What it’s Like to Be the Only Female Comedian in the Room

Amy York Rubin on identity expectations, striking out on her own, and the gender politics of comedy. 

The intro credits to Amy York Rubin’s web series Little Horribles has her eating a cookie while sitting on a toilet. So it makes sense that I caught up with Rubin in a bathroom. We were at an overcrowded and over-marketed party at the tech conference and festival SXSW, and the ladies room just happened to be the quietest place for an interview with the comedian, writer, and director.

The whole experience was a bit awkward but strangely philosophical — fitting for a discussion about identity and women in comedy. Rubin first caught my attention with her Little Horribles show about a self-indulgent lesbian that was hysterical enough I had to include it in Variety’s list of best non-subscription-based web series of 2013. Her latest project for the Will Ferrell-founded video site Funny or Die stars stand-up comedian and voice actress Maria Bamford, known for touring with Patton Oswald (along with 2 other men) and her voice characters in the popular cartoon Adventure Time, and will be released in the coming weeks.

The following is a highly-sanitized version of our restroom chat.

So, how’d you end up in comedy?

I did comedy on the side for a long time but I actually used to work in politics, and I didn’t really fit in. Politics is another place where women are scarce in positions of power, right? So I just started doing stand-up, going to the UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, an improv and comedy training center], and it was very, very fun and I felt like I could do it full-time.

Politics to comedy? That’s such a switch!

It’s kind of not in a way, because in both areas people are extreme versions of themselves. Everyone is a little bit of a megalomaniac. In politics, I had to be very specific and present myself in a specific way but I really couldn’t be myself. With the comedy stuff I was able to really be myself and say all the shit I wanted to say, [things] that if I said around political people they would be like, “whaaaa woah, you’re so like crazy.” So yeah, it was really a way for me to be myself.

I can see how comedy and politics are similar. Do you feel like you’ve had to present a certain character of yourself in both?

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been interested in, that performance of a specific identity. If you want to talk feminist theory, Judith Butler and performance identity — Judith Butler changed my life. I read her freshman year of college and learned about something I had felt for a long time but didn’t have the vocabulary to understand — this idea that you are always performing something. Whether you’re gay or straight or a funny person or a smart person, an introvert or an extrovert, you’re always doing some performance. I was interested in exploring that creatively and being aware of the different identities that you are.

Have you faced any challenges to your identity as a lesbian comedian?

Challenge-wise, a lot of it is finding your voice and knowing your voice and committing to it and believing in it. I think there’s the same [gender] issues in comedy as there are in any industry — discrepancies between how much you make and who you are compared to because women always have different ideas about how they have to be.

I think about when Hillary Clinton was running [for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008] and she cried in New Hampshire and until that moment it was like “oh what a bitch, she has no soul, she’s so cold.” But then she cried and it was “oh, she’s so emotional.” You can’t fucking win. Comedians have the same thing, at least with my stuff: “Oh, so you’re a lesbian, oh, so you’re like Lena Dunham.”

Because I look this way and write, they try to box you in more. I think men have that too, but it’s not empowering for women while it can be for men. For men the roles they’re boxed into are revered, “Oh, you are aggressive, oh, you are outspoken that’s great.” For us those boxes aren’t empowering or supportive. It’s the problem of being in a box.

Why did people compare you to Girls creator Lena Dunham?

I wouldn’t say compared compared, but if you look at a lot of the press we’re getting in the beginning, it was “the lesbian version of Girls” or “like Lena Dunham but on the West Coast.” And that’s fine. I love Girls. I love that show, and she is inspiring in a lot of ways. But you never get that with guys. You never hear, “Zach Galifianakis is a fat Will Ferrell.” They’re just who they are. There are 50 versions of the same male comedian. “Paul Rudd is a nicer version of Ben Stiller.” You don’t hear that.

Recently, an email kicking a comedian off a show because the planners “already had too many women” made headlines. Do women actually get their gigs canceled because there are too many women booked to perform in one night?

I’ve heard that before but that one was a surprisingly poorly executed version of that happening. It happens all the time but not as boldly as in an email like that. Usually people are a little more nuanced about the way they do that.

I feel like we went through this period where first every show had to have a black person and it was totally tokenized. Now, we’re getting to a place where it is beyond tokenization, where you have your headcount person going “oh here’s our favorite woman, here’s our black person, here’s our funny Asian” and now I think we’re moving into where it should be, with people and different stories. But that’s not going to change until the people making the decisions, people doing the bookings, people doing the writing, the show-running execs, are a diverse group too. That’s the only way it can really change.

Have you ever felt discriminated against?

There’s a thing I find with directing as a woman, where I walk this line of being really confident and knowing what I want as a director, but as a director you also have to listen to other people’s opinions. You hire a good PR director to take their opinions, a good art director to take their opinions, and I think sometimes with women, as a director, when you take people’s opinions you are seen as weak or not knowing what you want. So I think it’s a fine line we often get fucked on.

Both the musicians Rihanna and Nicki Minaj have talked about how if they are assertive, they are seen as a bitch, just because they were doing their jobs.

Yeah. I think that’s been going on forever…that’s the oldest comment in the book, right? The double standards are there. But I think people are getting [comfortable] with different versions of people and the lines between them are getting more blurred. What does a woman like? How does she act? What does a guy like? Those lines are getting blurrier too, and I think that’s great.

What was it like writing, directing and producing your own web series?

There’s nothing better than having something in your own head, that comes from an emotional and real place, expanding on it in your own voice and having it work on various levels. That’s just, for me, the best feeling.

So why didn’t you sell your idea to a studio? Why shoot it yourself and put it on YouTube?

Because I didn’t want to wait, I didn’t want to go through the process of “Let me convince you…” and I am new and young enough that like, to do something like that. If I had gone, “Hey guys, I have this idea, let me sell you on it, let me sell you on it,” it wasn’t going to happen in the way that I wanted it to. I had the resources to do it, so I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to show you guys why this IS good, and then you’ll want to do it, be a part of it.” That was my mentality.

Do you find YouTube liberating because it allows anyone to put up content without a gatekeeper?

I feel it’s even less YouTube and more the production technology and the Internet. My audience isn’t YouTube people, it’s people who found it through an article, or someone tweeted it and it fit a specific niche… not the standard YouTube audience. So what I feel is more liberating is the production technology. It doesn’t take a ton any more — especially in LA — to just get up and make your own thing and have it actually look pretty good.

This interview was produced as part of The Only Woman in the Room, a collection by LadyBits. Visit the collection homepage to read more stories about what it’s like to be a trailblazing woman, and check out the call for submissions for information on how to contribute.

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