January 24, 2011

A Woman in Stand-Up Comedy (WISC)

By Contributor Meghan O'Keefe

I’ve always liked being a girl. I was raised to think that being a girl meant I could do anything I set my mind to. I could be smart, funny, athletic, strong, caring, or any other wonderful adjective you could think of. I never felt that being a girl made me in any way weaker than a guy. That is, I never felt that way until I moved to New York and started doing stand-up comedy.

The first time I went to an open mic, I felt it. I looked around the room and immediately knew I was the odd girl out, and by "odd girl out," I mean "one of the only girl comics in the room, and for that matter, the only girl in the room wearing a cute skirt, dangling earrings, smoky eye shadow and her hair in carefully styled curls." Every insecurity I had about trying stand up for the first time was amplified by the fact that I clearly did not fit in. When I was finally called to the stage, I did terribly. I went up without a notebook, without a tape recorder and without a clue. I was unprepared for what the spotlight would feel like or how unnerving it would be standing in front of 40 jaded comics who were waiting for me to get off stage so they could have their time. Even the mic stand terrified me. An inanimate object intimidated me because I had no idea how it worked. I completely blanked on my material and as I sat back down I realized that even if I hadn’t blanked the crowd wouldn’t have liked it because my ideas were just too … girly.

I had never before felt as though my girlishness was a weakness. If anything it was an edge. When I had done improv and sketch comedy in Boston, I knew that even though I was probably never the funniest person in a room, my point of view was important because it was a girl’s. But in the New York stand-up scene I felt like a freak. A super girly freak. Everyone else seemed cool and cynical and brooding and I was spastic and hopeful and upbeat. Even my brightly covered spiral bound notebook clashed against everyone else’s sleek, black, little moleskins.

Somehow, this feeling of not fitting in made me want to pursue stand up even more. I have this weird thing where if you tell me I can't accomplish something, I become determined to prove you wrong. My drive quadruples if you tell me the reason I can’t accomplish it is because I’m a girl. In fact, it’s no longer a challenge, but a game. The truth was, I really liked doing stand up. As terrifying and uncomfortable as all those open mics were, I felt like I was unlocking a new creative side of me. The only thing that really upset me about stand up was “the girl issue.” For the first time in my life, people were calling me “pretty” to my face, and for the first time in my life, it was the last thing I wanted to hear. I would get off stage and the host would say, “Isn’t she pretty?”, and all I could think was, “Yeah, but was I funny?” I felt like no one took me seriously because of how I looked and it frustrated me to no end.

Because I had just moved to New York and because I had just started stand-up comedy, I didn’t have the same support system of female comics to turn to that I did in Boston. I didn’t know who to talk to about the problem without sounding like a whiner baby. So, I did the classy thing and I googled every established female comic’s name I could think of, hoping for some insight into how they dealt with the issue. Finally, I came across an interview with Julie Klausner in which she gave some advice:

Q: With all of the recent talk of women comedy writers on late night TV, what advice would you give to women who aren't mousy, who take pride in the way they dress and are decidedly feminine, yet are also funny as hell and deserve a chance to work alongside their schlubby comedy peers?

A: Just advice that anybody who isn't crazy or stupid would give–don't let anybody make you feel so bad it gets in your way, and do the work you love. If it's a matter of figuring out which of your friends make you feel awful, by all means get rid of the ones that do. But if you want to succeed, make sure your work is so good that it speaks for itself, so you could come into the office wearing a pink tutu, ala The Rock in The Tooth Fairy, and your colleagues will be like, "Yay! You are here! Who gives a shit that you are crazy!"

Something finally clicked in my head. The other comics weren't cold to me because I was a girl. They were cold because I was new, inexperienced, and wasn't working a fraction as hard as the rest of them. I didn’t go to a lot of mics or shows and I had yet to kill on stage. I hadn’t paid my dues yet. Suddenly the whole weight of "I'm a girly girl and that's why they hate me" was gone. I realized that I had mistakenly displaced a lot of my anxiety about being new to comedy on my gender. I didn’t need to worry about what people thought about what I was wearing; it didn’t matter what I was wearing. I needed to worry about my comedy.

So, I applied myself. I started going to three mics a week, then five, then seven, now I aim for at least eight. I tried my best to be humble at all times. I told myself to never get mad at the audience for not laughing. I attempted to look at every mic as a privilege and not an onus. I didn't bother people I barely knew before the mics when they were writing. Somehow during this transition period I managed to write my first good joke. I know it was a good joke because it's the first joke I've ever written that will always get a laugh. And because as soon as I wrote that joke, other comics started to talk to me like I was one of them. I was no longer the silly new girl who was interloping into their world; I was the silly new comic who was working hard and who also happened to be a girl.

Meghan O'Keefe: A girl, her stage, and a mic

I'm not saying sexism in comedy doesn't persist. It does. It's ugly and horrible and still exists in small, but loud, corners of the New York comedy scene. There still is an unmistakable boys’ club vibe at most open mics and stand-up comedy shows. However, I've also been told by bookers and producers that it's somehow easier for women in comedy. How? Because we're in demand. In my own personal experience — and this is limited to Boston and New York — the really talented and smart men who are in comedy today (i.e. the ones that matter) are all really rooting for women in comedy to succeed. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard male comics gush about how Maria Bamford is their favorite stand up (male or female) working today. I've heard guys quote Brooke Van Poppelen and Jessi Klein material to help make a conversational point. Don't even get me started on how much they all adore Kristen Schaal, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey. And those are just the big names. There are dozens upon dozens of strong, smart, talented female comics who are making their way up the stand-up comedy ladder in New York who boast male comics as their best friends and most ardent supporters.

I guess what it's taken a long time for me to say is that if I'm doing poorly, I never want to blame it on being a girl. There's no problem with me being a super girly comedian because there's nothing wrong with being super girly. If I'm not getting the laughs or spots I want, I have to examine why my comedy isn't working — not my gender. There will be people who don’t like me only because I’m a girl. Some of them will be bookers and producers and other such gatekeepers of the comedy world. But I don’t think I can convince a sexist to book me by whining about his (or her) sexism. I think the only way to conquer that is to be the funniest person I can be. The phrase for it that I keep hearing and reading is you have to be "undeniably funny." You know, so good at it that no one can deny your talent no matter what you look like, what you sound like or what you talk about onstage. It’s an idea that doesn’t just apply to female comics, but every comic.

I know that because I am still ridiculously new I still haven’t seen every side to this issue. I’m sure down the road many of my opinions on this topic will change, but I hope my attitude doesn’t. At this point, I don’t see how being bitter about sexism is going to help me be funnier. I think focusing on my comedy is the only thing that’s going to help me become funnier, so that’s what I’m going to do.


Meghan O'Keefe is a comedian in NYC. She blogs at megsokay.tumblr.com — check it out to find out when and where to catch her, live!

1 comment:

  1. It's great to see some evidence from the inside that things are changing. I despair a lot. There's still so much resistance to smart funny women in our culture. Best of all luck (and hard work!) to you.

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