124 Women in Comedy

Anna Greenwood

On the 22nd of February of this past semester I attended a show at Plymouth State featuring the comedic stylings of one Kelli Dunham; a genderqueer comic who spent the majority of her set relaying her zany experiences of traveling around America’s south performing shows and attempting to interact with the locals. As a bit of a side-note: Kelli never disclosed the pronouns she preferred during her performance but after a bit of investigating I found out that she uses she/her/hers pronouns on her website so we’re going to go with that.

The show-stopping punchline of the night came when Kelli weaved a narrative around how she swindled her way into a major conservative convention (the specific platform of said convention escapes my mind) where she saw Sarah Palin speak live for the first time. As she began describing what it was like to see Sarah Palin in the flesh, the audience got the idea that she was about to deliver some carefully calculated insults. I remember her saying, “You know I never really realized it, but Sarah Palin is just so…” and then she paused and looked directly at her audience and yelled “HOT! WHY IS SHE SO HOT?!”

I was in stitches. The audience was cackling save for a few older couples whose horror-struck faces suggested that they had likely ventured into the show not understanding what was on the comedic menu for the night. The entire show was hilarious.

In a later portion of her set, Kelli chose to share with us a story that was more sad than funny that had to do with performing comedy at college campuses. A few years back, she went to perform a show at URI when a gaggle of around fifty blonde-haired girls in matching pink shirts shuffled into the auditorium and sat down to watch her show. Kelli said that she realized about fifteen minutes into her set that these were sorority pledges who were being forced to attend her comedy show as a portion of their hazing. She said one of the girls approached her after the show and attempted to compliment her by saying “You were actually surprisingly funny!” Although she was smiling and upbeat, she spoke of the incident with bitterness and had no issue dragging URI in the process. She then made references to how when she visits colleges, the only types of students that typically attend her shows are a) members of the LGBT community or b) women’s studies majors. She made a crack and how those two social groups also tend to have a lot of overlap.

Kelli’s heartbreaking sorority anecdote and her comment about audience attendance started to get me thinking about why it’s so difficult for women (including genderqueer women) to break into the comedy scene. There’s no world in which girls would be forced to attend a male comedy show as a form of hazing. And why do female and genderqueer comics only garner attendance from their respective “groups”? As I left the show, one of my friends made the remark that “The show was funny, but my boyfriend never would have gone with me to see it.” Why is that? Why can’t men let women make them laugh? Why is there this pervasive assertion that sneaks its way into every seedy YouTube comment section that “women just aren’t funny”. If we crack open our Literary Theory Anthology, I think Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar may have an answer for us.

Gilbert and Gubar’s essay, Madwoman in the Attic unpacks the steps women will have to take to achieve “literary autonomy” (812). The essay describes at length the problematic dichotomy of females being portrayed as either “angels” or “monsters” in literature. The creative world was (and kind of still is) uncomfortable with any other type of female representation. Women are either pure and submissive or autonomous and evil. We know this.

What I think is more interesting to note is that Gilbert and Gubar make the assertion that male authors have created a culture surrounding literature that holds the belief that “In the mouths of women, vocabulary loses meaning, sentences dissolve, [and] literary messages are distorted or destroyed” (821). The quote is basically saying that society thinks that women are bad at words – that it’s impossible to take something a woman says seriously because words lose their essence coming from them. This takes away their voice. Even canonized women such as The Bronte sisters wrote under male pseudonyms in order to have their work examined without prejudice.

Today, the literary world does contain more women. It’s not perfect and representation isn’t phenomenal, but we do have writers like Toni Morrison and that’s a win in my book. The humanities in general has almost done a complete 180 and is now typically deemed as more “feminine” than its STEM counterpart. It’s not uncommon to walk into a poetry workshop class dominated by females. However, the comedy scene remains unapologetically misogynistic. This may have something to do with how the attitude that Gilbert and Gubar are talking about has made a bit of a shift over the past few decades. Women seem to be more accepted in literary genres that are rooted in drama, poetry, and emotion than those that require wit and quick thinking. It’s as if men have said “yeah, you can have poetry, write about love and loss and how your boyfriend left you for the Cheesecake factory waitress, leave the penis jokes and casual racism to us”.

Stand up comedy is a performance, you have to hear the voice of the comedian and if you go to the show you have to LOOK at them. There’s no male pseudonym to hide behind. A woman telling jokes in front of a crowd completely shatters any possible notion of an “angel”. Jokes about vaginas (or Sarah Palin) genuinely anger and shock people; it’s monster behavior. Female comedy is also exclusionary to a degree, it’s a woman’s perspective. Men are used to having media catered them, especially what’s considered “good” media. (Women can have the Lifetime network we all know it’s garbage right?). Maybe that’s another reason why Kelli’s show was stacked with women and members of the LGBT community. I’m sure that the further we travel down the marginalized road, the harder it is for a comedian to foster interest outside of their own group.

I think we all need to make honest attempts to expand our horizon past what is familiar and comfortable to us when it comes to consuming media and art (which includes stand up). The closer aligned a person is to the mythical norm, the easier it is to ignore the creative voices of women and POC and LGBT people. ANYONE CAN BE FUNNY. IT’S TIME WE START LAUGHING TOGETHER.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Anna Greenwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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