Tuesday, August 26, 2014

I Ran a Women’s Comedy Festival and No One Noticed

By Kevin Quigley

            Women aren’t funny. 

            That’s the perception, much diminished but still prevalent, in this world of comedy.  Women can’t be funny.  The entire gender of women is incapable of humor.  A few might have a glimmer of comedy in them, but they can’t (and shouldn’t) headline a show.  If you want to put a bunch of them in a show together (and Jesus, why would you?), you’d better specify that this is a special “Women’s Night,” and strap yourself in for a bunch of mediocre jokes about dieting and boyfriend troubles. 

            Now, look.  Are women’s comedy nights necessary?  Absolutely, just as festivals championing women in comedy are necessary.  I just wish they weren’t.    

            A couple short stories: I’ve run a few sketch comedy groups, and I’ve always featured women in the mix.  It never occurred to me not to.  One time we had this sketch that was written for men, featuring the President of the USA and his chief of staff.  On our second or third run, I thought it would be neat to give the roles to two women in the group.  We changed the main roles to women and changed the genders in the script, but essentially left it exactly the same.  The actors asked me how they should play it.  “Should we be, like, total dudes, or should we be really girly?”  For them, it was a binary choice.  I was baffled.  Here were two people who were handed the roles of two of the most powerful people in the world and their only choices were to play them as dudebros or as coquettish ladies who just wanted to eat bon bons and gossip. 

            Was it internalized sexism that made them think those were the only ways to play those characters?  The comedy world in macro dictating what they could do in micro?  Was it the fact that I was directing them, and I’m a man, and men expect women to be funny in very specific, hellishly outdated ways?  I don’t know.  All I knew was that my group had to focus its energy in making all characters as interesting and funny as all the other characters, regardless of gender.

            My other story: I run a comedy night at a venue called Johnny D’s Uptown, in Davis Square.  Every Monday night, it’s something different.  Standup, storytelling, sketch, weird night.  My friend Josh Poirier brings in his British-style panel show, Interesting Points, in, and he and Sean Clarke do an improvised standup show called Tight Five.  It’s great, it’s eclectic, we get a lot of funny people on the show.  One time, after a One Microphone standup show, a comedian came up to me and told me how refreshing it was to see three women on the roster when there were eight people total. 

            “Refreshing?” I asked.

            “Well, yeah.  Normally when I do standup nights, they know they have to have one woman on, for diversity.  If I don’t get on that show, I have to find another show to do.  It’s rare to see two women on a standup night.”

            I stood there gape-mouthed.  This is 2014.  How is that even possible?  It reminded me of an interview Sarah McLachlan gave in the early 1990s, when radio wouldn’t play her and Madonna in the same hour, so as not to saturate the radio waves with female voices.    

            In April, I hatched a scheme.  As I said above, women’s comedy nights and women’s comedy festivals are necessary … but I wanted to imagine a world after that.  I wanted to time travel to a future in which a comedy night – even a whole comedy month – could be an entire roster of female voices and it wasn’t a big deal.  That’s what every revolutionary idea ends up being, right?  No big deal. 

            August was going to be no big deal, except that every performer, every host, every comedic voice was going to be a woman.  There was a standup night, a Tight Five night, a panel show, and a storytelling night.  All women.  And I didn’t let anyone in on what I was doing. 

            The whole thing was part experiment, part hubris, and part a very genuine desire to feature as many funny women as possible.  The hubris part came from the fact that my little comedy show had finally started garnering some real audiences weekly, and I was certain the venue would just keep pulling people in.  I promoted the shows like I would promote any Johnny D’s show, with a Facebook event page clearly listing all the comics … so if you were really terrified of seeing an all-woman show, you could make sure and avoid it.  And what happened?

            People showed up.  Women.  Men.  Friends of the comics, people off the street.  No one demanded his or her money back.  No one walked out when they found out that it was all women.  Some weeks were more popular than others – a couple wildly popular ones, excitingly.  And on stage?  Stories about losing time on mushrooms.  Standup about weirdly racist bus rides.  Anecdotes about Weekend at Bernie’s 2.  And, yeah, some jokes about dating and periods and dieting.  Because all that’s funny.

            A single gender isn’t a single voice.  People lead individual lives and have individual responses to those lives.  They have unique points of view and they have weird ways of looking at stuff and then they bring that to the stage and other people connect to that.  These are elementary facts.  Why does saying this seem like I’m trying to make a statement about something so damn obvious? 

            My big takeaways from this whole month: people don’t seem to care if it’s all women on stage, so long as they’re laughing … which is kind of the point of any comedy night.  If the venue has a reputation for quality comedy (and mine seems to have gotten there) people will show up to laugh.  And – this is the big one – tokenism is not the way to go.  I didn’t do this so I could wipe my hands on my jeans and say, “Well, that takes care of the whole girls aren’t funny problem.  I’ve proven my point; let’s bring on only chubby white guys from now on!”  I book, produce, and host a night of comedy in Boston; shouldn’t my entire goal be to feature the best out there, every week?

            I ran a women’s comedy festival for a month and no one noticed, and that’s great … but next week, there are three or four women on the standup roster and my Comic Meritus this winter is a hilarious person who has a vagina.  We’ve skipped all the bullshit about how things should be and just made them how things are.  See you at the comedy show. 


Monday, August 25, 2014

The Path to Panic

Between 1999 and 2009, I wrote seventeen novels.  Seventeen novels in a decade.  No matter how you look at it, that’s pretty impressive.  And it’s not like all of those books were tiny little tossed off manuscripts, either.  I did a few for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month.  I’ve completed that task three times, but only one novel was completely finished in that time; the others were completed long after NaNo was over.)  Most took between four and eight months to write, with the exception of what is still my magnum opus, The Legend of Jenny McCabe, which took nine months and topped out at just over 1,000 pages. 

            I’m not just dicking around here.

            Between 2009 and 2013, I wrote no novels.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  I kept busy.  In 2009, I lost my job and slipped into a profound depression for a little while.  What saved me was an offer to work on a nonfiction book about Stephen King, called The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Trivia Book.  Research and writing absorbed me; four months later, I emerged with a whole bunch of pages and a deeply thorough knowledge of the Children of the Corn films.

            More nonfiction books followed: I worked on a series of chapbooks about Stephen King – 80-page works that focused on specific facets of King’s career.  In 2010, I compiled those into a single volume, along with all my critical reviews of King’s books.  The result, A Good Story and Good Words, is awaiting publication.  I also wrote Stephen King Limited in a chapbook two-pack; I’ve since expanded that, and publication looks to be imminent. 

            I’ve also gotten a short story published in a real-life anthology.  Compiled my own anthology of short stories (This Terrestrial Hell, out in paperback soon).  Got a couple of volumes of poetry published (Foggy at Night in the City and Surf’s Up, both available as ebooks).  And tried, really hard, to write new novels.

            And failed. 

            It’s not easy, writing a book.  It takes time, will, energy, and drive.  And caffeine.  It also takes the ability to know you’re writing a first draft, and that while things like theme and tone and character and motivation are important, they can always be tightened up in second and third drafts.  Still, it’s work.  It’s hard work, and you advance incrementally, like working out.  Even on those days you somehow churn out 7,000 words, that’s only about twenty-five pages in a book that should contain hundreds. 

            I’m not sure what happened to those two books I tried to write in those “dead” years.  American Storm was intended as another of my multi-character explorations of people my age living in Boston; largely plotless and reliant on situation.  Most of my books are like that.  Tangerine was positioned as a new horror novel about a writer possessed by the ghost of a dead writer from the 1940s, and the havoc he creates.  That one had a plot, but I never fleshed it out entirely past the second part, and my characters were just a little too similar to those in Stephen King’s Duma Key, and I gave up halfway through.

            Both of those ideas are still viable, by the way.  I’m still interested in going back and writing them.  But they need massive tweaks to get them to where I want to get them, so they remain in the future.

            What else did I do in the dead years?  I edited.  I had two rules when I started writing: a book needed to be at least 40,000 words (about 165 pages) to be considered a novel, and I would Never Look Back.  That meant when I finished one book, I would put it aside, wait two weeks, then start on another.  No second draft.  No third draft.  No polish.  I never edited my books.  I never thought it was necessary, because I’d go through and edit while I was writing it, so my first draft was super clean.  The 40,000 word rule still stands (though I’ve never written a book fewer than 52k words), but oh my God, what hubris on that editing thing. 

            In my fallow time, I decided to look at books I’d written in the past and try to make them publication-ready.  I turned to Kickstarter for that.  My first Kickstarter project, I’m On Fire, was a book I wrote in 1999 and needed a complete overhaul.  I basically kept all the characters and most of the motivations and rewrote everything else.  When that turned out successful, I turned to Kickstarter again with my book Roller Disco Saturday Night, which started off as a NaNoWriMo novel but didn’t end that way (for that reason, the first half was written very fast and the second half was written very slowly, and it read that way).  All the main characters were interesting, sort of, but my main main character lacked agency and motivation.  Which sucked, because I’ve made a little cottage industry about casting high school girls as my main characters, and usually they’re cooler than that.  Kickstarter allowed me to rewrite Roller Disco from the ground up and give Ruth Geary a reason to be, and I will be forever grateful for that. 

            When I finished Roller Disco, I decided to try my hand at something new.  Something small.  A novella I called My Agent of Chaos.  It was going to be a roommate-from-hell scenario, short and punchy and nasty.  It turned out to be a little more interesting than that, with a main character who can’t remember his past – a detriment when the past comes back to meet him.  It’s about love and sex and memory and while it’s not perfect, it brought me back to writing longform fiction (145,000 words, about 600 pages) for the first time in four years.  It wasn’t an easy book to write.  Sometimes it was like dragging words out of me with a chain and a winch.  But it came.  It happened.   

            In those dead years, I tried to start the fifth book in my Wayne Corbin crime novel series three or four times.  The title Panic Town came to me in 2010, actually, and I knew it was going to be about a book that my main guy had to find.  I also knew I had to deal with the events of the last book, in which a number of tragedies occurred.  The other issue was that the last Wayne Corbin book was written in 2004, a decade ago.  I wanted the events of this book to occur fairly soon after that.  Because of the time jump in real life, I decided to adhere to the Robert B. Parker/ Spenser way of time, in which time does pass and characters do grow older, but not at the same rate as the author or the outside world.  For example, the second book in the series, The Color of Blood and Rust, was written in 2000, and I talk all about how AOL is a big deal.  In Panic Town, they’re all using iPhones, and it’s not a big deal.  There are ten years between books, but for Wayne Corbin, only seven months have passed.  That’s the magic of fiction. 

            Here’s the magic of reality: I was twenty-four when I first launched into the world of Wayne Corbin.  I’m knocking on forty’s door right now, and while it took me a few days to get the rhythm of Wayne’s world, I took to it with aplomb.  Kickstarter likely had something to do with that.  The way Kickstarter has worked for me is as a book advance, which a traditional publisher will do to give the writer time and space to work on his novel until the next one.  In his most popular days, Stephen King would often get tens of millions for a three or four contract.  I got about $4,000 to spend four months writing Panic Town, and I worked like a mad bastard earning that money. 

            But it was also that I fell in love with writing fiction again, exploring worlds I created and making them live.  I sent out the book yesterday and I’m waiting to hear back from my readers.  I hope they love reading it as much as I loved writing it.

            The what-now: I have a score of poems to write for people who donated $75 or more.  I am going to start editing My Agent of Chaos; it really needs a second draft.  And working on an outline for the NaNoWriMo novel I’m tackling for November, what aims to be a short, bittersweet novel called Things Have Changed.  If I can finish it, it will be my twentieth novel.  Twentieth.  Wow.

            Okay, thank you for reading. It’s time for me to get to work.