While this year’s New York Comedy Festival features a panel called Women Aren’t Funny: Debunking the Myth, it’s the festival itself that is shredding the myth: It kicks off with the second annual Hersterical all-female bill and also features the “Time Out NY Women of Comedy” show; and two of the three Paley Media Center panels revolve around funny women on television. Plenty of women are headlining club shows, including Kathleen Madigan, Sommore, Sara Schaefer and Sasheer Zamata, plus an album recording for Rachel Feinstein.
Yet the biggest indicator that women have come a long way takes place is in the biggest theaters. In 2012 all the top slots featured male comics, but the roster has shifted noticeably in the past two years. This year, Amy Schumer will shake up Carnegie Hall, and Maria Bamford and Tig Notaro will each top a bill at Town Hall.
“This is horrible because women really aren’t funny and we’ve got to be out there proving it again and again,” jokes comedian Lea DeLaria, who is featured on the Debunking the Myth panel along with Judy Gold and moderator Bonnie McFarlane.
“Comedy is the last bastion of the white male,” DeLaria says, adding that the chauvinism is reflective of the larger society. “Things are changing but the change is really fucking gradual.”
While the change is “heartening,” she quips that women are getting more slots because “all the male comics have been given pilot deals.”
DeLaria says that at clubs women are still told they can’t follow another femme on the bill; Gold says that stigma is fading but she remains frustrated by emcees who introduce her saying, “Our next comic is a woman.”
“Funny is funny, it doesn’t have a gender,” Gold says. She and McFarlane say funny women also still lack equal opportunities in directing, television writing jobs and late-night hosting roles.
Still McFarlane, who once directed an ironic documentary called “Women Aren’t Funny,” sees cause for optimism. “Right now is the best time to be a female comic,” she says.
Caroline Hirsch, founder of Caroline’s on Broadway and the Comedy Festival, which is in its 11th year, also sees progress. “When I started, there were just three or four women headliners around but now it has exploded.”
When Hirsch started her club in the early 1980s, she was often the only woman around but she tried to move away from male comics who relied on “Take my wife, please” humor. Now, she says, “there are so many breakout women who are super-intelligent and don’t care what they say on stage.”
McFarlane says there’s progress in numbers: with fewer female comics, if one wasn’t great, she became an archetype. “It was a perception problem,” she says. “People used to say to me, ‘I don’t usually like female comics but I like you.’” With more exposure to more talented women — especially in the Internet era when every comic has clips online — that is changing, albeit slowly.
Not all the women involved are caught up in breaking the glass brick wall of comedy clubs. Schumer says that she is excited to play the festival but that she doesn’t pay attention to whether women are making strides in comedy lineups. “I’m not keeping count,” she says. (Gold, however, counts Schumer and “Broad City” getting shows on Comedy Central — “the boy channel”— as “a major step.”)
But Bamford often wonders why there aren’t more women on the bills at clubs, especially as a new generation has shaken off any sense of predictability. “It is impossible to pigeonhole what you think a woman comic is like and I think the audience’s expectations are changing,” she says. (McFarlane says she still thinks “people want women to be one thing.”) Indeed, Bamford, Schumer and Notaro have completely different styles from each other. Bamford and Gold both make a point on the road of requesting women as their opening acts.
While they all want women to get more opportunities, they are wary of all-female bills. “It minimalizes who we are,” DeLaria says. Gold says separate but not equal also pushes away men who presume the women “are going to talk about their period and shopping.”
Still, both are looking forward to the Debunking the Myth discussion. And McFarlane says they won’t be there to complain. “Our panel will be more of a celebration of how far we have come.”