How Women are Belittled in Standup Comedy

Sezzy Rodriguez and Morgan Riddle

In the beginning there was man, but don’t forget about the women. Women have always been placed second compared to men. It’s common knowledge that people in power always have the upper hand, and in the case of life, these “people in power” have always been straight white men. Male and female identities have been stereotyped and assigned specific “roles” that they must follow. Whether it’s the way they walk or the gender they are sexually attracted to, people are socially required to lean only one way in the spectrum. One huge attribute is certain styles of speech which have been strongly associated with gender. Recently, there have been many changes in gender roles with have decreased a division in gender humor, however, in the past women have been socially told it is “Inappropriate to engage in most humor because it would violate norms of feminine behavior,” (Myers et al., 1997). Because of the increase of power women have gained in society, their language has grown more powerful, specifically benefitting their speech style and how their humor is seen. 

A huge reason for the gender division in humor, and specifically stand up comedy, may be because of the different types of humor perceptions they use. For example, a study found by Crawford and Gressley (Rozek 2015) found a formulaic route that men take to tell a joke, while women used more anecdotes and stories to tell a joke. More importantly than that is the negative and positive humor told my men and women. Martin et al. (2003) developed the Humor Styles Questionnaire (HSQ) that asses self-enhancing, affiliative, self-defeating, and aggressive humor which are the four most prevalent styles that tie into negative and positive humor. Self-enhancing and affiliative humor both tie into a positive perspective of enhancing one’s self-esteem and positively promoting interpersonal relationships. Self-defeating and aggressive humor enhance negative interpersonal relationships at the expense of oneself and of others.

POSITIVE

As being identified as a positive style of jokes, affiliative humor is one where people joke with others, create witty comments, tell attention grabbing stories, and laughing. Its positive traits lead to an openness to experience, high self-esteem, a healthy mental state, merriment, and social comfort.   is characterized by playfully joking with others, making witty statements, telling amusing stories, and laughing. It is strongly correlated with positive traits, such as extraversion, openness to experience, cheerfulness, high self-esteem, psychological well-being, and social intimacy. It creates a sense of hope, since this is often the strategy of using humor as a coping mechanism, having a humorous outlook on life. Similar to the positive affiliative humor, this humor positively connects to traits desired by most: confidence, optimism, high self-esteem, extraversion, and satisfaction.

NEGATIVE

Martin et al. (2003) claims that the negative style of aggressive humor is one that targets sarcasm or teasing as a method of slandering others. It takes others in little or no regard of their feelings and correlates a lot with hostile actions or emotions. Self-defeating humor, however, shifts the attention to the joke teller themselves. They usually make themselves the joke, correlating it to negative feelings of anxiety, aggression, depression, bad moods, or psychological issues.

Interestingly enough, women grasp onto the idea of using self-defeating humor more than men, however, women also tend to use more positive humor while men use more negative humor. How can this be?

Women often have to use self-defeating humor in order to get a laugh. Point blank period. In her study, Levine (1976) determined that “self-satire can be expected to be women’s niche in comedy” (174). Out of the thirty-seven female and one hundred and thirteen male comics observed, she discovered that only five males (4.4%) utilized self-defeating humor, while eight women used it (21.6%). It may not be the only type of comedy women use, but it is far more common for them compared to men. Examples of this idea is Joan Rivers and her self-satire. (Russell 2002) shows that she uses this to deal with confrontational aspects of stand-up comedy by mocking her appearance: “”my body is falling so fast, my gynecologist wears a hard hat” or jokes about her childhood, as a girl so fat “I was my own buddy at camp . . . in my class picture, I was the whole front row.” Another example is Ali Wong. In her stand-up show “Baby Cobra”, she jokes about how at her age she no longer wants to work but wants and needs a man to take care of her. These self-defeating jokes allow the speaker to be powerful and authoritative without excluding any of their audience members. The intimidation she may be exuding is defused when she sets herself as her own target of mimicry. Making fun of themselves dehumanizes them, making them into something acceptable for everyone. In order to be accepted and advance in comedy, many pioneering female stand-up performers succumbed to pressures to make themselves into objects of laughter. To invite the audience to laugh at you was deemed an acceptable (read non-threatening) strategy for women in stand-up comedy.

Stand-up comedy is an aggressive type of comedy. In the past it was taboo for women to be aggressive, but without aggressive women there would be no women in the comedy industry. The passive housewife stereotype has mostly faded, and the new right for women to be aggressive is a “relatively new historical phenomenon” (278). In general, women think they have to be overtly aggressive and vulgar to get a laugh. Women tend to succeed more when they tell aggressive jokes because they are either degrading themselves. Men even enjoy these aggressive jokes more, but how come a man can get away as being a comedian using only positive humor like John Mulaney? Women just can’t win.

Smith-Lovin & Robinson (2001) saw that positive humor was often used to create a bond and unison with the audience, while negative humor often worked to differentiate social status, destroy any bonds, and to show general aggression. Considering their past, it would make sense for women to use negative self-defeating humor when they needed to.

Netflix

Statistics show that men are still the major performers at stand-up comedy shows, but that’s not due to the lack of women that try to book these shows. According to What’s on Netflix, there have been three female and 17 male new stand-up comedy shows added onto Netflix. In all of the stand-up specials, many women have multiple of their shows uploaded which is great exposure for them, however, it limits the amount of new female comedians. Oppositely, some men have a few of their own specials on Netflix, but there is an exuberant amount more of old and new individual male comedians. Out of 279 stand-up comedy shows as of June 27, 2019, there are 48 shows that include women in them, whether it’s their own show or they are featured. This also includes any repetition of the comedians, meaning there are actually less than 48 women who are gaining exposure, compared to the ~200 men as individual comedians.

Outside of the popular comedians that have specials on Netflix, women are still widely underrepresented. In this study, the acts of 19 comedy shows were catalogued. The results were not surprising, given the comedy scene’s track record. 70% of the comics were male, 29% were female, and only 1% were gender nonconforming people. Not only were most of the comics male, but most of the producers were male as well. In this male-dominated industry, women are hardly given a chance to make people laugh and judged severely. Amongst frequent performing comics, the majority of performers were still men. In terms of places that let these comedians perform, five out of nineteen comedy clubs only let male comics perform, while two let women only perform. However, the comedy clubs that women performed at were for women only, while the clubs that men only performed at were co-ed. You would think that the exposure would be equal, or close to equal for male and female performers, but that’s simply not the case.

The study also claims that producers hire talent similar to them, so if most producers continue to be men, the comics will continue to be men as well. In sets where there are multiple performers, the lack of women puts pressure on the female comics to perform perfectly. If there are 5 men performing and one is unfunny, people will let it pass. On the other hand if only one woman is selected to perform and she is unfunny, people assume all women aren’t funny because she was the only one to represent the group. 

Of the women who are featured in popular comedy, most are white. Amy Schumer is a white, cis-gendered female comedian who is wildly successful with many movies and popular comedy specials. How did she get to the place that she is? Why is she so popular? It could be due to her privilege as a white woman. Schumer claims to be a devout feminist, but her jokes say otherwise. She is often using other women as the butt of her jokes, not to mention most of the jokes are stolen from other comedians. Regarding the above tweet, Amy claims that race is taboo and that she is a taboo comedian. This woman who is wildly popular, wealthy, and famous is occupying a space that women of color or other marginalized people could benefit from and not make these offensive jokes. She claims to do all of this in the name of comedy, but her privilege shows through her jokes. Are we making a step forward by bringing a female comedian to fame or a step backwards by highlighting someone who makes racist and sexist jokes?

The Pudding

These photos depict the climax in Ali Wong’s special Baby Cobra. At this point in the routine, the audience laughs the hardest and Ali is on the ground and pretending to twerk on the air. Her use of physical comedy got her the biggest laugh of her whole hour long set. Women have a long history of slapstick comedy- Lucille Ball was known to get a laugh through her clumsiness. This is not to say that men haven’t had roots in physical comedy, but do they still use this as often as women? In order to get a big laugh, women have to exert more physical energy into funny depictions of scenarios whereas men who use physical comedy usually just go to the extent of popping their hip out to imitate a woman. Why do women have to work harder for laughs? Men are seen as naturally funny and women have to work to prove that they are. We can also see that the punchline for Ali Wong’s big joke is “I don’t wanna work anymore,” implying that she wants the rich Harvard grad to impregnate her (Wong, 2016). Although this is a hit with the audience, does it send a good message for women? Although it is not degrading another woman, even the good female comedians revert to the trope that women need men to support them. 

Independent

Comedian Harriet Kemsley (pictured above) claims that men don’t want women to be funny because it gives women power (Kemsley 2018). In her career, she has experienced men leaving her set to use the restroom. She thinks that men see a woman onstage and think it is their cue to leave. Confidence in a woman onstage is seen as something negative or something to be hidden. The assumption that a woman onstage will be boring is rooted in the stereotype that comedy is a “masculine art form” (Willis 2018). 

Although fiction, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an accurate and inspirational depiction of what it is like to be a female comic. Midge Maisel stumbles upon comedy by accident, but realizes she has a passion for making people laugh. She hides this talent and hobby from her parents and ex-husband, knowing they will disapprove. Midge is genuinely funny and relatable, but because she is a woman people don’t give her a chance. In one scene she is blindly hired by a club owner, but when she shows up they think she is supposed to sing because that was the only sort of performance women would do in the 50s. Midge is a fiery spirit that doesn’t take no for an answer and is determined to prove herself as a comedian. The show is loosely based on Joan Rivers. The two share comedic tactics, pave the way for female comics, and deal with parental disapproval. We see Midge in many situations that many modern day female comics deal with today. They carry the same traits, deal with the same tribulations, and face the same sexism even more than 50 years later. Although the comedy scene has grown to be more inclusive to women since the 50s, there is still much to be done.

Standup comedy proves to be a male-dominated industry. Women continue to be belittled and undermined through many different means. Wether it be in the jokes women can get away with, how often they are booked, or how they are perceived from the moment they step onstage, there is not an even playing ground for women in the comedy scene. What can be done for women in comedy? How do we prove the world that women are as funny as men and deserve to have the space to express themselves through comedy?

Goldenberg, R., & Daniels, M. (2018). The Structure of Stand-Up Comedy. Retrieved from https://pudding.cool/2018/02/stand-up/

Kachel, M. et al. (2017). What’s the Deal With Stand-up Comedy Bookings?: Using Data to Show Discrepancies in Gender in Chicago’s Stand-up Comedy Scene. Retrieved from https://www.meredithkachel.com/gender-and-comedy.

Levine, J.B. (1976). The Feminine Routine. Journal of Communication. 26: 173-175

Rozek, C. (2015). The gender divide in humor: How people rate the competence, influence, and funniness of men and women by the jokes they tell and how they tell them. Honors Thesis Collection. 296.

Smith-Lovin & Robinson (2001) saw that positive humor was often used to create a bond and unison with the audience, while negative humor often worked to differentiate social status, destroy any bonds, and to show general aggression. Considering their past, it would make sense for women to use negative self-defeating humor when they needed to.

Willis @martiniswillis, M. (2018, February 26). ​Stand-up comedy is no longer exclusively a man’s game, but is it caught in a cycle of masculinity? Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/comedy/features/stand-up-comedy-and-masculinity-a8223421.html

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