A SYTYCB entry
I have been a student of improvisation in Chicago for the last four years. I have met talented people, been a part of wonderful groups, and felt the comfort of community. While I have always been aware of the sexism that historically lies in the comedy business, in my new improviser naiveté I trusted that we, as a society, had moved beyond the idiotic belief that women are not as funny as men. You ran into the occasional ignorant, (read: stupid) person who tried to back this claim. You had the occasional old timey teacher who told you men should only play men and women should only play women. But, we all recognized this as silly water cooler talk, a community wide inside joke that we were all in on. The longer I work in this business, the more my naiveté is wearing. I am growing older, wiser, and more cynical.
Sexism in comedy is not over it has just evolved. In the last month, multiple male peers commented on how easy it will be for me to make a team or be hired because I am a woman. At first I laughed, genuinely thinking that these men, these friends of mine, had to be kidding. As we all know the group of people that have had it easiest in comedy is women right? (FYI: sarcasm. Sometimes I fear that my sarcasm is perceived as a true statement so I think it’s important to clear that up. And we’re back in). As I laughed and waited for them to join me it slowly dawned on me that they were not kidding. These men, smart, funny, talented friends of mine, truly believed that I had a great advantage because I had a vagina. This is insulting on 85 different levels.
I have a deep lady/talent crush on Amy Poehler. When she first started working at Saturday Night Live she made a crude and, we can only imagine, super funny joke. Jimmy Fallon commented that it was “not cute”. She responded, (and I’m paraphrasing) “I don’t care if you like it. I’m not here to be cute”. Whatever the straight lady version of swooning is, I’m totally doing it. We are not here to be cute! We are not here to set men up to be funny. We are here to work. We are here to play. We are here to make comedy. I do not give a shit if you find me attractive or not.
Alas, therein lies the problem. Other people do care if I am attractive and these people are in positions of power. Phyllis Diller, may she Rest in Peace, never received the fame nor acclaim she was due. In her day, women were to be either beautiful or funny. Never both. Tina Fey lost a significant amount of weight before being promoted from head writer to on-screen talent because she had to fall into the media’s idea of beauty before anyone would want to watch her. Gilda Radner and Rachel Dratch are known for their wacky and strange looking characters but could never be considered leading ladies, despite their leading lady level of talent, because they were/are not “beautiful”. Meanwhile, Olivia Wilde recently graced the cover of GQ’s Comedy Issue. The theory in the land of women in comedy is that you have to be stunning or super weird looking; dangerously overweight or stick thin.
Here is where my beloved male colleagues have been led astray. The Pretty Defense. “Don’t worry you’ll totally get cast because you are pretty” (said in my frattiest frat boy voice). I am so glad I spent tens of thousands of dollars and years of my life training so that my pretty smile can land me a job! (Just to be clear: sarcasm). What you are essentially telling me is this, “You are not as talented as I am, but, lucky you, you will give the casting guy a hard-on so you’ll totally get the part”. Well fuck you sir. I am just as talented as you. What is more terrifying about the pretty reasoning? It might be true. How many of us are being cast as the pretty girl to play the wives and girlfriends and not because of our talent? As long as our movies and television shows still show women only as stunningly beautiful or the chubby weird friend it is hard to stop our male peers believing that too.
If you have attended an Improv show at all in the last 50 years the chances that you saw an even or balanced team are slim. Sure the rare four men four women teams exist and there are some really fantastic all lady teams out there (Virgin Daiquiris anyone?). But, this is the exception, not the rule. The Second City Mainstage cast is, to this day, four men and two women. The famous Second City, a theatre that has produced some of the greatest comedy minds (male and female) still conveys the belief that there are twice as many funny men as women. WHAT?!?!?!?
Some argue that there are far less women competing for the female slots and far more men competing for the male slots. Most, if not all, of the classes I have taken in my career have had nearly the same number of women as men. Maybe I’ve been lucky? Nope. Thanks to women like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig (to name a few) more women are now pursuing careers in comedy. Why did it take this long? No idea. Because women like Betty White, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Bonnie Hunt, and many many MANY more have been proving for over 50 years that our genitalia have no bearing on our ability to produce comedy. This begs the question, if the same number of women are taking classes as men why do men still outnumber women 2 to 1 (at best) in casting?
It’s not just women either. A black, male friend of mine was recently cast in a coveted role. He is crazy talented and deserved it. What response did I hear, more than once, from my peers? “Well he got cast because he was black”. Again we know that if one group of people has had it easy in America it’s the African-American community. (You guys get my sarcasm by now right? I’ll stop pointing it out.) We are in the entertainment industry. We are supposed to be chastised by Fox News for being the liberal media elite. Let’s make their job easier and get a little more liberal up in here.
My point is this. Racism and sexism are no longer blatant and they no longer take the form of “Women cannot do x and black people cannot do y”. But they are still there: sneaky and undermining. Our talent is still being questioned because of our race or gender. Instead of being told we cannot do something we are now being told how much easier we have it, because people pity us.
I certainly do not mean to paint all white men in comedy with the same brush stroke (ya sexist jerks). I know many white men who do not buy into the belief that we get hired because of our gender any more than they buy into the existence of unicorns. The ones who do, you know who you are and you must know you are crazy sauce. Knock it off. To anyone in power with these beliefs, shut it down. You are making yourself look ignorant and perpetuating a stereotype that should have been squashed decades ago. I am your equal, I am your friend, and I am your teammate. Treat me like it.