In 2015, just before his debut as host of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert penned a thoughtful article for Glamour asserting his intention to use his new platform as a way to celebrate women’s voices. Stating the obvious, he noted that “while there are many talented female comedians out there, right now the world of late-night is a bit of a sausagefest.” To have a prominent male comedian pose the question “Why does this gender inequality still exist, and what can we do to stop it?” was a glimmer of hope for women in the industry. But for all his promises to “lean in,” when the credits rolled on his first show, it was clear that this promise didn’t extend to his writers’ room, where only two of the show’s staff of 19 were women. Apparently leaning has its limits.
The blatant hypocrisy of Colbert’s words and actions was a huge letdown and, for female comedy writers in particular, an insult to our perceived value in the industry. And worse, it’s tacit permission for other men to follow suit. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find many in the comedy community, myself included, who would consider the late night host a “bad guy.”
Colbert is far from the only well-meaning male comedian to let women down, though he is one of the most influential. These men are everywhere from TV writers’ rooms to respected comedy theaters, popular humor websites, and indie sketch and improv scenes. This peculiar breed of male comedian peddling shallow support of women is becoming the most frustrating obstacle since the “women aren’t funny” debate somehow became legitimate discourse.
I’ve been active in the New York comedy scene for over five years, and sexism, unsurprisingly, rears its insidious head into every aspect of the community. There is the typical harassment that women face in any industry—such as the well-documented rape allegations that swirled around the UCB Theatre in 2016. And from a professional perspective, female comedians are often faced with hostile, male-dominated environments where the atmosphere of casual misogyny allows jokes about sexual assault to thrive.
Enter the lazy male ally, here to save the day.
I’ve worked with and for these men. They talk a big talk about supporting women. They act grateful when you point out instances of misogyny. They say things like, “I really value your opinion,” and “These are difficult conversations to have, but they’re important.” And then what happens? They quickly fix their mistake, shut down the conversation, and move on. Because these men are more concerned with maintaining the image of benevolence than actually following through with deliberate action.
The difficulty of trying to be an ally, whether it’s to women or any other marginalized identity, is that it’s a complicated tangle of ego and intention. “It’s easy to say ‘I’m not sexist’ or ‘I’m not racist,’” explained one female sketch comedy writer. “But then the second someone lets you know you’re guilty of it, you take it personally and view it as an attack…[these men] can’t believe that you can be a nice guy or nice person and still have committed some mistakes. Those don’t have to be at odds with each other.”
When someone’s identity is so wrapped up in being the “good guy,” having that identity challenged calls everything into question. It stirs up discomfort. And it’s much easier to sweep that discomfort under the rug than face it head on.
Because comedy has a rich tradition of being a “boys’ club,” it’s only natural that men rise to the top, helped up the ladder by those who came before them. And in an industry filled with male-dominated spaces, we— like it or not— rely on allies to use their disproportionate influence to create change. Without them, female comedians trying to achieve success find themselves in an exasperating dilemma: we can call out instances of sexism over and over and risk being labeled “that girl” (perhaps by writing an article about it), or we can grit our teeth and forge ahead into unwelcoming territory for the sake of our careers. While I begrudge no woman for choosing the latter, I’m simply fed up that it has to be an option.
The aforementioned comedy writer I spoke to described her frustration dealing with a sexist manager at a comedy blog who consistently dismissed her ideas. Though he was ultimately fired, her choice to speak out on the matter ended up taking her down with him. In her words, “it was like a suicide mission where I had to risk my job, and did.” The price of being a woman who is outspoken about serious subjects, especially in an industry that commodifies humor, is particularly high. Though some men might sympathize in private, few are willing to actually put their money where their mouth is.
Brett Gelman provided a great exception to the rule when, in 2016, he cut ties with Adult Swim over their failure to pick up any shows by female creators. “It is a problem that these things can only get attention if a white guy says something,” he observed. “Until it changes, white dudes, we better fucking step up and take action, because we are the ones who can afford to do so.” Sadly, despite his willingness to put social justice before his career, the network persists in its exclusion of women-led programming.
Whether women choose to speak up about injustices or to power through them, simply existing in this hostile environment affects our fundamental ability to do what we do. Instead of being free to be funny, we’re bogged down by this constant game of sexism whack-a-mole. Misogynistic sketch? thwack. Demeaning satirical article? thwack. Staffs with few or no women? thwack. It’s emotionally and creatively draining.
“It takes a toll,” said a female writer whose work has been featured on many humor sites. “Having to think about [sexism] is a layer of muck over your creative energy where you also can’t be as funny…these men don’t have to [think about that] so they can be upbeat and fun and working at their most creative because they’re not burdened by all of these harsh realities the rest of us deal with.” Imagine how different things could be if men were willing to take some of that burden off of our shoulders.
When high-profile men such as Colbert fail to follow through on their best intentions, it demonstrates a well-established, systemic injustice that feels impossible to take on, especially early in our careers when we have little to no leverage. Railing against a system that may or may not be listening is one thing. However, when those men are your peers in the comedy community, the sense of betrayal can be even more acute. When male friends privately sympathize but are publicly silent, it’s hard not to feel abandoned. It’s like walking onto a battlefield only to look behind you and realize you’re completely alone.
“It hurts that I have male friends who are in charge of hiring comedians and say they’re liberal and not sexist at all and then only hire men,” lamented another woman in the New York sketch comedy scene. “Every single man I’m talking about calls himself a feminist. Every. Single. One.”
As someone welcome inside the boys’ club, Gelman echoed this observation, saying “You have just as many white liberal men being sick of hearing about discrimination as white conservative men, or just not doing anything.”
Of course I would be remiss to leave out the paragraph where I say #NotAllMaleComedians. I’ve been lucky to encounter men in my comedy career who are, in fact, willing to follow their words with action – men who don’t constantly need prodding from women to step up and speak out. As one male sketch and satire writer explained, “It’s very obvious in a lot of areas of comedy the deck is stacked against females, and it’s frustrating to see talented female comedian friends not getting the opportunities and recognition they ought to. It’s not a social justice thing, it’s a ‘my friends are getting shafted’ thing.”
So how can the male comedians reading this be better allies? As another female comedy writer explained—and this applies to support of any oppressed group —“Guys who are actually feminist in that they care about equal rights—they don’t have to tell people, you just show it in your actions.” If you’re not sure how best to help, ask. Use your all-access-pass to male spaces as an opportunity to spread awareness and push for solutions. Resist the anesthetizing influence of the “bro” culture that prevails in comedy circles when women aren’t watching. You’re better than that.
First and foremost, however, allies cannot be effective until they set their egos aside. “When we make mistakes we must not defend ourselves,” said Gelman, addressing his fellow male comedians. “We just must move forward and change our policies, and apologize and acknowledge that we’ve made that mistake.”
It is not my intention to chastise male comedians—in fact I’m quite exhausted of doing that— but to activate them. Does this article feel, as my colleague bluntly put it, like a suicide mission? A little, yes. But I’m willing to put my reputation on the line to move things forward for women in comedy. The question to every self-described “good guy” reading this now is: are you?
Emily Davidove is a comedy writer in New York City. Her work has appeared on Reductress and various other sites around the internet.