From The San Francisco Chronicle
January 16, 2008
By Reyhan Harmanci
In a post-post-post feminist world, it’s confusing to talk about women and comedy. Shouldn’t we be past all this?
“That’s the thing about being a woman in comedy – you can’t think of yourself as a woman in comedy,” says “Saturday Night Live” veteran Rachel Dratch. “You have to think, here’s my comic sensibility.”
With S.F. Sketchfest in town until Jan. 27, San Francisco is rife with comedians, and some of the most anticipated acts are women, including Dratch, “Flight of the Conchords” star Kristen Schaal, Mary Lynn Rajskub of “24,” Sketchfest co-founder Janet Varney, stand-up star Maria Bamford, local comic and producer Mary Van Note, former Jimmy Kimmel writer Morgan Murphy and many more.
Dratch says she has mixed feelings when it comes to parsing a woman’s place in the male-dominated field.
Even the notoriously sexist and competitive boys’ club of “SNL” felt equitable by the time she arrived in 1999, Dratch says. “I don’t know whether that was like that back in the day, but when I was there it was a totally equal playing field. You have to write stuff, everyone has to write stuff, and when you’re at the read-through table, if something’s funny, it’ll get in.”
But Dratch stops short when she discusses her move into filmmaking. She pauses, choosing her words carefully. “Now that I’m off ‘SNL,’ it is a problem,” she says. “Big comedies are all starring dudes. It’s hard to think of a female-driven comedy. It’s just not part of the market.”
The position of women in comedy has been one of the mostly hotly debated topics of the past year. Some critics and even “Knocked Up” actress Katherine Heigl, for example, called the Judd Apatow blockbuster summer film “a little sexist.” And Vanity Fair writer/provocateur Christopher Hitchens wrote an opinion piece about finding women less funny than men.
Just listing the great female comics – Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr, Teri Garr, Lily Tomlin, etc. – doesn’t answer the question. When Comedy Central made a list of the 100 top comedians, only 10 were women.
Local comic W. Kamau Bell guesses that the ratio of male to female comics is something like 10:1. Internet video has blown open opportunities for exposure, and comedies have been cashing in at the box office. Why aren’t more women leading the charge?
For starters, comedy is hard for most people, let alone women. It takes a special kind of person to get over fear of the stage and to embrace the heady rush of power and vulnerability. Bamford, for example, has been doing character sketches from the time she was in grade school. “I started playing the violin when I was young, and I remember my face lit up. I liked the feeling of being in front of people. What most terrified me, when I was younger, was one-on-one conversations with people. I’d much rather talk to a bunch of darkness,” she says.
For Van Note, it was a class on comedy that showed her what was possible. “I actually wasn’t into comedy or a fan of comedy until the first quarter of UC Santa Cruz. I took a class on stand-up and got really into it – that’s where I learned about Mort Sahl and Andy Kaufman and all those guys,” she says. “Up until then, all I’d seen were comedians on Comedy Central and I thought they were awful.”
Alternative comedy – the kind pioneered by Sahl and Kaufman – saw a resurgence in the early ’90s in Los Angeles. Rajskub was part of that scene (before she was on “24” or appeared in movies like “Punch Drunk Love,” she was a “Mr. Show” cast member) but she got her comedic start while attending San Francisco Art Institute.
“I was in this painting class, and I was angry at the critiques, so I started doing performances,” she says. “Very quickly, it became that I would do a monologue with bits of text, stuff that I thought was weird and interesting. Once, I made a cardboard podium, and I was trying to do this speech, but my materials were falling apart. I mean, that’s just like physical comedy.”
After Rajskub made a name for herself as a funny performance artist, she moved to Los Angeles to hone her persona. Her performances have always been inspired awkwardness, driven by a “neurotic need to be onstage.” At one point, she incorporated the notion that “women aren’t funny” into her set.
“My act has always come from me being uncomfortable on stage, and that (being female) was another piece of information that fueled me being uncomfortable,” she explains. “I’d be onstage and saying things, ‘I’m not really ready to do this now.’ I used to be so uncomfortable that I couldn’t get my name out. I’d say, ‘what are you guys looking at? What do you want from me?’
“It was funny to me, to be a girl onstage saying girls aren’t funny.”
Others found theater to be a way into comedy. Varney, who is a working actor and host of TBS’ “Dinner & a Movie” in Los Angeles, said that she has always made her friends laugh, but had difficulty seeing herself onstage. “It’s easy to be silly in real life, but making stuff up onstage, that seemed hard. Better to be the funny person off-the-cuff in the room than to risk being unfunny onstage,” she says. But when a friend asked her to join his sketch group, Totally False People, she said yes. “Within a year, my life got totally taken up by it,” she says.
Varney went on to found Sketchfest with three other locals. Now in its seventh year, it attracts top-tier comedians – legends, even, with Gene Wilder on board for a show this spring. Varney says that “diversity is always an issue” in creating the lineup.
“We really feel like we want to represent the best that’s out there, and the best way to do that is to have a cross-section of people. Unfortunately, we don’t get as many submissions from women as we would like.”
Tokenism (and its flip side, ghettoization) remains an issue for every non-white or non-male group in comedy; all the women interviewed said they regularly find themselves to be the only woman in the writing room or on the bill. However, it’s not always a bad thing. “For any comic, you have your strengths and weaknesses,” says Bamford. “If you are a woman, you are a little more special. There are tons of guys, and it’s hard to stand out. If you stay in there, and I think there are a lot more women who hang in there, they really do well.”
“I’m open to this cutting both ways,” says Van Note, who was a women’s studies major in college. “You could say because I’m a woman, it limits me, but you get so much more attention. People want to see the next big female comedian.” Now that she books shows herself, Van Note says that she looks out for female acts, but doesn’t see enough of them in the Bay Area.
Numbers of female comics are only part of the story. As Dratch and others have noted, the emphasis on appearance undercuts career opportunities for female comics.
Schaal, who got into comedy while at Northwestern University in Chicago and stars as the single fan of the faux folk duo on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords,” doesn’t mince words. “Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, they’ll never get to be Will Ferrell,” she says. “Why is that? They’ve had the same great resumes.” Even on the Internet, she says, the same rules apply; she’s heard a show dismissed as “too feminine.” One solution, some say, would be to develop more female writers who can write from their perspective, or at least make all-important connections in the business to usher in bigger parts for women.
Writer and stand-up comedian Murphy says she was writing material from high school onward, and she got hired as a TV writer when she was still in college. She went on to successfully join the staffs of Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers” and the Jimmy Kimmel show. “At ‘Crank Yankers,’ they would send two writers on all the call sessions, and they would always send me with Sarah (Silverman), and because she goes out with Jimmy Kimmel, it would end up that I’d be there with Jimmy as well. That’s what exposed me to him – he got to see me write, in the moment, during those calls.”
“So that’s really what gave me a break – going with Sarah, because we had a similar sensibility.”
Talking about gender and comedy is a tricky thing, especially from inside the fold. Issues of power are at play as women balance their own comedic gifts with deeply held notions of what, and who, is funny. More than one woman asked that certain things they said be taken off the record. “Just don’t make me look like an -hole,” said one, while another worried about seeming “whiny.”
“Maybe you should ask men what it’s like being a man in comedy,” offered Bamford. “That might be interesting.”
Others were more forthcoming.
“I’ll talk about it with anyone after a few beers,” laughs Schaal. “Comedy is a reflection on society. That’s what so good about it. So obviously, our society in America is still incredibly sexist. It’s not going to change in awhile. Sometimes, I wish I was born 20 years from now. It’s only going to get better.”
The women discussed in this article (except for Morgan Murphy and Kristen Schaal, who have already performed) will perform during the next 11 days. For a schedule, go to www.sfsketchfest.com