Women and the Errors of Comedy
A while ago – in Nashville, Tennessee – I sat in a comedy club to see my friend and colleague Malinda May perform. It was her graduation night after having completed a comedy course. Our husbands, Malinda’s friends, family and other colleagues were all gathered to watch her first official outing. She was last on, so we watched all the other comedians – most of them male.
Without trying to be snarky, I can safely say that – in a nutshell – the night flatlined with only a few small blips on the radar, until Malinda came out. I’m not just saying that because I know her, as she did some fresh material I had never heard, was natural, original and didn’t have to try so hard. I’m sure she was sweating bullets before she came on – but she was clearly the best of the evening. Here’s why.
The routines presented by the previous comedians were largely pedestrian and obvious. I was always able to see the punchline – or – it had been done before, like they had modelled their bits on other famous comedians. It was like watching re-hashed routines – watered down and delivered with cringe-worthy, fake bravado. Having said that – let me say this: anyone trying to break into the world of comedy has my admiration – and sympathy. It’s a hard slog and takes intelligence, guts and perseverance.
I understood that they were fledglings – having just completed their course – and that they would (hopefully) continue on and hone their craft. What I will say is – it’s all well and good to appreciate the styles of other comedians, even if it means adopting skills such as delivery, material and timing – but I think the most important thing is to create your own style and just be yourself. That’s probably one of the main factors that brought you to the decision to take it to the next level and perform onstage: you’ve been told by family, friends and co-workers that you’re hilarious and should be a comedian.
Personality is just as important as your skills and material – but don’t let it dictate the routine or overshadow it. I know that sounds odd – but hear me out. Another fault is the reverse – letting your routine overshadow your personality. They should all be working together to shape your act – moving like cogs and wheels in a well-oiled machine. It might work for seasoned comedians who know how to use it to their advantage – but when you’re starting out, maybe it’s best to keep it all in check until comfortable.
One guy was bizarre, in the way he – all of a sudden – broke out into crazy dances. Those parts were my favorite, as I love impromptu nonsense and silliness – but there was something creepy about the rest of his routine. It’s hard to articulate – but I got the sense that he dwelled in his mother’s basement and might’ve been a snow-dropper! I know that sounds mean but I was truly creeped out by him.
The others were okay but the most I could offer was a single snigger – it was more of a “snig” – as I could see the punchlines a mile away. It was like they let their mediocre material do the work – like reciting poetry you don’t understand or have little faith in. Not that I’m an expert on comedy – but I believe that a comedian needs to own the material and then inject their personality into it (if they have one!) – rather than put it out there like an old newspaper and hope someone reads it.
I imagine that – for the most part – nerves were the main factor, but good material can get a laugh out of me, even if the delivery is lacklustre. I’m sure that they will continue to work on their acts and some may even break through. I certainly hope so – as I really felt for them. I admired them just for having the balls to get out there.
Now – the women. I hate being negative about women in any shape or form – seeing as I consider myself a feminist – blah blah blah. Also – being critical of female comedians should be a no-no, as we need more of them. I was, however, disappointed that they too were – by and large – pedestrian. I will say that I was able to give more than a “snig” – and I wondered if it was just that they were female and I was able to identify with them more.
The problem was – that they also seemed to be going along the same old lines, did some clichéd routines and were borrowing from the styles of more famous comedians, especially male. I could tell that they’d watched a lot of comedy – which is great – but their own personalities seemed to be hiding behind their material. I wondered if it was due to the fact that they were afraid to be “too female” in a male-dominated art form.
Then – Malinda came out – just being herself. She had an issue with the microphone and incorporated it into her act as seamlessly and naturally as a hot knife through butter. Then she launched into her bit – complete with singing (she has a great voice too) – and surprised the hell out of me. It’s a testament to her that she made me laugh hysterically – with material I had never seen or heard – seeing as I know her personally.
She performed a tight set and was hilarious with her self-deprecating humor and wonderful sense of the ridiculous. Later, I analyzed my reaction and wondered if I found her the funniest – by far – just because I know and love her immensely. I realized that no – she was definitely the best – simply because she was natural and injected her own unique style, personality and intelligence into her act. It did not seem like she was a fledgling comedian who had just completed a class. She was a pro and stood out from the others because she didn’t have to try too hard. She’s a natural.
When it comes to comedy, anyone can make me laugh if they have these attributes – whether male or female. However – I do find that some female comedians tend to fall back into the typical style dictated by the males. It’s like men have claimed the artform as their own – and women are only allowed (by invitation) – provided they are not better or do not deviate from their station.
For example: men can be crude and crass – swear like a motherfucker – and talk about whatever they want, no matter how contentious or taboo; but if you’re a woman – watch out! It’s probably society at large – not just the male comedians – who have an issue with women being crude. It’s perfectly fine for a man to find fault with women – particularly in terms of sex – but a woman who pokes fun at men and their foibles is labelled coarse, to say the least.
All of a sudden – rules apply. Statements such as “There’s no need to be so crude” and “You can be funny without swearing” or “Do you really have to talk about gross things like periods, childbirth and orgasms?” – are usually only directed at women. If a male comedian talks about masturbation or blowjobs – it’s hilarious. If a women talks about cunnilingus or farting – it’s disgusting.
The fact is – most women I know (and have known) – are downright disgusting when in a group of other women: and that’s the way I like it! That’s also why I love comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Whoopi Goldberg (in her day), Roseanne, Kathy Griffin, Chelsea Handler – to name a few. I also love Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy – the list goes on.
What’s great about these women – as well as many others – is that they are not afraid to be themselves, regardless of any sexist criticisms or putdowns by their male counterparts or the media. As far as I’m concerned – that’s what makes them great. I can’t stand when a comedian (male or female) is obviously toning down their act or opinions – based on what they might fear that society or the PC police will think.
We go to see comedians to hear the shit we are either too polite or afraid to say ourselves. That’s what makes them funny. They are our mouthpieces – verbalizing our secret thoughts, dreams and fears – dishing it out and taking the hits for us. Like how music expresses our desires and emotions – comedy affords us the opportunity to vent – even if it’s a third party doing it.
This is how our humanity is defined – by making fun of it. If we can’t laugh at ourselves – we’re doomed to repeat our past mistakes. When Sarah Silverman adopts a stage persona that is innocently and ignorantly racist – it reflects the inner workings of society’s mindset. Putting it out there makes us face the ugliness of it. To say that it should be kept silent is to avoid the issue – allowing it to fester. All races have their peccadillos. We are different – and the same at the same time. It’s the culture that is hilarious when held up to the scrutiny of the comedian – not necessarily the people within it. It’s not personal.
I remember hearing a statement about female comedians – saying that, “Women are not funny.” What was depressing was discovering that Jerry Lewis said it. He was my favorite funny person when I was growing up – so to hear this was a gut-punch, to say the least. I remember seeing “The King of Comedy” by Martin Scorsese – hilarious black comedy with Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard. She was a crazed fan who – along with Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) – kidnapped the Jerry Lewis character and did one of the funniest routines I have seen on screen. Talk about righteous! (Apparently Mr Lewis wanted the slapping scene to be more violent. Maybe he wanted to punish her for being funnier than him?)
When Bill Hicks (among many others) made fun of religion – it was funny because it was true. It was what most of us were thinking. Also, when he said that, “It’s not a war on drugs – it’s a war on personal freedom” – he was dead right. When Lenny Bruce poked fun at the establishment – he was crucified for it. The same thing happens to women who dare to be confident, loud and proud – especially when they’re not the perfect “10”.
We’ve passed the 2000 year mark. This is the future, and we’re still the small minded bigots and sexist assholes that we were fifty years ago. It’s time to put on our grown up pants and stride through the childish horseshit that prevents us from evolving. To the fledgling female comedians out there – please do not listen to the ignorant “pigs and fishes”. Be yourself and allow the stupid criticisms to roll off you like water off a duck’s back. In the scheme of things – when the dust clears – those idiots will crawl back under their rocks and you’ll still be standing on the stage, splitting our sides and hopefully making a living out of it.
I’m counting on it!