The comedian Sara Schaefer, the co-host of MTV’s now-defunct talk show Nikki & Sara Live, publicly noted the dramatic progress that Comedy Central has made in recent years with its half-hours, which until recently were given almost exclusively to male performers. As someone who’s long spoken out about comedy’s gender imbalance, Schaefer said she’s encountered enough pushback over the issue over the years that she takes particular care to note positive or negative change. “When you have these conversations with people about whether there’s sexism in the industry, and you have a lot of people doubting you, you start collecting evidence,” she told me.
To her, Comedy Central’s traditional reliance on male talent wasn’t proof of a grand sexist scheme, but rather reflective of issues at the lowest rungs of comedy: the open mics and stand-up nights hosted in clubs and bars around the country that serve as the proving ground for young comics. “Because there were only one or two women per show when I started in New York, naturally if you look up the chain to Comedy Central, there’s going to be fewer women,” Schaefer said. “When a small bar show in New York starts booking women and championing them, that gives more opportunity for them to be seen.”
Letterman’s booker, Brill, was symbolic of that institutional problem. In the years before the internet became a viable platform for up-and-coming stand-ups, Letterman’s Late Show functioned as an important audition stage for comedians seeking to “make it.” When talking about his process for picking comedians to feature on the show, Brill defended only booking one woman in 2011 by saying, “There are a lot less female comics who are authentic ... I see a lot of female comics who, to please an audience, will act like men.” He was quickly dismissed by CBS, but his outlook reflected a pervasive attitude many female comics had long noticed among bookers throughout the U.S.
“I’ve had this conversation with people who book comedy rooms, and they say, ‘Everyone says I have to book more women, and I can’t find them,’ Schaefer said. Her response: “They’re there, and you’re just not looking hard enough, or they’re not in your circles of friends. You either want more women on your show or you don’t.” She noted that Comedy Central was beginning to feature more female-driven scripted comedy, like Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, and Not Safe with Nikki Glaser, and that simultaneously, progress was being made on the stand-up front.
Though five out of 17 half-hour specials going to women might not seem like much, it reflects noticeable incremental progress. In 2012, only one Half Hour featured women (the comedy duo Garfunkel & Oates). 2013 and 2014 saw two female comics featured out of 17, and in 2015 there were three out of 14. At the same time, Half Hour has become an increasingly valuable showcase: Not only does the special air on TV, but now it can also have an even longer life online, serving as a springboard to the myriad sketch shows, showcases, and live tours that make up a comedian’s yearly paycheck.