Look Who’s Laughing: Women in Comedy Panel

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As part of the Tribeca Film Festival, this panel saw Rachel Dratch, Susie Essman, Rachael Harris, Debra Messing and Samantha Bee spending time on the topic of women in comedy that, soon after moderator Jay Roach introduced it, was asserted as horrible. Dwelling on the pressures of being funny and female in a male-dominated business doesn’t sound like an ideal Sunday afternoon.

Some of the highlights:

  • Rachael Harris mentioned that she believe that women were probably going to have to write for themselves in order to get the quality comedic parts. Though when the question came to who would back them, i.e. put up the money… that was sadly, harder to answer.
  • Rachel Dratch said that lots of people wanted to see Will Ferrell fall down with no clothes, but that they didn’t want to see her do it. After more than a few “I do"s sprang up in the crowd, Dratch gamely launched into giving the audience what they wanted.
  • On the subject of whether teenage boys wanted to see women be funny, Susie Essman said that she’s stopped most often by teenage boys so that she can tell them “to go fuck themselves.” Studio don’t seem to get that appeal.
  • Besides the much publicized revelation that Debra Messing stood up to network execs for her character on Will & Grace to be small-breasted, she also related as story of a scene where she improvised Grace airing out a fart from her dress. The bit apparently got huge laughs in rehearsal, but sitcom director Jimmy Burrows said it was “too gross.” There was some frustration from Messing in the desire to not keep her character too precious but not being allowed to fart.
  • Jay Roach, who’s directed quite a few comedies, described male and female responses to humor as similar to sex. Men are easier to make laugh - there’s a very direct way. Women require a bit more subtlety, the foreplay of the comedy world.
  • Jay Roach also told of how he couldn’t get a greenlight for the comedy “Used Guys”, which was all about women ruling the Earth and men are commodities for sale. Despite a seemingly female friendly plot, executives put the kibosh on it because they didn’t think it would reach women because of its futuristic setting.

Afterwards, I talked with the very funny Catie Lazarus, who’ll probably end up on a panel like this one day (how’s that for a backhanded compliment?). Both of us agreed that, strangely enough, that the panel needed more of a male presence. Because the problem isn’t with the funny people on stage, it’s with the executives in power who can’t see and don’t think there’s an audience for it. Get more of them on stage and challenge their notions. As Susie Essman put it, the question isn’t “Why aren’t women funny?” but “Why don’t more men find women funny?”

As I walked to the panel, I started thinking about my first exposure to stand-up comedy, which was from watching Joan Rivers guest host the Tonight Show. I’m not really certain of how she’s influenced my appreciation of the art form, but I know that your first introduction can leave an impression. Seeing how she can entertain my mother certainly sparked my interest. And what I think what’s important about this is that when some future up-and-coming male comedian list his influences, he’ll say “Sarah Silverman” or “Tina Fey” or “Janeane Garofalo.” Because that’ll mean we’re broaching equality, that female comics aren’t just markers for how to make it in a male-dominated industry but how to make it period.

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Posted by Anon on 05/09  at  09:35 PM

I’m a fledging, female stand-up comedian. For these first 5 years of comedy I was of the opinion that comedy was harder for women for the reason Catie stated—the execs and male comedians are biased toward women.

Recently, I realized it wasn’t about that. I did a show far away from NYC. I had a fine set—people laughed and applauded. A man came up to me after the show and said, “Good job. You were good. Well, from what I heard of your act. I was so busy looking at you it was hard to concentrate.” That evening I wore jeans and a long sleeve shirt that came up to my collar bone. And, that’s when it hit me, comedy is harder for women because there is high percentage of people (both men and women) who don’t want to listen to a women speak.

I’m not trying to be angry or bitter. I found the experience irritating, yet revelatory.

Posted by Mamacita on 05/14  at  03:57 PM

Maybe you’re thinking of the stand up audience, but that’s different from a tv audience. There is a huge audience for female-led humor and female led sit-coms which rely on the domestic scene for humor. It’s gentler.  Stand up, however, is more topical and tougher.  There aren’t a lot of female stand ups doing political commentary, for example.  There is a bias against women comics, too. A Comedy Central exec, a woman, scoffed at “America’s Funniest Moms.” “Mom” humor was a category beneath “real” humor? I think this was a culturally biased assumption.  But she has to be “one of the boys.” Yet, at the end, it feels like self-loathing.

Posted by mr.darcy on 05/15  at  02:47 AM

Sexism in comedy is an issue but it’s an issue for both men and women. It is a loss for both male and female ausdience members who miss out on hearing from great female comics. And sexism is also perpetrated by both males and females, be it audience members, other comedians, club owners, show producers and network executives.

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