**I wrote this last night but was shy about publishing it. But I feel good about it today. Please forgive any grammar or spelling errors. I’m not the best editor. ** - Jen Kirkman
I was supposed to talk to the Larry Mantle show on NPR this week. They wanted to talk to me about the recent “scandal” with Eddie Brill – the comedian and booker for The Late Show with David Letterman. I ended up cancelling calling in to the talk radio show for schedule reasons – I was too busy and couldn’t get away from my duties that morning. (I work as a writer on Chelsea Lately.) In one way, I’m almost glad that it worked out that I did not do the interview because I tend to speak in shorthand and also hyperbole. I would be asked specific questions and would only have ten minutes to respond to what was asked and as a comedian, on the radio, I would probably want to be a little bit funny for all of the people listening who would be exposed to me for the first time. But I would like to get my thoughts out about this issue and I think in writing is the best way to do so.
Let me say this first. I know Eddie Brill even though I don’t think I’ve ever met him in person. He called me years ago to ask me to be part of a big comedy show at the Emerson Majestic Theatre – owned by Emerson College. We’re both alums. I was flown to Boston on Emerson’s dime and put up in a nice hotel and got to perform on a great show with Bill Burr, Dennis Leary and Anthony Clark. As it turned out, Eddie was stuck at work and couldn’t make his flight to Boston that night. But if it weren’t for him, I still would not have performed as a stand-up comic at my Alma matter – Emerson never asked me! Eddie has also asked me to submit a tape to try to get a spot on Letterman. Over the years, we’ve gone back and forth with my submissions and I haven’t booked the show but never once felt it was because I was a woman. I’ve been on Craig Ferguson and Conan and I know how long it takes to put a set together and work with the booker on the perfect five minutes to piece together. Most comedians whom you are not seeing on late night TV are probably loved and respected by the bookers of those shows but for some odd reason or another, it just hasn’t worked out that they’ve appeared on the show. Eddie has also published my jokes when he was editing a comedy section for Reader’s Digest. That’s all I know of Eddie. This is not a case of, “Well, he’s nice to me, so therefore he isn’t sexist!” I’m just stating that while Eddie has not booked me on Letterman, I don’t believe that he finds me to be unfunny because I’m a woman.
That being said, let’s look at Eddie’s quote because he DID say it. He has Freedom of Speech and so do I – so I will respond to the only thing I know about Eddie and his opinion of women in comedy – which is what he said to the New York Times. “There are a lot less female comics who are authentic,” Mr. Brill said. “I see a lot of female comics who to please an audience will act like men.”
It actually made me laugh, like I was reading something that an old uncle of mine would say. I don’t know one “female” comedian who “acts like a man” in order to please the audience. Mostly because I don’t know many comedians who get past the open mic level who are still trying to “please an audience.” Secondly, what does “act like a man” mean? Perhaps this comment would have made more sense in 1960-something when women really didn’t do certain ‘masculine’ things in public, let alone on TV, like swear, or wear jeans and a tee-shirt, yell, take command of a group of people, etc.
Let me first address the words “female comedian.” Nobody says, “I saw the funniest male comedian last night.” It’s implied, I guess, that a comedian is male and that that’s the norm and that we need to modify comedian with “female” when a woman performs. But “female” unlike “prop”, “story-telling”, “physical” is NOT A TYPE OF COMEDY. I’m wildly different in my style than so many of my peers who happen to be women. Not once have I done a show with other girls and had to worry that we were all the same. I’ve always thought that I have a similar style of stand-up comedy to Richard Lewis. I improvise heavily on stage. I’m insecure and self-conscious yet am grandiose. I’m so desperate for the audiences to not only laugh but for them to understand me. I think I’m also similar to Joan Rivers in that I raise my voice on stage, I like to engage with the audience and I have some anger. But I don’t feel that I relate to Joan in ways that have to do with being a “woman.” In the world, I feel like I identify as a ‘comedian’ more than I do a ‘woman.’ I never feel out of place in a room full of men but I do feel out of place in a room full of people who are talking about how funny Two and a Half Men was last night. That’s a comedian. We can be snobs who have no sense of humor off stage except with each other. That’s a huge personality trait (flaw?) and it knows no gender.
Back to Eddie: honestly I have no fucking idea what he means when he says that female comedians are “less authentic.” Who? Who is talking about? What is his idea of authenticity? It’s totally subjective. I don’t know if he’s been seeing “female comedians” every night of the week or this is based on one time – seeing a few women whom he didn’t understand. I don’t know. It seems like a generic statement that is unfortunate. He’s stating it as fact and the average person reading this article could just let that slip into their brain and start to parrot at cocktail parties that “women aren’t authentic comedians.” He could have at least said, “in my opinion….” (which is still a dumb opinion).
So, that’s where I stand on Eddie which is to say, I was bummed to see someone I liked (because they liked me) say stuff that seemed just….out-dated, untrue and lame. Do I believe that Eddie Brill thinks women aren’t funny or have some genetic pre-disposition to not be funny a la Christopher Hitchens? No. I honestly don’t.
I’d also like to discuss what it means to “act like a man”. This is a larger issue of gender identity. I’ve always felt pretty masculine in a lot of ways. I’m really girl-y. I get manicures and love make-up and I wear dresses sometimes and love fashion but I also like to look androgynous sometimes. I like menswear. I’m loud. I take up space. I’m ambitious. I pay my own way in life. If I like a guy, I tell him. I don’t think of men as people who will ‘take care of me’ or anything like that. I have guy friends who are effeminate but straight. I have gay guy friends who look like lumberjacks. I have female friends who dress like boys. I have female friends who dress like drag queens. I think that someone who is younger than Eddie Brill kind of understands this. Sometimes younger women, maybe some of these “female comedians” he observed, were raised in a post- Women’s Movement world and it doesn’t dawn on us that we were ‘acting like men.’
Just like anything in life there is always a gray area. There are some fucking unfunny, inauthentic women. Whoo boy. I’ve had to sit through them. I’ve also sat through some unfunny, inauthentic men too. It’s called COMEDY. Comedy is hard and you have to do it a LONG time before you either #1 get funny or #2 realize you’re not ever going to be funny and give up.
I was told that one of the topics I was going to be asked to discuss during the NPR radio interview – was the question of have I ever been through any sexism in comedy? How have I dealt with it?
When I first started out in comedy, I was treated like shit by a lot of club owners. I was told that I wasn’t funny and I should stop. I remember thinking it was sexism but looking back it was because I wasn’t funny yet. I was just starting out and mainstream comedy clubs weren’t the best place to find acceptance.
Now that I’m able to perform at a mainstream club, I’ve had bookers say to me, “We can’t have two women go on stage back to back.” Yes. That is sexist. How I deal with it is that I go on stage and I’m fucking as funny as I can be. And I just focus on what my job is instead of how upset that comment made me. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come off stage to an apology from either the club owner or just the person running the show. But yes, strangers come up to me after shows and say, “I don’t normally like female comics but you’re funny.” I’ve walked into clubs where I know the person running the show isn’t familiar with me and I can feel in my gut, I’m not getting a fair first impression in his mind because I’m a woman. I can’t explain it. And this is why I hate talking about sexism in comedy. Because it’s hard to put your finger on it when it’s happening. All I can tell you is that it sets off something in your gut. You feel suddenly like you have no right feeling comfortable in a club. You feel suddenly like no matter what you do, you’re being judged differently. It’s just a feeling. It’s why I related to Dave Chapelle when he “freaked out” and walked away from his Comedy Central show because he just “felt” that someone in the room was laughing at his jokes not in the right way. He’s not saying that anyone in the room was racist but he’s saying there are still issues of race and when you’re someone who wants to be funny for a living it’s a bummer when huge “isms” suddenly are on your head to deal with. I didn’t sign up for that.
I’ve had more blatant sexist experiences where I hear from networks like Comedy Central that I can’t get a half hour special because I don’t appeal to men ages 18-34. Sure, I’m NOT a man age 18-34 but I don’t see why they wouldn’t like what I do. In fact, I know a lot of them do because they let me know on Twitter, Facebook, and at my shows. I’ve gone on auditions where the call was put out for “funny women” and then you read the script and not one funny thing was written and then a model gets the role anyway. Sure. There is sexism. People say stupid shit like, “I don’t know how to write for a woman.”
The areas in which I fight sexism are with my activism and spare money to causes, publications, organizations that are doing work for the equality of women all over the world; things that keep our right to choose safe, provide help for women who are fighting for their right to drive or show skin in other countries and I’m on board with anything that helps get that fucking ERA passed.
But how do I “deal” with sexism in comedy? I don’t. I don’t deal with it. I just go, “FUCK. ARRRRGH.” And then I try to be funny in my work. No one has stopped me from making a living and I’m so grateful that I get to write and appear on a TV show, go on the road as a headliner and I’m writing a book that’s coming out in 2013. There are women and men out there who will hire women and I surround myself with those people. One of my favorite moments as a comedian was backstage at a gig in Las Vegas about 7 years ago – for some shit show on the Starz Network. Some (male) comic whom I didn’t know checked me out and complimented my ass backstage. Greg Fitzsimmons, a funny comic and a casual friend of mine said to the guy, “Hey. She’s here to be a comedian. You want to look at a woman’s ass and tell her about it – you can go to a strip club later.” My friend and writing partner at Chelsea Lately, fellow comedian, Chris Franjola said to me that he was recently on the road in Cleveland and asked the club booker, “How come a woman hasn’t been booked here in months? It’s dudes every weekend?” I’m lucky to be friends with dozens and dozens of funny guys and not one of them is sexist.
But I AM SO SICK of talking about sexism. And even the articles that are rebuttals to the question “are women funny?” are tiresome. And I feel like women are asked to take small chunks of time here and there to seriously address the issue of people who keep saying or implying that “women aren’t funny.” I’m tired. Can guys take over for a little bit?
I know this seems out of left field but in the 1990’s when Nirvana broke – they kicked the dick off of the type of rock star that had been prevalent. Kurt Cobain was not married to a model but a fucking insane loudmouth rock star in her own right. He was short and he was skinnier than Kate Moss. He wore dresses, eyeliner and nail polish on network television and kissed his band mate Krist on Saturday Night Live. Kurt appeared on the cover of The Advocate. He wasn’t gay or a drag queen nor was he just trying to shock people or pull some gimmick. He was trying to assert with all of his being that being a man had nothing to do with asserting power over women or gay people or looking or behaving a certain way. I wonder if an Eddie Brill type would have seen Kurt and thought, “This guy is not authentic. He’s trying to be too much like a woman.”
I saw Nirvana perform and The Breeders opened for them. Kurt came out and apologized that they were not the Breeders. He said he wished he could be as bad-ass as Kim Deal. A guy said that on stage about a woman at the height of his fame. He was hanging around with Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill who spray painted, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on a wall, which is where he got the name for that song. He was quoted as saying, “The future of rock belongs to women.” Nirvana often had the girl group Shonen Knife open for them. At first, audiences got angry and violent – as the ‘jocks’ in the audience didn’t want to see chicks in a band. Kurt helped change the culture because he walked it like he talked it. He brought women in front of his audience. He wrote things on his album liner notes (“what are those?” you ask – shut up) that said, “If you’re sexist and hate women, don’t come to our shows.”
(Now listen, I know he was also an addict who was with another manipulative addict and I’m sure on more than one occasion Courtney cried “sexism” when someone didn’t want to deal with her when the truth probably was – people just didn’t want to deal with her. And Kurt was the eternal victim – anything to have an excuse to go back and hide and do drugs. I get that.)
But that doesn’t take away from what he accomplished for chicks in the music world. The biggest rock group in the world brought girl bands to open for them. (And Bob Goldthwait sometimes.)
I bring that up to say – I know some people are NEVER going to stop saying that “women aren’t funny” and I know that some people are NEVER going to stop wanting to write pro-women articles in response to the people who say that “women aren’t funny.” But I am one “female comic” who is fucking tired of talking about it. It’s the first question people ask me when I do press. “What’s it like being a female comedian?” I don’t know. I can tell you what it’s like being a comedian though.
So, I’m asking you journalist and radio show hosts – talk to THE DUDES about women in comedy. Let’s change the conversation. The articles have already been written anyway and they’re all fucking boring. I’m asking you dudes in comedy, my friends, to please be like Nirvana and don’t just silently agree with us but keep bringing us girlfriends of yours on the road with you, keep casting us in things – not just as a romantic interest. Keep helping CHANGE the culture – don’t just make us women comment on it constantly. I want to hear the male comics talk about how funny women are – or just talk about how funny certain comedians are and I pray they have a healthy heaping of girls on that list. Let’s NORMALIZE women in comedy so we can stop talking about it . I’m done talking about it. I need the men to start challenging this shit too – I need them to Cobain Up because the future of comedy belongs to men AND women.