Women-Run Comedy Nights Aren’t Killing Comedy. They’re Making it Better.

comedian bri pruett alone onstage at the all jane no dick comedy festival

Comedian Bri Pruett performs at the All Jane, No Dick comedy festival last year. Photo by Jason Traeger. 

On Saturday night in Portland, comedians packed a large cafe, one by one climbing onto a corner stage to take the mic-and destroy. The thing that was different about this comedy night than any of the other hundreds of comedy nights happening at the exact same time across the country was that almost every comedian was a woman. The showcase, called “Am I Right, Ladies?!”, specifically focuses on feminist comedy. Saturday’s lineup included three queer ladies, a few straight gals, a biracial queer guy, two foul-mouthed mothers (one sarcastic Latina, one white and in an open marriage), and even a token straight white guy who riffed with absurdist beatboxing.

While comedy is a male-dominated scene, “Am I Right, Ladies?!” is just one of many  women-centered, women-booked comedy showcases that happen regularly all over Portland, in dive bars, pizza pubs, and comedy theaters. In this city, there’s also Lez Stand Up, Potty Talk, It’s Gonna Be Okay, and, Totes Hilars, a monthly queer variety showcase of comedy, drag, and burlesque. Last night, the biggest women-run comedy event of all kicked off: the four-day long All Jane, No Dick comedy fest, which is in its third year of bringing an impressive stand-ups, improv comedians, and workshops in from all over the country. However, even in progressive Portland with our wacky donuts and famous feminist bookstore, not everybody is into the idea of women making their own comedy nights.

Last week, a young man calling himself “Matt the Lone Woof” removed All Jane No Dick’s posters in one neighborhood and replaced them with his own, poorly doctored fliers. His new fliers advertised the “The 3rd Annual Male Hate Convention, where all men will have their dicks severed onsite” hosted by the “Feminazi Association of Oregon.” He also placed a weirdly-tepid craigslist ad inviting others to join him in silent protest of this “sexist event.”

all jane no dick's actual posterthe altered all jane no dick flyer

All Jane No Dick posters: Can you spot all the differences? 

The flyers and ad were so absurdly off-putting that people thought perhaps All Jane No Dick was doing some guerrilla advertising—trying to stir up publicity with a fake men’s rights activist. However, local comedian Amy Miller managed to track down, interview, and befuddle this unrealistically obtuse protester. He is indeed real and face-palmingly sincere.

The thing is, Matt the Lone Woof is not, actually, that alone. He’s the flesh-and-blood embodiment of a lot of online discourse among men who feel immediately threatened by the idea of spaces—especially in traditionally male areas like comedy—that “exclude” them. In their mind, women-only comedy nights or queer-only comedy nights are abject censorship that is in direct opposition to the heavily belabored “Anything Goes As Long As It’s Funny” Comedy Commandment. What’s happening with comedy in Portland is happening all over the country: long left off of mainstream comedy stages, female, queer and POC comedians are forming their own scenes and shows. In New York there’s Upright Citizen Brigade’s Lady Jam, in Boston there’s the Women in Comedy Festival, in Chicago, there’s the Women's Funny Festival, in Austin there’s the Ladies Are Funny Festival, in L.A. there’s spaces like Laugh Riot Grrrl! at the Tao Comedy Studio, in Seattle, there’s Elicia Sanchez’s Wine Shots! show and The Comedy Womb Space. Faced with often-hostile, overwhelmingly straight, male comedy environments, women and queer comedians are carving out relative safe spaces for themselves onstage.

Some comedy fans, like the Lone Woof, see this as being exclusive. But they’re wrong. What these alternative, diversity-geared comedy events do is make comedy better for everyone. Comedians who would never have been able to break into the comedy scene due to rampant sexism are able to get onstage, work through jokes, and hone material.

The types of anti-feminist backlash that we are seeing rise to the cultural surface make clear the bigotry that marginalized people in comedy are up against. But in our world, it’s outdated, and it’s losing its footing. These women and queer-run comedy nights are playing a crucial part in creating great new comedians. The positivity of the activism involved in festivals like All Jane No Dick far outweighs and counteracts the efforts of men’s-rights activists and other haters who drag down the scene by having the needless argument over whether women are even funny (which, I mean: DUH.) While the stage at these events is set aside for people who have historically been excluded from comedy, the audience seats are open to all—people can decide for themselves what types of comedy they are drawn to, or what moves them to discover something new. Everyone who likes to laugh benefits from better comedians, new jokes, and  broader, more diverse perspectives.  Women-only comedy events are not exclusive, they’re inclusive, creating a better comedy world in general.

As All Jane No Dick Founder and Artistic Director Stacey Hallal explained, “Our goal is to encourage, discover and raise the visibility of women in comedy. By doing so, we hope to make the ratio of men to women in comedy more balanced. We believe that the more voices, perspectives, and points of view that are shared, the more people understand and develop compassion for each other.”

comedian maggie maye

Comedian Maggie Maye onstage at All Jane No Dick in 2013. Photo by Jason Traeger. 

“Safe space” can often be kind of a nebulous term that is defined based on context. From a ‘90s punk scene perspective, a safer space sometimes meant that bands like Fugazi and L7 encouraged “Grrrls to the front!” at typically aggressive shows. In the world of comedy, the idea is fairly new.  All Jane No Dick’s Hallal estimates that women only represent 17 to 19 percent of people working in the comedy industry in Hollywood and at major comedy festivals in North America. Comedy venues are notorious for not booking more than one woman or person of color per show. While there are lots of funny up-and-coming women and comedians of color, the people who run the industry—the show bookers, the venue owners, the festival organizers—are overwhelmingly white and male. Comedians report that bookers often expect them to perform comedy that plays into stereotypes—like an Asian comedian is expected to do jokes about being Asian—or say they’re “unrelatable.” In this regressive atmosphere, creating intentionally safer spaces for women in comedy could have a big impact on the quality of comedy. With our more than 6 women-run comedy nights, Portland is a case-study for this.

Lucia Fasano is a multitalented 21-year-old comedian and musician who moved from LA to Portland in 2012 with dreams of doing two things: attend college and performing. She never expected that she would immediately start doing regular stand-up all over town, and also found a successful women’s comedy and music festival. In 2013, Fasano and some friends launched The Grrrl Front,  a collaborative festival fueled by talent, local sponsorships, and and an undeniably punk work ethic. As a young feminist, Fasano agrees that there’s something crucial in creating spaces for young marginalized people to be able to develop their voice in such a typically hostile artform.

“In LA, I only did a bit of comedy, but it always felt like I would only be allowed to ‘make it’ in comedy if I was ‘The Nerdy Girl’ or some caricature of myself,” says Fasano. “It’s a hard scene for women if you're not already established somehow. When I moved here, I met all these incredible people of all genders, who I was surprised to find were basically riot grrrl comics. It’s radical comedy and it’s pretty fucking magical.”

Portland is known for being supportive and artistic, but Fasano and other female comedians have found that there’s still a high bullshit factor when marginalized comedians want to create a stage for themselves. In her typically effusive style, Fasano sums up the criticism she hears, “‘Guh, kay, but WHY do you need an all-womens comedy festival? WHEN DO THE MENS GET TO TALK?’”  

a margaret atwood quote: "men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them."

Being part of a female-booked show eases some of the specific tension of being a female comedian, say performers.  “You don’t have to worry so much about ‘does this person just want to sleep with me?’ or about whether I’m doomed to be condescended to or tokenized in any given comedy situation, whether at a club or on Twitter,” says Fasano. Portland comedian JoAnn Schinderle, who hosts a co-ed comedy showcase called Control Yourself,  points out, “I’m not sure people realize how high and different the stakes are for us.”

LA comic Rye Silverman holds the distinguished title of being the first openly trans* comic performing in All Jane No Dick’s three-year run. Being in a women-run comedy festival clearly feels different, she says, and it lets her hone her act. “IN LA, I went back and forth between gendered clothes because it was so hard for me to work on material at mics in a dress. I like the idea of a safe space for comedy because then I don’t have to burn my stage time explaining my existence for the first five minutes. Sometimes I just wanna work on my other material—I don’t have a lot of new things to say about being trans. I don’t want my whole act to become about it.”

New York City-based comedian Phoebe Robinson, who’s performing at All Jane No Dick this weekend (and is also a Bitch contributor), has a similar viewpoint: sexism gets in the way of good comedy. “ Life isn't a safe space, so I don't expect the places where I perform comedy to be,” she says via email. “I just want to work on my craft and if someone wants to be ignorant on stage, I'm not going to let that stop me from using my time to get better.” When she faces some kind of pushback from the audience or industry, Robinson tries to not let it overshadow her work. “I often think of what my parents taught me (and what most black parents teach their kids) which is that ‘you have to work twice as hard to get half as much.’ And that's very applicable to all non-straight white dudes comics.” Only when the demographics of the industry actually shift to include substantially more women and people of color, says Robinson, will the need for "safe spaces" disappear. As it is, comedy events run that spotlight people who are typically marginalized in the scene are great places for audiences and comedians alike to find new acts and original work that’s refreshingly unlike what’s on most stages.

phoebe robinson laughing

Comedian Phoebe Robinson.

Comedy has always been subversive. Female stand-up comedians are speaking their mind onstage in a culture where women are still generally expected to be docile, agreeable, and accommodating. Women also expected to remain calm and collected when harassed, heckled, or threatened. Portland comedian JoAnn Schinderle wonders if comedy has permanently changed her. A Wisconsin native with a “bless your heart!” kind of first impression, Schinderle finds that she has a hard time being doormat for others anymore—or putting up with sexual harassment from bookers and show runners. She’s punchier, more outspoken. “I was told last week at my dayjob that I’m not allowed to work with customers anymore! And my dad’s always asking ‘whatever happened to my sunshine girl?’”

The night Schinderle hosts, Control Yourself, is not a safe space. But she expects comedians to be smart about what jokes they tell. “I care about crafting a joke," she says. "I want to see people do the work, and explore themselves as human beings. Say whatever you wanna say up there but be smart about it.  Don’t be cheap and dumb. If you’re a straight dude in a hoodie telling an abortion joke that’s not relevant to your own experience, you better be prepared to make me laugh, motherfucker.”

As All Jane No Dick festival founder Halall reminds us, “Comedy helps us see that we all share common human truths and human experiences, therefore improving the quality of our lives by reducing hate. It's hard to hate someone who can make you laugh.” Women and people of color making their own comedy spaces across the country aren’t hurting men and they’re not ruining comedy. They’re making comedy better—for everyone.

The All Jane No Dick Festival is this weekend at various venues in Portland. Check out the lineup and get tickets here.

Rebecca Waits is a writer, actor and stand-up comedian who has been making people laugh and feel feelings in Portland since 2010. Waits has performed in The Grrrl Front Music and Comedy Festival, done stand-up in Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles, and once at a dog's unicorn-themed birthday party.

EDITORS NOTE: This article misattributed quotes to Joann Schinderle. After being notified of the error, the quotes were removed on October 17. We regret the error. 

by Rebecca Waits
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