Posted at 12:30 PM Apr 12, 2010
By Andrea Grimes
|I am an actual comic, I promise.|
I'm new, just started doing comedy a couple months before, but I feel okay about the laughs I've been getting at the club open mikes. Bar shows like this, of course, are a different story. Audiences--if they can be called that--come to drink and carouse, not to listen and laugh. But standing onstage at McCarty's, in a tank top and hooded jacket and jeans, I can hear them actually laughing. Some of them, anyway. Enough of them that I don't feel like crying or doing a shot of whiskey as soon as I get offstage.
And so, I head to the back of the room to grab my Diet Coke at a tall table where burly, bad-mouthed comic we'll call Tim is keeping an eye on "the list," a line-up of comics who've signed up for the mike. "Hey, you did good!" he says, giving me a high five. I thank him. "But your, uh, your tits. They get in the way." Tim gestures to my chest.
The moment Tim told me my tits got in the way of my comedy, I knew I had to speak up--but it didn't seem enough to just counter sexist bullshit at comedy shows. I wanted my speaking up to be legit. And so last week, I finished a 60-page ethnographic thesis on female stand-up comedians that I may be soon awarded a master's degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.
My thesis is based on years of fieldwork, in-depth interviews with female comedians and my own experience performing comedy since February 2007. Needless to say, I have a lot of things to say about women in comedy. And so it seems that three media events this week--Tina Fey's hosting of SNL and a Chelsea Handler profile and a Sarah Silverman profile in the NYT and NY Mag, respectively--are particularly well-timed, considering comedy has been on my mind for months now. And in the past 2 weeks alone, I've been interviewed for two separate pieces of journalism on female comics. Something is bubbling to the surface, here.
Usually, I write just one weekly installment of "Chicks Aren't Funny," but I think the chatter about female comics this week warrants a deeper exploration. In this first post, I'd like to tell you what my own ethnographic research has revealed about female stand-up comics. And in a post later on today, I'll address the content and tone of the recent funny girl coverage.
Ready to get all academic and shit about funnybusiness? Ivory-tower posturing, engage!
Here's the thing: people can (and do) say all they want about the comedy that female comics write and perform, and they can critique it or celebrate it, and they can speculate about how important it is to be attractive or not attractive or dirty or not dirty, and this is all very interesting, but it's almost always done without an actual understanding of the way the stand-up comedy world actually works for female comics. That's what I set out to talk about in my thesis. I wanted to answer the question, "What happens when women do stand-up comedy?", rather than "How do women perform comedy?"
Privileging the performative moment of comedy (asking "how") fails to take into account of the fact that the majority of time working comedians spend working on comedy--whether you're male or female--isn't on-stage. It's spent in clubs, in bars, at coffee shops and pizza joints and wherever else the open mikes are held. It's spent watching your friends and idols on stage, writing jokes down, traveling to gigs, dealing with club owners and bookers, making friends and relationships, getting drunk and having sex and doing drugs and well, just doing an awful lot of things that are not standing on stage and telling jokes but that are nonetheless integral in the creation of a comedy career.
The most important thing to remember about female stand-up comics is their exceptional status in the world of comedy, which is not merely a majority male world, but a default male world wherein women are the vast, vast minority. (This is different in the sketch and improv scenes, which tend to be a little more equal between the sexes.)
I'm going to pull out a fairly lengthy quote from my thesis, wherein I
argue that female comics occupy a space of permanent liminality in
comedy, a liminality which can be broken down into three smaller areas: the
interpersonal space (friendships with other comics and comedy players--places wherein female comics feel othered in the "boys' club" of comedy and miss out on stage time or similar because they are rarely, by virtue of their sex, as close to privileged male comics as other men are), the sexual space
(sexual or dating relationships with those comics--wherein they must be clandestine about their sexual exploits lest they be accused of sleeping their way to the top) and the professional
space (the stage, and the path on and off that stage--female comics are frequently introduced to the stage as "a lady comic!" or "your first female comic of the evening," etc.). These are places wherein female comics are othered purely by virtue of their sex.
Female comics operate in a space of permanent liminality--whether they are on stage, off stage, or in the bedroom, they are never fully in any of these places, and I argue that in fact they are actually always already in all of them. As evidenced in my own experiences and in those relayed to me in interviews with female comics, there is an inextricable link between the female comic herself, her interactions with other comics and players in the comedy world, and her material. Because none of these things can be--or should be--understood independently of each other, we must look at the total experience of the female comic who lives in a world neither wholly public nor wholly private, where she is partly comic and partly female. She speaks and acts in terms of, in reference to, in response to, against. Her subjectivity is informed by previous experiences, which in turn influence the ways in which she believes she can, should or will handle the present and future both onstage and off. Because she is liminal, she is defined by the things she is not or cannot be or is different from, but she also self-defines through this continuous informing and re-forming vis-à-vis lived experience in the three spaces identified in this ethnography. She can be understood in terms of dialogism, a subjectivity at once influencing and influenced by her comedy community, continuously rebuilding and resituating herself as needed according to the meanings created or destroyed in the process of her lived experience as a female comic who is part of a greater whole.So when I say "liminality," I mean to be identifying moments wherein female comics feel most marked as other, as female. I call this feeling a "permanent liminality" because, as we can see when top-of-their-game female comics are interviewed, they are still interviewed as women. Their femininity, femaleness, attractiveness, female age, something with ladybusiness is going to come into play when they're spoken of or about. If you can find an interview with a male comic wherein his masculinity is the main topic of conversation, I can't wait to read it.
I'm happy to answer more questions about my thesis in the comments, and to provide examples of these various liminalities, and once it's finally been approved by my committee, I'll be putting an edited version online this summer. In the meantime, I'll close with this story, which I think is indicative of the "interpersonal liminality" I identify in my thesis:
The bar is a neighborhood dive where cans of PBR are passed over the bar by the handful and comics gather every Friday night for a raucous gig emcee'd by an New York City local we'll call Hector, a guy who's guaranteed high-fives every time he walks into a show. Hector's a big man on the comedy campus, at least among a particular group of vaguely hip twenty- and thirty-something NYC comics who fancy themselves "alternative," cracking jokes about indie rock and comic books as opposed to the schticky Seinfeld-types who talk about airplane food and ex-wives. They are a pot-smoking, booze-swilling bunch who celebrate their lack of income, lack of girlfriends, and appreciation for cheap brews.
We've all got beers in one hand, cigarettes in the other. I've been in New York City for a month, conducting research on stand-up comedy, and I'm finally on a first-name basis with most of the guys. I am, to some degree, in. Somebody asks why I've come to New York just for the summer, and I reply: "I'm doing research for my thesis, on female stand-up comics. Funny girls."
Hector's eyes light up behind his coke-bottle glasses. "Are you trying to prove they exist?"
I didn't have a good comeback for Hector at the time. As a new, female comic trying to be part of the group, I probably would have been ostracized for putting my feminist pants on and telling him I found his joke offensive--I would have been further liminalized in the interpersonal space. But then I realized continuing to perform and applaud the work of great female comics--and continuing to encourage other women to start doing comedy--is the best zinger of all.