How Far Have Women in Comedy Really Come?

by Rashmi Chugani

This Sunday, the 2015 Golden Globe Awards will showcase Tina Fey and Amy Poehler for the third consecutive year. But as much as the rise of female comedians like Fey and Poehler represents progress for women in comedy, as those in the industry will tell you, there's still a long way to go. Today, there are a record number of women in the Supreme Court, a presumptive woman candidate for president, and a three-cent dent in the gender wage gap over the last decade. But when it comes to women behind the microphone? The glass comedy cellar-ceiling is anything but shattered.

In an era where Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers, and Ellen DeGeneres have become household names, it is surprising that aspiring female comedians are still in the minority. But the numbers don’t lie: The women who were featured at the Comedy Central “Comedy Festival” in Manhattan in early November were established comedians such as Inside Amy Schumer’s own Amy Schumer and self-proclaimed “comedian-host-DJ” personality Amanda Seales. In the “Comics to Watch” segment, only two out of the 11 comedians were women.

“People sometimes tell me I have a male sense of humor. That is so frustrating to me ... That’s like people telling me women aren’t funny, but you are.”

Tuesday night is free comedy night at New York’s Irish Exit Saloon. The guests at this Midtown East bar drink beer and eat burgers as they await entertainment. Host Anthony DeVito introduces Scott, a young, skinny man with glasses who jokes about the differences between New York and his native New Orleans. DeVito then introduces Sean, bearded and much chubbier than Scott, who does impersonations. Then another guy takes the stage. He makes jokes about Ebola. And then another guy comes on. And then another.

“We usually have a female,” said the show’s 33-year-old booker Jeremy Levenbach. “But she did not make it tonight.”

The night before, just a few streets south of Irish Exit, comedians Liz Miele and Casey Balsham performed in The Stand NYC — the only two women in a line-up of ten comedians.

“I’m allergic to yeast. Simplistically speaking that means I’m allergic to beer and bread,” Miele tells her audience. “And I learned something pretty quickly; I’ve met happy people that don’t drink … I have never met a happy person that doesn’t eat bread,” she continued to a laughing crowd. “It’s the worst allergy ever.”

(Image: Liz Miele/Phil Provencio)

“You’re always the token girl,” Miele tells Bustle. “It took me a long time to make female comic friends just because there weren’t any around.”

Miele, dressed in skinny jeans and boots, boasts jokes that range from jabs at the NYPD to her “unresolved emotional issues.”

“I fully believe all veterinarians are just stunted serial killers. They just never graduated to people,” she joked at The Stand.

The 29-year-old has been doing comedy for 13 years and is hopeful that people who come up to her to say “she’s really funny for a girl” will soon disappear.

“Shitty people die off,” she says before she takes a sip of her first drink after her set.

Most female comics are used to their work being judged in relation to men. Anna Halligan is an assistant writer for the Starz show Outlander, and an improv comedian in L.A.

“People sometimes tell me I have a male sense of humor. That is so frustrating to me,” Halligan tells Bustle. “I just have a sense of humor!” she laughed. “That’s like people telling me women aren’t funny, but you are.”

(Sadie Hawkins Dance: Matt Gossen, Anna Halligan, Jamie Woodham/Lexi Graboski)

Halligan spends much of her time with her improv comedy group “Tiny Pizza” and “Sadie Hawkins Dance,” a sketch group she is developing with fellow comedians. Elegant and poised, Halligan used to be a ballerina before words and pens captivated her. She wants to write her own comedy show, and is quick to say that her male peers are nothing but supportive of her. It is her own self-esteem she is working on.

“Every day I have to remind myself that I have as much a right to be where I am,” says the 23-year-old. “But it’s almost like when I go in front of an audience and tell a joke I am representing all women. That’s so much pressure!” she said. “If I’m not funny then Joe Schmo in the front row will be like 'I told ya.'”

Amazingly, some male comics see an advantage in being the underdog. Forty-year-old Irish Exit veteran Matt Ruby thinks women can use their gender to get a larger crowd reaction.

“Female comics can have an advantage because of the surprise of hearing a woman saying a man has a small dick and is a slave to the patriarchy,” says Ruby. “For a man that can be dangerous.”

Stand-up comedian Jake Weisman couldn't disagree more. "Men need to realize women have been oppressed and be aware of the inequality,” he says. “Having a fair amount of women shapes how we look at the world ... There needs to be an evening out so females feel they can do it; I mean, the word 'comedienne' should not exist!”

Alison Stevenson, who performs stand-up and writes for Vice and FilmDrunk, agrees. “There’s so many clichés about women in comedy, whether it’s dating or your period,” she says. “When a man says something on stage, the audience believes him. They can be preachy and spit politics. We cannot."

The 25-year-old introduces herself primarily as a writer, performs stand-up, and is jokingly dismissive of improv performers because “they’re just so happy.” She’s quick to say that the more seasoned she is, the more she notices gender.

“SAN FRAN: Come see funny vids & funny stand up tonight! Megan, Clare & I are 3 women who are almost as funny as 1 man,” Stevenson wrote in her Twitter account promoting a Thanksgiving tour and her video sketch group “Blessed.”

Despite the long history of stand-up inequality, some young comics hope that the simple passage of time will improve women’s standing: Aspiring male comedians, who will presumably soon take some of the leadership roles in the industry, are aware of the inequality in gender representation.

“There’s discrepancy in every field. But we are making a way in the right direction in comedy,” says Jamie Woodham, a male member of Sadie Hawkins Dance. “Every time someone says, 'You’re funny for a girl,' you’ve changed their mind — at least a little. There’s a silver lining ... Women are hilarious. And there’s a dying breed of shitty opinions, whether they are racial, religious, or about gender.”

Just this year, seasoned comedian Rich Vos produced the documentary Women Aren’t Funny . In it, both male and female comedians address the lack of female comedy leads in Hollywood movies, and of aspiring women comics.

“There was more sexism when I was starting,” says 57-year-old Vos, who has been working in comedy for 30 years and continues to tour the country performing stand-up. “I mean, nobody becomes the CEO of Apple in two years, but times have changed for female comics.”