I’ll admit it. When I go to an improv show and I see a woman on stage, I brace myself. “Please be funny, please be funny.” Why do I do that? I’m a feminist! Why do I internalize this idea that women can’t be funny or witty?
The notion that women can’t be funny is a mantra repeated both subtly and explicitly in theaters, classrooms, black box spaces, and large performance clubs and venues, a mantra spoken and internalized by men and women alike. In 2007, Vanity Fair magazine perpetuated this assumption by publishing Christopher Hitchen’s article “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Someone recently asked Brad Sherwood why women were so bad at improv. This supposed unquestionable assumption that women can’t be funny stereotypes women and their creative capacities and standardizes humor, making men the standard (and women substandard).
I’m a female improviser who describes myself as funny. I’m also a Gender Studies student who, informed by scholars like Judith Butler, acknowledges that bodies matter. And I’m a feminist (and no, I don’t hate men, and no, I’m not a humorless fish). So what does it mean when a woman is on stage, making people laugh?
From my on-stage performing and in-class interests came a research project that interrogates the culture that sees women as unable to be funny and examines these cultural stereotypes’ impact on female performers in the Twin Cities. This project went beyond the usual “well, anyone who thinks humor is gender specific is stupid,” and examined the specifics of gender dynamics in humor. I interviewed nine Twin Cities funny women who were involved in long- and short-form improv as well as sketch comedy.
One woman I spoke with presented her own theory as to why there aren’t many women doing comedy: the relative lack of funny female role models; the opposition of pretty versus funny; and the masculine construct of comedy. But, despite those barriers, women ARE doing comedy. And some of them are hilarious! I wanted to see the ways women navigated and transcended gender roles on stage.
I was drawn to improv because, as one funny woman put it: “Improv is equal parts creation and perception.” The spontaneous, improvised nature allows for a more explicit flow of ideas from the audience and the performers. In order to explore the effects of misogyny and gender disparity on comedic performance, I sought out the experiences and voices of local female improvisers.
Many of the funny women I interviewed struggled with the labels placed on them while on stage. Some of them said: “I think when you’re really funny, your gender disappears,” and “I would always rather be an improviser than a female improviser.”
While many of them wished that gender was not a factor on stage, they acknowledged the power of gender norms in always being labeled as a female character (while male performers are granted more freedom). One funny woman reflected: “It’s hard to find people to improvise with who see me how I see myself.”
The dynamics of male improvisers bulldozing their female scene partners can limit their agency. Two improvisers happened to (independently) share the same story to illustrate the ways that women are placed into stereotypical roles and not given the agency or space to get out of them. A friend of my two interviewees, the only woman in a ten-person improv team that touted their cutting-age improv, entered an ongoing scene between two men. Her “walk-on” initiation was a clear assistant dropping off important papers to a supervisor, entering to say “here are your papers, boss,” and then leave. However, when she entered the scene, her male scene partner labeled her a prostitute, exclaiming “You must leave, sir, my prostitute is here!”
Bad improv, yes. But let’s dissect further:
This line of dialogue made this improviser into the object of laughter (and, as a prostitute, an object of sexual desire) and destroyed her initiation into the scene as another character from the business setting. This improviser’s adherence to rules of agreement in improv scenes effectively silenced her, as she negotiated her visible hurt and frustration with her desire to support her teammates. Male improvisers create and adhere to these rules of agreement while women sometimes have no choice but to go along with it. The power of this anecdote lies in its independent repetition between two women, as well as in its demonstration of women’s
navigation of on-stage sexism and teamwork decorum.
Moments like these present women with a choice to accept their status in an offensive joke and collude with oppression for the sake of teamwork, or risk disapproval from scene partners and/or the audience, should they object.
Some Girls Are Pretty, Some Girls Are Funny, I’m Pretty Funny
Women also brought up the tensions of norms of beauty and femininity that often dictated their performance, specifically the dichotomy drawn between funny women and pretty women. Echoing a sentiment shared by many funny women, one shared: “I’m usually the funny girl as opposed to the pretty girl.” A constant theme throughout my interviews was an acknowledgement of being funny, often at the cost of being conventionally attractive.
Almost every woman I interviewed addressed the tensions of norms of beauty and femininity that often dictated their performances, specifically the dichotomy drawn between funny women and pretty women. One reflected that she was “not pretty or popular, but I was funny and the class clown.” Another repeated rejections she had received from auditions: “You’re not an ingénue type; you’re more of a character,” and another improviser shared that she realized that she was not attractive but that she could gain power in middle school through making people laugh, stating: “Maybe you can be pretty and funny in day-to-day life, but on stage, no.”
I share these multiple voices not to be redundant but to emphasize the potency of this dichotomy, a tension that all women and girls have navigated since birth and that often is most intense in a performance environment. Many funny women shared that they told jokes in elementary and middle school to gain popularity in spite of not being traditionally pretty. Being funny provided them with alternate routes to power, but also once again illustrates the dichotomy: if you cannot be pretty, you can be funny.
Gender Roles and Stereotypes
I found that years of experience performing improv had little to do with the enactment of sexism. By this I mean, misogynistic performances are not a phase for immature performers, but rather a result of internalized histories of oppression. The college women I interviewed, both of who began improvising in college, struggled with misogyny on stage and from the audience, in spite of the fifty/fifty gender ratio of the college group I interviewed. Although an improviser and student claimed she did not see a difference between what makes a woman or a man funny on stage, she recognized the ways that men are granted more comedic space to perform female stereotypes in a way that does not translate to women performing male stereotypes.
Another student agreed with this idea, but this does not deter her from portraying male characters, in what she described as “scenic drag”. She states: “It’s why I never wear skirts or dresses to shows,” in case she plays a male character. However, should she play a male character, this student noted the she needs to create a three-dimensional character beyond stereotypes of a low voice, both for her own performance style and, unlike men performing stereotypic femininity, woman performing stereotypical maleness simply “isn’t funny.” While Drag Kings performing hyper-masculinity in certain spaces are hilarious, improv audiences seem to not often appreciate critiques of masculinity because it ruptures unquestioned male dominance. Both college-aged women sensed a need to justify their presence on stage to their fellow improvisers as well as to an audience, as they expressed a feeling that women cannot “get away” with not being funny on stage, while men are often forgiven for a momentary comedic mistake.
The more experienced Twin Cities improvisers I interviewed often connected with scholars’ about the numerical silencing of women on stage. In many cases, even large improv teams were completely male dominated, with the token “one girl.” One Twin Cities improv veteran shared that she joined improv group The Impossibles as the “replacement girl.” This woman, the one girl, is constantly forced to play the female in each scene, a phenomena corroborated by many of my interviewees.
On The F Word
Although not all women saw their female identities as directly informing their performance, many of the funny women identified as feminists and acknowledged the ways their feminist identities inform their improv. One woman said: “I’m pro-woman out of self-interest” Another affirmed: “My participation in comedy inherently is feminist.”
These women broke the stereotype of feminists being cold and humorless. Instead, they are smart and funny. And another funny woman talked about using comedy to critique and re-imagine gender roles. She flat out said: “I think gender can be hilarious.” I believe her perspective informs the ways we can imagine feminist humor as being aware of gender’s constructions and actively engaging with and lampooning its structures. The improv stage is therefore a space to engage in feminist conversations about how women navigate and resist gender roles on stage, and how they blur the boundaries between being pretty and being witty.
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Gender can be hilarious, and comedy can be examined through a gender studies lens. AND, feminists can be funny. This project has been an amazing exploration in listening to women share their stories, many of whom thanked me for listening and for giving them a space to reflect on their performance. It also provides a local scope to conversations about funny women that include Bridesmaids, recent blog conversations, and Tina Fey. Debates about funny women and their attractiveness take place worldwide and one local stages. One woman I interviewed described a popular t-shirt among female ComedySportz performers and lamented the way its mantra reaffirmed the dichotomy between beauty and wit, leaving a semi-positive, half-assed affirmation. “Some women are pretty. Some women are funny. I’m pretty funny.” The shirt ignored funny women’s abilities to be everything at once: pretty and funny, simultaneously and
Photo of Bombardo by Brendan McMullen.