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In the December 21, 2003 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer I read an article entitled "Funny Women" written by Inky staffer Melissa Dribben. Since the newpaper's editors only print letters of 200 words or less, I decided to use my own column to refute much of what was said in her piece. The excerpts are in italics and my responses-- as responses often do-- follow the original text.
For all the progress women have
made in correcting the social skew,
they have yet to reach parity in
the world of comedy.
If by "parity" you mean
proportional representation, then you
are correct. Women do not fill 50%
of the comedy slots in America. But
why does this matter? In the book
"Haunted Smile" author
Lawrence J. Epstein says, "The
embarrassingly rich crop of American
Jewish comedians defies common sense.
In 1979, for example, Time
estimated that whereas Jews made up
only 3 percent of the American population,
fully 80 percent of professional comedians
were Jewish." If we were to limit
the number of comedy jobs held by
Jews to 3%, the comedy world as we
know it would cease to exist.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Seinfeld, you
seem like a very funny kid, but we
simply have too many Jews."
The reason there isn't parity in
the world of comedy is because more
men want to be comedians than women.
This may seem odd, but it's certainly
not worthy of a research grant or
government intervention. It's a
non-problem with an uneccessary solution.
Should we take a page from the
Communist Handbook and put 5-year-old
girls in state sponsored standup comedy
camps just to ensure that the numbers
match up? Of course, if you were
referring to salary "parity"
then I can assure you that as a female
comic, I often make the same crappy money
as my male counterparts. In standup
comedy, the only salary gaps are
between the headliner and the opening acts.
Stand-up comedy clubs may have
ladies' nights when they feature
female performers, but there are
rarely more than one or two women
among the dozen comics booked for
a regular show.
"Regular shows" featuring
a "dozen comics" only exist
in New York or Los Angeles. (Open-mic
nights, competitions, charity events
and festivals are the exeption.)
In fly-over country, where a
"regular show" features two
or three comics, it is not unusual
to have one-- and in some cases
two-- comics on the bill who are women.
Last year, on what we call three
man shows, I worked with
Becka Barry in Glens Falls, New York,
Tammy Pescatelli in Dayton, Ohio,
Regina Smith in West Chester,
Pennsylvania, Jules Riley in
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and
Rosie Tran in New Orleans, Louisiana.
That may not sound like much in 52 weeks,
but considering most of my year is
spent performing on two man
shows with my husband, the percentage
Letterman, Leno and Conan may
have a warm spot in their hearts and
on the guest couches for talented
women, but the seat behind the desk
is reserved for guys.
Does anyone remember that for
the longest time Joan Rivers was
Johnny Carson's number one guest
host and if she hadn't made a bad
business decision by switching
newtorks and becoming his competition,
she most likely would have been
his replacement rather than Jay Leno?
Does anyone else remember that there
have been many "guys"
who have had the "seat behind
the desk" yanked out from
underneath them: Arsenio Hall,
Pat Sajak, Jon Stewart, Rick Dees,
David Brenner, Joey Bishop,
Dennis Miller and so on. Guys
may be given more opportunities
to sit behind the desk, but their
gender certainly doesn't guarantee
Great women comedians--
Gracie Allen, Lucille Ball,
Whoopi Goldberg, Tracey Ullman--
have made their mark. In October,
Lily Tomlin received the prestigious
Mark Twain Award for humor. But
they remain the exceptions.
Roseanne Barr, Phyllis Diller,
Ellen DeGeneres, Brett Butler,
Fanny Brice, Totie Fields,
Elayne Boosler, Rita Rudner,
Paula Poundstone, Sandra Bernhard,
Moms Mabley, Minnie Pearl,
Jenny Jones, Rosie O'Donnel,
Madeline Kahn... I could keep
typing but my fingers would hurt.
Besides, all comedians who have
"made their mark"
regardless of gender, remain
"If you look at late
night, it's nothing but neckties,"
says Rita Rudner, the first woman
comedian to host a roast at the
Friars Club. "Women are
allowed in daytime television when
they're home with the kids. But
once the men come home, they
control the clicker."
Hmmm... David Letterman's first
talk show was on during the afternoon
when the women were watching but
it was eventually cancelled due to
low ratings. From this could we
surmise that women have bad taste?
How else do you explain the success
of The View or
Judge Judy or Ricky Lake?
Of course, I'm being facetious,
but by implying that women are
relegated to daytime is an insult
to Dinah Shore, Rosie O'Donnel,
Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey
and all the other women...
and men... who entertain women
"when they're home with
Women comedians say that some
arenas are more enlightened than others.
Although it is hard to
believe you can put
"TV sitcom" in the same
sentence, small-screen producers
have been somewhat willing to
give women top billing-- I Love Lucy,
Roseanne, The Nanny.
Somewhat willing?! (My head
actually hurts.) Does the name
Carol Burnett ring a bell?
How about Mary Tyler Moore?
Candice Bergan? Doris Day?
Uh, The Golden Girls starred
four old woman. Four old women!
Certainly, minority women have
had more difficulty getting top
billing, but even producers
were somewhat willing to give
Margaret Cho All American
Girl and Dianne Carrol
Julia in 1968...
a black woman portaying a
nurse in 1968!... not a ho
but a nurse... in 1968!
Since Tina Fey ascended
as head writer for Saturday Night
Live in 1999 and broke up the
legendary boys' club, such gifted
performers as Ana Gasteyer,
Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and
Rachel Dratch have gained prominence.
Go ahead. Ask anybody on the
street,"Who are Ana Gasteyer,
Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and
Rachel Dratch?" and they will
most likely say, "Are they
the Spice Girls?", "Are
they on the US Women's Soccer
team?", "Are they members
of the Ukrainian Parliament?"
Now ask those same people... even
the ones under 25... to identify
Gilda Radner, Lorraine Newman
and Jane Curtin and I guarantee
most will answer correctly.
(Do I have to add that the last
three worked under a male head
writer?) In the meantime,
Tina Fey has become one of the
most visible head writers in
Saturday Night Live
history. From this can we infer,
that in Tina Fey's case, sister
is doin' it for herself?
"Until recently, improv
was a man's game," says Getz,
an actor and dancer who has worked
in New York and Los Angeles and
appeared in the film Dirty Dancing
before settling in Philadelphia.
"You were relegated to a
Tell that to Elaine May,
Anne Meara and Catherine O'Hara.
Tell that to Viola Spolin who
devoloped improvistational teaching
techniques in the twenties
and thirties and was a founding
member of the Compass Players
which eventually became Second City.
Tell that to the people who's
knowledge of comedy history
extends further back than
the discovery of Tom Green.
... Getz explained that her
mission is to give women's comedy
its rightful place in American
entertainment. That is, in as
bright a spotlight as men.
"It's time for us to
have our voices heard," she said.
Traditionally, women in
comedy have been relegated to
the roles of "the ingenue,
the bimbo and the fat girl,"
Getz says. "The curtains
haven't been opened up to the wide
range of funny."
A few years ago, at a bar in
Las Vegas, legendary comic
Rusty Warren-- who had seven Gold
comedy albums in the 1960's-- said
to me, "I blazed a trail.
What the fuck is wrong with you?"
Getz is working to change that.
But if funny women are beginning
to find greater artistic freedom
here, their opportunities for money
and fame remain limited.
EVERYBODY'S OPPORTUNITY FOR MONEY
AND FAME ARE LIMITED!!! IT'S SHOWBUSINESS!!!
Rita Rudner has a
million-dollar-plus theater built
just for her in Las Vegas, where
she brings down the house nightly.
She's got a syndicated daytime talk
show. She's authored books and
movie scripts. Taken her place among
the celebrity X's and O's on
Hollywood Squares. Starred in
hour-long comedy specials on HBO.
Helped Steve Martin and Whoopi Goldberg
write their Oscar gigs.
You know the joke about how
marriage is finding the one special
person you'd like to annoy for
the rest of your life? That's Rudner's.
By almost any measure,
the fortyish comedian is a success.
But "there's a glass ceiling,"
Rudner says. "In 20 years,
it hasn't gotten any better.
It's not one of those things
where the dam ever burst open."
Rita. Rita. Rita.
(My head hurts again.)
I love you Rita. I think
you're great. My only hope
is that your quotes were taken
out of context. Why? Because
you sound silly. You had a
million-dollar-plus theater built
just for you in Las Vegas and yet
you claim there is a
glass ceiling? Let's hope
it's your million-dollar-plus
theater that has the glass
ceiling because that's the only
glass ceiling you've seen in years.
"I had to carve out
something that didn't exist.
I have my own theater in Las Vegas.
And it's fantastic. But it's amazing
that I'm even there. How many women
are comedians in Las Vegas?"
Why is it so amazing that you
are there? For nearly two-decades
you have sold out clubs, theaters
and casinos with a clean, clever,
wildly funny, mass-appeal standup act.
Apparently, the only person who
is amazed by this turn of events
is you. You may also be
amazed to learn that women comedians
work in Las Vegas all the time.
Heck, even I was once on a marquee
with Rosie O'Donnel.
Bergreen, who went to Harvard
and was a lawyer before becoming
a comedian and actress (she has
appeared on Law & Order), says
she wasn't prepared for the
sexism she encountered on the
"The sensibilities are
about 50 years behind. The expectation
is that women aren't going to be
funny... . I know a lot of women
comics who are really funny, and
they're not doing 'my period,
my boyfriend' stuff. But if a woman
doesn't get a laugh right away, it's
much easier for the audience to dismiss
her... . It's definitely the same
people who believe that women aren't
as smart as men."
Where have you been performing?
Afganistan? First of all, if
any comedian doesn't get
a laugh right away, it's much easier
for the audience to dismiss her... or him.
You could be the world's greatest
heart surgeon, but if you start out
every operation by clipping the
patient's toenails, people are going
to start looking at you funny.
When people go to a restaurant they
want the appetizer to be as enjoyable
as the dessert. Audiences have a
fairly reasonable expectation that
a comedian will be funny all of the time,
not just some of the time.
Secondly, what is with your
outright dismissmal of "my period,
my boyfriend stuff?" Whatever
happened to women's voices being heard?
Whatever happened to a woman's point
of view? What if that's all women
want to talk about? Is that not
acceptable? By putting these
"female topics" in their
own category, you sound worse than
your alledged opressors.
What exactly is women's humor?
"I don't know," says Getz.
"We just have different experiences
in life. And I think the best art
comes from honesty. You have to trust
your voice and that what you have
to say is valuable."
You mean like my period and my boyfriend stuff?
Getz says that her humor is
not meant to amuse women exclusively.
As long as her comedy is inspired by
a true emotion or real-life experience,
she says, people get it and laugh.
But she's noticed that men in the
audience squirm if a woman comedian
veers into anything sexually explicit.
"Women are your mother and
your sister and your wife,"
she says. "Men don't want their
mother or their sister or their wife
going into detail about how they want
to have sex."
A few years ago, I performed on
a "Girl's Night Out" show
with two other female comics and an
all-female audience. After the show,
an older women told me that she
thought I was extremely funny.
A few nights later, I saw her at a
different venue but this time she
was with her husband. Apparently,
she wanted her husband to see my set.
Before the show, however, she
whispered into my ear, "Are you
going to do cleaner material tonight?
I really like dirty jokes but not
in mixed company." In this case,
it was the mom who didn't want
me "going into detail"
with the men around. Trust me, in
the many years that I have been doing
comedy, I have made more women squirm
than men... and I'm not that dirty!
Not that that should stop
women from forging ahead with
raunchiness, if they want to,
she says. "I think it's
empowering for women and
disempowering for men to talk
Barreca believes women's
humor is both subtle and subversive.
"When you give women the chance
to speak up, they make people
very nervous. They're not making
fun of the drunk, the stutterer
or the fat kid," she says.
"They're making fun of the
power structure. That's a much
more dangerous thing."
Dangerous? Isn't it ironic that
a woman who said "sensibilities
are about 50 years behind"
would use words that were only
relevant 40 years ago? Let's
face it, the 1960's are
soooooo last century. Rusty Warren
blazed a trail. What the fuck
is wrong with you?
Before women can achieve
parity, Barreca says, they need
to become bolder about laughing
out loud and challenging the
assumption that they don't have
a sense of humor.
(I hear she's conducting a
seminar at the Tehran Improv.)
"Women will always find
women funnier, and men will always
find men funnier, but men are
the ones running the show,"
Barreca says. "Until women
have equity in the world, which
we're working on, it's always
going to work that way. That's
why we need to start getting
more power in our pretty little
(Insert maniacal laugh here.)
A few months after starting
this magazine, I received a
somehwat testy email from a female
reader who was upset by the title
of my column, "Keep It Tight."
She patiently and condescendingly
explained that the words were
degrading and that I was doing
myself and my fellow females a
disservice by allowing the phrase
to be used. I patiently and
explained that the phrase,
"Keep It Tight" is used
by standup comics as another way
of saying, "Do a short set"
or "Don't go over your
alloted time." The fact that
it is a double entendre is merely
a bonus. She wrote back and said
that while she could understand
how difficult it must be to be
the only female staff member,
it's important not to be pressured
by the men in the office. At the
time, my husband and I were the
only staff members... and we were
in our living room... and I thought
of the title myself... but none
of this mattered to her... or her
agenda. In other words, if this
woman got more power in her pretty
little hands, she'd use it to squash
me like a pretty little bug.
Women will not always find
women funnier, men will not always
find men funnier and men are
not the only ones running
the show. To believe otherwise
is depressing, counterproductive
As a female comic, I do not blame my lack of success on the men who supposedly oppress me. I blame my lack of success on a woman... one woman to be exact... and that woman is me. But that is for another column.
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