Revenge of the Funny Women
The improv club is a comic institution: a place to watch funny people perform pre-written sketches and on-the-spot improvised scenes. It’s also traditionally a gender-imbalanced one.
Now, things are finally changing.
With the incredible popularity of the Kristen Wiig blockbuster Bridesmaids and Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, it’s clear that the perception of female comedians is evolving.
Ashley Opstad, artistic director of the Improv Space on Gayley in Los Angeles and a member of the almost all-female comedy troupe Token Boy, said that she has “found it challenging to find strong female comedians who don’t use their sex as a crutch … many female improvisers rely too heavily on being a ditzy character, or an overtly sexy character, to get a reaction out of the audience rather than ground their improv in solid storytelling techniques.”
However, Opstad and a growing number of female improvisers are creating comedy that is not gender-specific.
Yannan Shi, producer of the University of California—Los Angeles’ Lapu, the Coyote that Cares Theatre Company, said that the more women in improv, the smaller the gender stereotypes become. And a recent show at The Groundlings theatre company featured both men and women playing silly teens, Christian camp moderators, socially awkward commercial actors and annoyed therapists.
Katie Willert is a writer and comedian who stars in two different popular web series at Cracked.com (“After Hours,” with Dan O’Brien, Soren Bowie, and Michael Swaim; and “The Katie Willert Experience”). She is one of a small—but growing—number of people who work at Cracked and who don’t have y-chromosomes, and she is notable for not tailoring her humor in a way that would sometimes be expected of a female comedian.
“I’m of the mind that you just be who you are,” Willert said. “Like, I just happen to have boobs and a vagina. Even if I was a dude, I’d have the same humor.”
She concedes that there are times when her femalehood gets called out—but not by her co-workers.
“When the first episode [of “After Hours”] came out, I had shorter hair, a different style, and the comments on those videos were that I was shrill, a hag … now, my look has changed. For the last episodes, about 95 percent of the comments were about my tits. I wasn’t trying to be sexy or something—I just happened to have a chest,” she said, noting that there is a slut-shaming/rape-shaming environment on the Internet, which posits that if a woman looks sexy, then she must expect—or even desire—sexual attention.
Willert also stressed the need for camaraderie among women in any sector, but especially in a world where cutthroat behavior is so prevalent that it implies a lack of opportunity; women should not feel the need to fight for one “girl” spot in an improv troupe. There’s plenty of room to collaborate and support each other.
“A great representation of the opposite of that was Amy Poehler at the Emmys, getting all the Best Actress in a Comedy nominees to hold hands,” she said. “And they gave Melissa McCarthy a tiara when she won. It doesn’t have to be a competition.”
Mindy Kaling is another one of these female comedians who doesn’t actively compete with other funny ladies. As an actor on NBC’s “The Office,” she portrays ditzy customer service rep Kelly Kapoor; as a writer and director on the same show, though, she is the force behind a great deal of the show’s awkward humor, having written such famous scenes as Michael Scott burning his foot on a George Foreman grill, and Jim and Pam’s wedding.
Kaling got her start acting in a play called “Matt and Ben,” in which she and her best friend played Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, respectively, after the screenplay for “Good Will Hunting” falls from the heavens into their Boston apartment. She’s a different kind of female comedian than, say, Whitney Cummings whose two fall shows—“Whitney” and “2 Broke Girls”—base most of their humor in rape jokes, vagina jokes, single-women-are-sad jokes, and blatant racial stereotypes.
“It looks great that Cummings has both the producer and lead titles [in “Whitney,”] but I’m not quite sure how she got them,” said Jacki Schklar, editor of the websites Comedy Rants and Funny Not Slutty. “I have not been able to get through more than a minute of any of her show clips.”
Schklar said she feels that female comedy can be “a little smarter and a little deeper” than other humor on the web and out of the mouths of teenaged boys.
Funny Not Slutty is made by, and for, women while Comedy Rants is a co-ed comedy site. Schklar said she doesn’t believe that one gender is innately funnier—she has, however, recognized that it helps female comedians to have a special place where people like “Vanity Fair” contributing editor Christopher Hitchens don’t exist.
In 2007, Hitchens wrote the inflammatory article “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” opining that the “fairer sex” is too sweet and slow to understand comedy.
But, for a growing number of people, it’s no longer a secret that comedy is not gender-specific. The Opstads, Willerts and Schklars of the world—as well as the Poehlers and Kalings and Feys—are funny, funny people.
They also happen to be female.
This article originally appeared in FEM Newsmagazine, a student publication at the University of California—Los Angeles that receives funding and training as a member of Campus Progress' journalism network.