Chicks Aren't Funny Part One: The "permanent liminality" of female stand-up comics

Posted at 12:30 PM Apr 12, 2010

By Andrea Grimes

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I am an actual comic, I promise.
It's a rainy night in Dallas. McCarty's Bar, just north of the city proper, is half-buzzing with townies escaping the bad weather and a few tables of mildly interested patrons watching comic after comic tell jokes beneath neon beer signs on the low-rise stage. McCarty's was known for being a hit-or-miss open mic, where comics fight the internet juke box and sports broadcasts for the attention of whoever happens to show up at 10 p.m. This is the place where, if you try out new material and it actually gets laughs, you know you've written something good.

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.

Comments

Magdalena said:

Congrats on the M.A. degree! Hope you publish some articles out of it so that everyone can have access to your really interesting thesis!

Re: comedy. I have absolutely no idea why the idea persists that chicks aren't funny. Not only are there some incredibly talented professional women comics (Paula Poundstone, Sarah Haskins, Tina Fey, etc.), but most women I know are actually funnier than most men I know. My personal suspicion is that there's something to the old adage that men are afraid that women will laugh at them, which causes the dominant class to deny women's comic gifts.

Keep up the good work and keep being funny! :D

Ethan Moore said:

This reminds me of something I read in a Deborah Tannen book about men and women in the workplace: in a business-dress workplace, a man could choose to wear a plain dark suit and tie that really said nothing about him -- men could be "unmarked". But any clothing choice a woman made, including the equivalent dark suit (with a skirt or with pants), revealed something about her and the image she was trying to project. A man could mark himself if he wanted to, for instance by wearing a cowboy hat and boots or a green suit, be he could also be unmarked. A woman was always marked by her clothing.

Similarly, you are saying that, while a male comic can do bits that make him specifically a "male comic", he is usually just a plain "comic", unmarked; a female comic is always a "female comic", always marked.

Maybe if/when I'm asked to host an open mic, I'll introduce someone as "the first male comic of the evening".

Paul said:

Hector was being quick-witted. A useful comedic skill. Especially when dealing with hecklers. While you couldn't come up with a comeback, you still should've told him it was offensive. If you let it slide, it sets a precident that will continue until you correct it. And having been on the corrected side before, you feel like a douchebag and wonder why the fuck they didn't say anything before.

Andrea said:

Paul -

Actually, Hector was being an asshole and a bully, so you'll have to forgive me if I'm not enamored of his great wit.

This is something I get into far more deeply in the thesis itself--it's easy to say that I should have spoken up, being outside the situation. However, in the thesis, I demonstrate that there are specific personal and professional repercussions to not being a "good sport" as a lady and shutting up when you and your experiences are being devalued in little sexist asides and quips like these. It's a matter of choosing your battles. At that point, it would have been fairly detrimental to my comedy experience in New York City to get on this dude's bad side or to be viewed by him and his friends as a spoil sport. There are other situations wherein I have spoken up and the results can definitely be positive. However, the fact that this is something women specifically have to deal with in comedy is part of my larger thesis--the liminality means you can't just do what you want. You have to negotiate to stay afloat.

Paul said:

Well, in that case, fuck that dude.

You may be in the minority in this area, but most people have to deal with that issue in some groups. You can choose to confront it or let it slide. And if you just let it slide how is the situation ever going to change?

Andrea said:

That's the big question, Paul. When is it best to let things slide, and when is it worth the fight? I'd argue--and I do, in my thesis--that the more mastery a female comic has in the professional sphere (the more respect she has as a comic), the better position she is in to combat sexism in the comedy world. However, getting to that point is fraught with these sexual issues. As an amateur or even low-level pro comic, being too "female" can keep you from getting a good start before you even really begin.

Bobyn said:

Congrats on finishing your thesis and the ( I have no doubt) soon-to-be forthcoming MA from UT! I'm already excited for the chance to read it.

- Paul
I can see why you think Andrea was just 'letting it slide,' but what's better? A quick retaliation against one man's supposed wit or a well thought out argument for female comics and against the system that privileges that same asshole?
At the time, NOT speaking up was vital to her fieldwork. A remark about the offensiveness of his comment would have re-ostracized her from the group, setting her further outside than she was when she started the fieldwork. The battle of when and when not to speak up is a daily thing for women, and that's only magnified when you bring in anthropological considerations.

Don Lee said:

Wow! Loved to read this, and had to read it again. Big sigh. Finally, someone is starting to "get it."

Sexism isn't about being female in a male world. That's simply a matter of history and demographics. Putting on the 'feminist pants' is nearly always not just a mistake, but will push the movement for equal rights BACKWARDS.

I am a *humanist*. We are all human, with equality along those lines. It has nothing to do with male, female, black, white, or whatever ethnic-gender-stereotype line you care to draw.

Proof? During WW2, 'Rosie' types dominated the industries throughout America. Clearly, women could work, and damn well too. After the war? Back to male dominated society. What happened? Did armed men force all the women to go home? No, most were happy to turn around and go back to the past.

Nobody raised laws STOPPING women from working, women just stopped. Culture happened. Marry, raise offspring, forget career. End-of-line, as Master Control would say.

I've stunned feminists during a loud public rant by simply stating that MEN voted, and passed, the equal rights amendment for women. WE wanted it. I've known thousands of people quite well in my life, and damn few men are actually against women being equal.

In all honesty, I hear more sexism coming from women today than anywhere else, and men are afraid to even speak for fear of further demonization.

My S.O. is a female engineer, a boiler operator to be specific, in a VERY male dominated career. The industry will train women for FREE. The union will do ANYTHING to get women in, up to free daycare and providing tools {about $25K worth.} After 20 years of doing so, still hardly any women.

Fact is, few women WANT it. Men still get blamed for this,too. As though me or any other man is out there tearing down recruiting posters... no, I help put them UP! I've never seen one defaced.

Every man I've ever called friend has joked with me about how "it'd sure be nice if I could stay home for a change, and spend some time with our kids." It is as rare for a man to be a house husband as it is for a woman to command an aircraft carrier.

That's cultural. No male is trying to stop any woman, in general. I know there are the few bad seeds out there, that's not the issue. The issue is a culture where women still voluntarily select NOT to take male-dominated career choices.

EVEN in the face of considerable encouragement to do so!

In science I call that a determinant. When the mouse consistently avoids the cheese, there's a reason.

I'm sick to death of "feminists," who are usually not very up on what sexism actually *is*, rant against males as evil b*st*rds for denying them the castle and the prince! The IRONY! Every 20 something mother I currently know, about 20 of them approximately, take their daughters to "princess themed" parties. They dress them in pink, tell them they'll get to be princesses, ad nauseum. It's sad, and it's so hard to bite my lip and say nothing.

Another generation lost.

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