I, too, must add my voice to the melee of discussion about women in comedy. I am a woman; I practice comedy. I have struggled with finding my place in the comedy world, and whether that's because I'm a woman or just a weirdo is a mystery I will carry to the grave.
I am hoping that women starting in comedy today are having a different experience than I did when I was starting out, but just in case they aren't...
Way-back-when, in New York, I noticed the paucity of women on comedy stages. And the few women who were there often seemed to be playing “straight men” (not straight as in heterosexual, but straight as in the “normal” ones in improv/sketch scenes). Too cautious, too contained. And far too many of those women had bangs.
Who or what is responsible for those “straight men,” those bangs? Let’s take a peek at IMPROVISE, by Mick Napier, a widely-read bible of improv.
Mick Napier (b. 1962) is a Chicago-based improv guru, the founder of the Annoyance Theater. He is generally regarded as a master in the field. In IMPROVISE, a 130-page book published in 2004, he devotes exactly one page to issues of gender.
This is the first thing he says on the subject of women in comedy (although, granted, he doesn't say much):
“A lot of women who enter improvisation believe that if they act a little batty both onstage and, more particularly, offstage, they will stand out. Eccentric attributes will set them apart and they will excel. Don’t be a crazy lady. Be a strong woman instead” (p. 90).
Mayyyybe you could make the argument that Napier was primarily advising women not to be crazy offstage. But why was that a message reserved for women? And is it not terribly weird that Don’t be crazy made the top of his list of female-comedy-don’t’s?
I’m just curious: did anybody tell John Belushi Don’t be crazy before “Samurai Delicatessen”? Did Sascha Baron Cohen get that message before Borat? Probably not, right?
When I read Napier’s book 10 years ago, I was struggling to figure out where I fit in in the comedy world in New York. I kept hitting walls that I suspected were at least partially related to gender, even though I couldn’t put a finger on what was wrong. "Don't be crazy" didn't work for me; it only made me feel more isolated, more crazy. So... is it working for anyone? Maybe it's producing some nice girl-next-door writer-types like Tina Fey, but how many big brave risky players like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson do we have? And why are both of those women fat?
Does being the normal one sound fun to you? Have at it.
I for one would rather be crazy.
Crazy is just another way of saying unexpected, and isn't that what comedy is all about?
So be crazy, ladies.