I first began stand-up comedy in 2012. I had been going through a horrible break up and one of my closest friends at the time asked me if I had wanted to go to a stand-up comedy open mic with him. “You can use it to vent about your ex,” he said. I was a little hesitant, mainly because I didn’t even fully know what an open mic was nor how stand-up comedy worked in general. Sure, I loved comedy of all kinds, but stand-up was a breed unto its own. I had watched stand-up specials since I was young but that was far different than actually performing it. And it was nothing like the comedic scripts I’d written or the funny plays I had acted in. Stand-up seemed unscripted and totally unpredictable; it scared me but also intrigued me at the same time.
Despite my anxiety about performing, my friend successfully convinced me to accompany him to my first open mic. Four hours, three tequila shots, and a lot of anxiety later, I had successfully performed stand-up comedy in front of a whopping six people. I was so nervous when I was on stage, I honestly couldn’t tell you exactly what came out of my mouth. However, my set was surprisingly met with laughter, and after my performance I felt surprisingly empowered, relieved and encouraged. I found stand-up nerve-wrecking, sure, but also cathartic. And thus my stand-up journey began.
I began to perform at open mics several nights a week, which led me to meet club bookers, which then led me to be in several different stand up shows. As I kept getting booked in more and more shows, however, I began to realize that I was, for the most part, one of the only girls in these shows. I was generally surrounded by all men: the men in the show, the club promoter, and the majority of the audience members. At first, I liked it – I realized that because not a lot of women were doing stand-up, it gave me an advantage. It allowed me to get booked in bigger shows I usually wouldn’t have been able to get booked in. However, it felt strange to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder why more women weren’t performing stand-up comedy. After several shows, my fellow male comedians – if they weren’t hitting on me – would say things like, “hey, you’re pretty funny for a girl”. And then it finally dawned on me – stand-up comedy was a male dominated world. And that sucked!
About a year into my stand-up career, I ended up speaking to another female comic about the art form. I asked her if it was normal that I was usually one of the only girls in the shows I was doing and she told me that it absolutely was. “The stand-up game is brutal, but even more so if you’re a woman,” she explained. And she was right. Even the stand-up material I was hearing was generally skewed towards a male audience. I couldn’t help but wonder why women weren’t getting up and talking about things that our gender could relate to. There had been a lot of material I wanted to write that dealt with female-dominated topics. However, I found myself talking about dating rather than some of the other things I wanted to address, just because I knew it would get laughs from both sexes. As free as I felt in being able to discuss taboo topics, I didn’t feel like I could talk about “girl things” without isolating the majority of my audiences.
Luckily, however, things have changed. The #MeToo Movement has led to an increase in the amount of women performing stand-up. In just a couple of years, I went from seeing very few women performing at all, to several all-female stand-up troupes performing at venues throughout Los Angeles. In this political climate, I think women feel more safe and willing to get up on stage and talk about whatever they want to talk about; they feel like they have more of a voice. In turn, more and more female stand-ups have been popping up. The last show I performed in was dominated by women. I’ve even noticed that there are more women in the audiences of these shows.
I often get asked how the movement has affected comedy in general, and I’d say that overall, people are more sensitive to others and aware of what they’re saying. For instance, I performed at an open mic a couple of weeks ago. During it, a male comic got up on stage and attempted to make a joke about rape. Five years ago, that joke might have gotten a few laughs, regardless of it was inappropriate. Today, however, not only did it not receive any laughs, the crowd was dead silent and a few women even muttered things like, “not cool”. I left that open mic feeling really hopeful about what had just transpired. I had finally seen a piece of evidence that suggested that the stand-up game was shifting away from what it was when I first started.
I wanted a male opinion on the matter, so I spoke with one of my good friends, Paul Elia. Paul has been performing stand-up comedy for over eight years and is very established in the industry. When asking Paul how he believed the #MeToo movement has affected stand-up, he explained, “I think the state of comedy is constantly evolving with the times. Comedy changes any time there’s a big event, such as Bill Clinton’s incident in the White House, and OJ Simpson’s trial. The #Metoo movement is one of those monumental events that will forever change comedy and the state of human existence. I like the movement and what it stands for. It’s a moment about protecting basic human rights. Sure we can find humor in that. I have heard some brilliant jokes about the movement.”
Like Paul said, comedians are able to use the movement as a well of new material. And, like past events, it’s important to incorporate current topics in your material. However, although most comedians are a proponent of the changes brought on by the #MeToo movement, some worry that they’re being too censored. I have a few male friends who have told me in confidence that they get worried about saying something wrong or too offensive on stage and offending people. A good friend of mine who’s also a stand-up comedian, Sarah “Sunshine” Schubert, has mixed feelings about the movement’s effects on stand-up. “On one hand,” she explains, “it has provided women a clearer path to ‘make it’ more fairly in a man’s industry. On the other hand, it has limited comedians’ material. Audiences have become hyper-sensitive about certain subjects — which unfortunately, has created an ‘off limits’ realm. Comedy and jokes should always push boundaries, and no subject should be considered off limits. Whether an audience agrees with the comedian’s perspective or not, the art of clever writing and delivery should be appreciated.”
Similar to Sarah, I’m an ardent supporter of the fact that comedy shouldn’t be censored. If someone thinks something is funny, then he or she should be able to say it if it’s not intentionally harming a specific individual or group of people. However, there is always a line that can be crossed, and now it’s going to be about finding the appropriate place for that line to land. As history has proved, the stand-up world will constantly evolve, and luckily, it’s evolving in a more positive, inclusive direction.
(Story by Contributing Editor, Megan Nager)