Gender and Authenticity On Stage: Stand-Up Norms in Theory and Practice

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 9.55.13 AMThis post was adapted from a conference presentation titled “Performing Vulnerability in ‘Dark Basements Full of Angry Men’: Authenticity, Gender, and Body in Stand-Up Comedy Spaces given at the Ethics and Aesthetics in Stand-up Comedy conference held at Bucknell University in April 2017. For a PDF doc, Click here 

This paper is part of my ongoing dissertation project, which explores the ways in which the ideological construction of ‘authenticity’ often functions as a gatekeeper in comedy. In my work, I understand stand-up as a hybrid subculture and media industry in which norms, behaviors, and beliefs  – or the ‘structures of feeling’ to use Raymond Williams’ term – loosely unite the field as a whole, from local open mics to television reviews to Twitter arguments about jokes to late-night writers rooms.

Here I draw primarily on ethnographic research I have been doing in central Illinois and Chicago, including interviews with comics, open-ended surveys, and participant observation (which is a fancy way of saying I started doing stand-up in Champaign last October). So far, I have data from 26 interviews, 7 surveys, and several Chicago-based comedy podcasts. Through these interviews and my own experiences, this research explores how the aesthetic and subcultural norms of contemporary stand-up comedy often contribute to an environment that is hostile towards women and especially towards queer women and women of color. Additionally, I explore the ways in which marginalized comics work to adapt to these spaces, to change them, or to create their own. More specifically, I argue that while “authenticity” is celebrated as a hallmark of contemporary American stand-up comedy, in practice the invocation of authenticity as an aesthetic norm often works to naturalize stand-up as a masculine space.

Vulnerability as a Hallmark of Contemporary Stand-up Comedy

W Kamau Bell:  Are comedy clubs inherently hostile environments for women?

Lindy West:  Well, they are dark basements full of angry men, so, just on a fundamental level, it’s not an awesome place to be.

“Comic V Feminist,” Totally Biased with W Kamau Bell, FX (2013)

While this quote is intentionally hyperbolic, stand-up comedy has historically been performed in masculine spaces and according to masculine norms. In her book, Whose Improv is in Anyway, theater and performance studies scholar Amy Seham contrasts the “powerful rhetoric of improv that insists on process, mutual support, and individual liberation,” with decades of actual comedic improv practice that has tended to exclude marginalized people. Ironically, she notes, while women and people of color historically found acceptance and honed their voices within other improvisational artistic modes – like feminist theater and jazz – the aesthetic format and industrial realities of improv comedy since the 1960s has been largely dominated, like stand-up, by straight, white men. As such, I’m interested in taking a similar approach to stand-up comedy by contrasting the rhetoric of stand-up that invokes truth, honesty, and authenticity with material practices that have functioned in ways that are hostile toward women.  In this paper, I will therefore highlight quotes from my interviews with comics that make visible the tension between the rhetoric of vulnerability and authenticity in stand-up and the material realities of trying to adhere to these norms. 

Since the “sick” comics of the 50s and 60s, like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, redefined American stand-up comedy as a subversive, conversational and direct mode of comedic performance, words like “truth,” “authenticity,” and “vulnerability” have often been held up as ideals of the art form by fans, comics, critics, and scholars. Cultural critic Lawrence Mintz (1985) compares performing stand-up comedy to being “naked” on stage. Similarly, David Marc (1997) describes the stand-up comic as “a naked self, eschewing the luxury of a clear-cut distinction between art and life” (13). Judith Yaross Lee (2012) argues that stand-up comedy announces itself as a “performance of an exposed individual” (28).

Indeed,  most of my subjects celebrated their ability to be truthful and vulnerable on stage:

“You’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of an audience, and I think that’s the most gratifying thing [….. ] performing is one of the hardest things for a human being to do because you’re afraid of what other people will say.”

“What you get from me is what my life is – I’m telling you the truth about my life.”

 “I love humor as: humans are flawed, humans are in pain, laughter eases tension. And that beauty of it crosses all genders, all races, all whatever, because we’re all in pain in different ways.”  

Lee (2016) notes that stand-up gives comics special “affordances” to talk about controversial subjects, discuss taboos, or explore painful topics. But, such affordances are not granted equally to all. While most of my subjects expressed a love of stand-up because of the license it gives to explore personal, painful, and controversial topics, they also noted a myriad of hurdles they faced to fully expressing themselves on stage. One reason for this may be that audiences are often uncomfortable with displays of female vulnerability or emotion. For instance, as Regina Barreca (1988) points out, male comics who perform anger are usually seen as “letting off steam” or being “cathartic” while women are “bitchy”, “crazy”, or “shrill” (94). Indeed, femininity is often culturally constructed as performative, unnatural, artificial – or even distracting or threatening — in ways that masculinity isn’t. Thus, women often see their femininity as a hurdle to overcome to be taken seriously in comedy. Women of color and queer women, of course, face additional hurdles in working to push back against additional stereotypes audiences expect them to perform.

One of the clearest examples of this anxiety came across in discussions of what women wear on stage. As Linda Mizejewski (2014) notes, female comics are often forced to operate within a pretty/funny binary, though recently she argues, famous comics are often required to be both pretty and funny. While comics often try to subvert or play with these norms, they are still nearly always defined as or against their bodies (5). This binary seemed to be felt by most of my interviewees:

“At one of my first mics, this dude was like ‘You’re not going to get anywhere looking like that. First of all you’re attractive […], and the girls in there aren’t going to want to listen to you and the guys are going to be trying to fuck and they’re not going to be listening to you.”

“After my set, another comic started his set by saying, ‘you shouldn’t wear leopard leggings to a mic — I’m not going to listen to anything someone in leopard leggings says.”

“ I am always torn between dressing too feminine and potentially being taken not seriously, or dressing too casually and androgynously and activating people’s preconceptions about queer female comedians.”

Not only do women face a double bind in their clothing decisions, they also face them in nearly every aspect of their career from the content of their material on stage to the ways in which they network with other comics offstage.  One subject summed it up thusly:

“Curse less. Curse more. Look cuter. Look bitchier. There’s no way to win.”

Comedian Sarah Schaefer tweeted this to-do list last year for female comics that more than one of my subjects mentioned as shorthand for this general feeling of frustration:

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 9.59.47 AM
Double standards and double binds were a recurring complaint throughout my interviews. Some of the most common themes were:

1) The pushback women get about certain types of jokes.   

“I wanted to be a “clean” comic. It is often mocked in the local scene. Especially for women…it seems you have to be vulgar to he noticed.”

{RE: a joke about anal sex}
“And then after the show I had a girl tell me how inappropriate it was and how unlady like it was. And it’s a total double standard. If a guy did that joke – there would be no problem.” […] And  I can’t talk about pooping, farting – can’t talk about that stuff because I’m a ‘lady’”

2) The ways in which stand-up requires networking and hanging out with other comics in ways that aren’t always comfortable:  

“When you’re a woman and you’re friendly to guys, they want to try to make you a prop in their male-ego-fantasy… also, they immediately want to hit on you. Being less friendly and less open has been much more helpful for me in the last year or two.”
“If some dude is harassing you but he’s a big name or he’s friends with someone else who is important in the community and could start trouble for you, you keep your mouth shut.”

3) The potential drawbacks in being vulnerable on stage.
While comics, fans, critics, and scholars alike often praise stand-up for its directness and vulnerability, the blurring of the line between onstage and offstage persona often puts women at risk of unwanted sexual and physical attention, especially when performing sets about their own sexuality. Because women are generally defined by and against their bodies (Rowe, 2011; Mizejewski, 2014), the performance of raw, personal material within masculine spaces often intensifies societal expectations of public ownership over female bodies.  While such raw performances are often praised as “real” and “truthful,” such material attracts differing levels of unwanted attention once performers leave the stage:

“It’s vulnerable and it’s private made public. And I don’t know if this is as prevalent for men, but, when you’re offstage people, men, will often approach you and strike up a conversation about that. Like oh, you brought ups sex, now I’m going to talk about sex, overshare overshare. They don’t even think it  because you’ve already brought it up so why wouldn’t they talk about that.”

Finally – not only do women face the potential for unwanted attention or harassment offstage brought on by vulnerable material, often women and other marginalized comics face the burden of under-representation in being seen as a stand-in for a group. This leads to a tricky balancing act, several comics noted, between telling truths about their own lives and risking objectification or, as one self-identified feminist comic put it “hurting the cause”:

“My truth as an activist and as a stand-up comic is different from other trans’ people’s truths. My experience is mine. So when I choose to objectify my own body, I’m calling it out because that’s the hard part of my life. I’m 100% woman, but my body is different. But making that statement, I don’t want anyone else to objectify me in that way. So, I’ve had trans people be like, that’s really offensive, and then I’ve had trans people say, you’re telling my story.” 

To sum up – authenticity, truth, and vulnerability are often held up as standards of stand-up comedy performance. However, these avenues aren’t equally available or safe for all comics, nor are they read the same in all comics. Thus, it’s important to interrogate the ideological assumptions we (as a culture and as scholars) make about stand-up and how they are tied to gender, race, and class. Additionally, an implicit argument in this work is that we should also be doing work on amateur comics, open mic comics and regional comedy scenes to gain a sense of how ideological and aesthetic assumptions about the form change if we shift out focus away from only the best, most polished, and most famous works.

Creating a Comedy Room of One’s Own
While some scholars like Regina Barreca (1988) have argued that “anytime a woman breaks through a barrier set by society, she’s making a feminist gesture of a sort” (182), Frances Gray (1994) adds the necessary caveat that “the breaking of silence can bring its own pain, for one enters most fields of discourse on male terms” (13). Joanne Gilbert (2004) argues that any attempt at feminist humor puts women in a double-bind: while seeking to subvert patriarchal norms through humor, they often must simultaneously abide by the standards set by decades of male performers and critics (33).  Or, to tweak the famous words of Audre Lorde (1984), the master’s humor will never dismantle the master’s house.

Rebecca Krefting (2014) notes that marginalized comics often play up stereotypes about themselves in order to find early success in front of potentially hostile audiences.  One tactic women often use to break into comedy is to play into female tropes: the spinster, the unruly body, the nagging wife, or the ditsy blonde. Similarly, many of my interviewees mentioned the ways in which they felt like they had to fit into masculine norms of stand-up when they started:

“When I first got into the scene I noticed two things – women felt that they had to have very strong opinions about sex and be very vocal about it or they felt they had to act very loud and aggressive on stage, and I feel that both are a shorthand for a male persona.”

“I started smoking when I started going to open mics, because I wanted to fit in with the guys, and the guys spent their time outside smoking.”  

Others noted the ways they felt excluded by not seeing themselves reflected in their local scene:

“So you’ll still see all white male and white female line-ups all the time. Zanie’s does like a monthly thing they call female funnies and every single person on that show is white. And I’m like – oh my God there’s nobody who looks like me.”

To create spaces where they see themselves and can make their own rules, women are producing their own shows, classes, festivals, and open mics to increase the visibility of all types of female and non-gender conforming comics. Some specific examples in Chicago include the BAPS (Beautiful and Powerful Sistas) Showcase, The Feminine Comique Stand-Up Class, Just Dicking Around All Genders Open Mic, Simmer Brown and The Kates.

Screen Shot 2017-10-26 at 10.00.42 AM

These spaces have all been mentioned in my interviews and are frequently credited with dramatically shifting the demographics of Chicago comedy over the past 5 years by creating places where women CAN be vulnerable and speak their “truth” without the attendant risks or pushback.

“You do see more female dominated spaces branching off. And then it’s not like you’re up there talking about something […]  private like that [and also] dealing with the faces of 40 bored male comics who don’t want to hear your period joke – but also we get to talk about what we get to talk about.”

One comic who started a collective devoted to diversifying the Chicago comedy scene noted that they’ve worked not only to expand the pool of comics working but also to expand the types of people in the audience who may be turned off by what they see as a predominantly white, straight, aggressively male space:

Let’s target a crowd that isn’t going to comedy shows that often or isn’t part of the scene, so we’re actually getting people who don’t seek out stand-up comedy or are surprised like ‘oh, I didn’t know you guys existed!” They might be Indian; they might be some other immigrant, or they might be someone who thinks it’s cool that there’s a mix of performers and it’s not 100% dirty.”

Finally, Kelsie Huff, founder of The Kates and a former instructor of The Feminine Comique, a women’s stand-up class created by Cameron Esposito, summed up her mission as such:

The mission was to increase the number of women in comedy, and how do you do that? You teach them. People are so angry about safe space in comedy. “Well life is hard, comedy is hard.” It comes from the philosophy of: are you competitive or are you building a community?”

The idea that comedy is essentially a free and safe space in which taboos, anti-social desires, and non- normative ideas can be more easily and acceptably expressed is echoed in many popular and academic accounts of the form.  Porter (1998) describes comedy as “essentially an anarchic form that consistently resists notions of political correctness and polite behavior” (66). Littlewood and Pickering (1998) invoke this idea as well, adding that any attempt to question moral implications of humor is “doomed to failure for the simple reason that it mistakes the very nature of the comic impulse” (291).  However, as Stuart Hall (1980) argues, the abstraction of texts from the social practices which produce them obscures the “ways in which particular ordering of cultures come to be produced and sustained” (27).

Indeed, authenticity in comedy often functions as a floating signifier with which to reinforce masculine standards of truth, and comedy’s obligation to “push boundaries” has become naturalized as a license for privileged comics to tell racist, transphobic, homophobic, or misogynistic jokes without pushback. Comedy should be celebrated as a space for pushing boundaries and talking about tough topics. But the celebration of stand-up comedy as a liminal space operating outside of the confines of polite society is useful only to the extent that it lets everyone in. Stand-up comedy needs to become a space that’s safe for all comics to feel comfortable breaking social taboos and feeling vulnerable, not just a space where white, straight men feel safe cross the lines of good taste. Rhetoric scholar Stephen Olbys Gencarella (2016) touches on this issue in a recent collection on stand-up and activism, writing that “while we may praise the beneficial applications of this liminality, we cannot do so with a blind eye toward its potential disadvantages, especially if it protects freedoms of speech, gesture, and thought for only a select few” (238).

Works Cited

Barrecca, Regina. New Perspectives on Women and Comedy, Gordon and Breach, 1992

Gray, Frances. Women and Laughter, Macmillan Press, 1994.

Lee, Judith Yaross. Twain’s Brand: Humor in Contemporary American Culture. Jackson: Univ.  Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Littlewood, Jane, and Michael Pickering. “Gender, Ethnicity and Political Correctness in   Comedy.” In Because I tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics, and Social Difference edited by Stephen Wagg, 289-307. Routledge, 1998.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

Marc, David. Comic visions: Television comedy and American culture. Wiley-Blackwell, 1997.

Meier, Matthew R., and Casey R. Schmitt, eds. Standing Up, Speaking Out: Stand-up Comedy and the Rhetoric of Social Change. Routledge, 2016.

Mintz, Lawrence E. “Standup comedy as social and cultural mediation.” American Quarterly 37, no. 1 (1985): 71-80.

Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. University of Texas Press, 2014.

Porter, Laraine. (1998). “Tarts, Tampons and Tyrants: Women and Representation in Classical Comedy.” In Because I tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics, and Social Difference edited by Stephen Wagg, 65-93. Routledge, 1998.  .

Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.