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TRACI SKENE has appeared on VH-1's Standup Spotlight, A&E's Comedy On The Road and Lifetime's Girls Night Out, all of which has done her absolutely no good.

Traci Skene


Traci Skene

SHECKYmagazine Chief

Angry Woman

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 is staggering.

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 their success.

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 the exception.

"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 the kids."

Women comedians say that some arenas are more enlightened than others.

Although it is hard to believe you can put "enlightened" and "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... 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 peripheral role."

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.


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 club circuit.

"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 about it."

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."

Empowering? Subversive? 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 hands."

(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 not-at-all condescendingly 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 and pathetic.

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. HOME Back to the Top