Encore: Reflections From Conversations With Women In Comedy

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 17, 2020 6:28 pm

For the past six months, NPR's Audie Cornish has held a series of conversations with women navigating the male-dominated world of comedy. Here are some highlights.

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Award season for the entertainment industry has now fully wrapped up, and it's clear the industry is changing. New perspectives and new stories are making their way on screen and into streaming services. And while the industry is still dominated by white men, women are increasingly becoming the biggest stars on new platforms. That's especially true in comedy, which hasn't always been the most female-friendly industry.

I spoke to six women navigating the world of comedy over the past year and summed up what I found in this piece, which originally ran last month. The common thread among them was that they found their voice in a world that sometimes tried to silence them. Margaret Cho spoke about what that was like in her career.


MARGARET CHO: This is the very early '90s. We were in the sort of comedy is an observational art form, but the observer is cis hetero white men. So you had to sort of try to be that.

CORNISH: I spoke to her and five other women about this moment, a moment some are calling a golden age of comedy. There are veterans and newcomers - Nicole Byer, Aparna Nancherla, Jenny Slate, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Hannah Gadsby. I asked them to deconstruct their craft - how they write jokes, what they find funny. But in their answers, they ended up deconstructing themselves - how they fit into the comedy world. Here's Margaret Cho again.

CHO: Growing up, like, I never saw Asian Americans on television. And if I did, it was so far removed from the center of the action. You know, it was always like sort of the background of "M.A.S.H."

CORNISH: Coupling that with being a woman in comedy, she says she felt invisible.

CHO: I think when you are dealing with being kind of ignored by media and movies and television, it's really hard to even talk about it, to have the words to talk about it because you don't even know that you're invisible. So it's a very strange place to be in.

CORNISH: Another person who could relate to that - Hannah Gadsby.

HANNAH GADSBY: If you're a funny woman, the world is not necessarily easy for you to navigate. Men being funny is something that culturally we accept and like. Women - it's a much more of a high-wire act.

CORNISH: In what way? What do you think?

GADSBY: Well, I think men find it quite threatening. As a rule, I'm speaking very broadly, but, also, I got a lot to back that up with.

CORNISH: Newcomer Nicole Byer hit that gendered wall while trying to talk about her body and her self-image onstage.

NICOLE BYER: I spent, like, six months trying to work out fat material because you'll get on a stage, and you'll go, I'm fat. And then people will go, no, you're beautiful. And you're like, one, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Two, I am fat. Like, why are you lying to my face? Like, I know it. The mirror knows it. The people on the street know it. It's fine. So I was just, like, really racking my brain.

Outside of improv, I'd just done a show, and I was like, these fat jokes aren't working. I feel like a dude can get onstage and say the same thing, and everyone goes, ha-ha-ha, it's because he's fat. People do not feel bad for men. Men get to be self-deprecating. Men honestly get to say whatever they please and everyone's like, OK. And women, truly, at every turn, get criticized.

CORNISH: Speaking of dealing with criticism, Jenny Slate and Julia Louis-Dreyfus both got their start as cast members on "Saturday Night Live." And yet, they shared similar feelings about the opportunities there for funny women, even though Slate joined the show decades after Louis-Dreyfus. As a massive comedic platform, "SNL's" atmosphere seemed to speak to the struggle of female comics in general. Here's how Slate described her experience.

JENNY SLATE: Feeling dressed down, feeling shamed, feeling like you shouldn't have tried - those are all pressures that are, like, encouraged in a misogynist environment, where there's not an openness. There's not a sense that power can present in a way that represents, like, plurality - that there's a - there are many, many different ways to access power.

CORNISH: And when you're on the world's biggest comedy platforms, that question of power is inescapable. Julia Louis-Dreyfus spoke about years of #MeToo moments and how they actually informed her work.

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: It's fueled me. It was very important to me to - I don't know what - prove myself, I guess. I just want to do my work well with people that I really enjoy, men and women.

CORNISH: What I realized was that so many of these women, instead of quitting and letting the social barriers defeat them, turned comedy into a way to process trauma. Whether it was losing a dream job, a loved one, an identity, they wrote jokes to communicate their pain. Here's Aparna Nancherla.

APARNA NANCHERLA: Sadness and laughter, to me, feel linked in a weird way in that it almost feels like once you get to the logical end of one, you sort of start entering the other one. And I feel like comedy is sort of questioning things with adding, like, a little dose of hope in that you're taking the air out of it a little bit. And you're not just being like, well, I guess that's just how things are. Like, you're sort of like, this is ridiculous. Like, let's laugh about it. So it adds that levity to take some of the burden off.

CORNISH: And Nicole Byer said comedy was a life raft after her parents died.

BYER: Doing comedy truly helped me through that because I didn't have to be me. I could go onstage and be like, I'm an elephant, or whatever. I'm making fun of improv, but I truly have a show tonight at 9:30...


BYER: ...Where I'm going to do improv.

CORNISH: And their audiences arrive not just to laugh but to see themselves on stage. Though women may have been outsiders in this industry, it turns out comedy was meant for outsiders. Of course, the critics showed up, too. Hannah Gadsby, for example, got backlash for her breakout stand-up special "Nanette." Some claimed it didn't follow the rules of comedy. Here's how she feels about those rules.

GADSBY: If they no longer make sense, I don't mind breaking them.

CORNISH: And because comedy exists to question social norms, Gadsby says women's voices aren't just welcome; they're necessary.

GADSBY: I think it's a good thing for comedians to be reminded that that's what comedy is. It's being an outsider. So if you're getting worried that comedy is so delicate that people can't question it, then harden up.

CORNISH: And it's that mantra that's forcing a change in the landscape. There is a long way to go for diversity, but things have changed a lot since that first season of "SNL," or even a few years ago. Nicole Byer says it's important for women to remember that no one is doing them a favor by letting them talk.

BYER: I'm past being like, I'm so lucky to be here. I'm like, well, I'm funny. That's why I'm here. So I just do my job.

CORNISH: And they never forget what that job is - to inject joy into an ugly world. Jenny Slate says she refuses to let her past struggles dent her special brand of silliness.

SLATE: What is lovely is that no one can ever take away the dream - all of the wishing in my childhood to be on that show. And nothing will ever dim the lights of that experience, which was, like, getting the job - like, leaving 30 Rock, calling my parents and saying, I am going to be on "Saturday Night Live." That is what it is. It's such a beautiful achievement. And it's real. And I did it. But it's also the same as, like, thinking you really met your soulmate and going on, like, the fourth date and being like, did they just say libary (ph)? I mean, like, ugh.

CORNISH: Because that dream eventually gives way to reality. Show business is flawed, so are its stars, which might sound like a simple concept. But the idea that women get to be flawed in public - it's a big step, and it's really, really funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "TRACK UNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.