The Challenge For Women In Comedy: Figuring Out What’s Funny (And What's Not) In Trump's America

No matter what happens with this administration, one thing is for certain: women will be speaking up.
01/22/2017 05:40 pm ET

If you ask comedian Amy Miller from “Last Comic Standing” how politics and comedy fit together, she has a lot more interesting of an analogy than peanut butter and jelly. “It’s more like pizza and ranch... that is to say, it’s not for everyone, but if you like it... you fucking love it.”

There’s an undeniable change happening in this country; what feels like a dramatic split, or at the very least, a line drawn in the sand - those who are with “him” and those who aren’t.

Whenever there is a shift in power, it’s going to have an impact on comedy, and conversely, comedy can impact the political landscape too. “The Daily Show’s” prominence arose out of the Bush administration and there’s no denying that Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression had a huge political influence. This time, the impact the election has had on women in particular feels more present than ever.

Women in comedy already have an uphill battle. They face discrimination and sexism (just like women in most professions), but also deal with safety issues while on the road, in the clubs, and even among their peers. On top of that, despite a rich history of female stand-ups and writers, and a sea of hilarious women working in comedy today, the ridiculous notion that “women aren’t funny” just can’t seem to die. And now...Trump.

I’m lucky that my radio show allows me to speak with all different types of talent: comedians, writers, musicians, and entertainers of all kind, not to mention callers from across the country with diverse views. However, my recently launched podcast, “Gail Meets Girls,” focuses on one very specific group; women in comedy. The idea to do a show where I get to speak to the funniest women in the business came about before the election, but we didn’t start recording until just after its results, and it didn’t take long before the subject came up. I quickly discovered the election is at the forefront of women’s minds. No matter what their background or views are, these women are comics, so the ultimate goal is to make people laugh; however, they all face a decision, which is whether or not to address Trump in their writing and if yes, how to do so.

When I spoke with Brooklyn comedian Kerry Coddett on my podcast, she was clear that even though the political future looks grim, her comedy writing isn’t suffering. “For the first nine months we were dealing with Trump, I didn’t have one joke to write, I was not inspired, I wasn’t touching it. The minute he was nominated and we found out he was President-elect, I couldn’t stop writing jokes. I have a brand new seven minutes,” she said, before addressing any potential club bookers that could be listening. “Book me on your show.”

Kerry is not alone. Not only are stand-up comics foaming at the mouth at every wild and bizarre new Trump story, anyone with a Twitter account is bumping heads on the way to the next joke. During the Russian hack, Amy Miller had explained to me she was stuck on the road traveling to a gig, “I felt like I was clocking in late to a job that doesn’t pay me any money.” Although it may seem like Twitter is flooded with a million orange Oompa Loompa jokes, Amy finds it interesting that most female stand-ups can’t help but have at least one political joke these days. So as a positive, these comics travel the road doing gigs across the country, and the conversation spreads.

But the way to broach the subject isn’t the same across the board for all women in comedy. For some comics, like Liza Treyger, the passion and rawness has had a direct effect and they are not afraid to address it head on. For Liza, the election has changed more than just her jokes. Her feelings toward her audience have also changed. “I perform for the women,” she told me in Episode 2 of “Gail Meets Girls.” “If the women are high-fiving me after, and they’re having a good time, that is all I care about now.” Comedian Annie Lederman, who also joined us on that episode, shares Liza’s awakening to how she’s approaching Trump and her disappointment surrounding the election. The episode was cathartic and a strange sort of therapy that afterwards we all agreed we didn’t even know we were needing. For all the articles telling you women in comedy are having their day in the sun, comedy is still undeniably a boys club. Annie remarked, “Now, after the election, 100 percent, I look back on how much I had let men give me my value.” It is a misstep that she says she will not repeat. Now it’s more clear than ever to Annie that “being a woman is the shit.”

Trump’s victory seems to somewhat mirror that short-end-of-the-stick misogyny as something worse than a problem – it’s the norm. But if there’s any way to gain control over this inability to burst through the glass above, it’s through their own comedy. Treyger may be setting the bar high, but if you’ve ever seen her perform stand-up live, you know she’s a force to be reckoned with. “I want to reach the white women that voted for Trump and try to make sure that never happens again. So that’s my goal. Maybe that’s egotistical or crazy, but that’s what I want to do with my material.”

There are plenty of ways to address personal political views in comedy, so of course, not all women are going to approach Trump material the same way, or even at all. I recently had the chance to speak with Janeane Garofalo on “Bennington”, the daily radio show I co-host with Ron Bennington on SiriusXM. I was looking forward to speaking with her not only because I love her work as a comedian, but also because she has been such an outspoken voice in comedy. From her work on “Air America Radio” and appearances on FOX News, to her stance against the War in Iraq, her politics have been an integral part of her public persona. Her take on how Trump fits into comedy at this point in time is anything but simple, “Sometimes I feel too bereft, quite honestly, to make a joke about something. This is no joke... it’s hard to parody it and also I don’t have that much to say about it, so when I do discuss it, I just discuss how I’m feeling about it.” Janeane doesn’t describe herself as a political comedian, but rather she discusses her politics on stage and sometimes she chooses not to. The rawness of the election results, still a fresh wound for some, not only affects the performers, but Janeane also considers how it affects the room. “Sometimes I just feel honestly very sad about it and very nervous and restless, and a lot of times it’s just fatiguing for the audience to discuss these things... Especially if in the audience, they have any degree of emotional intelligence or empathy of any kind, if they care about things then it’s difficult to just dismiss or mock what goes on in politics.”

Bonnie McFarlane, who created a documentary called “Women Aren’t Funny”, explains that being funny comes first. In other words, laughs greatly outweigh the polite applause breaks of agreement. She states, “I don’t like doing comedy that’s for the masses. Even though I’m 100 percent against Trump, I would still probably try to do a pro-Trump joke, because that’s just who I am.” Anytime I’m watching Bonnie, I’m in awe of her incredible ability to flip the angle. She stands out in the New York comedy clubs, but also has great success with right-leaning audiences. “At the end of the day, I don’t care if they think I love Trump or hate him,” said Bonnie. “I just want to make jokes. I want them to laugh.” Bonnie wouldn’t tell you politics has no place is comedy. She reserves that status for that other divisive topic, “I think there should be more politics in comedy, more comedy in politics, and that religion should not be a part of either.”

No matter what happens with this administration, one thing is for certain: women will be speaking up. Women in comedy, whether they intend to or not, have the potential to make a greater impact than they could have ever imagined as soon as they step up to that mic. It may sound improbable, but if Hannibal Buress can take down Cosby with a joke, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

Maybe Amy Miller is right with her analogy – if you’re open to it, there might be something the audience can take from a joke about women’s issues or patriarchal oppression in a place they never expected to learn something... or someone could be furious, you just ruined a perfectly good pizza. Doing stand up on the road, Amy has learned a lot about never pulling the punch or changing her joke in fear of the audience, and she’s even willing to throw a little credit to Donald Trump himself, “I guess the big take away is, if I’ve learned anything from Trump, it’s that if three-quarters of the audience hate my guts, I can still call it a success.”

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