Here’s an experiment: enter into Google “best female comedians in Africa.” Or Asia. Or South America. You’ll get lists that include some women that might be African-American or Asian-American. You will see Margaret Cho’s name again and again, as if one Asian-American comedienne should be enough to keep us going for the next half-century or so. You’ll even click on links to round-ups that look like they’re going to include comedians of all genders just to find a list of ten dudes.
The majority of countries in our world just don’t have big reputations for comedy. Thanks to the realms of Hollywood, theatre and big-ticket festivals, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia tend to get all of the attention. All of these places have one thing in common: English as a first language. English unites the global comedy scene, making it difficult for primarily non-English-speaking countries to break through. The established comedians we may now know had to leave home for one of the bigger markets to “make it.” And “making it” is hard enough in the U.S., U.K. and Australia when you identify as a woman, let alone when you’re coming up in a smaller market.
In February of 2015, Bitch Media published a report on the number of female comedians that performed between 2011 and 2014 at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York. As one of the most iconic clubs in one of the biggest comedy cities, Caroline’s is a good peek at the ratio of men to women on the average bill. The stats broke down to women making up just 14.3% of the acts. On top of men being constantly favored for gigs in the industry, women also have to put up with the unfortunately usual bullshit of being, well, women. Earlier this year, women who spoke up about sexual harassment within Chicago’s Improv Olympic group faced backlash. Rising stars Courtney Pauroso and Beth Stelling called out their abuser, Cale Hartmann, knowing that doing so could end their careers. We’re so surrounded by the trolling of female stars like Amy Schumer that it’s sadly easy for many to just tune it out.
None of this is stopping women from fighting to make us laugh, and not just in the usual comedy markets. Saudi-born Bangladeshi woman Farhana Muna recently made waves with her growing fan base that tunes into her “Munatic” sketch videos on YouTube. Uganda’s Anne Kansiime is also making videos to rave reviews and appearing onstage throughout Africa. Neeti Palta is killing it in India, and Joanna Sio is fast on the rise in Singapore.
For Sio, there was no comedy scene when she was growing up in Hong Kong. She found her inspiration through film. Stand-up barely existed until the last decade, and when it did start developing, she says there was no clear path for locals to get into it as a career. Even now, as the scene in Singapore—where she lives and performs now in addition to touring—grows, Sio sees the pressure for comedians to go elsewhere to make it.
“I think it is because the scene in Asia is still really young and comics feel like they need some reassurance that they are doing really well; not just well in a small, developing scene...you need to get reassurance from the outside, from places where comedy has a longer history and is a more established institution...To make it big would definitely mean exploring those markets, and it is unclear whether one can get discovered just by being at your home turf.”
There are some benefits of working in a smaller scene, though. Sio says the community in Singapore is tight-knit, ego-free and friendly. She finds her comedy scene to be pretty balanced and fair in regards to female performers, something she feels couldn’t be said about more competitive markets. She recalls just a few negative experiences, some having to do with her being a woman, some having to do with her background. Sio says her material can make audience members uncomfortable, and feels like that’s a result of what she “should” or “shouldn’t” talk about as a woman, and furthermore as a woman getting into her late 30s.
“I feel like people judge me if I talk about sex, which I don’t really, but I am mildly annoyed by the fact that you can only talk about sex when you [are] young and potentially fuckable, but not when you are married, having pushed two kids out of your vagina. Then it is no longer okay. I don’t think they judge male comics like this.”
When on the road, Sio not only comes onstage as a woman, but as an Asian woman for which English isn’t her first language--not an issue for Sio, but it has been for promoters.
“I once did a gig in Canada and I went to check whether some jokes would be too offensive, and the host told me ‘You are a tiny Asian woman with a Hong Kong accent, people would not find you offensive. You can get away with murder.’ I was offended but I didn’t show it--because I am a tiny Asian woman with a Hong Kong accent.”
Neeti Palta is also making her own way in a brand new comedy scene. Stand-up has only been in existence for about six years in India. Like Sio, though, Palta likes that the smallness of India’s stand-up community equals a sense of closeness. She says that the comedians all know each other and revel in the diversity of their different backgrounds and voices. But, she does feel that need to get her foot into the door of international markets. She says that while India’s comedy stage is fast on the rise and attracting big names, it’s still new and isolated enough that touring to more established scenes around the world is necessary.
While Palta hasn’t faced any obstacles specifically for hailing from such a new scene, she has seen some disadvantages being a woman. She does credit her gender with getting her noticed in the first place, though: volunteering to make sound effects for a segment of Whose Line Is It Anyway’s Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood’s live show, she started improving herself for audience-wowing results.
“At the end of the round, Colin said they normally never picked female volunteers for this round since females to be reticent...he said I was really funny and should try my hand at stand-up comedy. I decided to take it up as a challenge because ‘reticent’ isn’t an adjective people would ever use to describe me.”
That impression of reticence in women is just one of the perceptions that Palta has seen drive promoters to take advantage of female comedians. She says she has to be picky about gigs because certain offers are suspicious: is she getting booked for her comedy, or will a room of drunk men simply be entertained by the fact that she’s a woman? Some promoters have told her she should charge less for her performance because she costs them more by not sharing a hotel room with other names on the bill, who are men. Even someone hiring Palta for a Women’s Day gig blurted out “But I thought female comedians charged less than men.”
But Palta doesn’t let that stop her, nor is she okay with these preconceptions men have about women and women in comedy, in particular.
“Women are brought up to be reticent or self-conscious. We are brought up to dress and behave in a way so as not to draw attention to ourselves. [I’m] not sure if we are born with it or conditioning over the years makes us have this inner voice that constantly...makes us self-doubt. My advice is if you treat your gender like an albatross around your neck, there’s not very far you can go. Tell that negative inner voice to STFU and bash on regardless.”
For the future, working in such new comedy communities, both Sio and Palta see a combination of their scenes growing at home and their local comedians following opportunities in the rest of the world. Both are necessary to get these performers the recognition they deserve, as well as to promote the comedy that can be found outside the same old countries we’re used to getting it from.
Sio emphasizes that women are vital to the growth and success of the comedy scene in Singapore, as well as the greater comedy world.
“Women bring in more diverse topics--childbirth, bringing up kids, getting old--[they can] explore topics that are normally not on the table in a comedy club occupied by male comics.”
“I do see more women joining in, or at least starting to take an interest,” Palta says of India’s scene. “Now that comedy is slowly being scene as a legit profession, hopefully they’ll face less objection to them joining than I had to.”
Palta is excited about comedy’s fast growth in India, and sees women’s rise in this industry as important as in any other industry.
“Women in India are changing. They are more empowered and have more freedom to make their own choices. More of them are stepping forward in all fields--be it in the army or as a pilot, so why not comedy? It’s all happening, and it’s happening here.”
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Courtney Iseman is a New York-based freelance writer who's really happy people pay her to talk about things like music, fashion and snacks. She's written for places like i-D, The Cut, The New York Observer, Mental Floss, Time Out New York, Gothamist and The Hairpin. Her proudest role, though, is being a mom to a black pug named Darby.