Comedy has traditionally been a white boys’ club, but after years of hard work and hard-won access, women are now holding the bullhorn.
Illustration by Livia Cives
It’s hard to believe it’s been only two years since Ali Wong debuted her first comedy special, Baby Cobra, on Netflix. Strutting onstage in a black-and-white fitted dress, red flats to match her signature cat’s-eye glasses, and a seven-and-a-half-month baby bump, Wong, born and raised in San Francisco, made history as the first female comedian ever to appear onstage so visibly pregnant.
The show delivered a mix of raunch and social commentary, and its sequel, 2018’s Hard Knock Wife (which Wong performed pregnant with her second child), was a brilliant and honest portrayal of the mess and stress of new motherhood. Both shows have inspired catchphrases printed on mugs and T-shirts the world over (“Trap His Ass,” “I’ve Suffered Enough,”“I Do Means I’m Done”). And Wong, whose upcoming Milk & Money tour is nearly sold out, has become a superstar in the world of comedy, fawned over by the likes of Dave Chappelle and Ellen DeGeneres, not only because she’s hilarious, but because she’s a model for the future of comedy — a woman who presents an unapologetically authentic version of herself to the world. It’s something audiences have been craving, and thanks to a new wave of women in comedy, they’re finally getting their fill.
At a time when women’s rights and voices are more prominent than ever — from entertainment to politics — Wong and her peers are perfectly poised to take over the reins of the traditional yuk-yuk boys’ club, not just because they’re empowered by a society now seemingly ready to listen to women, but because they’ve been putting in the work. Long gone are the days when female comedians were considered anomalies (see: Lucille Ball and Joan Rivers, breaking barriers by their sheer existence), forced to either fit into the raunch machismo of their male counterparts, or double down on housewife humor. And we’ve thankfully retired the obscene debate on whether or not women are funny, as infamously argued by the late pundit-provocateur Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. Hitchens’ verdict: That men are intimidated by “the ability of women to produce babies,” and use humor as a mechanism to deflate women’s “unchallengeable authority.”
“THE FUNNIER AND GROSSER AND MORE REAL AND INSIGHTFUL INTO WHAT LIFE IS REALLY LIKE, THE BETTER”—The Groundlings’ Ariane Price
Nice try, Hitchens, but I’d argue, correctly, that women put their subversive humor on mute so as not to upset the power imbalance that tilted dangerously in men’s favor. (We all remember what happened to Anne Boleyn.)
Today, the comedy landscape is rich with authentic storytelling that shows the diverse milieu of the human condition — and the best of it is being written and per-formed by women.
“Being vulnerable is incredibly important in comedy,” says Ariane Price, senior member and teacher at the Groundlings Comedy School in Los Angeles, which has produced iconic female comedic actresses such as Kathy Griffin, Lisa Kudrow, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig. “And that’s something women are just naturally good at. When I’m teaching sketch, I can tell from someone’s first line what their deepest, darkest issues are. And when the number one goal is to make people laugh, being pretty and perfect is not a priority. The funnier and grosser and more real and insightful into what life is really like, the better.”
Female comedians know this, and the ones who have a hand in changing the culture have pushed boundaries, unsettling men in the process. It’s Amy Poehler telling Jimmy Fallon, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” when he squirms at her raunchy jokes in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, one of the best reveals in Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It’s Griffin holding steadfast to her searing commentary on Hollywood celebrity and Donald Trump, even though her career has suffered for it. It’s Issa Rae making it clear to HBO, and then to her record-breaking audience, that her show Insecure would be about black women, and not necessarily translate to the white experience. It’s Rachel Bloom pushing back on net-work standards by insisting on telling authentic narratives of women’s mental health and sexuality on her show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s Tiffany Haddish and Leslie Jones destroying any room that they’re in. And it’s Hannah Gadsby in her transformative stand-up special, Nanette, exploding the idea that self-deprecation is the only way for women comics to get a laugh.
Push Through to Get Through
Men have always enjoyed the luxury of sinking deep into a character without concern for aesthetics, allowing the physical performance, and all the bodily functions that come with it, to get a laugh. These performance opportunities have been rare for women outside of sketch comedy or stand-up. That all changed with Bridesmaids.
“After Bridesmaids came out [in 2011], we all of a sudden had droves of women coming to the Groundlings school, women who never before thought this was even a possibility,” says Price, who trained alongside Wiig and Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo, whom she names as two of her closest friends. Soon, the classes, improv troupes and even the teaching staff at Groundlings began to diversify, approaching not only gender parity, but representing women of color, trans women and non-binary performers.
No matter what industry you’re in, access is the key to success. And with Hollywood still scoring an F on its overall diversity — women represent only 4 percent of directors and 12 percent of writers, and women of color are nearly invisible in film production — it’s no surprise that the opportunities being given to women in comedy today are coming from other women.
After the success of Insecure, Rae used her newfound power to produce projects that gave opportunities to more comedians of color, particularly women, including producing yet another groundbreaker: A Black Lady Sketch Show, currently in production at HBO. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey have used their power to produce countless projects starring and written by female comedic performers, such as The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Great News, Broad City and current critical darling Russian Doll.
Comedic actress and writer Jamie Lee has experienced the difference between being the only woman in the room and one of the majority. Following her breakout on the seventh season of Last Comic Standing and a string of appearances on all the male-hosted late-night shows, Lee became a writer and actress on MTV’s Girl Code. She was one of just three female writers on the HBO comedy Crashing and a writer on Teachers, a sketch comedy show created by and star-ring an all-female performance group, the Katydids.
“Looking back [at my early career], there were definitely a lot of micro-aggressions. Sometimes I’d feel small and sometimes I felt like my confidence was a little shook, or that I didn’t fully belong,” Lee recalls. “But at the time I don’t think I had the verbiage or even the self-awareness to know that it was wrong or odd. I still try not to think about it because it’s easy to fall down that rabbit hole of, Oh,wow, this is really depressing. Why are there not more women on this show?! If you dwell on that you start to feel really sad and bitter. The way to get through is to just push through.”
A Boys’ Club No More
But when sisterhood was a possibility, the encouragement wasn’t just a welcome confidence boost; it propelled her to do her best work. Though she was one of few women on Crashing, her colleagues were Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick) and Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child), two creative dynamos who have had their own hand at elevating female comedic actresses.
“When there are other women on a writing staff, you do tend to have a shorthand with each other and you can champion each other and co-opt each other’s ideas in a way where the rest of the staff will go, That’s interesting, all those women feel similarly about this particular idea, it must be good! If there is less representation of any type of person, what happens is majority rules,” Lee explains.
Women are already the majority of the population, and some of the most successful showrunners (Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe) and popular comedians (Amy Schumer, Michelle Wolf, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robson) are women. The next challenge is to normalize this gender shift. When Allison Page became co-creative director (with Millie Brooks) of the San Francisco comedy troupe Killing My Lobster in 2014, her first goal was to grow the company, so they held mass auditions in hopes of hiring writers and performers from all walks of life. The results surprised her.
“When we had our first big general audition, it was interesting to see the material that men would choose as opposed to what women would choose. Men felt much more open to just do whatever they wanted — impressions, stand up, all kinds of wacky stuff. They’d really go for it,” Page says. “And for many of the women, it never occurred to them todo anything like that. They’d come in and do a monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I was like, really? I did find it disappointing, but I can’t fault them too much if that’s all they saw and were exposed to. I grew up in Minnesota studying theater. Comedy was just never presented to me as something I could do.”
Page also observed how men reacted to auditioning for her and her co-director, Brooks. “It threw them off,” says Page. “I remember someone saying specifically, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be two women. The piece I’m doing requires me to mention your semen.’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have any, but go ahead and just do what you came in here to do,’” Page recalls.
Whenever a major cultural shift occurs, there are going to be setbacks. Women might be taking charge of more narratives in comedy, but they’re still paid pennies compared to what men are paid. Black women succeed on television, but it’s still white, male executives who ultimately decide if shows are worth staying on the air. There’s a lot of work to be done, but the end result is what all comics and fans of comedy want.
“We need to get to a place where we put the emphasis on a diversity of backgrounds and view-points, not just because we need equal representation, but because it makes the products better,” says Lee.