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Was it the fact that I was directing them, and I’m a man, and men expect women to be funny in very specific, hellishly outdated ways?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.