Women in comedy are often seen as solitary creatures, like mountain lions or that bird that fell in love with a statue. Female comics are isolated from each other on bookings and can view each other as competition in the green room. “When I started comedy, there was always only one woman on the show,” says Marcella Arguello. “So they trick us into being competitive, because we all want that one spot. But like, fuck, why can’t there be two spots?”
Why can’t there be 12 spots, even? Across Los Angeles, women-centered shows are popping up and serving fully femme shows. From storytelling shows to open mics to taking over the Meltdown’s coveted Wednesday night slot, ladies are booking and supporting each other.
The shows have sprung up amid the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. As Reductress co-founder Beth Newell told us, the comedy world was one of the first to experience this public outing of predators. “People suddenly give a shit about women,” says Arguello, who books and hosts Women Crush Wednesdays at NerdMelt. “I find it funny, because I’ve been yelling at everybody for years. I’ve been angry for so long about this shit, and it’s funny watching people become newly angry.”
Women Crush Wednesdays started as a monthly open mic at The Comedy Store’s Belly Room. Earlier this year, it moved to the Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail’s old Wednesday night slot. Women Crush Wednesdays has featured comedians like Rhea Butcher, Phoebe Robinson, Quinta Brunson, Eliza Skinner, and Laurie Kilmartin. Arguello sees the show as the culmination of years of comedy and activism. “From a very early age, I had it in me that I gotta help women, I gotta help especially people of color. All of that has informed the way I exist as a standup comedian,” she says. “When you can laser-focus who you want to help, you get so much more done. The next woman I help will be inspired to help another woman, a younger woman.”
“I’ve been producing women-centric shows in New York for a decade now,” says BanterGirl founder Trish Nelson. “I realized early on that my allies were going to be other women.” Nelson runs The Secret Society of Sisterhood, a monthly storytelling show in Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Masonic Lodge. The inaugural event featured stories centered on the theme “Reclaiming My Time” by Mara Wilson and Randa Jarrar, closing out with a performance by Our Lady J. “In an almost subversive way, the more art I put out that is diverse, it’s a sneak attack you don’t even realize is happening,” says Nelson. “I can’t change the entire ecosystem in Hollywood, but I can make a dent in the landscape.”
Nelson wants the SSoS to unite women from every walk of life, in part because she has held down service industry jobs alongside her comedy career. “I’ve been a waitress for two decades,” she says. In New York, Nelson was one of the half dozen women to accuse Spotted Pig restaurateur Ken Friedman of sexual misconduct. “To have the experience of a nameless, faceless person in a blue-collar job and have the opportunity to say ‘You can’t touch me anymore,’ it’s been life-changing.”
Beyond its storytelling, SSoS features art from women and supports a different women-centered non-profit every month. The shows are held on the night of the full moon, for added portent. “It’s about creating a culture of women who come together every month and celebrate our lived experiences,” says Nelson.
Women in art have been isolated and made to feel in competition; that has lessened our collective bargaining power. And those starting out can be turned off by the hypermasculinity of the open mic scene. Certain topics that are handled with more sensitivity (or just avoided) by a veteran comic can be aggressively and artlessly thrust upon an audience by a newer performer. Rape jokes and generally punching down are common. Enter Clown Town, a monthly open mic at Malo. Hosts Ali Liebegott and Michelle Tea founded the show after being disappointed by open mic experiences around town. At the first Clown Town, Tea mentioned too many comics at open mics only talked about their “sad dicks.” The main rule of Clown Town: no sad dick talk. Anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight cis male is welcome to sign up. Straight cis men are even welcome, so long as they remember what room they’re in and what sad anatomy is not to be discussed in said room.
Clown Town stands apart from the curated femme-centric shows because it’s accessible to comics just starting out. It is a supportive room. A headliner every week brings an audience beyond comics just waiting to go up. Headliners have included Kate Berlant, Gabe Liedman, and Dynasty Handbag.
Another show accessible to comedians on all levels is Late Night with Jimmy Fallopian Tubes at UCB’s Inner Sanctum. Intended to combat the fact that only 18% of late night writers are women, the show is entirely written, performed, and produced by women. Anyone woman-identifying can pitch jokes and desk pieces via the show’s Submittable. February’s show featured comedy by Erin Foley and an interview with Sabrina: The Teenage Witch creator Nell Scovell.
Although these shows have come along during what Trish Nelson calls the era of “no longer silent women,” the machinery behind them has been moving for years. Tea and Liebegott are bringing their organizing and promotion skills from Sister Spit, 21-year-old the lesbian feminist spoken word collective. Arguello started Women Crush Wednesdays three years ago at The Comedy Store, but ended due to a lack of support from the club. “When I did the open mic, I didn’t have the solid following, because I hadn’t done TV yet,” she says. “I was just trying to put on a cool show. And now I feel like I can do this.”
Arguello’s strategy for putting on a good show is to draw from the club scene, the black scene, and the alternative scene. “It’s so dope to be able to pull from everybody. I’m hoping it’s more obvious, later in the history of what this show becomes,” she says. “I reached out to Luenell Campbell, and she said she’s always on the road but one Wednesday she will be free. It’s gonna be so cool to have Luenell at my show at Meltdown!”
Arguello’s greatest fear for the show is that one day the entire lineup will be straight white women. Although with her hosting, that is impossible. There are shows in LA that feature all one “type.” Facial Recognition Comedy features all Desi women. Co-produced by Fizaa Dosani, Zahra Ali, and Pallavi Gunalan, the shows work to show how much diversity of thought and style can exist in one demographic (and hopefully help prevent people from getting the performers confused with one another).
Facial Recognition Comedy recently found a home for their shows at M.i.’s Westside Comedy Theater. Late Night with Jimmy Fallopian Tubes was recently picked up for another six months at the Inner Sanctum. Fallopian Tubes mastermind Julianne Simitz has also recently kicked off another show of political comedy from “othered” performers at the Nerdist School. The next Secret Society of the Sisterhood features Clown Town co-founder Michelle Tea and legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres. Women Crush Wednesdays is booked through March. Arguello finds it hilarious that straight white male comics have been doubting that there are enough women to support a weekly all-woman show.
“Straight white men have been asking if my show is sustainable,” she says. “They’ve been asking other comics, male and female, and it’s funny to me because they can’t fathom shows without them in it.” They’re going to have lots of opportunities to get used to the idea.
SSoS photos by Heidi Hartwig.
Marcella Arguello photo by Kelly Dwyer.