Improv Induced Revelations: Women in Comedy

“Name ten famous women!”

I’ve just been challenged to name ten famous women. I’m in my level 2 improv class, my class partner and I are doing an exercise that demonstrates how seven is a magical number. After seven items, recalling lists from memory gets remarkably harder. At the same time my partner is demonstrating how cheering for your partner for something as simple as a listing things helps build confidence and trust. He’s just breezed through my suggestion of ten things found in the ocean.

“Uh. Tina Fey?” I offer, suddenly everything is male. Actors as far as the eye can see.

“That’s one!”

“Jenna Coleman…”

He gives a skeptical look but counts it. I now know he’s not a Whovian.

“Amy Poehler? Is that her name, Poehler?”

He nods and cheers like I had just began an important speech for presidency. “That’s three!” He says, holding up three fingers. “Remember Kat just famous, they don’t need to be funny.”

“Carol Burnett, Rita Hayworth, Carol Lombard… um, oh! Audrey Hepburn!” He’s counting after each one, smiling and giving encouragements like “nice one” and “oh yeah, she’s awesome!”

Then I go blank. I start to notice the other people in the class are quiet; they’ve finished and are waiting for us. The instructor, always patient, gives us a few more moments before she asks if we’ve finished. “Yeah,” I reply, “Seven’s my limit.”

She asks what the topic was and my partner tells her. She reminds him that it was ten objects found in something like a cemetery, a mall etc., but it’s still a good topic for lists. She gives a small shake of her head though. It’s not directed AT me but it feels like it is. “Really? Only seven?”

She doesn’t know it but I’ve come a long way. A year ago my list of famous women would have been remarkably shorter. I only knew Tina Fey because I would stumble across her face on Saturday Night Live while trying to find the channel for MadTV. I don’t dare say that though. Instead, my response to my instructor (didn’t need a response, I realize later) is lame and I immediately regret it. “If he knew me better he wouldn’t have picked that topic,” followed by a nervous chuckle. I swear she gives me a look of pity.

This isn’t the first improv-induced revelation I’ve ever had; lately it’s been just one of many. The subject has dominated my thoughts lately. I have trouble passively enjoying something, when I get an interest in a topic my life gets filled up with whatever the topic might be. I read, listen, and watch it all the time. As comedy has always been a persistent part of my life, it seemed natural to bring improv into the fold. Improv is more approachable than stand up for me and I’ve given it a place for deep thinking and questioning.

It snuck up on me; the thought that I wanted to keep doing improv beyond the first class, maybe even aim to perform on stage. I went from just being concerned about getting on stage to worrying about the big picture. For one of the few times in my life I found myself thinking, ‘is there a point? How funny can I be? Women can’t be professionally funny, can they?’

Now I know several people who would slap me if I said that even jokingly, and here I was wondering if it was true. How could I, a woman, love comedy so much and think these things? After all, my female instructor is really funny, as is the former artistic director of the theatre. They were both on stage when I saw my first improv show and they were hilarious! Why would I think women couldn’t be funny or couldn’t be as funny as men?

Maybe, a part of me is just repeating the outdated line out of habit. That doesn’t make the line okay, but it would explain why I think it. The few (and it was only a few) female comedians I saw on the Just for Laughs showcases weren’t funny to me. I quickly developed a knee jerk reaction between women on stage and changing the channel.

Maybe it’s a matter of logistics. Let’s say you have 10 male comedians and 2 female comedians for a showcase. If the style of comedy I like is only performed by a small amount of comedians overall, it’s only logical that there would be more male comedians than female comedians that would catch my attention. There is a chance that neither of those comedians have that style. So, why only have two female comedians to begin with?

I had trouble naming ten famous women and I scramble to think of one female comedian I’ve seen on TV that mirrors what I think is funny. Funny to me is a comedian that plays with puns, tosses around words and ties your brain up in clever rope. Comedies like Are You Being Served?, Monty Python and Kids in the Hall sketches are great examples of this. I am learning through notes from my instructors that my improv style can often be a more logic-based wordy style. I have this style and I’m female, I can’t be the only one. Where are the female comedians that also have this style?

The question keeps appearing again and again, where are the female comedians? The female improvisers? I’ve asked male and female improv instructors I’ve encountered why so few women are present. They were all happy to talk about it and encouraged the discussion. Everyone had their pet theory. One theory was that there aren’t enough expert level female improvisers and when someone reaches that level it can be harder to keep them at the smaller theatres. Of the different theories people agreed on two points: women are as funny and as competent as men. A lack of female participation doesn’t start in those beginner classes, those seem to always be evenly split or with a female majority. Even in the higher-level classes there are plenty of women. On stage that isn’t the case.

Comedy is something I have never questioned until recently. I love it and because I love it I want it to get better and bigger. I want to be funny and I want to become the best improviser I can be. To become that I feel I need funny women to look up as well as the guys of my favourite comedy troupes. I intend to keep asking questions and wondering, just as I intend to keep improvising. So, here’s just one question:

Who is your favourite female comedian?

2 thoughts on “Improv Induced Revelations: Women in Comedy

  1. Shelley Lee says:

    I could think of a couple more from SNL or sitcoms but like you not the comedy I like. Even British comedians like Catharine Tate or Miranda Hart are not my laugh til I cry cups of tea. I think maybe Lauren Graham with her fast-talking sarcasm might be but is she considered a comedian or a general actress?


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