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The Pressures of a Female Comic
13th of July 2022
A few summers ago, I came across a gem of a show, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, a Prime video series set in the 1950s that revolves around a privileged New York woman who suddenly finds herself single when her husband leaves her for his secretary. As I excitedly allowed myself to fall into the 1950s stand-up scene in New York through the show, I knew I had hit a jackpot of clever wit. It was a journey of a woman coming of age into the smokey comedy clubs, trying to speak her voice when all hell broke loose in her life. This was a perfect combination of entertainment, clever writing, phenomenal performances by the cast, and a story that inspired me. However, as I began my research for this article on female stand-up comics, I was bombarded with articles pointing toward the seemingly common topic, “ Why are female comics not funny?” At first, it seemed odd. I wondered whether there was any truth to it. In my personal experience, I have mostly tuned into male comics’ specials on streaming sites. But why was that?
The 1950s was a time when comedians had begun to transition into observational humour, which is still in vogue today. The lead actress of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan, strikes an important note wherein she says, “History is generally told by men about men. To have a period piece being told by a woman about an extraordinary woman is exciting.“ That is exactly what the makers of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel set out to do. The woman at the centre of the show, Miriam Maisel, on the night of her breakup with her husband, ends up at a comedy club that she used to frequent with her husband to support him. He was an uninspired aspiring comic, and Miriam, being the devoted wife she is,would take notes and help him with his performance. Her rant about how her life turned out on that fateful night sets the stage for her accidental birth as a stand-up comic. She then embarks upon her new reality of juggling two jobs – professional stand-up comedy and single parenthood. Her first comedy routine ends up with her being dragged by the police for flashing the crowd while drunk and furious at the way her life has turned upside down. However, as time passes by, one can’t help but notice and revel in the charm with which she delivers jabs at unruly audience members or the police. She gets arrested not once but a few times throughout the series. It screams out a sure sense of self-assuredness that you normally don’t find in a female (comic) lead of a television series set in the 1950s.
It is interesting to note that Maisel’s character might have been heavily inspired by a Jewish female comic and singer, Belle Barth. Interestingly enough, Lenny Bruce’s character (a phenomenally played by Luke Kirby) acts as a mentor of some sorts to Maisel while in reality Bruce used to open for Barth early in his career. Barth had been arrested and charged for lewdness in 1953 and was eventually banned from radio and television. But this didn’t stop Barth from achieving commercial success. Similarly, Miriam struggles to find her footholding in the field. She refuses to follow a set and expected style of comedy meant for female comics of the time. She refuses to apologise for her lived experiences and instead churns out spectacular recipes of relatable comedy with it. In the show it is clear that a woman faces bias in terms of finding space in the bill or male managers complaining about their material drawing in more women than men. But she cleverly convinces them that women can be a spending audience too. This is portrayed delightfully well in season 4.
An open minded audience would always be receptive to hear new stories. The question is are they getting a chance to hear stories of female comics or are they choosing to ignore different perspectives overall?
Although Mrs Maisel takes place in the 1950s, the show cleverly depicts alternatives to perfection, keeping in mind that women were still encouraged and pressured to strive for the latter then just like now. In Miriam’s case, her pathological need to be perfect is displayed when she keeps tabs on her slim figure by taking measurements every single day, and secretly removes her makeup after her husband sleeps just to put it back on before he wakes up. Perfectionism takes centre stage in Miriam’s life as she constantly walks on a tightrope of the expectations of her femininity while being a single mom as she ventures into the male-dominated field of comedy. She mines for her material through expectations that women are familiar with even today! Having faced setbacks and life experiences throughout the course of her journey to be a comic, she realises one important factor that sets her apart when she tells her manager, “You know what is great about me. It’s when I am me!” For Mrs Maisel to thrive, she had to let go of the never-ending quest for perfection. Her perfect life had to blow up in her face. This gave birth to her authentic self, a voice that tore upon the typical female caricatures that were quite in fashion among the rare female comics who had made a mark with self-deprecating humour.
Maisel learned to embrace the unpolished realities that she encounters in her daily life. She began to make choices that may have been unprecedented within her family. She was afraid of letting go at times but bravely managed to hold her ground even when the going got extremely tough. The most uncomfortable truths sometimes make the best material for comedy. Why? Because you and I are able to relate to it! For example, it is evident with Mrs Maisel’s entry into comedy where she ends up insulting her family sometimes in her act. She insults her Jewishness at times. She even insults the, ‘dumb secretary’ that her husband leaves her for. But would a male comic have to think twice before he spins out jokes about insulting people, family, or a community?
Stand-up comedy has a tradition of breaking norms, morals, and political conventions. The question that arises in my mind is whether women are scrutinised a bit more than their male counterparts. Comedian Kim Wayans however, observes that with men, “the audience is eager and ready and then he has to prove that he is not funny and then they back off, but with a woman, you have to come out and win them over.” However, in a study by Alice Sheppard regarding social change and audience response to female comedians, she was able to find that there has been a considerable change in contemporary evaluations of women comedians, whose ratings now equal those of male comics. The pressure that a female comic faces in the field may have reduced due to increased awareness of gender problems and inequality in society. An open minded audience would always be receptive to hear new stories. The question is are they getting a chance to hear stories of female comics or are they choosing to ignore different perspectives overall? I would say it should be our duty as the audience to encourage and watch female comics’ specials on streaming sites and create a demand for their humour!
Funny is just funny. Gender must not be an obstacle.
Sumukhi Suresh, Prashanthi Singh, and Urooj Ashfaq, distinct voices in the Indian comedy scene, share their experiences as comics in an interview with Cinema Express. When asked whether questions about women in comedy get tiring after a while, Ashfaq and Singh are of the opinion that pressure to not fail publicly is harder on women than men. Suresh also expresses her displeasure with the usage of the tag, “female comedy,“ which has become a genre of comedy. Meanwhile, Singh understands that with her profession, she gets a chance to be vocal and be the voice for other women, and that is why she believes that questions about female comedy will continue to be asked. In my conversation with Ellen Corby, an Irish comic from Dublin, when asked about safety issues that female comics may have to face, she said, ”If the act is not necessarily in a city or if it is somewhere more in the country. It is funny that you mentioned it because I hadn’t realised it but in the last two gigs that I have been on, I haven’t drank and I have driven home myself. I usually know people on the line up and I don’t feel like I am on my own. It is something as women, we do automatically, we factor these things in constantly. It shouldn’t have to be. It is like second nature for us.” Eurydice Dixon was an Australian comedian and an actress who performed regularly at comedy venues in Melbourne, Victoria. She was found murdered at Melbourne’s Princes Park on June 13th, 2018 on her way back home from a gig. Comedy gigs usually take place at night, and the lack of affordable transportation puts women in an unpredictable dangerous environment.
In an interview for the Belmont theater district, Chicago’s largest theater district, when asked what was the best thing about being a woman in comedy, Jeanie Doogan, a stand up comedian who has set herself apart with her quick observations, says that she gets to amplify women’s experiences and parenthood through comedy. For Correy Bell and Sarah Perry, comics from Chicago, it was the freedom to speak their mind, that was the best thing about being a woman in comedy. But there is unfortunately a negative connotation to female voices in comedy. Common criticism is that female comics only talk about period, cramps, sex, etc.
Ellen Corby however, has an interesting take on this wherein she says, “You get the stereotypes about if you are a woman, you only talk about ‘women things’. I still get those kinds of comments even now but thankfully they aren’t that common or at least people aren’t saying it directly to me … but because I am a sex-ed teacher … people go like are you going to talk about vagina? I kinda lean into that a little bit but at the same time, men talk about dating, sex, and their penises all the time. I don’t even mind that humour. It is something that everyone can relate to or understand. I think it is a human nature thing and I don’t think it has anything to do with gender.” She says there are also a number of female comics who are incorporating various styles in their performances and that women have always pushed the envelope. In Ireland, according to Corby, there seems to be much more awareness with regard to sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. It is heartening to know that most promoters want to be more inclusive and include people from all genders. She says, “It has become particularly undesirable to have an act that is all just the same kind of looking males. It is much more attractive to people… I think now to see a bit of a variety there.” It seems like Ireland is the place for female comics to perform and grow together.
Today, more female comics are at the top of their field than ever before and they continue to make original and pioneering contributions to the genre. Ali Wong’s 2016 special, Baby Cobra, made headlines as the first comedy special filmed while pregnant. Wong described the challenges of fertility treatment, miscarriages, pregnancy, and childbirth while 8 months pregnant. Tig Notaro, in her 2015 special Boyish Girl Interrupted, performed shirtless in the final 20 minutes of her act, putting her mastectomy scars on full display. Funny is just funny. Gender must not be an obstacle. As Corby rightly points out, it’s just human nature. There are plenty of laughs and more to go around. Female comics have displayed an immense range of creativity and courage by using their lived experiences of being women in their acts. Future comics, regardless of gender, must use this rich universe of stories as an inspiration. These stories were told by fearless women who have successfully paved the way to enrich the fine art of story-telling in stand-up comedy!
Featured Image by Amazon Prime Video
This article was supported by: Engagement Coordinator Aislin
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