[deck]Women comedians embrace their gender and get the last laugh.[/deck]
[cap]L[/cap]eigh Anne Jasheway sashays up the stairs to the green room at the Wildish Theater in Springfield, Oregon. Her fire-engine-red hair is pulled into two pigtails and her eyes are bright with excitement as curtain call nears. She opens the door to the dressing room where six other comedians are preparing for that night’s show.
“I just stood outside because I was having a hot flash,” Jasheway announces, getting everyone’s attention. “Not a good idea when you are in a short skirt,” she says, tugging at the pink and turquoise frock embellished with multi-colored paisley swirls that hangs just above her knees.
Sharon Lacey sits in front of a large mirror that covers the room’s back wall and runs her fingers through her sandy blond hair. Another woman is seated in the corner reading out of a pocket-sized black notebook, rehearsing her routine. The rest watch as Gail Hand dons a short bluish-gray wig and a pair of broken reading glasses in an effort to look like her eighty-nine-year-old grandma. As they eat chocolates and drink sparkling apple cider, they joke and make small talk.
“How many female comedians does it take to open a bottle of cider?” Jasheway asks as a couple of the comedians struggle to open one of the non-alcoholic drinks.
“None. Women comedians drink vodka,” another woman replies, sending the room into laughter.
At the front of the theater, the lobby is buzzing with nearly two hundred women—and a few men—who are ready to laugh at the jokes these comedians have prepared.
Jasheway, Lacey, and Hand performed with their fellow comedians at the Fifth Annual Pacific Northwest Women’s Comedy Festival, making light of sex, relationships, family drama, and other aspects of a woman’s life.
“It’s the only place we can go to talk about menopause,” Jasheway says with a chuckle.
As one of the largest women’s comedy shows north of San Francisco, California, the venue attracts the talents of comedians from all over the Pacific Northwest. Jasheway founded the festival after she noticed there wasn’t really a place where women could perform their style of comedy.
“Women are funny. Men are funny. We’re just different,” Jasheway says. “And women have been laughing along with the men for years, so why not turn things in the other direction for at least one night?”
Jasheway is a bright and bubbly woman who is always smiling and has an infectious laugh. She has a subtle Texan accent and practically everything that comes out of her mouth is funny. She is a recipient of the Erma Bombeck Award for Humor Writing and has been making people laugh for more than twenty years.
Her resumé includes teaching comedy and journalism classes at Lane Community College and the University of Oregon. Her philosophy is simple: people need comedy in their lives to release stress and learn to laugh at their mistakes.
Jasheway says her Top Comedy in the Media class at the University of Oregon discusses the idea that historically in the United States “what is considered funny has been primarily defined by men.” She adds that a recent article in Vanity Fair argued that women are not funny.
But why are there so few women comedians? And why are so many mainstream comedy routines geared toward a male audience?
According to Jasheway, the concept that a whole sex is not funny is absurd. She adds that this bias is based on that fact that the female comedy style is much different than the industry-driving male style.
“Most comedians in this country come up through the bar comedy circuit and the comedy they end up doing often falls into a pattern of what drunken patrons want to hear. It’s not a career choice that is easy for anyone, but for women it can be more difficult,” Jasheway says. “I myself prefer comedy that requires some level of intellect and favors heavy innuendo as opposed to scatological comedy or profanity—both of which go over better in bars.”
A 2005 study from Stanford University School of Medicine revealed that a person’s gender affects the way he or she responds to humor. While humor activated similar areas in the brain for both genders, it also activated some regions only in women. The unique area illuminated in women suggests that they have a greater grasp on language and processing. According to the study, these results could be the reason why women prefer more sophisticated humor, such as word play, as opposed to men’s preference for slapstick humor.
The differences between men and women are shown in their comedy preferences and in each gender’s comedy routines. Jasheway says that unlike male comedians who make women the target of their jokes, female comedians go a different direction—focusing more on their life stories.
“For example, it is more natural for men to fall into the joke pattern, while women’s comedy is often more story-telling and relationship-based,” Jasheway explains.
Male comedians and male audiences also tend to prefer raunchier and shorter jokes, while women prefer more clever jokes, Jasheway says. She adds that women comedians often feel pressures to alter their jokes toward this “bar scene” style.
“Men think talking about porn and displaying mock self-gratification on stage is hysterical—both the male comics and the male audience; typically women do not—although women comics in bars end up falling into this pattern sometimes,” Jasheway says.
Jasheway notes that male comedy is often based more on practical jokes and violence, citing America’s Funniest Home Videos as a prime example.
“Female comedy may often include some self-deprecatory humor—our egos aren’t as fragile and it humanizes us,” she says.
She also adds that being a woman in the comedy industry is more challenging than being a man because it is a male-dominated network and men are often given a leg up.
About a year ago, Jasheway called Comedy Central to see if they wanted to be involved in her comedy festival. She was told by a woman, “No one here would be interested because it’s an old boys’ club around here and they like it that way.”
According to Lacey, another performer from this past year’s festival, motherhood is another reason why there are fewer female comedians.
“[Women] have children at home and can’t leave them for long periods of time or take them on the road,” Lacey says. “The life of a road comic is tough—I often have to sleep in my car.”
Lacey also thinks that men are favored as comedians over women because of a woman’s higher pitched voice. She says that an audience may tune women comedians out because they find a woman’s harsher voice irritating. Lacey finds it is better to speak in a lower voice in her routine.
And, she adds that during the eighties and nineties many female comics did man-bashing jokes, turning many male audience members against them.
“That’s fairly passé now, I think,” she says. “If I do a joke that puts down men, I also make sure I do a joke that puts down women.”
Lacey is a middle-aged woman with a wise smile and a shoulder-length blond bob. She has been a comedian for five years and just returned from giving some comic relief to the troops in Iraq and Kuwait.
After teaching middle school for twenty-three years, Lacey started doing stand-up comedy to add some adventure to her life and to challenge her brain. Lacey’s grandma and mother suffered from severe dementia, and when she started experiencing the beginning stages, she decided to use comedy and the process of remembering her jokes as tools to sharpen her memory.
Lacey gave herself an extra challenge at the most recent festival by adding a new joke to her routine—and she succeeded when she remembered it. Lacey dazzled the audience with a tacky sparkly black top and a joke about ADD. She also did a mean impression of a hunky French man named Henri and had the whole room laughing over a story about trying on her college-aged daughter’s polka-dot thong.
Throughout her career performing and traveling as a comic, Lacey learned that “in some cases it’s in your favor to be a woman; in some cases it’s not.” She agrees with Jasheway that the comedy industry can be more challenging for women to break into, but says her biggest challenge is connecting with the audience, since many people have this preconceived notion that women aren’t funny. Sometimes she feels that the female audience members find her more relatable because of her gender, while the males seem to pre-judge her the minute she steps on stage.
“I often feel like I have to win the crowd over and prove to them that I’m funny and worth listening to. Whereas sometimes I think men are given the benefit of the doubt from the moment they set foot on stage,” Lacey says.
Hand, who impersonated her grandma at the comedy festival, is all too familiar with trying to win over the crowd, as she has faced being a woman and a lesbian in the comedy industry for the last twenty-one years. Hand got her start doing stand up in the early nineties when it was especially tough for female comics.
“It was harder to get stage time, but if you were good you got the time—you just had to work harder to get there,” she says.
“It takes a tough constitution to put it all out there on the line onstage,” Hand says. “There are many very funny women in the world; they need to challenge themselves more to be courageous, get up, and share the madness of their lives.”
Hand is a petite Jewish woman with short curly brown hair. In addition to constantly cracking jokes, Hand has a warmth about her and a twinkle in her brown eyes that can be comforting to anyone.
Hand took the youngest comedian under her wing at this past year’s show, offering her advice and even bringing her onstage a second time to help with her act. She focuses much of her routine on her grandma, Lottie, who she loved dearly and found hysterical.
Hand started out as a writer in San Francisco, California, and jumped into the comedy industry on a whim. She is currently a “motivational humorist”, which she says means that she is “either a funny speaker or a lazy comedian with a message.”
She says that female audiences are great at recognizing irony and that is the biggest thing they could take away from this comedy festival.
“Women have great perspective on life’s ironies, and we are more clever than men. Put those together with a woman who loves being onstage and you have a night full of madness and brilliance,” Hand says.
Back in the green room, Jasheway, Lacey, Hand, and the rest of the women are still getting ready for their comedy routines. Eleven-year-old Emma Mowry, the youngest comic performing at the show, grabs a Dove chocolate and reads the fortune on the inside of the wrapper: “Be yourself, just the way you are.”
The touch of irony makes all the women smile as they relish the fact that tonight they get to do what they love to do—perform—without any constraints that gender may bring.