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.