In a recent blog post I asked, "Why don't more women become comedians?" While top performers such as Margaret Cho and Tina Fey are as successful as top male comedians, there remains a significant gender gap in the business, particularly in stand-up. Over the past 12 months at Zanies, arguably the most active stand-up club in Chicago, there were 5 female headliners vs. 67 male headliners. The current teams at iO, arguably the most active local improv theater, include 93 women and 176 men.
I decided to find out why.
I surveyed 13 top local performers and producers across stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. Here are the responses of the women in stand-up: performers Patti Vasquez, Vanessa Fraction, and Cameron Esposito; producers Mary Lindsey (Jokes & Notes), Cyndi Nelson (Zanies St. Charles), and Stefani Gerard (the Improv).
This is part one of a two-part post. The women featured here are in stand-up.
1. Why did you become a comedian? I've always loved comedy. I saw Saturday Night Live when I was little—I thought Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. I loved Johnny Carson and I remember seeing Steve Martin, Ellen Degeneres, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling, Rita Rudner, and Steven Wright, just off the top of my head. All of my friends had music albums, I had comedy tapes. In high school I listened to recordings of George Carlin and Richard Pryor—I consider them to be my influences, while Margaret Cho was my inspiration to try stand-up.
2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? Comedy club bookers have told me women aren't funny. Audience members have told me, "I don't usually like female comedians, but I guess you were OK." I don't really think of these people as challenging. That would give them too much power over what I do. It's mostly annoying. I guess the challenge is proving them wrong, but there's only so much one funny girl can do.
3. Why don't more women become comedians? I haven't been performing on the road until recently, but everywhere I go the clubs tell me they can't find many female headliners. There have been academic papers and magazine articles debating this topic. They talk about the negative reaction audiences have toward women because standing onstage alone is an image of power. Some writers think audiences will always see women as inferior or sexual objects. I think Jerry Lewis said we should just be baby machines. Whatever. I can't explain the dearth of female comedians. I grew up watching funny women—Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller—it never ever occurred to me that women couldn't be funny. I only think about being a female comedian when someone asks me.
Doing stand-up can be very lonely. It's an independent art form—no music, no one to talk to on stage. Most of us keep notebooks and write on scratch paper, hoping that some fleeting thought can be crafted into a joke. You have to have thick skin and have confidence that your thoughts are important and funny enough to share with a room full of strangers. Perhaps there are more instances from childhood to manhood to develop the kind of thick skin and confidence that come in handy for stand-ups. I know men tease each other more than women. (Crap, I hate generalizing!) You really have to stick your neck out there and it can be an incredibly vulnerable feeling. My hope is that the women who have thick skin and confidence are going into medicine and politics. Fix the world, then be funny.
*On what it means to Patti to keep her exact age a secret: It's the only ladylike thing I believe in! But mostly it's because [revealing my age] can actually hurt my ability to get work in the industry.
1. Why did you become a comedian? I became a comedian because it just seemed natural. I was born funny. I've been making people laugh all my life at home, in school, at jobs. When I figured out you could make a living doing it, I adopted the title "comedian" and made a career of it.
2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? I constantly have to overcome stigmas surrounding female comedians. I have to prove myself over and over again to the audience—who has the general thought, "I don't like female comedians"—and to the promoters, who, despite my resume and experience, will question my talent and pay me less than they pay my male counterpart with equal credits. Not being fat or funny-looking has been a challenge. That may sound strange, and I've questioned it myself, but the audience seems more receptive to female comedians with a glaring imperfection. It can be quite a challenge to be accepted and respected among your peers. You have to have tough skin and fearlessness to do it.
Sexual harassment seems to be an occupational hazard. Life on the road can be difficult as a woman because you have to stay on constant guard for your safety. I've encountered overzealous fans and, unfortunately, been assaulted by a male comedian while on the road. It's been hard balancing my personal and professional life: making sure my children are properly cared for and dealing with the emotional distress of not seeing them as much. Maintaining a consistent companion has also proven to be quite a challenge. Some men have a hard time with the travel and lack of attention, while others fear they'll be included in my next joke.
3. Why don't more women become comedians? Growing up I never considered becoming a comedian. I didn't have many examples to follow. The majority of women I've encountered have cited having families as an issue—which I can understand since most women don't have the support needed to hit the road or even frequent the clubs. The mother is often the primary care giver in the household, so between work and a husband and kids there's not much personal time to create jokes and practice. Women can be very sensitive, and stand-up can be tough. The world of stand-up is dominated by men, and that can intimidate women. Then there's the fear of public speaking. I'll be the first to say it takes balls to get on that stage.
CAMERON ESPOSITO, 27
Years in the biz: 8 (including improv/sketch)
Where to see her: follow her schedule at cameronesposito.com
1. Why did you become a comedian? I've always used humor as a way to connect with others and to point out commonality or absurdity. Finding out that I could do this as a career completely melted my heart with joy.
2. What challenges have you faced as a female performer? It can be harder to gain the respect of bookers and other comics. The typical stand-up comic is straight and male, so there can be a consistency in topics and stage presence that will immediately be broken by a female performer. This can be a huge bonus—the only lady comic on a bill with eight men will tend to stand out. But it also means a female comic creates her own norm. I feel very supported within the scene, but the difference is still there.
3. Why don't more women become comedians? I honestly think women are exposed to less comedy. Groups of female friends are less likely than groups of male friends to spend time watching Comedy Central. Stand-up audiences are often predominantly male. Add to this the value our culture puts on a sense of humor in a man versus in a woman. Any Woody Allen movie will teach you that a woman is prized for her beauty, whereas a man is evaluated on his charm and intellect. And glasses.
1. Why did you pursue a career in the comedy business? In 1991 I was a corporate girl aspiring to become an entrepreneur. Comedy was making a huge breakthrough in the urban market. The Comedy Act Theater in Atlanta opened, platforming African-American comics, and was a huge success. Raymond Lambert, CEO and President of All Jokes Aside, started that club in 1991, bringing me aboard as an owner and operations manager. That club lasted 12 years. Comedy flattened for a couple of years for the urban market. However, in 2005 I saw a rise in interest in this market, so I opened Jokes & Notes.
2. What challenges have you observed for female performers? For decades comedy has been ruled by male comics and considered a man's industry. However, years ago female comics decided they wanted a piece of the pie and starting circulating throughout the industry. Female comics are still fighting for the spotlight to demonstrate that they are funny ladies and are here to stay in the industry.
3. Why don't more women become comedians? I think comedy is about life experiences and expressing yourself through laughter. I feel that women's experiences are different and have been limited due to our role in the household.
1. Why did you pursue a career in the comedy business? After college I was a marketing manager with Montgomery Ward. I left Ward after several years to be a stay-at-home mom, and when my kids were a little older, I decided to get out of the house. I actually was just going to cocktail-waitress at Zanies because the hours worked well for my family, but two years later I was running the club.
2. What challenges have you observed for female performers? It's much harder for a female comic to walk the line between edginess and likability. I also think women are behind the eight-ball before they even say a word on stage. The public seems to have a preconceived notion that girls just aren't as funny. But anyone who has seen Chelsea Handler, Patti Vasquez, Wendy Liebman or any of the industry's top women knows that isn't true.
3. Why don't more women become comedians? Stand-up has always been a male-dominated industry. It is so much harder for a woman to be accepted at the beginning (open-mic nights, showcases, etc.). Recently, though, I have seen quite a few great new young female comics emerging. So maybe that ratio is finally starting to shift.
1. Why did you pursue a career in the comedy business? I grew up in the restaurant industry—my family owns restaurants in Illinois and throughout the country—and have a degree in Recreation Administration, with over 15 years of experience in marketing, event management, and customer service. I'd known Tony Baldino [owner, the Improv] for a long time, and when he decided to come to Chicago to build the club, he asked if I'd be interested in joining the management team. I love my job. People can come out to the club and forget about their everyday lives and troubles and have a good laugh.
2. What challenges have you observed for female performers? I think the challenge lies with there being too few female performers. The female comedians who do perform are great, because their sets are about everyday life, from motherhood to dating, marriage and relationships. It is material that both men and women can relate to.
3. Why don't more women become comedians? That is a hard question to answer, but I think the number of female comics has increased due to awareness and exposure. There are many more opportunities to get noticed—new venues opening, events like the Just for Laughs festival, YouTube, networking sites like Facebook and Myspace.