In a basement classroom of William Harkness Hall, a tangle of beta decay equations and Chinese characters and Spanish phrases occupy the chalkboard. Stray potato chips lie scattered on the seminar table. Six students are settled in around the table, their laptops open and their voices lively — but this is not your usual discussion session. Rather, it’s a meeting of the Fifth Humour, Yale’s oldest sketch comedy group. And this isn’t your usual Fifth Humour meeting, either. The male members of the group have disappeared into the night, and the six students sitting here, belly-laughing their way through sketch read-throughs, are all women.
These women are preparing for a show to take place in Sudler Recital Hall, located just upstairs. On Saturday night, the room will play host to no student recitals or chamber music performances; instead, it’ll be occupied by students-turned-spectators, who have come with enough laughs prepared for two hours of back-to-back comedy performances, all by women.
Billed as a “leading lady-driven version of Saturday Night Live” on its Facebook event page, “That’s What She Said” is organized by Sabrina Bleich ’16, who works as a staffer at the Yale Women’s Center. The showcase serves as Bleich’s individual staffer project for this semester and will feature women from almost every comedy group on campus in a lineup of approximately 20-minute-long sets. Bleich is surprised by the enthusiasm that the event, originally intended to be low-key, has received so far. “I underestimated how many women are involved in comedy on this campus,” she tells me.
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“That’s What She Said” isn’t the first event of its kind to happen at Yale. In fact, the Women’s Center has sponsored two other all-female comedy showcases in recent memory, one in 2007 and the other in 2009. As Bleich explains, she’s aimed for a similar structure in this Saturday’s showcase by tapping into the existing establishment of sketch and improv groups, which are already accustomed to collaborations and joint shows. Bleich hopes to provide an opportunity for women to break off from their respective groups for a night and come together as a larger community.
Yet the structural similarities between this Saturday’s event and the previous ones belie some of the shifts that Bleich has observed in the wider comedy landscape in the past several years. “It’s definitely become more of a discussion recently with all these movies coming out, like ‘Bridesmaids’ — what is women’s place in comedy?” She goes on to cite other examples such as the leading ladies of “Broad City,” with whom, according to Brooke Levin ’16, her sketch comedy group Red Hot Poker had the opportunity to meet and work two years ago at a comedy festival. While Bleich believes that changes still need to be made, there has already been significant progress. “In 2007, that idea that girls aren’t funny was still part of the dialogue. I think that’s sort of been turned on its head a little bit and is being used to the advantage of female comics who are saying, ‘Oh, girls aren’t funny? Okay, let’s prove otherwise.’”
Elizabeth Villarreal ’16, head coordinator of the Women’s Center, who helped Bleich organize the event, nonetheless makes a qualification; while she would like to believe that much progress has been made, the fact that such a stereotype still remains recognizable only indicates that it continues to exist in the discourse. And that’s a problem.
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But in the comedy scene at Yale, women are standing up and standing out.
The Fifth Humour is equally divided between males and females. In the experience of co-director Brooke Eastman ’16, Yale offers a range of opportunities for comedians of all gender identifications: “I’ve never once felt that, as a female comedian, there were things that I couldn’t say that my fellow male comedians could say. In some ways, I think that Yale is a far more progressive place than the world of mainstream comedy.”
Sophie Dillon ’17, assistant director of Red Hot Poker as well as a member of improv group The Viola Question, notes a similar experience, telling me that her group currently has more women than men.
Of particular interest is one group that consists purely of women: the all-female, feminist sketch comedy group, the Sphincter Troupe, of which both Bleich and Villarreal are members. According to Bleich, not many college campuses can boast such a group.
All of this stands in stark contrast to what Henry Connelly reports in the Oct. 10, 2007 issue of the News: “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.”
Thus it would seem that Claire Gordon ’10, who organized the Female Comedy Showcase in 2007, was addressing a context decidedly distinct from the one that Bleich is working within now. In light of how female comedians seem to be thriving on campus, justifying the existence of such a showcase at Yale becomes less straightforward — it goes deeper than gender ratios alone. There is enthusiasm here for the showcase, lots of it, and there is still the sense among the women that I speak to that something like this continues to be relevant — even necessary.
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Dillon and Eliana Kwartler ’16, a member of the Yale Ex!t Players, were the only two female performers in this October’s Last Comic Standing event, although both advanced to the final round. Neither was able to attribute the low representation of women in the event to a specific cause, particularly without knowing how many women had auditioned. Reluctant to point to any active bias on campus, Dillon nevertheless perceives a continuing struggle for women in the stand-up world at large.
“Women get a rep for not being funny,” Dillon explains, “because everyone is brought up to recognize the male perspective, so that [perspective] makes sense to a much larger group of people.” The very fact that she finds Louis CK’s jokes about fatherhood and male masturbation humorous, she says, is a testament to the predominance of the male worldview. For Dillon, comedy provides a vehicle for experiencing other worldviews. Thus, events like “That’s What She Said” have value because they bring us closer toward parity in the realm of comedy — and beyond.
While these women all praise the progressive environments of their respective groups, they clarify that none of them are actively feminist in the way that the Sphincter Troupe is. Although Bleich herself is a proud member of Sphincter, she emphasizes that the showcase itself is not designed to be explicitly political, but participants can go in that direction if they choose.
Many of the women in the showcase have drawn inspiration not only from successful female figures in mainstream comedy, but also from the work of their female peers. Eastman has nothing but admiration for Sphincter, especially their gender-bending performances. Whereas the act of playing the opposite gender often serves as a punch line in the world of comedy, she says, such a focus is absent from Sphincter’s performances. Rather, their humor comes more from the characters they create and the structures of their sketches; in a group composed exclusively of women, gender becomes incidental. Eastman and her co-director, Allison Kolberg ’16, have enjoyed that same freedom from gender considerations when putting together the script for their group’s performance on Saturday.
Villarreal remarks that a women-only space can be politically significant in itself, pointing to the existence of her own group, Sphincter. “Even if the other groups don’t have this sort of explicitly feminist content, it’s a cool political statement just that this is happening. And that sends a message that women are funny, women are funny at Yale, and women are doing funny things right now.”
Kwartler finds something uniquely constructive in the comedic medium itself. “Improv is an incredibly supportive march — you need to be helping the people around you, so at its most basic level, it’s kind of feminist in that we’re all equals,” she observes. In both form and content, in the empowering characters and the novel worlds that her group pulls out of thin air, Kwartler believes in the inherent ability of improv to open up a wider range of perceptions, even if the word “feminism” is never directly uttered. On a more fundamental level, humor in itself is an accessible medium, connecting performers to audience members and making otherwise difficult content approachable.
In his 2007 article, Connelly takes note of some students who had been uninterested in that year’s showcase, perceiving it as focused less on comedy and more on agenda. Yet, given the nature of comedy as a particularly conducive platform for provoking dialogue through dialogue, it seems indeed a waste for comedy never to have an agenda.
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“That’s What She Said” has Annemarie McDaniel ’16, board member of the Women’s Center and graphic designer for the event, to thank for its title. It’s particularly apt, an acknowledgement and celebration of these women’s voices that runs counter to its usual usage. Villarreal agrees: “That’s what good comedy does, right? Especially female comedy. It takes something that already exists and subverts it and gets the female perspective out there.”
And in the vein of getting things “out there,” the showcase seeks to draw Yale’s female comics out as well, into the spotlight. This is what Kwartler is talking about, when she says: “I don’t know what’s going to happen in our set, but I know that we’ll be up there saying, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ And that’s really cool.”