the feminist comedians dismantling sexist ‘jokes’
From Hannah Gadsby to Ali Wong, a distinct wave of smart female comics are poking fun at the old guard of comedy and starting from scratch.
I can pinpoint the moment that I decided stand-up wasn’t my cup of tea. It was at an amateur comedy gig in a sticky South London pub. The man onstage, the first of many men booked that night -- all straight, all white, all with very similar performances about how much it sucks to be single -- chose me as the butt of his joke. His routine could more accurately be labelled as a fatphobic rant. For the punchline, the big tension-relieving plot-twist, he informed me that I had a whale-sized vagina! Hah hah hah! How the room roared with laughter!
Hearing this shit at a comedy show felt a bit like willingly paying actual money to endure the harassment women deal with every single day. And yes, the majority of the room did laugh along with him. Me? I never bothered watching stand-up comedy again.
Until now, that is. Looking around, comedy has never been more diverse and exciting. The comedians currently blazing a trail are all powerful, feminist women. The most exciting names in stand-up comedy right now? Ali Wong, Naomi Ekperigin, Hannah Gadsby, Katherine Ryan, Iliza Shlesinger. Switch on the telly, meanwhile, and the sharpest writing and acting out there comes from Lena Waithe, Ilana Glazer, Phoebe Robinson, Abbi Jacobson, Mindy Kaling, Jessica Williams. While it’s certainly true that we’ve always had brilliant women comedians, the abundance of comics completely dominating the field and questioning the patriarchal structures of comedy itself is notable.
Right now, every single person out there with a sense of humour and a Netflix account seems to be talking about one show in particular, the new stand-up special by Hannah Gadsby, Nanette. It has prompted a staggering amount of discussion, probably because it breaks every single rule in the Dummies’ Guide To Comedy 101. The show starts out following a bog-standard stand-up template, Gadsby cracking jokes about growing up gay in Tasmania, her tone has a subtle difference. As well as making her audience laugh, Gadsby also prompts them to question why they’re laughing in the first place. Towards the start of her show, she tells a predictable old joke, and then turns it around.
“What sort of comedian can’t even make the lesbians laugh?” she asks. “Every comedian… ever!” The room giggles on cue. “That’s a good joke, isn’t it?” Gadsby continues dryly, switching tact. “Classic! Bulletproof, too. Very clever. It’s funny because it’s true. The only people who don’t think it’s funny are us lezzers, but we’ve gotta laugh because if we don’t, it proves the point! Checkmate! I didn’t write that joke, it’s not my joke,” she admits. “It’s an oldie but a goldie, a classic. It was written... well, before even women were funny! Back then in the good old days, lesbian meant something different to what it means now. It wasn’t about sexuality. A lesbian was just any woman not laughing at a man.”
Hearing Gadsby’s punchline swerve at the last minute, you can’t help but think of Daniel Tosh, a white male comedian who made a rape joke at a show six years. When he was called out by a woman in the audience, he responded by asking the room: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” In doing so, he completely removed the tragedy and pain from a gravely serious crime -- totally misusing the power that he holds onstage as a man holding a microphone. His response wasn’t funny. In fact, it came across like a threat. Tosh’s response makes light of women’s suffering and shows a weird entitlement towards receiving laughter. Just like the response that Gadsby pinpoints in Nanette, this is all too common. When a portion of women in the audience loudly booed the little-known male comic I mentioned earlier on, he told us to “lighten up, ladies, it’s just a joke.”
One of comedy’s gifts is that by poking ridicule at powerful and frightening issues and figures, it allows us to shrink them. When things are smaller, they seem easier to discuss; comedy can make our biggest fears feel absurd. Because of this comedy can also give a voice to those who have been historically silenced. Just look at Cameron Esposito: Rape Jokes, a searing takedown of male comics who erase women’s trauma for shock factor and a quick laugh, for evidence of a weighty issue handled responsibly. When Naomi Ekperigin -- a comic who also writes for Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s show Broad City -- performed on Late Night with Seth Meyers, her routine parodied a true crime drama-obsessed woman with a dieting preoccupation. Ultimately, her routine takes a dark turn into the realities of the violence that women and minorities face in America. Ultimately, the butt of Ekperigin’s joke is misogyny, along with the racial hierarchy that exists in the media coverage around missing person cases or violent crime. ”Every episode starts with a white woman in peril,” Ekperigin says. Her joke rings uncomfortably true; missing white woman syndrome, as it’s best known, is a huge concern of bias and erasure in the media.
Like Naomi Ekperigin, Hannah Gadsby’s comedy also succeeds because she’s aware of the power dynamics, and how to manipulate them. After Nanette shifts at the halfway point -- moving away from typical stand-up towards an angered mode of address that’s part art history seminar, part TED talk -- what follows is a searing takedown of the male establishment. Taking aim at the disgraced comedians Louis C.K and Bill Cosby, the mythology around Picasso, and the culture that enables abuse to flourish in the first place, Gadsby also questions the structure of jokes themselves. By turning a homophobic assault into a punchline, or her coming out story into a series of cliffhangers designed for laughs, she explains that she is reducing her experience in order to make others feel more at ease.
“I have been questioning this whole comedy thing,” Gadsby says. “I don’t feel very comfortable in it anymore… I built a career out of self-deprecating humour and I don’t want to do that anymore. Because, do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak.”
Increasingly, self-deprecation is being dismantled by women in comedy. Iliza Shlesinger (best known for her comedy special The Elder Millennial) and the hilarious Ali Wong might both crack their own distinct jokes about growing older and their bodies changing, but they’re not putting themselves down. Instead, their comedy is firmly geared towards lifting up other women. By sharing our stories, we make ourselves heard.
In Ali Wong’s Netflix special Baby Cobra, she performs while seven months pregnant. As well as satirising social prejudices towards mothers, she also takes aim at male comedians in her field writing cheap one-liners about fatherhood. “Once they have a baby, they’ll get up onstage the week after and be like, ‘Guys, I just had this fucking baby,’” Wong says, speaking about so many familiar and tired routines. “That baby’s a little piece of shit,” she says, imitating them. “It’s so annoying and boring, and their fame just swells because they become this relatable family man.”
But Wong, like all of the best comedians coming through right now, knows how to be serious at the most unexpected moments. One moment, she’s telling the audience graphically about how she tried to become pregnant, reenacting various techniques for capturing her husband’s “Harvard nectar” and impersonating ejaculation (“they look like they just got bit by a zombie,” she snarls, grimacing). The next, she’s speaking frankly about her experience of miscarriage. “Last year, I had a miscarriage, which is very common,” she says, catching the room suddenly off guard. “A lot of women in their twenties flip out when they hear that. They’re like, that’s so dark and terrible, I can’t believe that. I’m 33. Women who are 33, you’ll know plenty of women who have had a miscarriage. It’s super common, and I wish that more women would talk about it so that I wouldn’t feel so bad”.
It’s this common denominator which unites all of the most exciting comics right now. In laughing at the injustices that women and minorities face, we must also be mindful of whose voices we choose to lift up, and how we tell stories. As Hannah Gadsby puts it, “I believe we could paint a better world if we learned how to see it from all perspectives, as many perspectives as we possibly could. Because diversity is strength. Difference is a teacher. Fear difference, and you learn nothing.”