Column: Comediennes

by Sid Feddema

Comedy, until relatively recently, has been something of a boy’s club, where men have dictated the terms of what is funny. For all the proclamations of comedy as a space where the Davids can bloodlessly topple the Goliaths and where the transgressive and the taboo-smashing are embraced, this license was not extended to women – at least not in the same way that it was extended to men.

“Funny Women Fest,” now in its third iteration, got its start in Hollywood, but will be growing into Highland Park this year for a block party-style event incorporating a number of venues and dozens of comedians. I encountered the FWF in an atypical (for Los Angeles) fashion, stumbling into it as I was taking my routine nighttime walk through the neighborhood.

I’m a fan of live comedy. In part because it makes for cheap (and often free) entertainment, but more than that there’s something inspiring and endearing about the way it works in this city. The scene is truly meritocratic, blissfully free of a well-defined hierarchy. There are no real gatekeepers or establishment elites you have to know if you want to get on stage; no budget required to put together a set. Well-established comedians will test out material alongside those just getting their start. Head over to one of the countless venues offering open-mikes on any given night and you’ll see the dreamers testing their stuff, doing it for the love of the art, hustling from venue to venue to refine their material and to get themselves out there.

Financially, comedy is a tough gig. In terms of career, it’s a struggle, as with any art. But there is a deep sense of camaraderie in the circuit, reminiscent of friendships formed in trenches or in any circumstance where the odds are daunting and the road ahead hard. This sense of community is particularly strong in the world of female comedians. It’s had to be.

Comedy’s inextricable function is as a mirror of the larger culture. This means that the same social strictures that circumscribed women’s behavior in our society – expectations that they remain demure, chaste, and maternal – applied in the comedy world as well. It seems that for all the taboos that comedy gleefully breaks, those applying to women were just too sacred to the prevailing culture. No wonder then that when forced to perform under all these constraints a perception that “women just aren’t funny” developed. In many senses, they weren’t really allowed to be. The same thing that might be funny coming out of the mouth of a man could come off as pushy, abrasive, or “bitchy” coming from a woman. This is on top of the continued obsession with women’s appearances that produces the dynamic in sitcoms and movies where the conspicuously young and beautiful wife invariably accompanies the portly goofball husband who looks his age.

“I actually got dropped by my agent, and she told me in an email that it was because ‘I was too pretty to do comedy’ and that she was having trouble placing me,” Erin Miller Williams, co-founder (with girlfriend Lauren Frost) of FWF says, “That was a catalyst for me to start writing my own material and doing my own webcasts and ultimately starting FWF, so it was kind of bittersweet. That wasn’t the first time I had heard that either. I had a producer tell me one time that I was ‘pretty, but not too pretty’ so ‘you can do a lot of different roles.’ I kind of looked at him like, ‘Thank you?’

“That’s something that happens a lot,” Williams continues, “the whole debate about if you’re attractive enough to play a leading lady or if you’re more a girl next door or best friend – that kind of bullshit. So it’s been fun to see so many diverse women at this festival doing so many different roles. It’s kind of a middle finger to anyone that says ‘You’re too pretty or too ugly to do comedy,’ because these women are clearly capable, and very funny.”

The old order is thankfully breaking down. The debate over whether or not women are funny has been decisively settled. But this wasn’t something that was given to female comedians – it was something they had to take. And they did so by working together, determinedly pushing the establishment for the space to be funny, drawing strength from solidarity and community. Powerful friendships like the one that Frost and Williams share have helped to make it possible. Speaking to them, you get a sense of the depth of their relationship. They seamlessly riff off of each other, and often complete each other’s thoughts the way that close friends do.

“Our goal with FWF was to create a platform for women in comedy that didn’t exist yet,” Frost tells me. “We wanted to make female comedians a force to be reckoned with and to come together to create a community here to encourage collaboration among these women.”

“This year there was more of a focus on letting people see how many funny women there actually are, and how eager these women are to perform and to come out for five minutes of stage time,” Williams says. “There are so many brilliant women ready to show what they’re working on. The festival keeps growing in numbers and in days and in stage size, and we want to keep building opportunities for them to showcase their work.”

As the space to perform has expanded, so has the range of the material. “One thing that’s been encouraging to see is the change and growth in the content of the performances,” Frost says. “It’s gone from where most women would talk about women-specific topics and problems and making those things funny to expanding into all topics, so that its not just gender-specific things.”

In an era where a president was memed and trolled into the White House, the power of comedy has become more apparent. We’ve learned that its ability to empower applies not only to the people but to proto-fascists. This makes it more important than ever that spaces to perform for those who have been historically marginalized are created and maintained, and that these networks of friendship and support come together and continue their work. Humor – and who gets to be funny – matters. Frost and Williams, for one, have no intention of slowing down.

“There’s no reason, as women and as creatives, that we should compete. I think its really about empowering each other and meeting people you dig and that you get along with and that you make great things with. That’s what Funny Women Fest is all about.”

Written by Sid Feddema
Photo: Associated Press