It’s a great time for women in comedy, or so the conventional wisdom goes these days. An all-female Ghostbusters is imminent, women like Maria Bamford and Chelsea Handler are getting Netflix shows that represent their comic sensibilities, and Samantha Bee is just one of…one women with a late night show. While things are improving at the top, there’s the issue of getting women more opportunities on the lower rungs of comedy, as The Atlantic recently pointed out, where careers are really forged. Enter Lynn Harris, a former standup comic (and Tonya Harding impersonator) raising money to pilot a comedy school for teenage girls whose ultimate goal is to help girls interested in comedy learn the craft, leading to more diverse voices into the comedy world. “There’s just so much more opportunity for all kinds of diversity not just in an end to itself, Harris said, “but to make comedy funnier. And I don’t know anyone who can’t get behind that.”
The climate and the comedy scene are great and getting better, Harris said, “but it doesn’t make it that much easier for the aspiring, shy girl who’s the only one at the 4:00pm open mic at whatever club.” So, Harris is trying to get more than just one girl at a time at those open mics with her Comedy School for Teen Girls (a working title, she tells me). Harris is starting with two free workshops this summer in the New York City area, with instruction from professional standup comics. That’s what the Indiegogo is currently raising money for: to pay for mics, to pay the teachers and to pay for food for the kids, all so Harris can best figure out how the program would work on a larger scale.
Harris said the initial plan for the pilot is to have structured classes, during which girls can learn skills like how to write a joke, how to build a set, and how to take and also give criticism confidently. The pilot workshops this summer will also end with performances by the students, Harris said, noting that even a performance in front of friends and family is part of a “core comedy experience” and can teach life skills that go beyond just being a comic. To help get the students to that point, she recruited comics Karen Bergreen, a longtime friend, and Elsa Waithe, who says she came into contact with Harris after she reached out to the Cinder Block Comedy festival organizers to see if anyone would be interested in the school.
Waithe said she plans to teach the students how to build a joke out of a funny premise, which is a trap she found herself in, “just writing premises and thoughts and then not fleshing them out,” when she started in comedy and said she still sees seasoned comics struggle with sometimes. In particular, Waithe will be hammering home the importance of keeping a notebook in which to edit and revise joke premises until you wind up pulling a diamond out of the rough. Waithe said she saw herself in the target demographic for the school, telling me that “if anyone had told me when I was young that we could teach you how to be funny, teach you the stage, I’m sure that I would have done that over getting kicked out of class every week.”
Bergreen, who teaches comedy full time at another school, signed up to volunteer at the summer pilot after Harris had spent time picking her brain about what she thought a good comedy school should have. She said she plans to just have students come up and tell her something funny, then help them learn the thesis of what makes a joke from there. Bergreen said she hopes that efforts like the school could help destigmatize the idea of a young girl being funny, which she deemed “less socially acceptable” than a boy being funny when she was growing up. She also felt having an all-girl comedy school could be helpful in combating a large hurdle of teenage life in general: “To not have boys around, they might feel a little safer to make jokes and not worry about being judged by a bunch of boys,” she said, a reminder of teenage angst and awkwardness for even the simplest actions, much less making yourself vulnerable as a performer.
While Harris, who was a standup comic for a decade stretching from the late ’90s to the late ’00s, thinks that it’s “a pretty good time” for women in comedy, she said that conversations with friends still doing standup revealed women are dealing with the same old things she was dealing with in 1997. Specifically, she mentioned that there’s still too many instances of comedy shows with just one woman on the bill, who winds up introduced as the lady comic who has to prove all women are funny, while “every dude who goes up just has to prove that he’s funny.” Bergreen echoed that sentiment, saying “if I go to a comedy show and see five white guys and they’re calling it diverse because one guy is ‘weird’ or he does alt-comedy, that’s not diversity to me.” She also suggested that the school fits in perfectly with the present moment, one in which a comedy audience that in her view has always been diverse isn’t so much offended by jokes, but are just becoming more vocal about wanting to see themselves on stage. “There’s something very life affirming to see somebody that looks like you, talks like you on stage performing,” she said.
The purpose of the comedy school, beyond teaching how to tell a joke and pinpoint what kind of humor a student would work well with, is to teach the confidence that allows them to command a stage. So while the school is set up primarily as learning comedy as a way to get into comedy, it also means a girl can attend the program looking at comedy as path to leadership or empowerment by learning “the skills that comedy can give you for the rest of your life, whether it’s snappy comebacks or a deep sense of your own persona,” Harris said. Bergreen echoed this, telling me that when you’re developing your sense of humor at a high school age, “it’s not about being a standup later, it’s about just being able to talk in front of people, being able to say ‘I can make you laugh.’ It’s very empowering.”
After the free workshops this summer, Harris’ plan is to continue to find a way to offer face-to-face workshops for anyone who’s in the New York area, but also to put together an online community where kids can collaborate with each other and learn all manner of comedy skills. Beyond traditional standup, Harris sees the future online portal as a way for kids to figure out “what speaks to your comedy soul,” and also learn about how to enter the field as writers, agents and producers. Harris wasn’t shy about her big dream for the online component, telling me that she’d like to build “some sort of massive virtual funny factory that changes lives, perceptions, and the very face of comedy.”
At the moment, Harris says she’s attracted a few signups, and has drawn interest from every borough in the city except Staten Island (“I WILL NOT REST until I hear from YOU, Staten Island!” she joked/warned), as well as from people willing to come in from upstate New York and New Jersey.
While part of the inspiration for the school comes from “experienced and perceived injustices around us,” Harris didn’t talk about the school as some kind of corrective for previous barriers put in front of women trying to get into comedy. Ultimately, it’s about helping get more diverse voices starting from the ground level, to expand the comedy farm team, if you will. “Bigger farm teams give you better players,” Harris said. Maybe a larger farm team from which to draw funny people could result in fewer instances where comedy networks wind up with an all male slate of creators.
David Colon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and is the Fake Dean of American Letters. Follow him at @davecoion.