Working Comics and Comedy Writers on How They’re Navigating a #MeToo World
These days in the comedy world, you’ll hear a fair number of men go on and on about how “PC” culture is thwarting the ability of comedians to be funny — stuff like no longer being able to tell rape jokes or condoning bits where men kill women who refuse to fuck them. For this old guard, the idea that comedy can exist without misogyny is an impossible consideration.
But the dawn of #MeToo doesn’t mean male comics can’t make jokes anymore. It means male comics who have built their careers around sexist, racist and homophobic jokes are going out of fashion, trampled by smart women whose hardships have often had much higher stakes and whose jokes are bringing in bigger laughs. As per this Hollywood Reporter article, the same-old, same-old doesn’t work anymore: “Women are more empowered now, both onstage and in the audience,” says veteran comic Christopher Titus. “The things guys used to say about them, women can now say back. Meanwhile, every guy checks himself a little bit. Manifest destiny is over.”
Similarly, the lone straight white male comic at a recent comedy show I attended joked, “We’re having whatever the opposite of a moment is right now.”
The joke was funnier than he was, of course, because it’s true.
And so, to see how laughter and #MeToo are coexisting on stages across Los Angeles — the Entertainment Capital of the World and often the precursor to what makes its way into the pop culture food chain — I spoke to a bunch of primarily female stand-up comics and comedy writers about how they’re tweaking punchlines in a world where gender dynamics and the definition of who and what is funny is quickly changing.
Dan Hernandez, co-executive producer of ‘One Day at a Time’ on Netflix and writer on ‘Super Fun Night’ and ‘1600 Penn’
There will always be a tension at a job like mine between pitching open, searingly honest, sometimes ribald comedy material and crossing the line into something more damaging. However, I’d suggest that the line remains where it’s always been: If you’re doing something that causes emotional or physical harm to one of your coworkers, you’re doing it wrong. Almost without exception, the people protesting their inability to make these kind of jokes are creating a reality that’s never actually existed. It’s never been okay to make a rape joke that makes people uncomfortable. It’s never been acceptable — or I might add, good comedy — to pitch a joke so steeped in misogyny that it makes women (or others) in the room feel objectified. It was always shitty and horrible. But there wasn’t always anything one could do about it.
The tide, though, is turning. We’re in a moment when there’s an apparatus — and perhaps equally as important, language and vocabulary — that can be used to call out such behavior when it occurs, rather than silently taking it. All it takes is a simple perusal of Hollywood Reporter or Deadline to see the serious accusations against showrunners and other writers that have already taken place. But in the #MeToo and #TimesUp moment, there’s an infrastructure being created at record speed that can begin to put a check on people who abuse their positions.
I wish I could provide you with a personal anecdote from my work experiences, but the truth is, everyone I’ve worked with, without exception, has been professional and respectful. That isn’t to say we haven’t pitched some of the foulest, most politically incorrect jokes that could have ever been conceived. But we did so with purpose and free from ingrained cruelty or a malign agenda. To me, this only further shines a light on the people complaining about “what they can’t say.” It’s hard to change. And admittedly, I sometimes think of language that I used in middle school and high school and cringe at the uninformed person I used to be. But for those who want to change, the ability to learn and grow is there.
Michelle Badillo, executive story editor at ‘One Day at a Time’
If people in writers rooms are good at their jobs, they simply have to be funny without rape jokes, etc. If they think they aren’t funny without rape jokes, they probably weren’t funny to begin with. I also think a lot of people work themselves into a frenzy that they’re being told to “censor themselves” or that they have to do “soft” comedy now, which I don’t think is true. You can absolutely still do comedy that’s biting and offends the sensibilities of uptight proper folk, but that doesn’t mean being racist, homophobic or misogynistic. And again, frankly, if all you got are racist, homophobic or misogynistic jokes, we heard them all — back in 1950.
Kasey Koop, stand-up comic and stripper
Our experiences have been silenced for so long that men become confused when we talk about them and often can’t see the humor therein. For example, I’ll make jokes about the way my sugar addiction has led to frequent yeast infections. Girls will laugh, but guys have no idea what I’m talking about. This extends to any material about the female experience — from dating to sexual harassment to our personal insecurities and the pressure to look and act a certain way. Plus, men have been fed a certain (ahem, male-dictated) narrative about women, and to hear our truth, upsets and frightens them.
Recently, I wrote and shot a pilot with three women about the strip club experience from the strippers’ perspective. It’s a sitcom. Men have absolutely gotten the world of sex work wrong in TV and films for many decades, and it’s time we turn the table and share our actual truth. I’ve danced in clubs for three years, and it’s been comedy from the start! I’m sick of only seeing the place as a backdrop for a show where men are doing a shady business deal or where the strippers are just working to put themselves through school and depicted as dimwits. I’m tired of the tropes, and I’m tired of the male gaze. We never see women laughing in the locker room together, cheering each other on and bonding about their hatred of the smug male clientele. My goal is to depict the loving silliness of the strip club, because that’s what I’ve always experienced there. The female gaze into daily life at a strip club is far more fascinating and hilarious!
Heather Jewett, stand-up comic and creator of the web series ‘Healing With Heather’
A lot of white dudes who were the class clowns in their high schools and always loved speaking in movie quotes go into comedy and find a bunch of other comics who look and think like them. They go into open mics knowing there’s gonna be dudes there who share at least some of their sensibilities and influences. That’s one less giant hurdle to cross in trying something that requires terrifying vulnerability, which is speaking your worldview to a silently judging room of strangers.
I think career-wise, though, comedy is no longer a boys club, which is exciting! It’s getting much more diverse. When the bill is stacked with straight white guys at stand-up shows, you can kind of feel the air being sucked out of the room. People are bored with it. They’re hungry for other worldviews and experiences.
But in life, it’s still challenging. Something that’s happened to me my whole life is the experience of being in a group of men I’ve just met — whether they’re classmates, co-workers or whoever — and joining in the conversation with jokes or irreverence. Almost always, even if the conversation is lighthearted, my contribution falls flat. It’s not that whatever comment I’ve made isn’t funny or exactly along the lines of what the men are saying — it’s that they don’t think I’m joking. They aren’t used to a female voice contributing a bit or a line. This exchange is always awkward for me, and usually ends with them being really confused or slowly coming to the realization that what I said was smart or funny. That’s when they typically repeat the joke back to me or repurpose it and say it even louder. It’s insane how often my own jokes have been explained to me!
Madison Shepard, stand-up comedian and co-creator of the ‘Gentrification’ comedy showcase in L.A.
Today, I think so much is boiling up that men are paying more attention to what it’s like to be a woman than ever before. I saw this begin with the topic of cat-calling a few years back. Men realized how little they knew when it came to that experience. Guys started to realize that every single woman they knew is likely to experience street harassment every time she leaves her home. Of course, this didn’t change every man’s behavior, but now with the #MeToo movement, more men are aware that foaming-at-the-mouth-feminist-witches aren’t the only women facing these issues. It’s every woman. It’s your mom. It’s your aunt. It’s your coworkers. It’s your boss. It’s your friends. It’s your daughters. Men are having to come to terms with the fact that this is what’s been happening for a long time, whether they only chose to recognize it recently or not.
That said, why should I care what men think of me? Obviously I want to make money, but I don’t think I need to do that by trying to get men to relate to me. I went up at a show one time and was like, “Just by round of applause, how many women are in the audience?” It was like half the room. I was like, “Interesting. We’re half the population here, but one fifth of this lineup.” I wasn’t booked on that show again, but I could give a shit. Another example: The generation of female comics that came before me thought they needed to wear hoodies and big jeans and avoid makeup and looking hot in order for men to think they were funny. I care so little about that. I’m not going to hide that I’m a woman. I’m a big, fat, beautiful black woman. I have my hair done, I wear makeup and I tell jokes for at least half the audience. Some men might get it, but it’s usually the girlfriend in the audience who’s like, “Finally, there’s a woman out here talking about things that we deal with.”
Lara Marie Schoenhals, host of the ‘Sexy Unique Podcast’ and author of the ‘New York Times’ bestseller ‘White Girl Problems’
Anyone can make a joke as long as it’s funny. Funny is still funny. You can be problematic and/or subversive as long as a joke lands. But a bunch of old white guys feeling disgruntled because of #MeToo isn’t subversive. The funniest comedians — or at least the comedians I like — make themselves vulnerable and speak to their place in this world in a really honest way. Because white men have always had the most power in our society, they don’t take time to look at their experience of the world and how they exist in it in honest ways. That’s beginning to disadvantage them comedically — they’re coming off as ignorant bros.
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