“I can see people misunderstanding me and sending me evil tweets,” laments a slightly worried Jen Kirkman, one of WICF 2011’s headliners, as she explains the differences between working for a woman versus a man in the comedy world (specifically, writing for TV) on the “A Bit of Chat with Ken Plume” podcast last Monday. To a woman working at any level in the field of comedy, Kirkman’s observations are well understood as a sincere plea to the men we work with (and love working with) to take a second look at the ways they interact with the women comics and actors around them.
Kirkman is perhaps best known for her work on Chelsea Lately, where she was a staff writer and roundtable regular. Kirkman's entire bio. can be found on her site.
Skip to 15:00 (continuing until about 23:10) of the audio podcast to hear the conversation: http://www.asitecalledfred.com/2011/10/03/jen-kirkman-ken-plume-chat/
Kirkman surmises that in some writers rooms, her male comedy peers, along with network supervisors, often let a pretty face get in the way of quality product:
I really love working for a woman … Chelsea [Handler], or women in charge, they don’t turn their heads when a handsome or pretty someone walks by, it doesn’t distract them from what they’re trying to do. It doesn’t change their mind about the job they’re doing ... I saw a lot of guys in my lifetime be influenced by a pretty girl that worked for them, and they chose to be around her rather than to make good comedy ... Working for a woman, I just never see sex or, like, attraction, get in the way of any decision making.
I have seen it in many experiences ... There was just this one moment where I worked on a show and let’s just say the actress was not getting it right … she just wasn’t a very good comedic actress and the network had problems with her … I’d hear the way my bosses talked about her - they were bummed out by her abilities ... The issue never got corrected. She kept just charming them and flirting with them and they just kept saying, “Maybe we’re wrong.” ... I like to see someone who says, “I don’t care how cute you are, honey, you’re not fucking funny. You’re not delivering this line right. And stop wearing a shirt without a bra on set!”
Male comics going gaga for a pretty face (or no bra), rather than for her talent (or lack thereof) is a pattern I’ve noticed emerging quite distinctly on the improv comedy circuit. Of course you’ll see a spattering of all-female and gender-equal teams at improv festivals these days, but the improv team you will see over and over again in any age group is, as I dub it, a Skirt team.
A Skirt team is made up of five to seven handsome, (over)confident (white) guys and one very beautiful young woman who performs… in a skirt (metaphorically or jean). Although she might possess some talent, it is overshadowed by the way she is treated by her male improvisers onstage. We’ve all seen it before. She’s the mom, the wife, the bitch and the slut, but nothing else. She is never the comedic foil in scenes, and cannot grow in that group. The men endow her with these roles so much that they’re all she allows for herself. From the outside, I cannot even imagine how she could be happy in her position. Maybe she doesn’t know any differently? Maybe she likes the attention (i.e. the skirt)?
"The improv team you will see over and over again in any age group is, as I dub it, a Skirt team."
It’s not for me to judge, but I do. I have been in many conversations with fellow female improvisers after seeing a group like this where we very bluntly denounce her abilities. We judge her more harshly than the male improvisers, for sure. I think the judgment comes from a place of anger towards her teammates and towards her complacency. Many women comics (even some very talented ones) have been forced into a Skirt team or a Skirt Team Situation before. Mine was at an improv competition at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where I was endowed as a non-talking cow whom the male improvisers took turns “milking.” It was a unique and horrifying experience in my early improvising years.
In an environment that fosters objective talent, a new female improviser on a Skirt team would either grow and get better, or be swept aside for someone else with stronger skills. This positive learning setting requires teachers and directors to give negative feedback to everyone, pretty faces included, so issues are corrected early on. Teachers and directors are doing every student a disservice by ignoring these performance weaknesses that could easily be corrected (i.e. don’t wear a skirt; flashing your vagina distracts the audience, or put your hair in an elastic; looks great, but I can’t see your face).
Kirkman believes that her male peers have trouble confronting a beautiful woman because of their innate nerdiness. She explains,
A lot of writers were kinda awkward … self-proclaimed. ‘I was awkward. I didn’t get laid a lot growing up.’ And even though they’re great guys, and they have families, and they have wives, and they would never cheat or anything like that … it would always weird me out, any time I’ve worked for a man to see them completely lose their composure around a beautiful woman. Which, if you’re working in TV, even if you’re working on a sitcom where it’s, you know, crazy wacky characters, everyone is beautiful. And to see them kinda lose it, it bothered me. It made me scared … It made me feel like a little kid and I saw my dad not know how to drive a car. I was just like, I’m in your hands, and I’m here to work for you and learn from you.
It’s a great letdown when we see the flaws of our mentors. I don’t want my boss’ eyes and heart to pop out of his body like a cartoon when a pretty woman enters the room, nor do I want the same reaction for myself. But if it does happen, I just want us both to be held to the same level of accountability when it comes to our performances.
"Teachers and directors are doing every student a disservice by ignoring these performance weaknesses that could easily be corrected (i.e. don’t wear a skirt; flashing your vagina distracts the audience, or put your hair in an elastic; looks great, but I can’t see your face)."
When Kirkman was asked if she was equally as disappointed by the actress as by her gawking male bosses, she responded fairly matter of factly, “No, I don’t care. I know actresses have to do what they have to do.” And she’s absolutely right. The actress, or in my example, the Skirt, might be perfectly aware of her own position. Maybe she thinks it’s the only way to survive the comedy (or sitcom) world until she can write her own parts and take control. And how can I blame her? Those endowed with beauty should feel empowered to wield it to their advantage for as long as they can get away with it. It might go without saying, but not all beautiful women are Skirts. Plus, most, if not all, of the extremely talented comediennes on TV and in movies, including Kirkman, are gorgeous.
The thing about Skirt teams that has always stuck in my mind is that, as a team, they are rarely very good or interesting. They rarely gain the notoriety of other popular teams on which both genders are represented by funny performers. Their shows are not nearly as compelling or transcendent as an improv show can be. That’s most likely because Skirt teams are usually beginner or college teams.
And there are many of them. I surmise that they exist as an echo of the relationship dynamics and character types we know from TV and movies. Each green improviser takes the archetypes and stereotypes we see in the media and just spits them out on stage. It can be a cathartic and comically rewarding exercise that quickly grows stale and sexist when left unexplored by a higher level of analysis. Each Skirt teammate can play out scenes with a bitchy wife just like they’ve seen on any network sitcom (Everybody Love Raymond) or a slutty mom of any evening soap opera (Desperate Housewives). Sometimes they switch it up and they play a slutty wife (Modern Family) or a bitchy mom (Everybody Love Raymond). And unfortunately, audiences eat that hack up because it’s what they have been taught is the only kind of comedy. The Skirt team gets their positive reinforcement, and therefore sees no reason to change.
"Male writers need to get their tongues off the ground, grow some balls, and give an honest critique to an actress who needs it."
What happens when those Skirt team players get hired to write for TV? We get boring, sexist programming in which the staff does not see the merits of hiring a talented comedic actress over a pretty face. We all want to be on or write for TV or the movies, or both. That desire is the same regardless of gender. So, how can we break the cycle of producing comedy in which the women are solely moms, wives, bitches and sluts when that’s what the audience is willing to accept and then replicate? There are plenty of great examples on TV from the last five years that have successfully stood outside that cycle (for at least long enough to get talented women comics in the fold) starting with Chelsea Lately, 30 Rock, and Mike & Molly. Not to mention Parks and Recreation, starring Amy Poehler, one of the most prolific and hilarious comedians of our age who, from her days as the sole female performer in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB), stood out. In New York Magazine’s article "And… Scene," a history of the UCB from those who lived it, Seth Myers, current head writer at Saturday Night Live, described Poehler as “probably the most feminine and most masculine performer. Masculinity — that’s probably not the right word. She’s an alpha performer. I think that’s ingrained in her, but it got trained very well.”
Poehler was trained very well. It is firstly the responsibility of the improv and comedy community at large to create a teaching and learning environment where talent and merit is valued above marketability. It’s then the responsibility of talented women to make sure they thrust themselves into that environment and help it grow by becoming teachers and directors. Women comedians must make themselves indispensable. We cannot give up when we see good things happen to bad comics. The Hangover may not have made any more or any less money at the box office if they hired better comedic actresses, the hilarious Rachael Harris excluded, but they would have had a better product. If the producers hired a pretty comic, like Amy Schumer, instead of a boring pretty actress as the front desk clerk when the Wolf Pack checks into Caesar’s Palace, that bit part could have been as brilliant and memorable as Kristen Wiig’s bit part in Knocked Up. Now Kristen Wiig is a movie star bringing in lots of money at the box office, and that pretty woman is … probably still on a high from playing a flight attendant in Due Date. I’m sure any audience member, given the choice, would go with the funny.
"Women comedians must make themselves indispensable. We cannot give up when we see good things happen to bad comics."
Of course, the audience doesn’t have the choice. The producers, directors, and sometimes writers have the choice, and they need to choose the funnier of the two. It is the responsibility of those with the power to take initiative. Male writers need to get their tongues off the ground, grow some balls, and give an honest critique to an actress who needs it. And the women close enough to witness these events happening need to say something about it to their male bosses and friends. Kirkman, I don’t want to see an actress flirting her way through a scene anymore than you do.
On the greater industry scale, we need more funny women as the decision makers. More funny women at the helm of shows, more funny women writing comedy screenplays, and more funny women ready to buy and produce them. We need more funny women as bosses, and we need our male bosses, male teammates, and male friends to pick us over the Skirt for the roles that matter.
Natalie Baseman is a sketch and improv comedian, and writer, living in Boston. She attended UMass Amherst, and has studied comedy with teachers from the Annoyance, I.O., Upright Citizens Brigade and The Second City. Natalie can currently be seen at ImprovBoston's Harold Night as a member of the harold team Maxitor, and as part of the sketch team The Dowry. See more of her work at www.nataliebaseman.com.