Why There Aren’t More Female Comics At SXSW

After booking one female comicone–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.)

About andrea grimes

Andrea is a journalist living in Austin, TX. She has a master's degree in anthropology and did her thesis work on gender and stand-up comedy. Seriously. Also, she has a bunch of cats. Three of them. Is three a bunch? Discuss.
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13 Responses to Why There Aren’t More Female Comics At SXSW

  1. absolutely. I have exactly 3 small open mics experience in Austin stand up now, so I don’t have the same perspective as your do, but with my limited sample it’s creepy how homogenous the comics in Austin are. Comedian friends who don’t fit the mold tell me they run into the “already filled the ______ spot” a ton, be that gender or race.

    Is being gay a liability in standup? Are there even gay people doing it locally?

    • Ralphie, there are a few gay comics in Austin that I remember, though they’re mainly female and they perform mostly at the Cap City “Chick Schtick” night. Which is a whole other post.

  2. nicole says:

    As an anthropologist, I really like what you did here with your research. My students will be reading this. Thanks!

  3. Sally says:

    You know, I hope this gets a lot of play and that there is a movement to see to it that the sack of horseshit booker never gets that job again to book. You can tell him, “We already have our horseshit slot filled…”

    I’m sure that there are other bookers with talent and vision to have the cutting edge of comedy on board – all sorts and all ages. I think Joan Rivers should be there – hell, Joan Rivers should be the booker. What? only skidmarks like that dude hipster can spot talent and what’s funny and can work a crowd? Eff him. Put him on a front page and let his grandkids see what a dick he was in history. Who would want the rap of not booking blacks, asians, mexicans, or someone like George Carlin because he was too old? What will he say to his kids about what a dick he was? Let it be known.

    Here’s Kathy Griffin talking about the same topic.

  4. thatoneguy says:

    I’m not sure how to start this. I am a guy, I have done stand-up but some of my best friends are women … I swear.

    I cannot speak to the booking policies of SXSW or some idiot who says ‘The chick spot is filled’ or why Joan Rivers got banned by Carson. All of that stuff is likely accurate and sexism exists in many, many places. Certainly in comedy. But …

    It’s not that women can’t be funny, it’s that they very often choose not to be. Obviously not all women – see Joan and a list of other very funny possessors of vaginas – but the percentages humans that choose to pursue being funny for a living by standing behind a microphone is VERY skewed to the male. To me, it is no surprise that as the chaff gets winnowed away, the percentages are still skewed when we look at comics worthy of opening at the Chuckle Hut or performing at SXSW or getting five minutes on the Tonight Show.

    Once again, this is not to say that the comedy world isn’t hostile to women – in many, many ways it is. But, at the same time, I think this ‘do women want to do it’ question is a much bigger factor than ever gets discussed. Women are also a tiny percentage of the Chess Masters (Mistresses?) in the world. Is it because lady brains cannot handle the rigors of chess scholarship? No, it’s because women aren’t drawn to the game as often and they probably look at sitting around in poorly lit rooms for the rest of their lives as no kind of fun. This is not to suggest that women aren’t ‘tough’ enough to pursue comedy, just that the raw material of people entering the pursuit saying ‘I might want to try this’ is so heavily skewed to the male that this inevitably leads to the same skewing at every level of the comedy food chain.

    Why is this? I dunno.
    -Maybe men are just more likely to think that what THEY have to say is so significant that everyone in the bar should listen to them. This is not a sane thing to think, but it is vital to pursuing stand-up.
    -Maybe men are drawn more to stand-up as a way of being funny while women seem to (anecdotal observation alert) seem more likely to pursue being funny in the context of sketch/improv.
    -Maybe the way the boy/girl brains works means that young guys are more likely to crack jokes when they feel inadequate instead of whatever strategies grade school girls come up with to deal with those conflicting emotions. Do you think there were as many ‘loud mouth wise cracking’ girls as there were boys in the third grade (or in tenth)? I sure recall that as being something boys liked doing more.

    This is the longest comment ever. I will stop now.

    • Good points, here, and certainly the available pool of women vs men is MUCH smaller at every level–headlining, open miking, etc. And I would love to understand why that is, though it’s well beyond my pay grade. I believe it boils down to basic socialization and how we treat our kids and the values and behaviors we instill in them. I think the fact that great female comics exist (and so many of them) demonstrates that it’s a nurture issue before it’s a nature issue. I talk to a lot of women who say they would like to try stand-up but who never do. I hear it a lot from men, too. But it’s easier for men to find buddies and role models on stage, and so I tend to believe that ostracizes women who might otherwise give it a shot.

      • thatoneguy says:

        I agree that it is largely nurture, and that stuff is long ingrained by the time potential stand-uppers reach middle school. Is it odd to suggest that the VERY high percentage of successful lady-comics who happen to be gay might be connected to the socialization/brain chemistry of it all?

  5. Adam says:

    SXSW, like many other festivals I’m sure, has it’s biases. None of which should beforgiven or excused. In fact, I think they should be called out and LOUD, like you’re doing. (You do not have to apologize when the problem is glaringly obvious.)

    In particular to SXSW, which is a great festival to participate in with a very supportive crowd, I do not think they even necessarily know their own biases. I can only speak from the indie film selection and for many filmmakers, getting into SXSW is such a great boost to build an audience for their films. People are very supportive and very enthusiastic.

    But just look at their Featured Narrative Film section. Almost everyone has a “Suburban White American” (SWA) bent to it in one way or another. Mumblecore films are notoriously seen here, which is essentially stories about the same experiences from that point of view.. Now I know there’s a good chance there’s MORE white and particularly male filmmakers making films working in that scene. But they can’t be the ONLY ones. And when I talk to those rejected by SXSW, I would say most of them did not have the “SWA” bent to them.

    And I’m not saying SXSW is racist or that SWA films are not valid points of view. But there’s an unfortunate correlation that is starting to develop and I’m sure the festival programmers might dismiss initially. But to those who see it all to often, such as the lack of any female programmers, I would say keep yelling it from the rooftops and maybe other people will listen key in. That’s how I keyed in to your post because I feel something is a bit off too and saying disingenuous things like, “heartbroken” is horseshit and should be called out. Keep at it.

  6. Not Kathy Griffin says:

    Women certainly have more roadblocks than men when battling it out in the comedy world.

    I know you didn’t do this, Andrea, but I saw a comment here that includes a link to a Kathy Griffin video. Um. Why would I listen to someone as un-funny as Griffin talk about her experiences in comedy? Did she miss out on some huge professional opportunities? No doubt! But perhaps that’s because she’s a shrill hack.

    I want to see more diversity in comedy–the more ha ha the better, regardless of color or the variety of naughty bits in one’s pants.

  7. Norman says:

    Got directed here by a British Comedy website. Britain has one of the strongest comedy scenes in the English speaking world but where there is also a problem of a shortage of female comics.

    If I had to put a finger on it, I would say that the winnowing out process eliminates a lot of women. Stand-up comedy at the bottom of the heap is a long drawn out business conducted in rough bars and clubs. Be prepared to travel at your own expense to hundreds of unpaid gigs. Be prepared to sacrifice your entire social life for at least two years. Be prepared to be abused, insulted, and occasionally assaulted by aggressive drunks, and the mentally ill. At least in Britain no one is armed.

    I know of one comic who after ten years in the game was sleeping in doorways and subsisting on bean sprouts he grew himself. I also know of one female comic who quit because she felt uncomfortable travelling to places she didn’t know late at night to perform. Stand-up comedy can be a nasty brutish business. It has to be. Let’s face it, you have to get up on stage in front of a bunch of complete strangers and make them laugh. As one female comic once wrote, you need to make 80% of the audience laugh 95% of the time or you’re toast.

    Bookers are mercenary people – they have to be. If that booker could double his money by filling the entire show with nothing but female comics, he would have. There is no booker I know who would not put on two chimpanzees and a stripper (of either gender) if he or she could make more money. I do not care what gender, race or sexual orientation a comedian is, all I care about is that he / she / it makes me laugh. If the female comics good enough to kill the room were out there, he would have booked them.

  8. Susie says:

    Andrea, I don’t know ya, but I love ya. Thanks for this. Found via Frisky. I am a lady writer and comedian and long time comedy producer of yore who was going to SXSW anyway to cover it for a major media company’s site. I wrote to Charlie saying I was avail and he should book me. So far, crickets, and people say agents and mangaers are banging at his door with lady comedians.

    And thatoneguy is so wrong it’s absurd. I watch lady comedians being sloughed off the circuit because they can’t make a living, as writers or as performers. Success breeds success and at every level men get chosen for stuff and women usually don’t. And then they say “they’re always looking” but one wonders where.

    Anywho, thanks and if you wanna produce an all-chick comedy show with me during SXSWi, be in touch.

  9. loupardi says:

    Love your work. Hate that it had to be applied in this way, but glad you did.

  10. Ian N says:

    No such problems in Australia. I’m glad the organiser of the room I usually attend is so pro-funny, and a little anti-dick-joke. The latter cuts out a lot of immature guys. At a recent anniversary, she made a list of the comics she’s booked over the years, and it’s almost 50% women.

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