Comedy has long had a reputation for being a boy’s club. All too often, stand-up shows have just one or two women on the roster, and on television and in movies, women have historically held tokenistic roles as performers and are often ignored altogether as an audience demographic. The refrain that “women aren’t funny” recurs too often to be the small-minded belief of just a few sexist dinosaurs: Indeed, the idea seems to resound throughout the industry, from the admission of David Letterman’s former booker Eddie Brill that he didn’t like to hire women to the recent Vanity Fair cover that showed a depressing sameness among late-night talk-show hosts.
But in recent years, there have been detectable—if uneven—efforts across all levels of the entertainment industry to feature more women. Comedians like Kristen Wiig and Amy Schumer have broken onto Hollywood’s A-list, and film franchises like Ghostbusters are being rebooted with all-female casts. This year, Samantha Bee left The Daily Show to host her own talk show on TBS, and both Maria Bamford and Chelsea Handler had new series debut on Netflix. Comedy Central’s recently announced slate of half-hour stand-up specials—a reliable indicator of which performers are on the verge of major stardom—featured five women out of 17. There’s a lot more work to be done before the comedy world reaches real gender parity, but as more paths to recognition have opened for stand-ups around the country, there have already been heartening results.
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.
Aparna Nancherla is one of the stand-ups who got a half-hour from Comedy Central this year, after emerging on the Washington D.C. comedy scene and working as a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers. She echoed Schaefer’s sentiments about the narrow-mindedness of many bookers. “There would be a comfort zone in clubs, of a certain type of comedy [the bookers are] ‘used to,’ and it’s easy to stay within that box,” she told me.“It’d be unusual for there to be a bunch of women, unless it was a specifically female-branded show.” But as Nancherla moved from the relatively small D.C. comedy world to the larger scenes of Los Angeles and New York, she found things changing: “The old gatekeepers don’t have as much sway as they used to ... You don’t have to do A, B, and C anymore to get to where you want to go, necessarily.”
Nancherla also noted that the expanding, internet-fueled world of alternative comedy had allowed comedians like her to find new, more openminded audiences to help build their acts. Podcasts like Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson’s 2 Dope Queens (which records live shows and featured Nancherla in its first episode) and Comedy Bang Bang have also become popular ways for comedy fans to discover new acts.
As for more mainstream avenues to visibility, Nancherla said she thinks there’s “more awareness of the disparity” among programmers at networks like Comedy Central, and guessed there was “a concerted effort” this year to keep the Half Hour slate from being overwhelmingly male. For all of that, she acknowledged anything close to a 50/50 split would still be unusual but that she’d welcome attempts by the network to overcompensate.
Schaefer agreed. “Some people look at that increased percentage, and it scares them,” she said, noting the amount of sexist pushback she received online simply for praising the Comedy Central move. “You’re not being oppressed. This is what equality feels like.”