Comedian Janine Brito in typical attire. Photo by Jen Maler.
Technically speaking, it's never been a better time to be a female comedian. But, man, does it still often suck.
Bonnie McFarlane, director of the 2014 documentary Women Aren't Funny, was a writer on comedy shows when she lived in Los Angeles. The male executives and head writers for TV shows always say the same thing, said McFarlane: "‘There's no good funny female writers.’ If they saw a female name on the top of a packet, they'd be like, ‘Oh, brother, a woman.’"
This is a story we’ve heard before in numerous think-pieces about women in comedy. We’re certainly talking about the importance of women in comedy a lot more these days, but does that translate to more women feeling supported enough to actually step onstage? I decided to get some hard data.
Stand-up comedy in New York has a stepladder hierarchy that goes from alternative open mic performers to regular headliners on the club circuit. It's difficult for a stand-up comic to become a headliner at the major comedy clubs unless they have some notoriety from writing or performing on a nationally broadcast late night or sketch comedy TV show, such as Saturday Night Live or Letterman. It is very, very challenging for even a white male comic to advance through these ranks in less than five to ten years.
At comedy shows, there are headliners, comics, and MCs. Of course, everyone onstage is a comedian, but there are tiers. The MCs warm up the crowd and introduce the other performers—they’re generally not very well-known. The slightly more famous comics are the middle-of-the-night performers and the headliners are the stars of the night, the bigger-name comedians who people will pay to see.
To get some data on how women are advancing (or not) in comedy, I asked the Manhattan comedy club Carolines on Broadway to see lists of all of their nightly lineups since 2011. Carolines, originally opened by Caroline Hirsch as a cabaret venue in 1982 in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, is one of the most well-known and established comedy clubs in the United States. The 280-seat club is a good barometer for a portrait of mainstream commercial success in comedy: it’s not a fringe club with an edgy lineup but it’s not a godforsaken suburban casino stage either. It’s the place right near Times Square, where in the next month you can go see an SNL cast member, the co-writer of Two Broke Girls, and Tom Green.
I crunched the numbers on the lineups at Carolines. From 2011 to 2014 (excluding only the month of December 2014), there were 290 female MCs out of a total 1,398 MCs. Which means that just over 20 percent of MCs were women. During that time, middle-of-the-night female comics were roughly 14 percent of lineups, or 833 women out of 5,908 comics. About eight percent of headliners were women, or 110 women out of 1,346 total headliners.
Altogether—not accounting for the variation in actual time they got to spend onstage—women made up 14.3 percent of performers.
Here’s the year-by-year breakdown:
Between 2011 and 2014, the number of female acts at Caroline's has only increased slightly across the board. That’s surprising, because the club has seen the addition of several monthly women-only show over the past two years, including Ladies' Night with Robyn Schall and HERsterical, as well as a Women Aren't Funny: Debunking the Myth panel during the 2014 New York Comedy Festival.
Of course, this is a picture of just one comedy club out of the hundreds of comedy clubs in the United States. But the hard data from Caroline's helps shed light on a bigger picture of women in comedy nationwide.
Comedian Aparna Nancherla miming... something. Photo by Kevin Thom.
For example, such as with Caroline's, women-only showcases have been a significant way for female comedians to get stage time in cities across the country. All-women shows and festivals do offer a safer space for women to try out jokes and guarantee women stage time in an industry where it’s hard to get a foot in the door. At the same time, many comics I’ve spoken with, including Bonnie McFarlane, Liza Treyger, and Megan Gailey, are opposed to designating shows as "women only." While women have always been a significant part of creating a culture of stand-up comedy and improv in the United States, all-women comedy events still draw grumbling from male comedians. This past year, the All Jane No Dick comedy fest in Portland was publicly criticized by a terrible/unintentionally-hilarious men’s rights activist and comedian Anna Drezen, who hosts New York’s monthly all-women open mic night Open Michelle, says she still gets emails from male comedians complaining that the show only allows women onstage. Drezen replies to those emails with a thoughtful sentiment: "Good luck in the female-dominated industry of stand-up comedy."
The gender gap in comedy isn’t just limited to stand-up comedians. To get a portrait of gender imbalance in TV comedy-writing staffs, I looked up the credited writing staff of 11 current sketch comedy shows on IMDB. The results are no surprise. Out of the staffs of shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, I only found two with writing staffs that were over 50 percent female: Inside Amy Schumer and Broad City, which both center on female characters. Portlandia came close, with women making up 40 percent of its writing staff.
Broad City is one of the new TV comedies with a majority-female writing staff.
I talked with comedians Janine Brito and Aparna Nancherla about working as writers on the brilliant, but short-lived, FXX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. Together, they created many sketches for the show that regularly dealt with race, gender, and social justice issues, and it was clear to them how important it was to have women’s voices in the writers’ room. "Writing is super fun, you’re in a room with a bunch of people, firing stuff off," says Brito. "But you are working for someone else, whether it’s the person who has to say the words or the network, so you kind of have to compromise sometimes." Once, the female writers pitched a sketch that satirized yogurt commercials marketed towards women. "The guys were like, 'Oh, is yogurt like a thing for women?' And we were like, 'Really!?' They had no idea what we were talking about," said Nancherla. "But there's a ton of yogurt commercials! It made me realize, it really does matter how many women are in a room."
The data I dug up on female comedians onstage and in writers’ rooms is not too surprising but it shows a reality that’s important to recognize—and to work to change.
Related Reading: A Brief History of "Women Aren't Funny."
Kaitlyn Mitchell is a journalist living in Queens, New York who graduated with my master's degree from NYU in 2014. She has freelanced for Gotham Magazine, Time Out New York, Bedford + Bowery, DNAinfo New York, Mic, and Washington Square News.