Sexism In Comedy Is Rampant, Boring And Also On The Way Out

Look, guys, I might never do comedy again because I’m lazy and I think I was never good at it to start with, and I’m not saying that so that you guys will all pile on and be like ‘NOOOO ANDREA UR SO FUNNY,” I’m saying it because I don’t really have a professional dog in this fight, the Eddie Brill fight, because also I’m probably never going to get around to writing this book about female stand-up comics that I did my whole fucking master’s thesis in cultural anthropology on, again, because I’m lazy and I’m afraid I’ll be boring at it the way I was mediocre at stand-up, and why make the effort when I am way better at other shit?

What is the Eddie Brill thing? It’s this thing where everybody is all, OMG, Can you believe this middle-aged white guy who booked EXACTLY ONE female comic on David Letterman for the entirety of 2011 said this sexist thing IN THE NEW YORK TIMES!?

The thing he said: ““There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said. “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”

Mirth Magazine probably has one of the best takes on the situation, written by EIC Larry Getlen, who is a dude saying salient things about the patriarchal bullshit that goes on in the world of stand-up comedy, such like:

Ouch. OK – there’s a whirlwind of wrong here, since the quote seems to lay down a clear separation of what’s OK or expected for men to do compared with what’s OK or expected for women. When Lisa Lampanelli spews out a dirty sex joke, is she “acting like a man?” Or is it when Tina Fey has the audacity to run a show? I’m pretty sure the latter is not what Brill meant, but the truth is, I have no idea what he meant. I do know that, short of a woman coming on stage with a full handlebar mustache and scratching her imaginary balls, statements like that are probably best avoided, especially by 53-year-old men.

But what Getlen moves on to, and what the really interesting question here is: what does authenticity mean for female comics and the people who watch and employ them? Brill gives us one perspective, a not-uncommon one: women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, because acting “like a man” is inappropriate or unfunny, but so is menstruation or “Mom” material because oh my god ladies, get over being a lady already gross!

Getlen points out that authenticity is kind of a new thing, comedically speaking:

That being the case, it should be noted that true, revealing authenticity in the comedy world is a relatively new – and rapidly evolving – phenomenon. For decades, comedy was vaudeville and schtick, like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. No disrespect to these comedy gods – if you’re a comedy fan unfamiliar with the work of Groucho and Harpo, then your education on the subject is sorely lacking – but authenticity to one’s true self was never the point. While the Marx Brothers material contained brilliant physical comedy, satire, and wit, it told us little about who these men really were – especially since, as any biography of the brothers reveals, Groucho was actually the shy, awkward one of the group.

While some made minor strides in self-expression – Phyllis Diller broke ground on this in her own way – the real breakthrough didn’t come until the massive changes and turmoil of the hippie-dippie sixties, which led George Carlin and Richard Pryor to shed their suits, grow their hair, and truly talk about their lives in ways beyond what any who came before them – even their predecessor and influence, Lenny Bruce – had done.

So there’s that. There’s the question of why authenticity, why now, and why does this dude (and a lot of people) think that being male is intrinsically more authentic? The answer is, well, because maleness is the default state of just about everything when it comes to comedy.

Basic example: when a comic is introduced to the stage and he’s male, you’ll rarely hear him introduced as “Male Comic Duder McPenis,” or even “Latin Comic Duder McPenis.” However, when a comic is introduced to the stage and she’s female, she’s “Female Comic Lady McGiner.” There are a lot of variations on this — “Are y’all ready for a female comic?” and “How about a lady comic this time?” but they’re pretty fucking common, especially in the comedy little leagues.

To be a woman in comedy is to be marked as different from the first instance of participation. Because the default comic body is male, women begin by being less “authentic” by default, since they’re not male. So I’m not surprised Brill sees women comics as being “less authentic,” since in terms of the male-default paradigm, they are actually inauthentic, inasmuch as the only way to be a “real” comedian, as defined by a sexist industry (albeit one that is swiftly and pleasantly changing for the better), is to be male.

Which brings us to the next point, which is that dudes like Brill are so, so out of touch that it’s almost not funny because you feel bad for them. I mean, I’m sure there will always be a world in which middle-aged white dudes want to tell Topic, Premise, Punchline fart jokes about their stupid fat wives to other middle aged dudes, and dudes, just go dude on with your bad selves! Dude away. And folks who want to defend Brill and tell people who are smart enough to suspect that a guy who books ONE female comic in an entire year of comic bookings might have a lady problem that we are just silly idiots who don’t understand what’s funny in the world, you guys do that thing. There is a world of bottom-tier comedy clubs, increasingly irrelevant late night programs and Work It fans out there waiting for you, and you are welcome to it.

I realized this listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants over Christmas–I admit, it’s a crime against womanity that it took me so long to get around to it–that while sexism continues to run rampant in the comedy industry, it’s really on the way out. For a few reasons, but totally not ONLY these reasons: (1) women AND men in comedy are increasingly willing to name sexism when they see it, (2) more women are lifting up other women into positions of comedic power once they get there themselves–see Fey, Tina–(3) generally speaking, women are more welcome in public spaces like comedy clubs and can get there more easily because they’re doin’ it for themselves and family structures are becoming generally more fluid and gender-equal, (4) authenticity really is a thing, now, which means that people are clamoring to hear a variety of voices and experiences and it turns out that actually people are capable of thinking many different kinds of things are important and interesting, not just dudes wanting to hear dude things and ladies wanting to sew or whatever the fuck.

Which, to be clear, does not mean that sexism in comedy is solved. I tweeted like one thing about this whole issue and learned very quickly that there are a bunch of folks who think it’s totally cool and not weird and super awesome that a flagship CBS program booked ONE female comedian all year and it’s probably just because ladies aren’t trying hard enough/aren’t funny/whatever. Those people are out there and not a few of them are in positions of power. But they deserve pity, not ire.

The good option, I really think, is to just continue balling it up if you are a lady comic, and to lift up other lady comics, and super importantly, to not be afraid to call something sexist if you think it is. I don’t know why people are so reticent to do this, because we all get up on stage and talk about fucking and drinking and hating our kids, so why it’s weird to be like “Hey, I think expecting less from female comics, or booking not many female comics, or treating them like eye candy instead of talent, is shitty,” I don’t know. People who think you’re an asshole, or stupid, or just a little whiny girlpants, for expecting to be treated like a comedian, rather than a “female comedian,” probably aren’t going to be working in the industry long-term, since successful people doing truly awesome and innovative things that are changing the comedy landscape realize that this outlook is fucking stupid.

HOWEVER: If you (and by YOU I don’t mean “ladies,” I mean “EVERYBODY”) don’t name and change sexism (or racism, or ableism, or whatever) when you see it, we won’t keep moving forward. So do that. And also be hilarious.

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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4 Responses to Sexism In Comedy Is Rampant, Boring And Also On The Way Out

  1. This reminds me a lot of a quote I read from Kathleen Hanna, regarding the placement of female-led bands on the radio. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something about how ludicrous it was that female bands were being turned down for radio play because DJs and programmers felt they’d already met their quota by having Whitney Houston or whoever in regular rotation; so naturally, there wasn’t any room for auxiliary female musicians. But of course, you’d never hear of a band composed of males being turned away by the preverbal industry gatekeepers because they were already spinning Tommy Tutone.

    I’m sure, even after all of this, Brill feels like he didn’t do anything wrong. He booked a woman, remember? That’s not sexism! Sexism would be NO women, right? Wrong. Talk about inauthentic.

  2. Love the last bit… only, you used the ableist slur ‘lame’ twice in this article. But it was a great read, loved your breakdown of the issue. Thanks.🙂

  3. carl says:

    Slightly tangential topic here, but the most laughing I’ve done recently was watching Margaret Cho do a routine on the Logo channel. Why couldn’t that have gotten better play on more mainstream channels? Even logo bleeped out the dirty words. Anywho…

    I was tempted to say “fuck Brill, and the horse he road in on,” but I’ve been arguing for a while for better dialog between disparate groups, and that obviously doesn’t contribute to it. So, I’ll just wonder aloud if Brill is even aware of the Getlen response.

    The whole “authenticity” in pop-culture production has been problematic for me for a while. “Authenticity” often is bought and sold like any other product attribute. When it’s in, it’s in, and if you don’t have it, you can fake it. Men more authentic than women…bullshit. That’s like the guys who used to tell me that country is more authentic than rock (or pop, or punk, or hip-hop). I think there is something out there called “authenticity,” but there’s also manufactured authenticity, and once industry co-opts it, they and the performers can churn it out. That’s not to say, of course, that it doesn’t exist, but that we deceive ourselves at times when we think we can spot it. And *yet* at the same time, determination of authenticity lies with the audience–it is negotiated. So claims that one group or the other is more or less authentic than the other are always problematic. But don’t get me started on that topic…

    Best quote in Getlen’s piece: “Understanding what makes Eddie Brill laugh tells you absolutely nothing about comedy today, other than how to get on one show. That’s it.” Maybe he’s right, but the very fact that he said it shows we have a long way to go on gender issues in entertainment (and everywhere else). I don’t think I would have ever said what Brill said, but I can only imagine all the stupid stuff I have said, and one can only hope that we I do say something like that again, I’ll have the strength and goodwill to change my perspective when someone calls me on it.

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