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Rethinking the question: "Why are there so few women in comedy?"

In a recent interview with Lisa Leingang in the New York Times, Melena Ryzik asks the question: "Why are there so few women in comedy?" To answer it, you have to approach it the way Bill Clinton did during the Monica Lewinsky period. We have to deconstruct the terms.

It depends on how you define comedy. If you mean that there are not a lot of mainstream female comedians who are making money solely on their stand-up and are huge hits all over the country, then, no there aren't a lot of women in "comedy." And if we stick with this answer, then we end up supporting the hegemonic notion that arises directly from this hypothesis: Women aren't funny. Women just do women's comedy. Now, if you define "comedy" more expansively to include the women who are performing in sketch groups, as stand-ups, as improv comics, as writers in independent venues and groups all over the country, well, then the answer is that there are MANY of women in comedy.  

The other term from the Leingang interview that needs redefinition is "making it." Assuming that "making it" defines "women" being "in comedy" then we are not taking into account the MANY MANY factors that contribute to "making it." For example: being in the right place at the right time, connections, attractiveness (for women, not men), the sacrifice of giving up a consistent domestic life. And on and on. But what it means to "make it" is subjective.

If you go around to the different comedy rooms, independent theaters, and such around the country there are hundreds of women comics. Like the men, some are funny, some are not. Some are super talented, some are not.  There are just as many bad women comics as there are bad men comics. (I've seen both.) In five minutes I can come up with a list of dozens of female comics who have been working for years and are hilarious who you will never hear of. Just as hilarious as many "famous" comics. 

The answer has more to do with how we look at success/fame and less to do with whether women are actually IN comedy. Whether they "make it" or not is irrelevant. If we want to see more women comics who have "made it" then we need to encourage people like the amazing Lisa Leingang to take more risks on women. We need to stop blaming women comics for doing "women's comedy." This is just code for "men won't like it." “Making it” should not mean “appealing to everybody,” but it does.When comics "make it" it means somebody thinks that their comedy will sell (i.e. make money for them.)  If women aren't "making it" in this way, does this mean that women comics aren't funny?  No.

As a female doing stand-up and performing with a sketch group, I got close to "making it." But somewhere along the way, I redefined my vision of success.  I realized I was just as happy making my family and friends laugh as I am when I'm performing. That allowed me to reconsider the role of comedy, the meaning and meaningfulness of humor, and what success really looks like. There is no better feeling than making people laugh - and when you can laugh with them, and have that direct connection with your "audience" - for me, dayenu. It's enough.

So let's count those women who are not well-known, who are going out to clubs day in and day out, who are making their own films, starting their own groups, who are off the mainstream radar. Let's count them - because not everybody can be Ellen Degeneres. And if we count them, then we can stop being "surprised" when, shock, a woman is funny! They've been funny for centuries. Of course Ellen's funny, and she's been working with 50 other women who are funny who you will never hear of.

If you are doing comedy for comedy's sake - if you have the calling - as Joan Rivers says in Making Trouble, then getting up in front of two people on a rainy night in a small theater and making them laugh ‘til they can't breath is just as "making it" as getting your own sitcom. It may not pay the bills, it may not count as "women in comedy," but for 5-7 minutes- you made it.

Lauren Antler is a comedian, and until recently was the Project Director for Making Trouble, JWA's film about Jewish women in comedy.

Topics: Comedy
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How to cite this page

Lauren. "Rethinking the question: "Why are there so few women in comedy?"." 5 November 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 4, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/women-in-comedy>.