An All-Women Comedy Show That’s, Well, Just a Comedy Show

What’s considered funny has long been dictated by the white male perspective. This Brooklyn comedy show is doing its part to change that.

By Frida Oskarsdottir

Of the “25 Best Stand-Up Comedy Specials on Netflix” compiled by Paste last year, only four featured women. In 2015, Bitch Media assessed the three-year period from 2011-2014 at Caroline’s on Broadway, one of New York’s most established comedy clubs. They found that out of 1,346 headliners, just 110 were women, equating to roughly 8 percent.

In the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations against Louis CK and other high-power men, Lindy West posited that “the solution isn’t more solemn acknowledgements from powerful male comedians. We have those. The solution is putting people in positions of power who are not male, not straight, not cisgender, not white.” If you listen quietly you can hear people furiously typing responses to this on the internet, “But, but, but!!”

The reason people bristle when you suggest intentionally seeking out and supporting more women in comedy can be packaged easily into a hashtag, #notallmen. Not all men use their power and influence for evil. Not every man makes rape jokes. Not every successful comedian will masturbate in front of you without your consent. Comedy is a meritocracy! If you’re funny, you’ll become successful. The problem with this mode of thinking is that the world of comedy, like the world of corporate America, professional sports, or entertainment, is not an even playing field. What appeals to a lot of people is a straight, white male’s perspective. Not because it’s the best one, but because it’s what we’re used to.

Kendra Cunningham has been doing her part to address this discrepancy, hosting Drop The Mike, a Brooklyn comedy show featuring all women and one “token male,” for the past two years. The monthly event is currently found at Three’s at Franklin and Kent in Greenpoint. I discovered the November edition of the show on The Skint and realized afterwards it was the first time I’d seen live comedy intentionally crafted around a lineup of women. The setting in the back room was intimate; my friend and I arrived a little late and weren’t shot any dirty looks when we decided to sit down on the floor in between rows of seats. The feel was inviting but not cloyingly so.

When you see a lot of stand-up that’s skewed male, the one-off female performer might stand out as, well, feminine. But when you see woman after woman performing, like during Drop the Mike, the diversity of their styles becomes apparent. Some joked about their families, some joked about hating children, some were raunchy, some more traditional. Some drew easy laughter while others had to work for it. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ali Wong, whose 2016 Netflix special, “Baby Cobra,” was a smash hit, balked  when discussing some of the language surrounding her success. ‘“I hate when people are like, ‘Support female comedy.’ That’s not a real genre of comedy! I think if you have true respect for women as three-dimensional creators who are innovative, you wouldn’t group them together like that.” She’s right, of course. But in order to assess comedy from women the way we assess comedy from men, we have to see it.

In her 2016 memoir, Shrill, West details her own personal reckoning with stand-up years earlier, which followed the stinging realization that in order to uphold the values she based her life and work on, she’d have to apply them to what she laughed at. She describes an incident in 2010 watching a friendperform a joke about herpes to a riotous crowd. “It wasn’t a self-deprecating joke about the comic’s own herpes. It was about other people. People with herpes are gross, ha ha ha. Girls with herpes are sluts. I hope I never accidentally have sex with a gross slut with herpes!” Her anger grows thinking of recently consoling a friend dealing with the stigma of a herpes diagnosis herself.

That’s the thing about humor: widening up your circle of acquaintances, friends, coworkers, or entertainers to include people different from you, whether by gender, race, sexual orientation, or class, might make it feel like there are more “off-limits” topics to joke about, lest you offend someone. But “off-limits” doesn’t have to mean you’re being censored or silenced or the PC police are out to get you, it just means “not funny.” If the joke is that herpes is gross but you know a lot of people who have herpes —what’s funny about it?

What’s brilliant about comedy, though, is that the best comedians can turn a lazy trope on its head – so nothing is “off-limits” as long as you’re smart enough. Take “Baby Cobra,” wherein Wong posits after revealing that she likely gave her husband HPV that “Everybody has HPV, okay? Everybody has it. It’s okay. Come out already…If you don’t have it yet, you go and get it. You go and get it. It’s coming. You don’t have HPV yet, you’re a fucking loser, alright? That’s what that says about you.”

The token male at Drop the Mike drew a lot of laughs and was clearly a seasoned performer. At one point he made a joke which included the idea of a woman not being good looking enough to decide when to settle. It wasn’t taken as offensive and the crowd was on board with the set up. But he stopped short of the final punch line, noting that it had a certain ending but given that this was a woman-centric show it probably wouldn’t work. He was laughing, the mood was positive. Maybe he’ll do that joke again and maybe he won’t.

A week after Drop the Mike, I met up with Cunningham before she did a set at a different show at Halyard’s in Gowanus the following week. She greeted me with the same warm hug she gave all of the performers while she was hosting before they took the stage. “I can’t take credit for the concept,” she says, “Steven [Sheffer, the producer of Drop the Mike] wanted to have it be all girls.” There is definitely something appealing about the novelty of the token male performer: “It’s funny because I get more men messaging me and asking me to be on the show than I do women,” she says.

Cunningham has been doing stand-up weekly for nearly a decade, and says now that she feels more established she can be pickier about looking for shows with a more even lineup. “I always have more fun when there’s an all women show. I cancelled a show recently because I was going to be the only girl and I didn’t really know anyone. I don’t need stage time that bad; I’d rather wait for a show where I know I’ll have a couple of buddies that will make it a more supportive environment.”

There certainly was a supportive environment at Drop the Mike that felt unique from other shows I’d been to. One of the performers was Radhika Vaz, co-creator of the webseries Shugs and Fats. Having done a lot of all-female stand up in India, Vaz, whose background is in improv, notes that there’s a sense of “less self-consciousness and trying to come off as any way in particular,” in relation a heavily male lineup or audience. She relates an experiment her improv coach conducted with an all-female cast performing male and female roles, as a way to assess whether they acted differently than when in more traditional roles. The difference was marked, she says, “they were playing stronger characters, not playing a generic woman character that you often get pushed into playing or push yourself into playing, there was something about being all funny chicks together at the same place, something about that energy.”

Julia Johns performed at the very first Drop the Mike show as well as the most recent, and has been doing stand up in the city for eight years. Despite loving the crowd the show brings, she notes that the ideal future would be one where predominantly female stand-up didn’t have to be as intentional. “I really love it when I see a lineup that’s half women, half men and they don’t even say anything about it,” she tells me. “When I’ve produced shows in the past and there’s four comics, I try to get two men and two women, it’s not that hard! That’s what’s so frustrating is seeing lineup after lineup of all men and no women, or just one woman.” Sometimes the “ladies night” lineup can get a little schticky. Johns recalls a certain show, “The guy running the show just kept pointing it out, joking, ‘Can you guys feel the estrogen in here??’ and it just felt like it was going backwards.” At Drop the Mike though, “Kendra does it in a joking way, mocking that there is usually one token female. It’s lighthearted and the guy performing is always on board with the joke, but at the same time she’s proving that there are enough funny women to have a packed lineup each time.”

The next Drop the Mike show is on December 14th and features Aparna Nancharla. The last show of the year is also its two-year anniversary and holiday celebration, and Cunningham laughs that she’s asked the performers to all wear something “festive.” After she and I wrap up our conversation I watched the show at Halyard’s. Because of a change in the lineup, Cunningham was the only woman to perform.

The Internet Never Forgets

In our first episode, three of us discuss, what else, deeply embarrassing stories from our past.

If you’ve been waiting with your breath bated, you can finally breathe easy: the High-Strung podcast has arrived. That’s right, we flipped on the mics and filled up our wine glasses and for that you are welcome. For our first episode, Monica Torres, Frida Oskarsdottir, and Gabrielle Sierra journeyed into the past and explored the shame that can be brought on by our ever-present digital footprint—from resurfaced Hanson message board diatribes to far-too-easy-to-Google “Yu-Gi-Oh!” fanfic. Join us as we present “The Internet Never Forgets,” and please let us know what you think on iTunes!

Music: “Shine” by Katie Thompson & Duffy Sylvander.

Unbound Is Changing the Way Women Buy Sex Toys, One Box at a Time

Most sex toy companies are owned and operated by men who could care less about what women want. This is where startups like Unbound come in.

By Saira Khan

Polly Rodriguez was 21 years old when, after undergoing treatment for Stage III colon cancer and being kicked into early menopause, she went to a sex shop to buy a vibrator. “It was a horrible experience,” she told me. The store she went to in St. Louis, Missouri was full of older men perusing pornographic magazines. There were bright sex toys displayed on shelves, with no information on how to use them or even why to use them. Polly found a void wherever she looked. “It’s one thing to be in New York City, but I was in St. Louis, and we just didn’t have any information for us out there,” she told me. The experience stayed with her.

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Polly Rodriguez (left) with the Unbound team at a Sex Expo in Brooklyn, NY

Now, nine years later, Polly is the co-founder and chief executive of Unbound, which she bills as “an online sex shop for rebellious women.” It’s a way for her to rescue other women from going through what she did: feeling embarrassed about wanting to learn about and explore her sexuality.

Unbound has a quarterly subscription box, in which people receive a number of sex toys and products. The company also offers themed boxes for different events in a person’s life: a Period Box, a Menopause Box, a Pregnancy Box, and there’s even a Rebound Box for people who are going through a breakup. The point of all of this is to give women the information they’re seeking about their sexuality and wellness, in a way that isn’t embarrassing for them.

 

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Cards, necklaces, and cuffs, oh my!

It’s only in recent years that sex toy companies have started considering women’s needs, and the reason for this is clear: most sex toy companies are owned and operated by men who could care less about what women want. This is where startups like Unbound come in: CEOs like Polly are working hard to fill this void that has existed for far too long. And while she’s seen success with Unbound, getting there hasn’t been easy.

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The Pregnancy Box (Image from Unbound)

The same problem that exists in sex-toy companies exists in venture capitalism: men. “There’s an image of what a startup CEO should look like, and it isn’t usually a woman,” Polly said. “You walk into those investor meetings feeling like you don’t belong. I had to learn quickly how to be resilient.” To add to this, listening to conversations about sex can be awkward and often people’s first instinct is to laugh. “I’ve been laughed out of rooms and it ends up creating this sense of imposter syndrome where you feel like you aren’t good enough,” Polly said. “But you are good enough and you should be there! It’s just easy to forget when you’re in that environment.”

I asked Polly if she could go back in time and give her 16-year-old self some advice, what would it be? “Don’t compare yourself to others. It’s fine if you go to a state school. What really matters is that you do well and work hard,” she said. Oh, also, “Go to the doctor early because you have cancer in the butt!”

 

 

Memories of a City Kid’s Summer

Our summers aren’t for backyard pools or manicured lawns or days spent in air-conditioned basements. They are for screaming, running, falling. For skinned knees.

By Gabrielle Sierra

Go. Leave the city. Flee to your upstate houses, your lakeside homes and your ocean-front rentals. New York summers belong to us. The native New Yorkers, the city kids.

Our summers aren’t for backyard pools or manicured lawns or days spent in air-conditioned basements. They are for screaming, running, falling. For skinned knees. For sneakers hitting hot cement. For jumping through sprinklers or being blasted by an open fire-hydrant, cartwheeling back and forth in the street. For us rolling ten deep, fifteen deep, every day. We fill the street. Kids with nowhere to go and nothing to do for two whole months.

Our summer is for games in driveways and for tagging your little brother just a little too hard so you have to run and hide before your mother finds you. For spinning and spinning until you fall onto your back to watch the world above you twist.

We play Freeze Tag and Spud and Man Hunt and tear across the block, darting into front yards, exploring rooftops and sneaking up alleys. Homebase is always the same tree, a beast that can only be seen in tunnel vision as your legs pump as hard and as fast as they can, moving you just ahead of an outstretched hand.

Our summers are for the Ice Cream Man, whose name is Mike, who rings his bells as he cruises up each street, sending even the calmest of kids into mild hysterics, prompting us to run inside and scrounge for change or beg our parents for a few dollars. We devour electric-colored pops that drip into a pool at our feet that will later be overrun with ants.

We draw with chalk over the cracked sidewalk, people complimenting us on our shading skills as they step all over our masterpieces. (Picasso never had to deal with this.) We rescue bugs from the tar oozing on the curb and we listen to the sound of cicadas in the trees.

Our summers are for playing handball in the park “asses up,” the losing team standing against the wall like criminals while they wait for the rubber ball to sting their bare skin.

For those of us lucky enough to grow up near the ocean (yes, New York City has ocean access) our summers are for running to the public beach and never bringing enough of anything, never having an umbrella or the right towel or the appropriate amount of suntan lotion. For sucking the salt from your hair as you walk across the too-hot sand without your shoes on. For smelling the ash can barbeques that are watched over by families who have come down for the whole day, lugging coolers full of meat onto city busses just to spend some time with their children by the water.

My summers don’t smell like hot garbage. They don’t make me want to get out of town. My summers are not for the faint of heart, the bored. We fill the space you leave behind (thanks for clearing out of our way.) We are adventurers, explorers, city kids in the heat.

So go, we’ll be here. See you in the fall.

Urban Beaching

Our photographer hit the streets for some classic summer in the New York City shots.

Photographs by Sara Afzal
Introduction by the Editors

As we make our way into the fall, we’re looking back at what summer—that fickle minx who lures you in with thoughts of the beach and pushes you away with walls of hot garbage smell— means to us. To honor the few months out of the year that turn us back into kids on vacation, encouraging us to take to the streets and enjoy life outside of our apartments or offices. The summer heat is a great equalizer, no one is immune to the suffocating subway platform or regaining your core temperature in an air-conditioned bathroom at work—as the city heats up, people come outside. And so, our photographer Sara Afzal hit the streets for some classic summer in the city shots.

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Solar and the City: A Day with Brooklyn SolarWorks

As the High-Strung ambassador for the Power chapter, Frida joined a group of New Yorkers for a rainy-day tour with Brooklyn SolarWorks, put on by New York Adventure Club.

By Frida Oskarsdottir 

 

As the High-Strung ambassador for the Power chapter, Frida joined a group of New Yorkers for a rainy-day tour with Brooklyn SolarWorks, put on by New York Adventure Club.

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Just last week, The New York Times reported that in 2016 the solar industry accounted for the largest job creation in the renewable energy sector with over 373,000 jobs. By comparison, the coal industry was responsible for only 160,000 new jobs over the same time period. While these figures are encouraging to renewable enthusiasts, a new White House administration means an uncertain policy future, giving some pause to even the most optimistic solar nerds.

In New York state, solar electricity generation has grown nearly 800% from 2011 to 2016, ranking it 10th in the country for installed capacity. Still, less than 1% of homes in New York are powered by solar. With aggressive goals to provide half of the state’s electricity through renewable sources by 2030, much more needs to happen. For many consumers there is still a disconnect between solar technology and their personal energy consumption. On a rainy Earth Day two weeks ago, I took a tour with New York Adventure Club — complete with Gowanus rooftop DJing and snacks from (where else?) Whole Foods — to learn more about one company’s mission to bring solar power to New York City. New York Adventure Club organizes all kinds of day trips around the city; the small group in attendance this day ranged from renewable energy aficionados to people who had been on tours with the company before and just thought it sounded fun. The tour consisted of small lectures and explanations given by co-founder of Brooklyn SolarWorks, T.R. Ludwig, as the group took in the company’s headquarters and workshop.

Along with his co-founders, Ludwig established Brooklyn Solarworks about two years ago. After over a decade in the industry and working for other solar installers, he says he saw room for growth which larger businesses were missing out on. “A lot of solar installers are focused on what we call a suburban pitched roof. Here in New York City our buildings don’t look like that. They tend to have flat roofs, and as a result, a lot of this market has been ignored by large solar companies. Some will dip their toes in but most wind up leaving. What I saw when I started out is that there is a great opportunity here to serve homeowners.” It also helps that there is an ongoing boom in solar power across the country, which Ludwig attributes to lower costs and new financing mechanisms that significantly reduce the out-of-pocket cost to the consumer.  

In order to solve the flat roof dilemma and bring the success of solar power from the suburbs to New York City, Brooklyn SolarWorks collaborated with design firm Situ Studio in order to create what Ludwig calls “the lynchpin” of their innovation: the solar canopy.

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A solar canopy on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ Gowanus workshop. The company can use credits generated here to offset electricity costs at their headquarters down the street.

To accommodate the unique requirements for solar in the city, the canopy’s design serves a functional purpose. As we stood beneath the enormous canopy installed on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ workshop, Ludwig explains “there are a number of onerous fire codes that require very large swaths of the roof to be left open in case the fire department needs access. The canopy allows you to raise the system 9 feet above the roof, which is the height given by the FDNY determined by a 6-foot-tall fireman swinging an axe. With that threshold we developed our technology to get up 9 feet but also to be withstand high winds. There’s nothing else like it and there’s nobody out there doing what we’re doing.”

In addition to function, the company hopes the canopy’s distinct look will act as a sort of built-in marketing campaign. “We want people to get excited to have these on their roof. We think that it’ll have a good viral effect on people – talking to their neighbors, getting referrals. There’s really good data out there that suggests that that’s true; the more solar you see on a street, the faster it gets built.” While Brooklyn SolarWorks primary business is still traditional solar installation, Ludwig hopes the canopy, which the company has the proprietary rights to, will follow closely behind.

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A street view of the workshop, from which bystanders can see the canopy.

So how much does it cost? According to Ludwig, it’s cheaper than you might think. Typically in New York City, your Con Edison utility bill arrives in the mail and you pay it, no questions asked. Switching to solar asks the customer to make an upfront investment for long-term savings. Ludwig explains, “You’re basically prepaying for electricity for 25 years at a drastically reduced rate. If you think about your ConEd bill now, take 25 percent of that and put it out over 25 years.” If paying just a quarter of your bill sounds appealing, you can thank the many federal, state, and city incentives aimed at making solar as attractive as possible to the consumer. Ludwig states the biggest boon was the 2015 extension of the Investment Tax Credit, which alone pays the customer back 30 percent of the installation cost through a tax break. Despite President Trump’s coal-fueled promises, Ludwig doesn’t worry about the credit being cut short. “At this point as it will already sunset in a few years, so it doesn’t make sense for them to touch it and get bad press.”

Of course, in order to buy the canopy, you have to first buy the house. For renters in New York City, the options for solar power are more limited, but they do exist. Ludwig mentions “community solar,” which allows individual consumers who may not own their homes to buy solar credits from different providers (it’s a technical process including something called net-metering, Google it because if I try to explain it to you my hair might catch on fire). “It’s an evolving model,” Ludwig says, “you couldn’t do this even a year ago.”

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On the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ headquarters and office – a portable canopy also serves as cover from the rain.

The day ended with refreshments and music on another roof, this time atop the office headquarters a few blocks from the workshop. As some of us lamented the chilly weather, Ludwig mentioned that interestingly solar panels thrive on cooler sunny days and run much less efficiently in excessive heat. The rain pattered as a DJ spun music from solar-run turntables, and in spite of the clouds I felt keenly aware of the powerful sun behind them.