good one podcast

Do We Really Need Documentaries About ‘Women in Comedy’?

Joan Rivers. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Tom Briglia/FilmMagic

You want to make women in comedy cringe? Say the phrase women in comedy. You could be trying to be positive, like, “It really is a great time for women in comedy” or “10 Women in Comedy to Watch,” but the words still trigger. It brings to mind mid-market morning-radio shock jocks asking, “What’s it like being a woman in comedy?” when you know they just want to find out if you sleep with fans. Or overly earnest journalists asking the same question and hoping the answer is “traumatically bad.” It makes female comedians think of ghettoized “Ladies’ Night” comedy shows or of being expected to discuss the Me Too allegations of comedians they don’t know, while their male colleagues never are. This is complicated. Especially when you want to inform people of, you know, what it is and was like being a woman in comedy.

With Hysterical, a documentary about women in comedy, premiering on FX on April 2 (and heading to Hulu after), Kathryn VanArendonk joins Vulture’s Good One podcast to unpack the value of “women in comedy” projects, why we’re exhausted with them, and what happens when comedians get asked, “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy?” over and over again. You can read an edited excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

A Podcast About Jokes

Jesse David Fox: I want to talk about “women in comedy” as an idea that gets talked about as a whole. I don’t really feel the need to talk about women in comedy in actuality because I don’t think it’s, like, a remarkable, weird thing that deserves to be discussed.

Kathryn VanArendonk: I think what we want to talk about is the idea of pointing to women in comedy as some special, deserving class that requires distinct attention because so often it results in us overlooking the fact that there are actual, individual women who do comedy. I assume we are not the only people to have noticed that there are lots of women doing comedy! But also there is still a tendency to identify women doing comedy as some unusual, strange phenomenon that requires a lot of particular focus separate from the rest of the comedy world. And that’s a phenomenon. The “Let’s talk about the funny ladies” thing is something I feel really mixed about. I feel very conflicted about it as a kind of project.

Jesse: What did you think of the documentary?

Kathryn: It’s by a filmmaker named Andrea Nevins, who has done other feminist-leaning documentary work. There was a big movie that she did on Barbie, for instance. Hysterical is a look at what it’s like to be a woman who does comedy right now and a little bit also a history of women who have had to deal with how tough it is to be a woman stand-up over the last couple decades. She asks people about their childhoods, and you get a bunch of different perspectives. She asks people about comedian terminology. It’s very general. Like, “What’s it like to be on the road?” The sections are framed in ways that lead the viewer through a very explicit idea of what the big issues are if you’re a lady. One of them is body issues, one of them is sexual harassment, and none of them are being a woman of color, although that does come up occasionally. But it is telling to me that that’s not one that is pulled out as a special, special section in the feature.

My feeling watching the documentary was a combination of longing and frustration. I love archival stuff. I love historical stuff. I love really specific deep dives that I have not seen before. But my overwhelming frustration with this particular documentary was the way that the framing — Here’s this issue and then this issue and then this issue — led to a real flattening of every individual that the filmmaker was portraying. It was: Here are the collective issues of what women have when they try to do comedy here. You can see them all speaking to it. Yes, they will say slightly different things, but they’re all grouped in the same category. You really are not given any space to appreciate the fact that they’re people instead of examples of this phenomenon.

Jesse: With Good One, regardless of gender, my favorite thing is when someone will say something in an episode like “This is what comedy is about. You have to do a joke like this.” And then the next episode someone will say the exact opposite thing. I try to leave it as that’s their perspective. So as a whole, you’re like, Oh, there’s 9 zillion ways of doing this. I mean, I’m the last person alive who cares about the divide of alternative comedy and club comedy, but it does feel like it flattened the types of experiences people have and the types of rooms people were able to create to address these specific issues.

This is a part of a sort of tradition of how the history of comedy is told, both looking back and at the time. This is not the first “women in comedy” documentary — there’ve been maybe four or five in the last five years. There’s also a variety of books and tons of academic coverage. It’s partly because, as comedy is covered, there’s four ways of canonizing comedy history. There’s the stand-up narrative that is almost exclusively men, with women dotted throughout it; there is the history of Jewish comedy; there is a history of Black comedy; and then there’s a history of women in comedy. So they’re all separated from each other, and often they then do not get told in the context of the main history. They are effectively ghettoized as sort of a different history. How do you feel about that? Where do you think that tendency comes from?

Kathryn: This is where I get very conflicted about this as a kind of project. I think it’s pretty clear that neither of us find this particular documentary an impressive example of this type of project. But I do think there’s a bigger and less easy question about whether “women in comedy,” as a kind of project, is a valid, valuable way to frame any of this. I come at it from academia because that’s a form of institution I’ve spent a lot of time in and know generally what the institutionalized histories end up looking like. It reminds me of the way that big departments — say, an English department — are going to look at their curriculum, are going to look at their professors, are going to look at their students and be like, Wow, we don’t have any coverage of, say, the Afro-Caribbean traditions. They’re going to hire one person who is going to be that one professor who will only teach about that one thing and then the students who go to those classes will know exactly what they’re getting. And it will stay as this completely separate, as you said, ghettoized experience of what the rest of literature is.

Jesse: The downside of that, I think, is pretty clear. It’s a way of saying there’s the “real thing” and then there’s this other thing that is not as real. You’re saying there’s the main narrative and there’s this other one.

Kathryn: As soon as you frame it that way, that’s how it gets treated. That’s how the money works. A lot of this is institutionalized, right? So as soon as you have funding for one small thing, it sort of stays that one small thing, and there’s no reason to make it part of what the bigger narrative is.

But there is a positive to that kind of choice as well because, for most institutions, if you didn’t hire your one Afro-Caribbean professor, there wouldn’t be anyone! This is the way that journalism often works too, and documentaries often work the same way. This is the way you get your project made. It’s the angle. It is the organizing choice.

And you and I have both written lots of lists in our lives. We both know that lists are useful services for readers, that lists are sort of fascinating intellectual exercises for the writers. But also the lists ghettoize the things that you are designating as that one topic of the list. If I’m making a list of women comedians, I’m saying it’s a separate list than the “main” comedians. But this is the way that people find stuff. This is the way that histories that are often lost get remembered.

The other way to think about it is, rather than sidelining a group of people, projects like these create safe platforms for them. The reality is that I would love if women were always a part of a mainstream narrative of what comedy history is, but we create safe spaces and separate spaces because they wouldn’t be there otherwise. So separate lists, separate projects like this have to write back against what the main narrative was.

Jesse: The version of this that I’ve found most useful is We Killed, which is the oral history of women in comedy. What it really succeeds at doing is it just retells time periods. It is, Here are the different time periods in the history of comedy, starting from the beginning, and all it does is say, What if we told it from the perspective where we’re not ignoring that women were not dominant? The most telling is that they tell the history of alternative comedy, which was so female-led. You don’t read it and come away with thinking, This is the history of women in alternative comedy. It is the definitive history of alternative comedy or alternative comedy in L.A.

Too often when you do this type of thing, it has a “binders full of women” phenomenon, which is, We got these women, and here they are. But there is a feeling of, you know, wanting the story to be told better. There are documentaries about specific women. There’s a Joan Rivers documentary, which is one of the gold standards of what a comedy documentary is. There’s a Moms Mabley documentary, which is fantastic. I just want so many more of those because I do think they have specific stories to be told.

There’s this question that comes back often: “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy?” There are different versions of that question, but that is the main underlying question. There’s also “Are women funny?” which is another version of “What’s it like to be a woman comedian?” For a long time, if there was a woman comedian on television, they would be on and the question would be like, “Are women even funny? Isn’t being a comedian something men do?” That’s what Joan Rivers had to answer all the time. And then I guess in some bleary-eyed attempt to be whatever the past version of woke was where the question became, “What’s it like to be a woman in comedy? Because I understand there are differences, and I want to hear what it’s like.”

But ultimately, that then became bastardized by places like morning radio, which is really acting it up: “You’re a woman in comedy. Isn’t that weird?” More recently, the contemporary version is “What’s it like being a woman in comedy when there’s sexual assault happening all over the place?” Or instead of asking someone what’s it like to be a woman in comedy, you ask every single woman in comedy, no matter what they’re promoting — even if they don’t talk about this stuff at all, even if they’re just playing this second lead in a sitcom or the zany roommate — “What about Louis C.K.?” That question is not a question about what it’s like to be a woman comic, but that’s what it becomes when it’s a question you’d never ask a man.

Kathryn: And anyone asking that question also is not really interested in the ramifications of the answer, right? Because then that means there have been generations of comedians who have been left out because they had to leave, because it was too soul crushing. Someone asking that question is generally not actually interested in how hard it still is, and part of what this documentary and most versions of that question imply is: Louis C.K.’s someone we’ve already gotten rid of, so now I can ask you about him. It’s not, Who are all the other guys? Who are the Louis C.K.s who we don’t know about yet?

The question is inherently progressivist. It’s saying, And now it’s better! The documentary does the same thing, which is to heavily suggest that things are much, much better now. It plays a clip of Kelly Bachman’s Harvey Weinstein set, which feels extremely discordant, you know, within the rah-rah sisterhood context of the end of the documentary. It’s a little wild watching it and then looking at, say, reporting that’s come out quite recently about the connection between stand-up clubs and the alt-right and knowing what some comedy podcasts are like and the desire to ignore all the things that are still really bad.

Jesse: Do you have an assessment of what we should look at when we look at these projects? Something that’s both critical of it but also trying to imagine what value they have and how should people aspire to do it?

Kathryn: Something that I think is applicable to documentaries, longform writing, book projects, lists, anything where you’ve chosen to pull out a particular group of people: It is always useful to think about what this list or project is portraying as general that is actually very specific. Or vice versa. Where is the misconnection or the fuzziness happening there? This particular documentary is a project that tends to take a lot of specific things and then say, No, it’s a big general narrative, and then clump them all together. And look, I have written things quickly and regretted it later, and that’s a fallacy we’ve all fallen into. I am certainly not above doing exactly the same kind of thing. But when you have time and money and editors and people watching your stuff, that is a really useful avenue to press on as far as what might be getting elided in a project like this.

If you find yourself in the position of getting ready to work on a project like this, there’s also a really useful question to press on and not let yourself have an easy off-the-cuff answer: Why am I doing this? Why am I making this particular thing? Watching this documentary, it seems like the answer for that question was Because I think women are funny. I’m not saying that’s a bad answer, but an answer as broad and simple as that is then going to lead back to a fairly broad, simplistic viewpoint. And if instead the answer is like it was for We Killed — something like, Because you see a very different understanding of what the history of comedy is when you recenter who the storytellers are — you end up with a very different project. Even if, on the surface, both of those things could be summarized as “women in comedy.”

Jesse: One central question we keep returning to is, What is lost? When you ask women what it’s like to be a woman comedian, what is lost is you then don’t get to ask them a different question. You hypothetically have 15 minutes with a comedian, and you spend five of it asking a question that they get asked a million times. That adds up. Truly, let’s say you can do the math; let’s say 10 percent of every interview a woman comedian does is spent having to answer this question. That literally puts them 10 percent behind in terms of communicating to an audience their actual point of view and their art. That’s a story that doesn’t get told enough.

More From This Series

See All
Do We Really Need Documentaries About ‘Women in Comedy’?