By Michelle Leatherby and Shanna Williams
In the world of comedy, there is a dichotomy between the genders being represented. The majority of famous comedians are men, with the exception of some women that have broken the stereotype. How funny a comedian is perceived to be is directly linked to their gender. The stereotype that men are funnier than women causes a severe disadvantage for women in comedy.
The Tacoma Comedy Club hosts open mics every Wednesday — with a mix of returning comedians and brand new comedians. Open mics are a great way for people to be introduced into the comedy scene, and a great way for established comedians to stay relevant. But even on open mic nights, there is an extreme imbalance in between not only women and men performing, but also white people and POC people performing. The open mic last week at the Tacoma Comedy Club consisted of twenty-four performers, each allotted a 3-minute set. Six of those performers were women, and ten of those performers were people of color. Additionally, the open mic was hosted by a white male who performed at the beginning. The last person of the show is the “feature comic,” who is allowed an 8-minute set. This was also a white male. While those statistics seem pretty unfair, this was one of the highest number of female performers they have had on an open mic. The content of the jokes also played a role in the popularity of each performer. The identity politics that revolve around the intricate world of comedy are strongly rooted, and almost impossible to break through. Identity politics structure the world of comedy, and therefore form the environment and climate of the Tacoma Comedy Club.
Standup comedy is historically dominated by white men. Look at the current lineup of American late-night talk show hosts for example; with the exception of the recently promoted Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore, every single major network host is a white male. In many cases, white males are also working behind the scenes to produce these shows. The CEOs and presidents of the networks Comedy Central, TBS, NBC, CBS, HBO, ABC are all white male. In the world of standup comedy, white men hold the most power. Power can be examined through the lens of critical theory, which asserts that power constitutes all relationships, power has negative and positive consequences, power not limited to persons in power positions, and that power and knowledge operate recursively (Allen, 2004, p. 25-27). Such is the case for Tacoma Comedy Club, owned by Adam Norwest.
Norwest and his parents started Tacoma Comedy Club with the intention of bringing comedy acts directly to Tacoma. The weekly open mic was established with the intention of providing newcomers a space to test comedy waters, and old-timers to try out new jokes (Greenman). The culture of this organization is established through semiotics. Meaning is constructed through language used in advertising the club and the weekly open mic (Anderson and Englehardt, 2001, p. 77). Language is used on Tacoma Comedy Club’s webpage to construct the organization as being“family owned and operated.” However, a regularly-booked comedian at the club said most work is currently managed by Adam, a twenty-something white male who regularly uses the stage for his own material.
In addition to Norwest and his family, the club has a hired staff of bartenders, cooks, and doorman that are present during the Wednesday open mics. Comedian Dan Greene* said, “a lot of regulars go to the open mics; a lot of the same comics go there and are pretty devoted.” The open mic show is free and open to anyone 18+. While the Seattle area is noted for having one of the most diverse comedy scenes in the nation with comedy mics like “The Womb,” “Hella Much,” “Deep Lez,” and “Vomity,” Tacoma Comedy Club lacks a similar representation of diversity at their open mics. This can be attributed both to management and individual comedians’ interest in performing material at the mic. In order to perform at the Wednesday open mic, comedians must email the club the month before with their availability in the coming month. Then, Norwest creates a list of 25 performers for each show in the month and emails those out to comedians who have been selected. Comedians could be placed on 0-4 shows a month.
Brenda Allen cites Max Weber’s explanation of power as “the ability to control resources and behaviors of others, contending that this form of control and its results affect social stratification” (p. 95). Power, then, is enacted by Norwest in creating open mic lists at Tacoma Comedy Club. When Norwest regularly gives time to certain comedians, he empowers them to continue both developing their material and to be seen by other comedians and fans. As such, the comedians that are given regular time at this open mic are positioned to receive the most from Tacoma Comedy Club.
Recently, Michelle had heard from other comedians that Norwest would “blacklist” comedians from getting stage time at TCC if they hosted their own shows in Tacoma—particularly after a young, female comedian, Kamryn Minch, started her own open mic at B-Sharp. Minch’s creation of a new open mic in Tacoma can be seen as a form of resistance, which defies the dominant structure and ideology of TCC (Allen, 2004, p. 31). But this resistance is only available to comedians who are capable of generating income outside of TCC. “Adam has a problem with people opening up shows downtown,” said Dan Greene, “they’ll get blacklisted from Sunday shows, which are paid shows.” This is an example of Norwest’s concertive control over comedians—it is not a written rule that dictates the actions of comedians at TCC, but rather a dominant ideology that is constructed informally through speech and action (Allen, 2004, p. 29).
As stated previously, last Wednesday’s open mic featured the most female comedians the club had seen in a while—a whopping 25% of the comedians performing. Michelle has been given significantly less opportunities to perform at Tacoma Comedy Club than other local venues, so she prefers to travel further from home to perform at venues more welcoming to female comedians. But traveling is not an option for some Tacoma comedians of differing identities. Because these performers are not in the dominant group represented at TCC, comedians with identities other than young, white, thin, abled, straight, and male will often open their sets addressing or even satirizing their own identity. Julie Weber writes in her chapter ‘Breaking the Crass Ceiling: Women as Comedians’ “[comedy is] capable of both challenging and confirming established stereotypes in politics and society. Women who challenge established political arrangements while securing audience laughter are not free from the constraints of societal gender expectations. They must conform to gendered stereotypes as well, often ones that reassure audiences by presenting a complementary femininity” (Weber, 2014, p. 77).
“I think there’s an innate preference towards men,” Dan Greene explained as why TCC regularly features mostly male comics, “I think the audience is more welcoming to male comics. We (the Seattle area) are one of the best spaces in the country for female comics, and TCC is still far behind on promoting female comics.” Greene believes that it is not just Norwest, or individual interest from female comedians, but Tacoma Comedy Club’s open mic audience that shapes when and how women are seen as comics. According to Brenda Allen, “Hegemony persists within a society and within organizations when most members agree on dominant belief systems, also known as ideologies” (Allen, 2004, p. 31). The hegemonic nature of Tacoma Comedy Club’s open mics, therefore, are discursively reinforced by three groups: the Norwests, the comedians, and the audience.
Opportunity for change
Influencing change in the Tacoma Comedy Club is a good place to start, but the real problem lies within the entire community of comedy. The TCC cultivates a certain culture, intentional or not. According to Anderson and Englehardt (2001), “Culture is something significantly greater that notions of shared values and meanings… Organizations color the cultural systems in which they are embedded” (p. 59). The TCC has no structure or policies regarding offensive or demeaning jokes. This essentially cultivates an unsafe space for certain performers. The gender stereotypes are so wholeheartedly embedded into each act that straying away from the prescribed gender roles and jokes might lead to discomfort or rejection. For example, many of the female comedians at the open mic talked about relationships, failed relationship, sleeping around, and sex. Gray (1994) found that: “Comedy positions the woman not simply as the object of the male gaze but of the male laugh – not just to-be-looked-at but to-be-laughed-at – doubly removed from creativity” (p. 9). At the same open mic, many of the male comedians joked about women’s domestic roles, leaving them after sex, and so on. The difference in types of jokes was a direct reflection of the performer’s gender. Either the female comedians are so used to this stereotyping and are comfortable in it, or they feel as if the “[field of comic discourse] itself is ‘male,’ that it can only reinscribe the structures of oppression” (Gray, 1994, p. 13). The oppressive language in these jokes are creating an unwelcome space in comedy.
There are many comedy clubs – many as close as Seattle – that emphasize specifically female-identified comics and POC comics and have a zero tolerance policy on offensive or politically incorrect jokes. The TCC should adopt these same policies, to create a welcoming space to marginalized identities. Comedy clubs worry that if they decide to no longer allow certain types of jokes, they could lose business. But as seen at the open mic on Wednesday, many comics get the same amount of laughter – if not more – from non-offensive and non-derogatory jokes. The only way to influence the TCC to adopt these policies would be to present that information, and show them how the comedy clubs surrounding them that have these policies are thriving. According to Anderson and Englehardt (2001), “It is the combined influences that erase doubt within a domain of agency to create the conditions of certainty and moral probity” (p. 156).
As it stands now, there is a battle of the sexes in the comedy world. Stand-up comedy is still viewed as an unwelcoming space for female performers, because generally, “comedy enables negative stereotypes to be used to undermine negative stereotypes ” (Gilbert, 2004, p. 152). Marginalized people are without fail the butt of the joke, and “[they] are forced to operate within a male-defined genre” (Gilbert, 2004, p. 149). The TCC is compliant in cultivating a space allows offensive and demeaning jokes. According to Gilbert (2004), “Objectification is at the heart of stand-up comedy” (p. 154). The TCC has not adopted certain policies for fear of destroying the tradition of stand-up comedy. The majority of performers at the open mic were white men, many of them making jokes about women or race. If the TCC decided to adopt policies that would not allow these performers to make jokes like this, they would probably need to find new comics to perform. The TCC is resisting change – and while this has not affected their popularity, in time, stand-up comedy will hopefully become a place where marginalized identities no longer feel unsafe.
Any time I go to an open mic and see a woman come on stage, I automatically root for her. I feel lucky to grow up in an age where there are examples of women like Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler, Jenny Slate, and so on and so forth being super successful in their comedy careers. But there is no doubt that limited representation still exists in several local venues. Tacoma comedy club is definitively one of these places where women’s voices, and the voices of other marginalized comedians, are not heard nearly enough.
The last time I performed at Tacoma Comedy Club was in September. I told some jokes about Ikea and the Oregon Trail and how I don’t cry like a normal person. People were engaged, they laughed, and I got off stage feeling good. I was followed in performance by a middle-aged white man who told off-color jokes about Caitlyn Jenner and got an equally big response from the audience. I no longer felt any sort of pride in the set that I’d delivered.
I came home and ranted to my comedy friend, Dan Greene, about my experience and my frustration with Tacoma Comedy Club’s lack of representation. We argued for a while. From my perspective, continuing to perform there would reinforce hegemonic practices that serve to marginalize certain voices. But Dan argued that TCC’s influence and opportunity for career advancement was so large, it was worth suffering through some murky practices to establish a career. And then, from a position of power, use humor to break down the issues that stratify comedians.
When Shanna and I went to visit TCC, I again rooted for female comedians who were more willing than I to brave the man-cave. (Note: I am fully aware of my bias here.) I rooted for the woman who poked fun at people misconstruing her gender. I rooted for the woman who sheepishly stood blocked by the microphone stand the entire time. I rooted for Mama D, who was given a spot on the show via the in-show lottery system, and immediately complained about not being put on the show in recent weeks.
I noticed something important with the female comedians and other comedians with differing identities—they often felt the need to spend time justifying their own identities to the audience before continuing with their material. In our interview, I brought this point up to Dan Greene, who said, “If you have a difference, you have to acknowledge it. Fat comedians will always acknowledge being fat. If you have a difference that the audience could use to feel superior over you, you have to acknowledge it and take control over it. People get audience feedback from it.”
Honestly, I’m not sure how to feel about that statement. I understand that it could be potentially empowering to address the identities that confound being accepted as “funny” by an audience head-on, but in a three minute set, that seems really limiting. Perhaps if TCC reserved more slots at their open mic for women and people of color, the dynamic of the club would change, allowing individuals to perform comedy without an identity preamble.
This was the first time I’d ever been to a comedy club. I’ve watched tons of stand-up on YouTube, Comedy Central, and other networks that broadcast it – but I’d never seen a live show. The celebrity comic scene is mainly dominated by white men, but there’s also a huge list of famous female celebrities that most people could name off the top of their head. I had no idea what to expect when Michelle and I got to the TCC, but she warned me that there were usually only a handful of female comics. And to no surprise, she was right – there were only six women that performed.
I feel like I have a pretty good sense of humor. I find a lot of things funny, and I know that many comedians find that their best jokes are the offensive ones, or the ones that target specific communities of people. At the TCC, I noticed that when some comedians were making offensive and inappropriate jokes, the audience still erupted in laughter. I found some jokes extremely uncomfortable, specifically the jokes about suicide, consent, and disabled people. I think the comics making those jokes would have been just as funny – if not more – if they didn’t use those offensive jokes.
I’m aware that as a politically active female voice in my community I hold a bias toward critiquing the TCC. Growing up with gay parents, I was constantly surrounded by queer and trans people my whole life. I don’t find jokes about trans people funny – and I think the only people that do are people that have absolutely no ties (or respect) to the trans community. Even the most famous comedians know and understand that jokes about rape and trans people are pretty distasteful – if that’s your only material, you probably aren’t that funny.
I find it interesting that only female and POC comics have pointed out the problem in the comedy world, while white men continue to be unaware of the privilege they hold. It’s important that these privileged male voices are the ones pushing for change – because that’s the only voice that’s going to get heard. I think many comedians believe that if comedy clubs, including the TCC, become feminine-centric and no longer allow offensive jokes, they will be run out of business. But that is quite the opposite. Not only will comedy become a welcoming and safe place for any and every identity, but it will also foster conversations that need to be had about how the comedy world is inaccessible to marginalized people.