After booking one female comic—one–out of 30 comics for its Austin showcase, SXSW has said it’s “disappointed” there aren’t more female comics on the line-up. To this I say: horse shit. Horse. Shit. This is akin to making yourself a bitter cup of coffee, staring at the sugar bowl, and complaining your coffee doesn’t have enough sugar in it. SXSW’s booking agent, Charlie Sotelo, has said he was “heartbroken” at the responses to the paucity of women on his bill. Well, quit being heartbroken, Charlie. I figured a guy whose job it is to watch and book comedians would know this, but I guess I’ll spell it out:
There are many, many excellent female comics to choose from. And when I say “many,” I mean that on a 30-comic bill and a national search for comics, there is absolutely no reason SXSW couldn’t come up with 15 women and 15 men of equal talent. No reason. None. Even accounting for scheduling conflicts and drop-outs, I absolutely refuse to believe that SXSW organizers could only find one female comic for its lineup. Even accounting for the fact that, according to my own ethnographic research, women will make up about 10 percent of any city’s stand-up comic population, SXSW could absolutely have found fifteen talented women to showcase. Hell, if SXSW had wanted to use only local Austin talent, they could have found four or five women who would have killed.
Of course, they’d have to have wanted to do this. They’d have to have tried. They’d have to have confronted the fact that sexism, both overt and implied, is rampant in the world of stand-up comedy. Instead of throwing up their hands and saying, “Unfortunately, we had just three female comedians apply in our open process this year,” which is what they said in statement released earlier this month, they would say: why in God’s name did only three women apply in our open process this year? Are there belief systems and practices in place that discourage women from promoting themselves and auditioning that somehow do not keep men from doing same?
To that last question, I say: yes. Obviously. I conducted my master’s thesis research on female comics, and I can say without a doubt that stand-up comedy is a boys’ club. I performed comedy myself for about three years in three different cities: Dallas, Austin and New York. I quit to focus on writing but I still perform on occasion. I don’t think I was a particularly good or especially bad comic, but I do know that my research on this subject is solid. I may not be funny, but I am not wrong about this. I’ve been stewing on this subject for a week or so, and I feel like I need to say this to counter the shitty, whiny excuses booking agents–and not just SXSW booking agents, it must be said, but also those at clubs and bars around the country–give for not getting more women on their lineups.
I don’t mean to say that the boys’ club means that women cannot succeed or do not, but that they confront obstacles daily that make their journey in comedy more difficult and fraught than men’s. Whether this is explicitly acknowledged or not by most female comics, there is a never-ending line of questions that they confront both on stage and off, and they are all tied to their intrinsic femaleness, which is always, always marked as “other” in the world of comedy. The male comic body is default. When women enter into the picture, they must constantly negotiate an unwieldy, othered physical body, whether they are black, white, fat, skinny, old, young, what-have-you. Before they are fat, white, black, Indian–before they are comics–they are female.
You hear this from hosts all the time: “We’ve got a female comic coming to the stage…” or “This gal is a great female comic …” or “Now, how about a lady comic for you guys?”
Women think about the clothing they wear on stage–will this be too sexy? Will a skirt say something about me I don’t want it to? Will audience members pre-judge me because I am female? Will audience members be too lenient with me because I am female? If I spend time with other comics, will people perceive this as flirtation, or will they perceive it as camaraderie? What will the fact that I am the only woman in a six-comic line-up say about me, and what will it say to other women who want to try stand-up? What will people say about me if I stay out every night to do open-mics and my boyfriend or husband or girlfriend stays home with the kids? Will people think I got this gig because I slept with someone? Can I have a romantic relationship with another comic without being the butt of jokes?
A great female comic can answer and overcome these questions. The best ones use their femaleness to their advantage. It’s not always a bad thing to be marked female. I am not saying that. Stand-up comedy is one of the few enterprises I can think of where actual talent usually wins out. If you are truly funny, you will overcome any other obstacle–physical, emotional, whatever–because people will absolutely want to book you, no question. But to get to that truly funny place, you have to practice. You have to build up your set. You have to have an outlet. And many women are discouraged before they even get to the thought of even trying stand-up comedy. If the thought ever occurs to them at all.
As long as one woman is booked on a thirty-comic lineup, the male body will be the comic default. Women will see news stories about a 30-to-1 male-to-female comic ratio, and they will say, what the fuck is the point. It is up to people like the SXSW brass to do better by not acting like old-school comedy clubs and closed-minded, cigar-chomping booking agents looking to fill a five-minute tit-spot. You can blame women for not coming out in droves to attack a system that constantly undermines them and their talent, or you can change the fucking system. There might be a reason so many female comics are turning to television pilots as outlets for their creativity–one of the excuses Sotelo gave Slate’s XX for not booking more women, though strangely, guys seemed to be in replete supply despite pilot season–and it might be that that field is more amenable to looking at female talent.
I will say this: I was told by Charlie Sotelo once, when he was considering me for a SXSW show, that he had already filled the “girl spot” but that he thought she was a little flaky, and he wanted to see about getting some back-up talent just in case. After my show, we spoke and he said he would contact me about taking this spot should the other woman drop out. From this, I drew two conclusions: female comics are basically interchangeable, and one is plenty. Now, it could be that I wasn’t funny, and that Sotelo was trying to let me down easy. If that’s the case, Sotelo had a great opportunity to give a comic some tips from a professional booker, and I could have taken his notes and improved. Both of us would have been better off–he’d have a comic he might be able to book next year, and I’d have professional advice. But he didn’t. And he never got in touch with me after that. But whatever. Sotelo seemed like a nice enough guy and this isn’t sour grapes–I did just fine in comedy that year and afterward, SXSW showcase or not–but I do think it’s illustrative of how the system works.
I do know that some female comics are dedicated to ignoring sexism in comedy, or at least at downplaying its influence, lest they be seen as bitches, complainers, pussies who can’t hang with the cool kids, whatever. I understand that women feel it’s in their interest to play the game, and maybe that’s why nobody’s speaking out when people like Charlie Sotelo say they’re real sorry, but they just couldn’t find three female comics to play one of the most important independent stand-up comedy showcases in the country.
So, here I am, saying a thing: horseshit.
(EDITED TO ADD: Because there seems to be some confusion, I am not saying SXSW hates female comics or has some kind of vendetta against them. Unfortunately they happen to be involved, presently, in a highly publicised example of precisely the way a particular gender problem manifests itself in comedy. This shit happens all over. All the time. On large and small scales. It’s not just South By. Promise.)