Last night in a quiet Philadelphia neighborhood, I walked into the back room of a bar for an open mic comedy night with my friends Gena and Maya. When the door opened, every pair of eyes in the room stared at us – we were the first women to arrive.
Gena is a member of Bloomers, the University of Pennsylvania’s all-female musical comedy troupe. Unlike any other campus group, Bloomers shows sell out, and they have a positive reputation (Saturday Night Live’s Vanessa Bayer even brags about being a Bloomers alum on national television). But tonight, Gena decided that she was going to try stand-up comedy for the first time, so Maya and I tagged along in support.
As someone who watches Bloomers dominate the performing arts scene at Penn, marathoned all of Broad City in one weekend, and read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants twice, it’s easy for me to forget that stand-up comedy is still a battlefield for female comedians. I expected to catch up with my friends, chat about our summer jobs, and maybe laugh a little. I had no idea what I was in for.
The host of the open mic tried to warm the crowd up with some jokes about racism in South Philadelphia – a topic that isn’t very funny – so I’m going to warm you up with a quick story, too.
One comic made a joke about what would happen if Oprah married Bob Marley and said, “Everyone goes home with a half-pound of weed!” He pulled a half-pound of weed out of his backpack – an actual, real-life, non-oregano half pound of weed – a quantity so large that it warrants arrest in an area where marijuana possession is decriminalized. The shock factor in that joke had us laughing all the way home.
But that wasn’t the most ridiculous thing that happened last night.
Close to thirty comics performed, spending three minutes on stage each. That’s about an hour and a half of open mic comedy. Gena, a college-aged, first-time comic, was the only female who signed up to perform.
Thirty-seconds into the show, comic number one joked about racism in Philly. Five minutes into the show, comic number two dropped the f-bomb: friendzone. Comic number three made a rape joke. Comic number four claimed that women have it easy, since they can get guys to buy them drinks if they show enough skin and wear enough make up. Then there was another rape joke. Around comic seven or eight, there was a joke about suicide. The host walked on stage.
“But really, guys… If you’re feeling suicidal, you should talk to someone. Call me,” he said. Hey, that’s really nice of him, I thought. Maybe this community of Philly male comics isn’t as bad as I think – maybe this is just a bad night. But I was quickly proved wrong. “Seriously, you can call me, and I’ll kill myself with you.” The room boomed with laughter.
As the number of empty beer bottles by the bar got larger, the jokes got worse, and more threatening. Soon, my friends and I became the butts of the jokes. One comic made a comment about “the three girls over there,” and how funny it was that we hadn’t left yet. We felt the gaze of everyone in the room upon us again. A few acts later, a comic singled Gena out from the crowd.
“Nice hair,” he said. “That’s called a pixie cut, right?”
“Yeah… thanks,” Gena replied.
“Damn,” he said. “Girls with that hair are pixies, but a guy cuts his hair like that, and he gets called a faggot.”
Again, the room boomed with laughter.
The jokes continued, and the male comics complained about a variety of things: Their girlfriends are whiny and illogical. They meet girls on Tinder who give bad blowjobs. They can’t meet a woman in her late twenties who isn’t a mother. They go back with a date to her apartment, but they don’t have sex. Cat-calling must feel like getting checked out by a gay man. Having a girlfriend is great, because you can save money on condoms.
When the host read the list of upcoming comics, Gena was fifth in line, so I took the chance to go to the bathroom without fear of missing Gena’s performance. As I washed my hands, the other woman in the bathroom said to me, “Are you the girl performing?”
“No,” I said. “But my friend is.”
“Thank god,” she said. “My friends and I just wanted to see some female comedians, but it’s all just dudes. I wanted to stay for your friend, the girl, but I think we’re going to leave.”
When I sat back down, Gena, Maya and I are the only women in the room of about fifty people. Finally, the host announces Gena’s name, and she picks up the microphone.
“I love the internet,” Gena starts. She tells a story about a funny experience checking her symptoms for a cold on WebMD. The audience laughs in all the right places, and when Gena sits back down with Maya and I, we congratulate her for performing her first stand-up bit. We plan to leave, until the host reads the next group of comics, which includes someone named Courtney.
“I think it’s another girl,” Gena says. “Let’s stay for her.”
We sit through about ten more minutes of mediocre comedy. The same cycle repeated, some misogyny here, misogyny there. The occasional slur. We dealt with the discomfort to support the upcoming, second female comic. We felt a sense of solidarity with her – we couldn’t just leave before her performance. We needed to be in the crowd to support her in a room full of male comedians who hadn’t shown us respect in their performances.
As I waited for Courtney to perform, I thought back to a few years ago, when Daniel Tosh of the hit Comedy Central show Tosh.o made a joke at one of his stand-up shows about how funny it would be if a specific woman in the audience was gang raped at that very moment. Tosh offered a less-than-satisfactory apology via Twitter. After my experience with stand-up comedy last night, Tosh’s antics are even less surprising to me. Famous male comedians like Daniel Tosh and Dane Cook aren’t the only people who pit women’s safety and well-being as the butt of their jokes. If the majority of the thirty comics at this one Philadelphia open mic night are throwing around misogynistic thoughts on stage for their comedic value, then there must be innumerable local comics around the world who are the same, if not worse as what we saw last night.
“I never got a blowjob from a white woman until I was twenty-six,” one of the last comics of the night started. “I heard that white woman are crazy – they’ll do anything. But when it finally happened, I got a toothy blowjob.” He continued to complain in detail about the disappointment of having sex with white women. “I’m still open to dating white girls, though,” he said. He looked at Gena and waved at her. “I mean you,” he said. Though the comic’s comments were directed at Gena, Maya, and I felt almost as violated as she did.
“This really pisses me off,” Seinfeld said. “People think it’s the census or something. Who cares? I have no interest in gender or race or anything.”
Diversity does matter, though. Not only does it matter – it’s crucial. In its most basic form, comedy is about making people laugh. How is it not important to have a diverse group of people telling different stories lodged in their different experiences and worldviews? But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. This is less an issue of getting people on stage who more people can sympathize with, and more an issue of prejudiced ideals seeping through the comedy community. At the very least, my female friends and I should be able to check out a local open mic comedy night without being reminded of our femininity at every turn. We were the only people called out in the crowd last night during a comedian’s set – multiple sets, I might add – and I can only be thankful that their jokes weren’t as terrifying the aforementioned Daniel Tosh joke. And then I realize how awful it is for me to be thankful that no comedian said that it would be funny if my friends and I were raped.
I think about Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who got her start on Seinfeld, and now stars in her own acclaimed HBO series Veep. Last year, Rolling Stone wrote a cover story about Veep – but as a result, Louis-Dreyfus was featured naked on the magazine’s cover with verbage from the Constitution written on her back. Would a male comic be represented the same way, reduced to a “sex sells”-type scenario? Why are we unable to celebrate women in comedy without forcing them to get naked?
When Gena, Maya, and I walked home, we stopped for a minute and looked out across the Schuylkill River at the Philadelphia skyline. The Philadelphia Museum of Art towered behind us.
“I was going to say something about sexism, but I didn’t want to draw any more attention to my gender,” Gena said. And I agree. A productive way to fight back is to show people that women are funny. But offstage, we can’t ignore the sentiment that comedy is a man’s world. I’m happy that comedians like Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of Broad City will talk openly about feminist issues in comedy, but I wish we lived in a time when we didn’t need to explain to Jerry Seinfeld why diversity in comedy is important. I understand more clearly than ever why Gena’s comedy troupe Bloomers worked to raise nearly $10,000 to host LaughtHER Fest for the first time this year, an event billed as a “celebration of funny women.”
But at least, besides Gena, one other female comic had the guts to get on stage in front of a room of men making veiled misogynistic remarks for two hours straight.
“And now, give it up for Courtney!” the host said. My friends and I clapped loudly, excited to support a budding female comic who waited nearly two hours to perform her bit.
Courtney was a man.