Over the past few months, I’ve been lucky to get interviewed a lot (lucky, because it means I have something to promote, specifically, my little television program). Nikki and I get asked a variety of questions, but we always, inevitably, get asked some version of “What is it like to be a woman in comedy?” And every time, I give a slightly different answer, because I’m still trying to figure out how to answer that question. Nikki suggested I try to write about it, so here I am!
First off, I have to say, I always feel a tinge of hesitation to talk about this subject, for several reasons. Firstly, I wouldn’t want anything I say to be representative of all women in comedy. I’m just one person, and I’ve had my own unique experience in this business. Secondly, it’s a loaded topic. In my early days of doing comedy, a fellow female comedian warned me never to publicly complain about sexism in this business. That it would turn people off; I’d be considered a buzzkill or that dreaded label, a “feminazi,” and therefore be deemed untalented and un-funny. There’s always been a very subtle, unspoken pressure to play along with the boys’ club, to not do anything to ruin the fun. I understand it on some level, because I want people to notice me for my comedy, not my gender politics. That’s not really my thing. So, coming up in New York, I would usually keep my thoughts on the topic limited to conversations with close friends and peers, and I have always declined to be a part of those cyclical, incredibly stupid articles asking “are women funny?”
So having said all that, I present to you:
WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN COMEDY IF YOUR NAME IS SARA SCHAEFER: WRITTEN IN A HAPPY, THOUGHTFUL TONE, NOT IN THE TONE OF A BITTER FEMINIST WITH A SOLO SHOW WHEREIN SHE EATS HER PERIOD BLOOD.
[Please play “Crucify” by Tori Amos at full blast while reading this.]
1. For the most part, being a woman in comedy is, I assume, almost exactly like being a man in comedy.
You will suck at comedy for a very long time before figuring it out and finding your voice (I’m 11 years in, and I’m still finding mine). You’re probably crawling with self-doubt and insecurity 99% of the time in all aspects of your life. Someone or something made you feel invisible at some point in your youth, so now you crave the spotlight. You are good at telling stories and arranging words into clever patterns. You have the emotional abs of a gladiator, because how else would you be able to take the repeated kicks to the gut that this business delivers? Your physical abs, however, are most likely soft, like biscuit dough. You relish the ability to control a room of people – to make their bodies make involuntary sounds of joy – by simply using your words. It feels like magic, and it makes you feel more alive than anything else. These are things I think are true no matter what junk you have between your legs.
2. Key word: almost.
When I hear a girl comedian say, “I’ve noticed absolutely no difference being a woman in this business!” I giggle to myself, because the fact that they are even answering that question to begin with IS A DIFFERENCE. No male comedian is EVER asked “What’s it like being a man in this business?” In fact, they are just referred to as “comedian.” So yes, as a woman, your gender is going to come into play, even if it’s in tiny, subtle ways. When people ask me if it’s harder to be a woman, that’s a more tricky one to answer. Becoming a successful comedian is hard as fuck, no matter who you are. We all have our own challenges to overcome. So, being a woman is, most of the time, just an added thing you have to deal with along the way. Finding your way in this scene is like fumbling around in the dark – there’s no correct, single path, and it’s up to you and you alone to figure it out. We comedians often ask ourselves, “why didn’t I get that thing?” (“Thing” being spot, gig, writing job, TV role, etc.) And it’s so hard to know why. Possible answers run through your head: “I’m not good enough yet,” “I’m not well known enough,” “I’m not cool enough,” “I’m just not right for it.” As a woman, sometimes, you can’t help but wonder, “Is it because I’m a woman?” Most of the time, ultimately, I believe that most rejection happens because you either weren’t ready yet, or you just simply weren’t what they were looking for. Sometimes though, the question “Would I have gotten it if I were a man?” can creep into the back of your mind.
Look! I don’t think gatekeepers are sitting behind their desks going “NO WOMEN ALLOWED!” But here’s the thing. These questions don’t materialize out of thin air. I’m not cray cray. Over the years, I’ve encountered little moments of sexism in this business (not to mention observing the general level of sexism going on in our country and world, in very big, scary ways). So it’s only natural to wonder if there is some kind of subconscious bias working against you. To the girl who never noticed a difference, god bless you. For me though, I’d like to take this moment to explain a few things that have made me feel that way. I supposed some of this will come off as a touch bitter. I’m not bitter! I’m sweeter than honeysuckle. I’m just trying to illuminate that space where it IS different for a girl in this business.
3. The Two Female Rule
In my early days starting out in New York, I immediately noticed a trend at the tiny shows I was managing to get booked on. Most shows would have maximum two women on the lineup (and often only one). At first, I wasn’t sure if it was because there was exactly that ratio of women doing comedy in New York, or if there was something else at play. Quickly, I realized it was a combination of both. There were definitely a buttload of guys doing comedy, but there seemed to be lots more women doing comedy than the 2:10 ratio I was seeing reflected on the stage. And the “lucky two” were often the same handful of women over and over again. In essence, you get less stage time right off the bat, and therefore, it takes longer to rise up. (I also saw this reflected in improv and sketch groups.) I found myself sometimes asking, how do I get to be one of the elite girls on the scene? Looking back, I now hate that I played into that idea. At times I found myself mentally competing only with other women, instead of with ALL comedians. (For more on this, I highly recommend checking out this insightful article.)
You might be saying “you were imagining this, Sara!” Well, then explain this incident: I arrived at a comedy show at Rififi, the coolest alt comedy room in the city at the time. I had worked hard to get booked on this show, and was excited to be there. I said hi to the booker, eager to find out when I’d be going up. As friendly as can be, he says, “Hey, do you mind going in the second half? The girl for the second half wants to go in the first half.” THE GIRL FOR THE SECOND HALF WANTS TO GO IN THE FIRST HALF. Why wasn’t he asking any of the 8 men also booked on the show to switch? What would be so terrible about having two women in the first half? I get that you’re going for variety, but this girl and I could not have been more different in our acts. Now look, this gentleman I’m talking about is nice, and he’s now a friend of mine and probably has no IDEA that he said this to me all those years ago. I know he isn’t a sexist asshole. He was just doing what is considered normal in this business. And that’s kind of what’s so scary about it.
Things like this happened once in a while. Not all the time, just every so often. More recently, this happened: about a year ago, I was told that I could not feature for Nikki simply because you “can’t” have two women on a weekend lineup at a club. This person had not even received my reel or my credits before making that decision. Nobody ever says you can’t have two men on a lineup. I’m pretty sure this is the definition of sexism.
Then, when I started advancing in my career, I noticed that this two female rule seemed to trickle up. The ratio is also reflected in many TV writing staffs, comedy festival bookings, television stand-up specials, late night bookings, etc. I know: we could go on for hours arguing about why. And many people in the media have tried to figure it out. To me, it feels like a chicken/egg scenario, and I am sure there are all kinds of factors that have gone into creating it. Do the younger comedians booking tiny bar shows follow the industry’s lead? Because that’s just what’s considered normal? Or does the industry pick from a crop of comedians shaped by the ratio formed from the very beginning? Do the gatekeepers really try to go out and find and develop diverse talent? I don’t know the answer to these questions. I would hope that over time, we can stop asking why and start asking how. How do we change this pattern?
4. Ladies Night
At one point I was hosting a weekly comedy show, and I tried to book mostly women on it. But I didn’t give it some quirky name like “Her-larity Comedy Hour!” or “Women are Funny! Period.” or “Suck Our Pussies, Men!” Because that is fucking obnoxious and actually plays right into the boys’ club mentality. Why not just book a bunch of women and NOT MENTION IT? Act like it’s normal. Because it should be normal. Those types of titles seem almost like an apology in advance. “Just wanna warn you guys, this show is NOT like the other ones! Buyer beware!” Nobody will ever complain if they go to a comedy show and there are more than two women on it. And if someone does complain, that person is a steaming pile of shit in a bag of human skin.
One thing that happens sometimes when you’re a female comedian is that you get treated to all kinds of ridiculous introductions at comedy shows. “Oh, what a delight! We have a comediENNE on the show!” (No mention of my credits or that I’m funny.) “Please welcome the very pretty…” (Before you start laughing, please take a moment to analyze this person’s body and facial features!) But by far, the most ridiculous introduction I’ve ever gotten was at my first ever audition for the Just for Laughs Festival (known in the industry as “Montreal”). This festival is apparently a big deal if you get it, and it’s very selective. You have 5 minutes to show your stuff. I was so nervous, I’d never tried to cram a ton of jokes into a short set before, and I’d been performing several times a night for weeks to get it down. I knew I probably wouldn’t get in my first time around; I just wanted to make a good impression. I’m waiting for my turn, and the host says, “Next up, a girl! Finally, we’ve got a taco at the sausage party! Give it up for Sara Schaefer!” Ugggggh. Normally, I would have gone up there and addressed it and laughed about it, while also pointing out how sexist it was. All in good fun. But this was a timed, high-stakes audition, and I had to get straight to the jokes and just ignore the fact that I was introduced as a really gross slang term for my genitalia. Nobody else on the show got that type of introduction. They got their credits listed (helpful in a showcase scenario!), and the audience was assured that who they were about to see was super funny. Maybe if, at the time, I was a more skilled comedian, I could have managed to crush him while also delivering my best material, but I wasn’t. Johnny swept my leg. But once again, it didn’t make me hate this guy. I still did well at the audition and secured a callback. This is just the type of stuff that you sometimes have to roll with if you’re a lone taco.
6. Permissible Topics
From early on, as a female comedian, you’ll get told to avoid doing period jokes. That it’s “hacky.” First of all, I am of the belief that no topic or premise can be hacky. As humans, we have a finite amount of experiences. We will inevitably always want to hear jokes about life as we know it – dating, jobs, relationships, the world around us. It’s the punchline that can be hacky. You can talk all you want about periods. But if your take on the topic is hacky, you’re hacky. If it’s hilarious, who cares? Also, I know a shit ton of female comedians and the majority of them do not do jokes about their period. Who are these droves of female comedians rambling on and on about tampons? Side whisper: I’ve always suspected that men invented this idea that it’s hacky to talk about your period. In some cultures, they make women go sit in a period hut when they’re on the rag. So let’s face it, some men are uncomfortable with it, and maybe that’s why we’ve been fed this idea that our period jokes belong in a hut FAR FAR away from the party. Who knows.
Either way, I do see a double standard sometimes when it comes to what topics are permissible for a girl to talk about. I have a joke about female ejaculation. It definitely makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. And wow, some male comedians, they cannot fucking handle it. Why is that such a big deal for me to talk about? How many hours of my life have I sat in the back of a comedy show listening to men describe their jizz? Now, whether or not I am comfortable talking about it, that’s a separate issue. Whether or not I have the skill to get the audience on board with such a “dirty” topic, that’s on ME. I’m still figuring out what kind of comedian I am. I don’t think I want to be a shock comic, so I have to decide how to deal with this topic in my act. That’s not a gender thing. But the fact that my audience hears my material through a different filter is a gender thing. And! It actually can be a positive – toying with the audience’s perception of what they THINK you should be saying is a great tool in comedy.
7. “I normally don’t think girls are funny, but YOU were funny!”
Fuck you if you ever say that to a comedian.
All right. That’s enough. There are lots of other little things that have forced me to think about these things over the years, but you get the gist. Wow! This is what it’s like to be a female comedian! HOW FASCINATING. Nope. Just a little different. Sometimes it’s wonderful to be different, and sometimes it’s annoying. From a career advice standpoint, I’ll say this: in the end, funny is funny and combined with hard work, it will lead you to success. And yes, there are definitely more opportunities for women today, but we still have some growing to do. I do believe that the more equality there is for women in business, the better it will be for women everywhere.
[Forward playlist to “U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah]