’ discarded PBRs end to end and reached the reasonably priced sun. But almost none of these comics were women. I was one of maybe three women doing stand-up in Chicago when Hitchens’ article broke. The gal comics didn’t travel as a pack—we’d do different mics or shows—so many nights, in many rooms, I was the only gal. There were maybe 100 male comics on the scene at a time.
It was a wild time for Chicago’s stand-up scene. There had been one traditional brick-walled comedy club in the city, and this single club’s calendar just didn’t have enough stage time to split amongst the local comics. So a few years before I started, the stand-ups a class ahead of me began organizing their own shows. “We’ve got an alternative show thrown in the back of a pancake house” quickly became “Any space with enough room for a microphone has a show! Please come to this basement living room loft warehouse!” With new shows, more people realized stand-up could be an option and started doing it as well. The new comics created more new shows and those shows created more new comics and so on.
Before long, Chicago began to tip from a great improv town to a great improv town that also seemed to be putting out many of the country’s most promising young stand-ups. One week T.J. Miller was doing four minutes at an open mic. The next week we all gathered pre-show at the pancake house to watch him sit down with David Letterman and talk about his upcoming role in Cloverfield. Then Hannibal Buress appeared on Ferguson and Kumail Nanjiani got on Colbert and I could go on from there. Chicago isn’t like New York or Los Angeles—there isn’t a large and structured entertainment industry. The alt scene meant the city became the perfect incubator for comics to do a million shows and get great at stand-up before industry folks ever saw them. Then they’d perform in or move to New York or Los Angeles and melt hearts and minds. That’s about the time Hitchens’ article appeared and I started getting calls—as did the other female comics and show producers I knew.
I had about a year of stand-up under my belt when the phone started ringing. Or maybe it was via email but ringing phones (and rain and rowboats) are more romantic. Either way, the content of the inquiries was the same: I was a year into stand-up and began fielding questions on behalf of my entire sex. The subject lines probably read “RE: you and everyone like you—funny?” I was asked about doing stand-up professionally (which I didn’t yet do), whether I hated my fellow male comics (I don’t hate male comics; I hate men. Just kidding! Am I?), and whether it was ever comfortable to tell jokes while on the 3 side of a 3-100 ratio. (Yes.) And repeatedly/constantly, I was asked if women could be funny.
Let’s start there: Yes, women can be funny. I’m assuming you know this because you live in the world. Also, men can be unfunny. And women can be unfunny and men can be drowsy and dogs can be tan-colored. These are description words. People who apply description words to an entire group based only on one shared characteristic—sexuality, race, gender, etc.—shouldn’t be allowed to use even a plastic knife. Those are spoon-only people.
The start of a stand-up career is uncomfortable for everyone. There isn’t a human being alive who feels easy breezy CoverGirl walking into an open mic for the first time, or for the first hundred times. Stand-up is a field wherein respect is earned, not given; that’s one of the things I love best about it. Every comic starts shitty and has to earn their stripes. No short cuts. Only merit. But starting amid this barrage of unfunny-women talk certainly didn’t do anything to lessen this discomfort, and the swell of this type of article didn’t subside quickly—it lasted for a few years. Every comic in our scene started out shitty, but only three of us shitty comics had to prove that our entire sex should be allowed to tell jokes.
I openly acknowledge that the following portion of this story may be self-congratulatory. Rest assured I have done many awful, stupid things. I stay up nights mulling those things over and hating myself for them and worrying that murderers will invade my house and kill me to right the scales of justice on behalf of those I have wronged. Additionally, I can rarely cry when it would be socially appropriate to do so, I have never been truly happy with my body, and milk makes me very sick. But there is at least one thing I have done that I am truly, openly proud of, and it’s that after years of answering the same questions and having the same fights and conversations and after years of wondering about the deficit of female comics in my city, I decided to try a social experiment. I decided to try to flood Chicago’s stand-up scene with women.
One of the biggest lessons I learned starting out in Chicago when I did that nothing creates stand-ups like exposure to stand-up. That was, after all, the biggest reason for our stand-up boom. Most of us need to see that something can be done before we think we can do it—that’s why the uptick in shows caused an even greater uptick in number of comics. I guessed that if women could see other women doing stand-up, more would start doing stand-up themselves and stick with it. And more female comics meant a wider range of style, writing, and delivery, and a larger chance that any one of us would succeed, and that some of us—perhaps equal in percentage to male comics if not in number—would be deemed funny.
This was three years into my stand-up career. I went to the fella who produced one of Chicago’s most revered alt rooms with a proposal. I asked him to let me teach a class that would help get more women onstage. Not a stand-up class, really. You can’t teach stand-up because there is no substitute for stage time. Stand-up, like surgery, is a skill you learn by cutting somebody’s heart out. But you can help someone get onstage the first time by modeling and mentoring, and you can discuss best practices and provide community. You can convey possibility.
The course goal: Write a five-minute set. I brought in writing exercises I found in books, and created some of my own. I assigned homework. Students told jokes aloud in class and did punch-up for one another. I’d give notes on keeping topics personal and delivery strong. At the same time, my good pal—a lovely comic called Adam Burke—and I began to run an open mic at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square that was unaffiliated with the class. I invited the women from the course to try their writing onstage at the mic. They had to sign up and wait like everyone else, but they could come in pairs or as a group, and they’d never be the only women in the room because I’d be there. At the end of eight weeks, I hosted a graduation show at a real venue in front of a real audience, recommended some additional open mics in the city, and from there it was up to them. They’d decide whether to continue in stand-up or not.
This course still runs today in Chicago. It’s called the Feminine Comique and it’s taught by my successor, a comic named Kelsie Huff who went through the class when I taught it despite already being a working comic, producer, and solo performer. And Kelsie is just amazing. I’m so proud of the work she has done in continuing the class.
In my time teaching, over 100 women wrote their first five minutes. Some of these women were never hoping for a professional stand-up career—they were priests and corrections officers and marketing executives looking to try something new and challenging. And some of those first 100 stuck with it—some have become professional comics. Many of my students came to the open mic Adam and I hosted, and because they were there, a bunch of female comics unrelated to the class started in that room, too. Some nights, half the comics on our 60-comic list would be women. And it was a great mic—written up by Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Reader and more. In short, the experiment worked because it gave a practical answer to a philosophical question: It turns out that the best way to decide whether women are funny is to hear a bunch of women tell jokes.
In the end, I really learned the same lesson again and again. I didn’t see myself doing stand-up until I moved to a city where stand-up was putting in a strong fight to be the cultural export. And our whole scene benefited from watching just a few comics start their own shows, get on TV, and move to cities with great industry support. In a lot of ways, human beings are more dedicated than we are imaginative, and exposure to an idea or practice has as big a role in our eventual adoption of that idea or practice as any other factor.
Hitchens’ piece crossed my mind the other day. I can’t remember why—maybe I was jamming around on rollerblades high-fiving myself for not having written an article called “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Or maybe I heard somebody echo that vomit-inducing sentiment. Yes, I spent a solid amount of time writing this, but otherwise, I try to give zero fucks about women/aren’t/funny. I try to spend that energy doing my job and earning my living. But I also know that simply by being a female comic, I help to grow the horde of female comics. There are many of us now—in Chicago and beyond—and we are coming for your laughs. Our numbers only grow stronger. Take your time thinking over whether women, as a group, are funny. Then take some time reflecting on whether men are wistful. Then grab your spoon and prepare for battle. We’ll be over here readying our cool dragons and all these soldiers and some ships or something (I’m behind on Game Of Thrones, so if terrible things have happened to the Khaleesi, use an Arya Stark analogy instead).