Comediennes struggle to take campus’ center stage

For the past three years, a man has headlined Yale’s Fall Show. The vast majority of sketch and improvisational comedy groups on campus are directed by men. Both the winners of the January 2007 Last Comic Standing competition were male. There can be little doubt, some say, that comedy today — at least at Yale — is dominated by men.

But for one night in the Women’s Center two weeks ago, not one man set foot on stage. The Female Comedy Showcase, which was organized by Claire Gordon ’10, provided an opportunity not only for female comedians on campus to perform together but also to tackle the challenges and societal prejudices facing comediennes.

Just Add Water, one of the co-ed sketch comedy groups on campus, performs for both students and parents Oct. 6.
Margaret Katcher
Just Add Water, one of the co-ed sketch comedy groups on campus, performs for both students and parents Oct. 6.

Although Gordon — Yale Women’s Center Special Events Coordinator and member of the sketch comedy group Fifth Humour — said the Sept. 28 show was not intended to be a politically-loaded affair, it highlighted many of the difficulties that women face in trying to find a voice in comedy.

The Sphincter Troupe, Yale’s only all-female sketch comedy group, opened the night with five sketches exploring feminist themes. The group was followed by scenes and games performed by a handful of women from the various co-ed comedy groups at Yale, including The Yale Exit Players, Fifth Humour, Just Add Water, The Purple Crayon and The Viola Question.

About 120 people attended the two-hour long event. Audience members interviewed after the showcase said it was successful, with the comediennes drawing laughs from men and women alike.

Female comedians are not a recent phenomenon at Yale, or more widely in popular culture. The trails blazed by greats such as 1950s television actress Lucille Ball and original Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner paved the way for the current crop of comediennes.

Yet while the commercial and critical successes of women such as Tina Fey, Ellen DeGeneres and Sarah Silverman may refute the antiquated belief that “girls cannot be funny,” there still remains a widely-held attitude, some said, that women are not as funny as men.

Most students who said they share this belief asked to remain anonymous, fearing the backlash from their statements. Others said the idea that female comedians are less funny than their male counterparts is a misconception.

“It’s just an assumption that some people have,” Gregor Nazarian ’09 of the Yale Exit Players said. “It’s not necessarily reasoned or specific.”

Many comediennes at Yale said the belief that women are not funny is due to a lack of exposure to good female comedy.

Given that there are fewer female comedians in popular culture than male, “you have to work a little harder to find a woman whose comedy you enjoy, just statistically speaking,” said Molly Green ’09, a member of Just Add Water who performed in the showcase.

Some women cited the relative dearth of female comedians as the heart of the challenges they face.

Gender-specific expectations are not as pervasive today as they were in previous generations, Olivia Milch ’11, who attended the Female Comedy Showcase, said, but — at least in the comedic world — their impact can still be felt. Both male and female students said while humor is valued in a woman, it is still much more prized in a man.

“Women are largely evaluated and valued for their appearance, and that extends into comedy,” Green said. “Being boisterous or funny as a woman is sometimes viewed as unattractive, desperate or odd.”

Zack Klion ’09 said he thinks that in romantic relationships, being a funny woman can be a liability as well as an asset. Although it is great to date a funny girl, he said, “the perception exists that the guy should be funny, and guys can feel like they lose some power in the relationship for not being in charge of the humor.”

“No one wants to seem like the lesser partner,” Nazarian added.

Some of the risk-taking required for comedy is more socially costly for women, because of the cultural imperative for women to be attractive, some students said. Green said the arrogance or vulgarity needed for certain jokes can make the audience uncomfortable if it comes from a woman.

Milch said the average girl is “absolutely not as funny” as the average guy.

“We have been taught not to be funny,” she said. “Society embeds pressures and limitations in female minds, which tell them that funny is not attractive or acceptable.”

Perhaps, Green said, it is no accident that the crudest mainstream comedienne, Sarah Silverman, is also one of the most conventionally good-looking.

But some women in comedy said they feel no need to reconcile attractiveness and humor.

“To do comedy, you have to be willing to look stupid,” Yale Exit Player Claire Mulaney ’10 said. “Vanity really has no place in it.”

Gordon said she organized the Female Comedy Showcase in hopes of ending the perceived inequity between men and women.

“Oftentimes, female comedians don’t get the exposure they should,” Gordon said. “The night was an opportunity to defy the stereotype.”

But it remains to be seen what impact the show will have on Elis’ prejudices and misconceptions.

Despite organizers’ insistence that the showcase was not intended to make a political statement, some students interviewed still said they were not interested in seeing a night they perceived as emphasizing an agenda more than comedy.

Green said she tries not to think of her performances in terms of her sex but is often frustrated in her attempts to ignore the implications of being a woman in comedy.

“It makes me uncomfortable to say ‘I’m going to be funny as a woman,’” she said. “I just want to be funny.”

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