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 lady and my experience is of course unique. I’m not 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 greenroom while other comics are on stage. I’m a bad student of comedy. I’m not up on the latest Bill Burr special. I’ve never read Steve Martin’s book. I don’t listen to podcasts. But, I have been doing comedy for 15 years, and I do 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 recognizable. 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. Labeling 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!” “You’re funnier than Amy Schumer,” and so on. 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 theaters. It’s also online — where women have joined forces and have finally been able to see each other, and realize 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.
I’m seeing Nicole Byer and Charla Lauriston banter about church, making me feel like I’m in comedy church. Eliza Skinner has a joke about skeletons that I will never ever not spook myself thinking about (and laughing out loud in turn). Emily Heller has a joke about Donald Trump and Air Bud that is beyond. I’m seeing Nikki Glaser combining raw vulnerability with fundamentally superb joke writing that is unmatched (her joke about Beggin Strips must be seen; available in her upcoming Netflix half hour!). Emmy Blotnick’s joke about superhero movies brings tears to my eyes. I’m seeing Maggie Maye murder with the surprise singing voice of an angel. I’m seeing JoAnn Schinderle rock that hustle in Portland. I’m seeing Liz Padjen organize an all-female comedy festival in Houston and absolutely nailing it. Franchesca Ramsey is making a pilot for Comedy Central and she’s got so much smart shit to say. I’m seeing Jen Kirkman go underrated as a legendary standup in the making. I’m seeing Kara Klenk somehow manage to make asbestos funny. My queens Laurie Kilmartin and Jackie Kashian talking about what it’s really like to be a female comedian and naming fucking names. Phoebe Robinson writing the absolute most hilarious Instagram posts that I actually get mad when she hasn’t posted one in a while. I’m seeing Jess Dweck write one barn burner after another (the woman is a fucking machine). I’m seeing Subhah Agarwal work her fucking ass off and seeing it payoff with a writing gig on Jim Jefferies’ new show. I’m seeing Lauren Reeves come up with the most creative shit for @midnight. I’m seeing Sarah Silverman’s new special and I’m inspired to figure out how to do that how to be that. I’m seeing Lizzie Cooperman bang on her keyboard and capture this female essence that is impossible to describe in words. I’m seeing Rhea Butcher get funnier and funnier every time I see her. I’m seeing Aparna Nancherla be an absolute delight talking about serious topics like depression and self esteem. I’m seeing Barbara Gray fuck a stool in the most hilarious way. I’m seeing Ali Wong utterly destroy the world after putting out a phenomenal stand up special. Adira Amram and Ophira Eisenberg hosting a show in Brooklyn that made me cry real tears of happiness, it was that joyful of a celebration of life. Michelle Buteau talk about her Dutch husband with such hilarious love. Candy Lawrence’s Instagram videos are so funny and weird you must keep an eye on her. Kate Berlant is so indescribably original I’m legit jealous of her at times. I could go on for hours here but I’ll stop before we both get tired. Just know: I have left out literal hundreds.
But also, I’m seeing some boring shit too. Jokes with no point. Jokes that are virtue signaling 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 Tigs. 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 color 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 a critically acclaimed stand up comedian, writer, and producer currently based in Los Angeles. She was the co-host of MTV’s late night show Nikki & Sara Live. Sara has appeared on @Midnight, John Oliver’s New York Stand Up Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Best Week Ever, and Inside Amy Schumer. She won two Emmy awards for her work at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and has written for Not Safe with Nikki Glaser and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. Her new digital series Woman Online debuted on Seriously.TV in February 2017. She currently writes for Comedy Central’s Problematic with Moshe Kasher.