The queens of comedy: San Francisco Bay Area female comics stand up

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Joan Kang/Staff

You’ve heard the question asked over and over again, beat upon incessantly. A giddy reporter points a microphone at a high-profile female comic — maybe Natasha Leggero, Ali Wong, Chelsea Peretti — and as if it’s some sort of revelatory query, they ask, “So, what’s it like being a woman in comedy?”

The question’s overused, much to the evident irritation of many comedians. The answer should be as easy as “it’s the same as being a man in comedy” so you can move on and leave the question behind. But that doesn’t seem quite true yet.

“Male producers don’t consider the fact that their lineups have no women in them. Coming out of the gate, I don’t think women get the same opportunities.”

— Chey Bell, San Francisco-based comic

Recently, highly publicized scandals have revealed the varying degrees of discrimination that women still face in comedy. Much of them were based around issues that would never plague the likes of Louis C.K. or Dane Cook. For example, take how Amy Schumer was body-shamed after skyrocketing to superstardom, or how the still-unfolding and horrendous cyber crimes against Leslie Jones demonstrate the intersectionality of race and gender in the world of comedy.

The divide between women and men in comedy is the disappointing offspring of the inequality between women and men at large. We must ask, though, are those flashy journalists exaggerating the divide in comedy by constantly asking about it?

As evidenced by San Francisco and the Bay Area’s stand-up comedy scene, comedians of each gender play the same clubs, frequenting Doc’s Lab, Punch Line showcases and the annual SF Sketchfest. But often times, if you’re looking for a female comic performing near you, it’s not uncommon to find events with names like “Women Gettin’ Witty” at The Purple Onion at Kells or “Really Funny Comedians (Who Happen to Be Women)” at Cobb’s Comedy Club.

San Francisco-based comic Chey Bell attributes the absence of women in lineups to the negligence of some show producers. “Women are not considered,” she said. “Male producers don’t consider the fact that their lineups have no women in them. Coming out of the gate, I don’t think women get the same opportunities.”

Instead, many female comics have been sorted out and placed in shows amongst themselves, thinning the pool of talent and teasing out the competitiveness of comedy shows. The very nature of comedy, especially in stand-up, lies within its universality. Yet, time and time again, we either get an all-male show — openers, headliners and all — or a “women’s night” ordeal.

The plus side to this is that the comics themselves form a community.

Ruby Gill, who co-produces Yum & Yummer, a San Francisco comedy show, with fellow comedian Nicole Love, has found a true sense of comradery in the comedy community. When asked for her thoughts on the “women in comedy” question, she laughed. “I have a thesis on that question,” Gill said.

Ghostbuster's Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in Columbia Pictures' GHOSTBUSTERS.

Ghostbuster’s Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS.

Despite the perceived fantasy of stand-up comedy that involves green rooms, non-stop laughter and drinks afterward. Open mics and tough crowds put a comic in a position that can feel unsafe and insecure. But Gill says that there is an unspoken, mutual understanding amongst women. “I think women have a lot of interesting things to say,” Gill said. “They have a whole other level of intuition that can be built into layers of a joke.” Being onstage beneath a spotlight is such a vulnerable position, but if you’ve found women around you doing the same thing, it begins to feel like home.

It must be made clear that male comics aren’t antagonists to the women-in-comedy issue, either. While the men have the inherent upper hand as far as audience exposure goes, Gill has not witnessed any cruel treatment from male colleagues. If anything, it seems that most members of the opposite sex are personally in full support of their fellow comedians. Rather than viewing it as a boy’s club, there is a mutual understanding as to how rough the world of comedy can be.

Consider the “Ghostbusters” reboot as a large-scale example. Some outspoken traditionalists (in the vein of Milo Yiannopolous) didn’t think the all-women reboot was a necessary production, but it was widely supported by the talented actresses’ colleagues and predecessors. (Bill Murray’s approval is the ultimate comedy blessing.) The comedy community, it seems, is exceptionally close knit, regardless of gender and level of fame.

But that doesn’t solve the longstanding issue that men can still get away with certain subject matter — masturbation, maybe — while when it’s handled by a woman, it’s still taboo.

Female stand-ups commonly gravitate toward the life of a single woman as a subject. It is absurd after all, with the cat-calling on the streets, the stupid pick-up lines at bars and the questions from your mom about why you’re not seeing anyone. Those all sound like overwrought cliches, but all of it happens — daily. It’s part of an authentic day in the life of a woman, so the subject is readily embraced. Nonetheless, popular culture has gradually (and cheaply) morphed the single woman experience into a brand. There’s more to a woman’s life than bad dates. There are other, perhaps darker, aspects of a woman’s life that aren’t as sensationalized.

Eloisa Bravo, who daylights working in construction, is a stand-up comedian and producer of San Francisco’s Cheaper Than Therapy. She took up comedy during a drunken evening out over five years ago, post-miscarriage and post-divorce. While Bravo leans toward comedy that is single woman-centric (“I have no problems getting onstage and talking about my vagina,” she joked), she finds the stage to be an empowering outlet for the misfortunes she’s dealt with.

“When you’re under the spotlight and you’re holding the mic, you call the shots,” she said. “All of it’s my own experiences. I don’t care how you see it — I’m going to tell you how I see it.”

“I think women have a lot of interesting things to say…They have a whole other level of intuition that can be built into layers of a joke.”

— Ruby Gill, co-producer of a San Francisco comedy show

Bell has found similar empowerment, but by straying from the single woman fare. She admits she’s tackled the subject of race and ethnicity in her act, even calling out a San Francisco audience when they laughed at a joke about Black women and their body image. “You shouldn’t find that funny,” she said as a bit of lighthearted, but subtly informative crowd work.

Finding alternative topics that still reach large audiences is a constant struggle for women in comedy. We saw Amy Schumer earned awards attention for her film “Trainwreck” and a slew of funny ladies juggled friendships and an impending marriage in “Bridesmaids.” Both films, while produced by comedic geniuses, adhere to the typical single woman narrative, aiming to be raunchy but respectable. With that, they reached success.

Still, some might ask, where is the female Demetri Martin? The female Jerry Seinfeld? When will women be able to talk about more than just “being a woman” and make it big?

Comedy_SF Sketchfest_Tommy Lau_Courtesy

Gill, for one, would like to see women approach the subject of anger, a topic not often nor easily explored by female stand-ups. “When men talk about anger that plays into their gender roles, to assert themselves in a certain way,” she said. “I think it’d be really interesting if more of us explored more legitimate ways of being angry. It’s not just scary or hysterical.” Anger is a natural emotion, after all. But like anything, it’s difficult to approach something real and human, and make it funny enough that a whole room can engage.

Women are funny, though. They are human. We want more of them. We need more of them.

So, what is it like being a woman in comedy? While Ruby Gill might have a thesis on that question, look down at the line in the sand between women and men. The divide is clear but it does show signs of fading. “The bottom line is there are disparities,” said Bell. Until genders receive the same treatment across the board, she added, perhaps the “woman in comedy” question still needs to be asked.

Danielle Gutierrez covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @dmariegutierrez.