For the first time, many of the biggest, mainstream names in comedy are women. From titans like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to rising stars like Mindy Kaling and Kristen Schaal, funny women are headlining the biggest summer comedies, starring in top network sitcoms, and—judging by the gigantic line of people I saw waiting outside a recent Kristen Wiig-hosted episode of “Saturday Night Live'—inspiring a Beatlemania-level of devotion in their fans.
Despite all of this, comedy often still has as a reputation as a “boy's club” where women are just not taken seriously.
How do female comedians make space for themselves in the comedy world? For an increasing number of comedians, the answer has been to form women-only comedy classes, troupes, and shows.
Sure, there have been spaces devoted to women's comedy in the past: Los Angeles's famous Comedy Store turned its side room, the Belly Room, into an all-female stage from 1978 to 1979; and I'm sure that I'm not the only person reading this who can trace their comedy fandom back to a childhood viewing of HBO's 1987 “Women of the Night” special, which captured early-career performances from Ellen DeGeneres and Lizz Winstead.
But those shows—as well as female stand-up showcases produced by big comedy clubs—were, for the most part, top-down efforts focused on the supposed “novelty” of an all-female line-up. As Emily Levine, creator of TV's “Designing Women,” said of the aforementioned Belly Room: “It was a marginal venue that marginalized women.”
In stark contrast, today's women-focused comedy is awesomely grassroots—created by funny women, for funny women, and with a focus on being accessible to all people. Rather that establishing a separate comedy scene, the goal behind toay's female-focused comedy is to make sure that women have access to the tools and experiences that many male comedians and performers might take for granted—like an opportunity to feel secure enough to take risks on stage, a chance to develop their performing chops in a supportive environment where their ideas won't be shot down, and, as performer Jocelyn Alive summed up to me, a chance to inhabit “a place where women aren't treated as the 'other'.”
In New York, Shannon O'Neill, performer and teacher with the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre (UCB), has led some of the theater's first female-only classes and hosts the monthly “Lady Jam” improv show. “I started teaching lady-only workshops and classes, and noticed the students were bolder, took more chances—there was less judgment on themselves and each other,” says O'Neill.
The improv session is a chance for students to explore their risk-taking comedy in front of an audience. “I wanted to create a performance opportunity for the students to put this awesome classroom behavior into action, with the goal that they would then take their 'go for it' behaviors to other stages that were mixed gendered,” says O'Neill, who notes that there has recently been an increased demand for female-focused classes. “I think that comes from kick-ass role models showing that you can do and try anything you want. ”
Megan Gray, performer, teacher, and artistic director of New York's Magnet Theater, also found that all-female classes allowed her students to explore comedy on a deeper level. When these classes get on stage, says Gray, “They're usually not going for a joke. They really respond to the idea of 'truth in comedy'(one of the foundations of good improv).”
Gray runs an all-female improv class called “Lady Party” and an all-female improv show “We Might Just Kiss.” Gray's shows give new improvisers a chance to work with more established performers, functioning as “a great reminder that there are hilarious women out there, and that we are a community. That support system is very encouraging to new female students, and provides them with more stage confidence.”
The all-female improv troupe True Medusa have performed for years out of San Francisco's Leela Theatre with a revolving cast. Speaking to past and present members, they highlighted the wide variety of reasons that performers might have for working with an all-female group. In many ways, being in an all-female comedy group made these women better actors and comedians.
“Other groups that I've been in were male-dominated, and seemed to really objectify the female actors,” says former True Medusa member Marcia Aguilar. “I felt the opportunity to perform with all women would feel safe and supportive.”
Current True Medusa member Michele Salami's was excited to join the goup because it allowed her to be more flexible with her characters. “I VERY frequently felt that in mixed groups, I could never slide around on the gender spectrum. Even when I would be extremely blatant that I was a male character, I would still be called 'Susie' by a castmate and my offer would be blocked. I watched my fellow female players be treated as sex objects, and I was always endowed as the secretary rather than the attorney, the nurse rather than the doctor.”
All-female groups can provide performers with an opportunity to expand the range of roles they take on, as well. As True Medusa's Jessica Yeh explained, “Good theatre is still theatre–you have rehearsals, thoughtfulness, and work behind each show. Yet, there is a sort of freedom behind working with all women, in that the issue of gender can be highlighted as an issue, or not. There's a choice, sort of an awareness of effects of action or portrayal on stage. There's also the excitement of challenging yourself to bring forth characters that you wouldn't necessary play or be expected to play in mixed company.”
One of the big goals of these all-female groups is to make female performers and all-female groups unremarkably commonplace in the larger comedy community. As O'Neill said of “Detroit” (the UCB's first all-female house improv team, based out of its New York City locations), “Yes, they are all female, but that is just a cool, fun fact. What they are, first and foremost, are amazing improvisers. And they, and any other team, can't exist without community. I am really glad to see the UCB community embrace Detroit, and not see them as a gimmick. Because trust me, they are not a gimmick.”
You don't have to live in New York or San Francisco to experience female-focused comedy events and classes. Folks can check out funny ladies in their own towns at festivals like Boston's Women in Comedy Festival, Portland's All Jane No Dick Comedy Festival, the Chicago Women's Funny Festival, or Austin's Ladies Are Funny Festival, as well as online in the videos of all-female sketch groups, like “The Get Go” and “Broad City.”
Aspiring stand-ups can experience women-only classes as well, at Chicago's Feminine Comique, one of the country's first stand-up comedy workshops devoted exclusively to women, founded by comedian Cameron Esposito.
“Female-focused comedy is essential for the next generation, in hopes that they are inspired to continue making art,” says performer Aguilar. “My hope is that they can tell their stories, their truth, just as good as a boy.”
Read this whole blog series on feminism and comedy!