How Badass Women Are Reinventing Comedy For The Digital Age

By Chelsea Jack

In post-Bridesmaids America, the demand for women-driven comedies in Hollywood has spiked. However, comediennes — especially women of color — are still underrepresented in comedy and get paid less than their male counterparts.

Thud, click: That was the sound of a banal, albeit important and accurate, thesis landing and you, discerning reader, navigating away from a think piece you’ve probably read before — apparently five times before here, here, here, here, and here, on The Huffington Post alone.

The comedy enterprise has always been a boy’s club, but if you look at emerging comedy media today, the dopest women (cough, cue foreshadowing) in those spaces aren’t always trying to break into that club. Women in comedy are establishing their own communities and audiences who #LeanIn (not to be confused with #leanin) to support their work.

To accomplish this, comediennes are experimenting with media to redraw the boundaries of what comedy looks like and how to deliver it. These women are not all professional comedians; some of them are freelance journalists and actresses, like Elizabeth Banks (Effie in The Hunger Games), who recently co-founded the multimedia site WhoHaha.

What they’re doing is different than Condi Rice’s induction into Augusta National. They’re not trying to join the establishment, per se: they’re creating a better one. As Tina Fey suggested recently, it’s about time for pushback against a system rewarding some male comics to continue churning out “garbage, while the ladies are hustling and doing amazing work.”

Funny ladies are hustling to use innovative mediums, like podcasts and e-newsletters, to say something new and say it in a new way. Let’s look at a few of these projects (and disclaimer: shit’s about to get real nerdy, real fast) to see how experimental female comedy media implicitly and explicitly shape feminist messages.

Feminist Ear Candy

Some storytelling podcasts hosted by dynamic female duos, like 2 Dope Queens via WNYC Studios or Call Your Girlfriend, implicitly nod to traditional Austenian (like Jane) themes, e.g. uplifting sisterly devotion between besties. Simultaneously, many of these shows honor contemporary third-wave commitments, like destabilizing categories of universal womanhood by talking about race.

Of all the podcasts like this, Jessica Williams (The Daily Show) and Phoebe Robinson (Broad City) set the bar with 2 Dope Queens. They host and podcast a live stand-up show with invited guests, typically from The Bell House in Brooklyn. They’re black. They’re besties. And they’re funnier than the 2016 presidential election! (Oh, that’s still not funny? Right! Sorry, not sorry.)

To start the show and tee up their guests — who are always refreshingly original and deliberately diverse, recent ones including Aparna Nancherla (Late Night with Seth Meyers), Neel Nanda, and Alex Edelman — Jessica and Phoebe share hilarious stories about their own lives as black women in New York City. The Queens’ most winning bits are almost always micro tragicomedies illustrating how everyday social interactions, like hailing a cab, have the potential to be more stressful for people of color. I peed myself cackling at “How to Channel Your Inner White Lady,” but then went from laughing my bits off to genuine, pour-me-another-pinot-and-crank-T-Swift tears as Jessica talked about how there’s no room for “reasonable” female anger, especially reasonable black female anger, in a world that calls emotional women, regardless of the context, crazy and irrational. With graceful, off-the-cuff humor, they drive home really serious social comments, and every time I can’t help but think, “is there any better way to turn your enemies into friends?”

How could podcasting their show promote feminist conversations? Well, as popular media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message. In other words, the “message” of any medium, like a podcast, is “the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” Think about how any new technology has the potential to change the rhythm of everyday life, e.g. GPS systems, for those who can afford them, have virtually replaced printed roadmaps and, theoretically, have reduced the time travelers spend navigating. Different media change the pace and patterns of human affairs in this way, and sometimes this can have the happy effect of positively transforming social relations, such as when my parents purchased a GPS, fewer minutes were spent agonizing over a roadmap in the minivan. This meant a happier, more relaxed family road trip for us all.

Podcasts, like any technology, can change the pace and patterns of a thoughtful media consumer. When coupled with content explicitly by and for women, the message, in the McLuhan sense, of podcasts like 2 Dope Queens is one about engaging in social practices long championed by feminists (and decent human beings): listening to one another and recognizing untold stories. It is obviously wonderful that women in comedy have utilized different kinds of mediums to celebrate compelling female friendships; however, it is less obvious, but just as wonderful, to contemplate how choosing to podcast their work promotes feminist practices, like listening.

Making You Dear

Podcasts are just one kind of experimental medium that women in comedy are using to build their audiences. E-letters have come into vogue, like Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s “Lenny Letter,” which isn’t itself comedy-driven per se, but offers an “exceptional — but also exceptionally old-fashioned” model for building communities of, by, and for women. Letters have specific intentions: They build relationships and familiar communities by invoking a candid voice shaped by shared assumptions and affinities.

Feminists from Jane Austen to Alice Walker engaged in epistolary, or letter-based, writing projects, and newsletters have been enjoying an online renaissance among comediennes. Some multimedia comedy networks, like PYPO by Emmy-winning producer Stephanie Laing (Veep), use the e-letter model to send video sketches and original editorials directly to subscriber inboxes. Call Your Girlfriend, yet another giggle-inducing podcast hosted by and about long-distance besties, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, sends a monthly newsletter appropriately titled “The Bleed” to its subscribers: “Once a month, we’ll arrive in your inbox to remind you of your power and fertility. We’ll include links to some of our favorite things, great reads, worthy causes, and drunk-online-shopping temptations. Tabs on tabs of links and internet Advil,” the creators write about their letter, clearly intended for menstruating audiences everywhere, on the CYG website.

The emergence of e-newsletters represents a desire to cultivate familiar communities of women, not faceless and abstract audiences, who can begin reimagining what “online” means: that it can mean spaces friendly and respectful of female voices and interests.

“It’s not about the public’s appraisal because that is what is going to exhaust us, writing for anonymous audiences,” Brooklyn-based writer Durga Chew-Bose said to The Guardian about women writing online. “You write for the people you know and that’s how you’re going to grow.”

Tl;dr

“The medium is the message.” Women in comedy understand this. They’re experimenting with media to say something new and say it in a new way. Comedy podcasts and e-newsletters by and for women have the potential to establish feminist conversations by transforming audiences into welcoming communities that prioritize listening, female friendships, and respect. This might sound like a fortune cookie aphorism, but, as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s inspiring to see how often funny women can seriously change the way the world works by not taking themselves too seriously.

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