After the New York Times article about Eddie Brill, complete with his quote about female comics, I started this:
On a more serious note, upon reading the article and seeing the subsequent internet shitstorm, one of my dear friends in the New York comedy scene asked a group of us if she should just quit. The following is adapted from my response to her.
I went to a women’s college. It's a different, strange world, and a wonderful one. I spent four years in a place where women were the president of everything and 100% of the math majors and 100% of the comedy troupes, and so after that the idea that women can’t do any one particular thing isn't angering or offensive, it's just dumb. Like, I think people who believe that are stupid. They're simply not as smart as people who realize women are, you know, fully-functioning human members of society.
There is a huge amount of this kind of stupidity in the comedy and entertainment world.
It really wasn't that long ago that people said women couldn't be lawyers or doctors, at least not in equal numbers. Now more than 50% of law students are women, and the med school gap is closing quickly. (Be sure to check out the graduation rates.) Whenever a clear set of expectations (MCATs, pre-reqs, lab experience) are put in place for a particular career path, women can simply do that shit and get in on the action.
Our business of comedy and entertainment, however, is all about nepotism and protection of the status quo by the people who guard it.
Anybody who's read even a speck of Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer knows that we often make judgments with our gut, then justify those after the fact with our intellect. Bookers, agents and contest judges like Eddie Brill are constantly making gut judgments and then retroactively coming up with an imaginary set of rules and ideals that they follow. My favorite part of the Brill article is when Zinoman (the writer) gives examples of famous comics, like Steven Wright and Seinfeld, and Brill has to somehow fit them into his all-encompassing vulnerability matrix. The truth is, Eddie Brill just goes with what he likes.
The first time he saw me, he told me I wasn't genuine at all, that I was completely not vulnerable and just doing my impression of a comedian. In his defense, the second time he saw me, he changed his mind. Of course, I was terrified of him by then and probably seemed more frightened on stage than ever before. After that second performance, he also told me that I shouldn’t give a fuck about what people in his type of position think. Mission accomplished.
In my comedy, I talk about how I don't hate myself despite the fact that I'm plus-sized and queer. Maybe it’s difficult to fathom that, given my circumstances, I wouldn't just be weeping and cutting myself all day. I can't tell you. I don't really get why somebody wouldn't get me. Most male audience members and my male peers in the stand-up world don't seem to have any trouble picking up what I'm putting down.
And that's my point. The current root of the gender problem in comedy seems to be precisely with these gatekeepers and their commitment to the status quo. When you have one or two spots designated for women (as many late-night writing teams and high-profile comedy showcases do), you create this idea that you're struggling to find the talent to fill that spot when there is none available. What you're really doing is disqualifying half the population from 90-95% of the jobs.
The current statistics on women in entertainment are grim. The percentage of women writers in television recently dropped 14% (from 29% down to 15%). That could be evidence of discrimination in hiring, which is actually, you know, illegal in this country. Roseanne’s piece in New York Magazine opens with a comment that so little has changed. The culture behind our popular culture is full of broken institutions, but there are still ways to make an impact and have influence.
One thing that helps me to keep going is remembering how relatively easy I have it in a global and historical sense. I am so upset by sexism because I was raised to see myself as a full person, as equal, like everyone else in my generation. We were brought up believing we were equal to boys, that our tastes and talents were just as important as theirs, that our contributions to society were on the same level as theirs. Being told repeatedly that we're not as good by our industry is unacceptable, but it shouldn't defeat us. It should just motivate us to prove what we know to be true. And we have to come up with creative means to do so.
If I were rich, I'd start a production company/agency to tap into the unbelievable creative potential of young comics, particularly young women. There is a ludicrous (and LUCRATIVE) amount of unrepresented female talent in New York, LA, San Francisco, Austin, Boston...and I'm not even terribly familiar with Chicago.
Finally, after hearing an extremely talented fellow female comic say she's ready to give in to the gender wars of comedy, I’m no longer willing to refrain from weighing in on these periodic assessments of women and our collective comedic worth by the male gatekeepers who have tremendous influence in the comedy world and, consequently, our entire culture. Keeping my mouth shut in hopes of getting one of the few token spots for women is a failed strategy.
And I didn't become a stand-up comedian in order to bite my tongue.