Female comedians face unique challenges

By: Kait Richmond  |  May 21st, 2012  |  Published in Audio, Features

When Molly Knefel first moved to Brooklyn four years ago to pursue standup comedy, she was a regular at the Creek and the Cave open mic nights. But as a woman, she was also an anomaly.

Rather than greeting the audience as ladies and gentlemen, the host would open with “Molly and gentlemen” because Knefel, 26, was usually the only woman in the room.

“Still at any given open mic, you are likely to be one of maybe three women out of 30 people in the room,” said Knefel. “And if you’re booked on a show, you’re likely to be the token woman.”

Knefel and many other female comics believe that they face more challenges in getting work than their male counterparts. The blame is largely placed on those who book and produce shows, and with fewer women in comedy, the “women aren’t funny” stereotype persists.

“Even though there are more women than men in the world, I don’t think women flock to comedy clubs,” said Suzy Soro, a comedian living in Los Angeles, Calif. “Maybe they’ll go for a bachelorette party, or with a few girlfriends trying to get over a heartbreak, but guys routinely go.”

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Kait Richmond speaks with female comedians

The small number of women at comedy shows, both on stage and in the audience, means more men are hired. Dr. Nancy Berk, a standup comedian and psychologist from Pittsburgh, Pa., said producers and bookers play a big role in shaping audience perceptions of comedy.

“Because women haven’t had the visibility, people may jump to the conclusion that because they aren’t on stage, they may not be funny,” she said.

Dr. Berk said her two biggest shows were Mother’s Day events, and Knefel is often passed over for the general comedy standup shows.

“A lot of times I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, well we’ve got a ladies night coming up in three weeks, I’ll book you on that one,’ instead of just booking me on a regular show,” Knefel said.

Siobhan Beasley, 29, is a former war crimes prosecutor turned comedian living on the Upper East Side. In the two years that she’s worked as a comedian in Manhattan, she’s seen mostly men booking gigs.

“I’ve heard people talk about how if they have a show booked, they will basically want it to be mostly male white comedians, and then they will put in one woman, and one minority,” said Beasley.

Benjy Susswein books for Stand Up New York, a comedy club on the Upper West Side. He said he tries to book diverse shows based on the actual comedy, not characteristics of the comedians like gender, race or where they come from.

“I really only look at the rhythm of the show, or how it will look for the audience,” Susswein said. “So I wouldn’t put two dry, low energy comedians back to back, or two that get laughs from being loud and vulgar. It just feels like you are seeing the same thing again, and it will ruin the energy of the show.”

Susswein acknowledged that women are underrepresented in comedy. He thinks it’s because fewer women than men are interested in getting into standup because of how revealing it can be, and the immense amount of rejection that comes with it.

“I think women, who tend to be more emotional and sensitive, would be turned off from pursuing such a field,” he said.

Susswein added that he doesn’t think there’s a lot of room for sexism in comedy, and that he hasn’t even witnessed any because the industry attracts more open-minded people.

Susswein and the women comedians agree that women like to see funny women, which was proven last year at the box office.

Bridesmaids, starring Kristen Wiig, showcased five womens’ tumultuous journey as a wedding party and grossed $288,383,523 worldwide and picked up two Academy Award nominations.

“It was the first time we’d seen a buddy-buddy female comedy,” said Soro, comparing Bridesmaids to the likes of Wedding Crashers and 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Wiig hurled female comedians to the attention of moviegoers everywhere.

“If Bridesmaids did that well, it means there’s an audience, and there’s an audience that’s as loyal and as engaged as there was for the Hangover,” said Dr. Berk.

The film brought the “women aren’t funny” stereotype back into the public discourse. Some female comedians are tired of the conversation.

“I wish the news would stop publishing stories like ‘Are Women Funny?’ because I feel like that sets us back decades,” said Beasley. “It’s so disheartening to read that.”

But Knefel believes it’s important to keep talking about sexism in comedy as long as it’s a problem.

“Sexism is by no means over in any aspect of society, but I think in comedy, we are very, very behind,” said Knefel. “There are so few other places where men will blatantly and unapologetically be sexist.”

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