Guys, I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for about six months, which makes me an expert. For example, that last sentence was an example of something comedians call a “joke.” The truth is, after six months, I am confident that I am almost not the opposite of an expert. If I have a place in the scene, it’s that of the weird little cousin trying to hang with the cool kids at the barbecue despite having blueberry pie all over his face. Still, I am around, and to human beings with eyes and ears, things become apparent.
There’s been a big flap recently over a more established comic (whom I’ve never met or seen because I don’t get out enough) publicly confronting bookers about not putting enough women up in their shows. I am trying very hard not to have an opinion in this debate, because I have never tried to put together a show, and also because I have no idea whether or not quotas would help the underlying issue. The comedian in question could definitely have chosen a better way to go about spreading this notion, but the responses have frequently been so overblown that it’s hard to pick a loser or a winner in what has essentially devolved into a well-intentioned flame war in which, again, I probably have no place. This post might well be a huge mistake that alienates some of my heroes.
Shows without many women on them are a symptom. The disease is that the comedy scene can be extremely unwelcoming to female comics. As a result, there are fewer women comics around, and anyone putting together a show has fewer ladies to choose from. The solution, obviously, is to be more welcoming, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “less unwelcoming,” to female comics.
Part of the reason I feel compelled to talk about this is that I know I’ve been part of the problem. A few months ago, at the tail end of an open mic, when the crowd had dwindled significantly, I went up immediately after a talented woman. For some reason I decided it would be a good idea to open my set by declaring my love for her, in my usual clumsy, self-deprecating fashion. In retrospect, this was a horribly creepy thing to do. Was it just a joke? No, probably not; I don’t recall an actual punchline, for one thing, and there’s no way I would have made a similar overture, however humorously intended, towards a male comic, or, and this is pretty tough to admit even for someone whose chief hobby is to announce his sadness to strangers, a female comic to whom I was not attracted. If I’m being honest, the best defense I can conjure is that I was lazily aping something I’d seen other comics doing, albeit in a way that I hoped was specific to me. I didn’t start this out as a confessional — the point I wanted to make is that nobody called me on it, and so far as I can reckon, that’s what we should be talking about. Here again, I’m part of the problem; I also never call people on their blatant creepiness. I wish I could say I stay quiet out of respect or because I don’t think it’s my place, but actually it’s pretty much because I’m a coward.
The problem is made especially clear when the creeper is hosting the show. I tried out a new open mic the other night, and found myself squirming and contorting my face as the host awkwardly propositioned every single female comic after her set, under the guise of riffing. I recall one comic in particular had an artful, legitimately funny description of her genitals, the specific wording of which I don’t remember. As she left the stage, the host pretty much offered her oral sex over the microphone, repeating her turn of phrase. One of the notions we hide behind in not confronting this sort of thing is that of not telling another comic what jokes to tell. In this case, it’s difficult to tell what joke the host was even telling; he was either going for a laugh at her turn of phrase, meaning basically it was her joke again, or the joke was her (and the audience’s) discomfort at his tactless display. In any case, is it any wonder that there are so few women in comedy when this is the environment we’ve created?
I hate censorship so much I spent a summer in New York standing on the street asking passers-by for money for the ACLU (well, alternately the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Yes, I have a feminist agenda). Censorship is not the same as holding each other accountable for what we say, and the environment that we create, and for respecting each other as comics and human beings. I would never say that a comic cannot or should not tell a certain type of joke. The whole point of the enterprise is that as comics we should be able to laugh at anything, including gender politics, and that as people we should be allowed to disagree on these topics so that a rational discourse can be had and, hopefully, an intelligent consensus reached. What we should not do is diminish the efforts of talented people on the basis of their gender, or foster an environment in which any talented person might not feel welcome.
Comedy can be awesome, guys, in the literal, filling-us-with-awe sense of the word. We’ve all experienced it at some level, both onstage and in the audience, that moment when we feel kinship with someone with whom we think we have nothing in common, simply because we are able to laugh about the same thing. And the more smart new people join the collective comedy-mind, the stronger we will all be for it. None of those voices should be turned off because a lazy comic like me can’t think of an original opening line. That’s what I…thought about today.