There is nothing better than funny women being funny. But comedy, like a lot things, was (and still is) kind of a boy's club. Like the historic Friars Club, an exclusive men’s club for male comedians that began in 1904. It wasn’t until 1988 that they started welcoming female members, making Liza Minnelli the first official female member. Since then, female members have included notable names such as Candice Bergen, Whoopi Goldberg, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Joy Behar, Lisa Lampanelli, and Whitney Cummings, and up-and-coming stand-ups and comedy writers like Morgan Murphy and Sara Schaefer.
Since letting women into the club female involvement in the club has slowly increased to about one quarter of the members, with women on the Board of Governors, chairing committees, programming events and running comedy competitions–like the Friars Club Improv and Sketch Competition, founded and run by two women, executive director Sue Constantine and director Jaime Marsanico.
This year there are two all-female teams competing. Among the teams are the three-woman improv troupe Doppelganger (pictured below) and last year’s sketch finalists, the duo Somebody’s in the Doghouse (pictured above). They are two teams of ten finalists competing for $5,000 to make a short film that would premiere at the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival in October. With the recent success of Bridesmaids, it's cool to think that the festival could be launching the career of the next Kristen Wiig!
In its second year, the Friars Club Improv and Sketch Competition was founded last summer, and a big part of their mission is to help develop the careers of comedians. I spoke with founders and directors Sue and Jaime about the challenges for women in comedy:
Do you think women in comedy are getting more exposure now?
SUE: Definitely… Woman are getting more exposure now not only because they are funny and deserve it, but we there are more of us now! Thanks to pioneers like Carol Burnett, Catherine O’Hara, Jane Curtain and Gilda Radner, more women are trying their hand at comedy. Also, there are more women creating opportunities for themselves by becoming writers and producers as well. That and there are less Neanderthals out there claiming that “women just aren’t as funny.” It’s pretty hard to claim that when you’ve got Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig out there carrying the shows that they’re on. And don’t even get me started on Kaitlin Olson. She slays me.
What are some of the challenges, if any, for women specific to sketch comedy and improv?
SUE: Times have definitely changed from when I first started doing improv to today. I remember in college being around a group of fellow male performers who had no problem openly stating in public, (or before auditions they were holding) that “women just aren’t as funny.” That would NEVER happen today. No one would get away with saying that in a group without being ripped apart (as they should be).
A few years ago, I was in a UCB class led where the instructor, god bless his heart, took someone to task for their openly sexist views. I actually wrote it in my journal that night so I wouldn’t forget exactly what he said. Here’s an excerpt:
Neanderthal Student: I saw ladies Harold Night last night at UCB and you know I was raised with the point of view that women aren't funny. [The class then groans] What? I am just being honest. Why would they all want to make one big women's group? They get kinda watered down that way and the unfunny parts stick out more. Seems to me it would be better to sprinkle them out one or two or three in a group. That way they would stand out more.
UCB Teacher: That is an incredibly sexist thing to say. My favorite improviser is Amy Poehler who can wipe the floor with 99% of the male improvisers. A lot of women feel like men are too aggressive on stage and don't let them speak. Maybe that's why you think that? Or have you thought it's just the women you've seen that weren't funny to you and not all women?
Neanderthal Student: I'm just being honest. I know I'm digging a grave for myself but that's just what I noticed. Are there any all guy groups?
Sue: Yeah, it's called improv.
JAIME: I think one of my biggest personal obstacles has been that I'm short. I've been doing a lot of improv lately, and sometimes it feels like some guys don't expect a lot from me because I am small chick... Also in some ways I am a bit of a girly girl. I love wearing dresses and heels - but I don't worry about what I look like when I'm performing, and I'm not afraid to look ugly or do to something silly. Of course, I would never wear heels to do improv, it's just not practical, but I find some cotton dresses to be just as comfortable and easy to move in as sweatpants, so it's frustrated me at times when I've been told it's distracting and takes away from what I am doing on stage. Part of doing comedy is being true to yourself, and if I'm comfortable and can do the same work in a dress, then I should be able to. I love that Mindy Kaling loves to shop and talk about clothes, and that Olivia Munn and Anna Faris are super-hot and super-funny.
It's amazing that the success and high-profile of female comedy stars like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and so many others, has probably encouraged more girls to give comedy a shot. I've even been in several classes and workshops recently where women outnumbered men 2 to 1, which was awesome to see! Hopefully younger girls who might have shied away from pursuing comedy in the past will give it a go!