Yes! Women are Funny! by Kaj Hasselriis
It’s one of the first warm nights of spring, and the venerable queer venue is shaking with laughter at a stand-up comedy show headlined by young women comedians. Avery Edison strolls onstage, with her small round glasses and short red Sinead O’Connor-style hair, and the mixed-gender, mostly 20-something audience welcomes the young British comic with the same polite applause it gave to the five young women who performed before her. Not long into her set, Edison comes out to the crowd as transgender and, seeking to prove it, starts to unbutton her black jeans. At the last instant she pulls back and cracks, “I don’t have to do that. I have short hair.” Acknowledging the stereotype, the audience roars.
The event, at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is called Bitch Salad, and one of the themes to emerge is that most of the seven comics crack jokes about their appearance. Self-proclaimed “chubby-thighed” Catherine McCormick
pokes fun at her weight; “half-black, halfwhite” Aisha Alfa rhapsodizes about her giant fuzzy ’fro, and so on. Edison says that when you’re a female comic joking about your looks comes with the territory.
“I think a lot of controlling the room is anticipating the reaction of audience members,” she says. “You need to systematically disarm or at least anticipate every possible criticism of yourself.” It’s one of the many challenges faced by women stand-ups that most funny men could never imagine. “Speaking as someone who’s had the opportunity to be a guy comic and a woman comic,” continues Edison, “it’s just straight-up harder.”
Standing up in front of a group of people and making them laugh is practically as old as fire, yet women still do it far less often than men. Alfa, the only woman of colour onstage this night, got her start in Winnipeg, where she estimates there’s a “90-10 split” between male and female comics. In Toronto, she says, it’s a bit better (“maybe 80-20”) but in most comedy shows, women are usually just a token.
Tonight, the fit, energetic Alfa gets laughs the instant she hops onstage in a glittery, sequinned, sleeveless top and claims it’s her “impression of a disco ball.” Most crowds aren’t as generous as this one, though. Overall, says Alfa, the comedy world has a lot in common with the locker room: Male comics (and many male audience members) see it as a “bro zone,” and if you want to enter, you have to prove yourself first. Early in her career, Alfa recalls sharing a bill with a famous male comic who, before the show, raised an eyebrow and asked her, “What do you even tell jokes about?” Afterwards, he said, “Oh yeah, you’re funny.”
Fortunately, Alfa’s used to that kind of attitude. Before she got into stand-up, she taught English in South Korea for a couple of years and joined an all-men’s soccer league.
The guys on her team objected—until she scored three out of four goals in the opening game. “Once you’re in, you’re in,” says Alfa of sports and comedy. “As soon as you prove yourself, people will do anything for you.”
Many of the comics at Bitch Salad talk about their sex lives, but none of them over-share quite like McCormick.
She describes herself as pansexual—“That’s not a fetish for mythological beasts,” she clarifies—then launches into a rant about the reluctance of some men to go down on women. “It’s like trying to convince someone to eat quinoa for the first time,” McCormick jokes. The downtown
Toronto audience loves it and even applauds when she veers into serious territory. The expression “a bit rapey” is offensive, she says, “Rape is rape.”
“Comedy for me is about taking on the role of the truth-teller,” says McCormick, “skewering people who need to be skewered and taking down hierarchies a peg.” Her jokes often target straight white guys, and for that she’s faced a lot of heat from audiences and in social media. Early on in her career, McCormick says, she learned that most women comics face two choices: “Be a good sport or quit.”
But she’s tried to carve out a third option for herself: “Be a fucking bitch and not care.”
That option has proven easier said than done. Last fall, McCormick crashed and took a break from the stage.
In a widely circulated blog post called “The Problem of Hetero Male Comedians / How I Lost the Love,” she wrote, “Over time, the dark side of comedy reared its ugly head.” She got tired of the sexist intros (“Try not to look at her tits”), club owners who favour thin women, and male comedians who mistake being “edgy” with misogynist humour. Most of all, McCormick challenged the mainstream comedy culture that allows only one woman at a time—two tops—to share marquees with men.
Yet performing stand-up has also changed the lives of these women in very positive ways—especially for
Edison. As an awkward teenaged boy growing up on the south coast of England, she first realized she could be funny when she stood up at a school assembly to sell ads in the yearbook—and found herself cracking jokes. “My schoolmates were laughing with me instead of at me,” she says. “It was a good way of getting control.”
Soon after, Edison enrolled in comedy school and, just to mix things up at first, started doing her sets in drag— a popular tradition in England. “The first time I ever dressed as a woman was onstage,” she says. “Things were blurry for a while as I realized what was theatrical and what was true to me.” Gradually, she realized that being a woman felt true.
Yes, performing as one of only two trans comics inEngland had its challenges for Edison. During the period when she was out in private but not on-stage, drunken louts would often shout, “Show us your tits!” Invariably, someone would shout back, “She’s a bloke!”
“England can be a very outspoken audience,” says Edison.
Finally, Edison followed a girlfriend to Canada and enrolled in a Toronto comedy school. “I’m received much better here,” she says. “Audiences are a little nicer and more willing to hear someone out.” She attributes the difference to Canada being “a more liberal country socially.” But she’s still amazed at some of the double standards she faces in comedy, starting with the fact that people still ask,
“Are women funny?”
“The basic facet is still being questioned,” she says. “It makes me pretty angry.”
But, she quickly adds, “Anger is good fuel for comedy.
Maybe it makes it a little easier that we have more to be angry about.”
Alfa delights in turning people’s xenophobia into material for her act. Not long ago, she was hired to perform for a big law firm in Winnipeg. “There was literally not a person who wasn’t white in the room,” she says. At the cocktail reception before the show, a lawyer assumed Alfa was an imposter and asked her to leave. “I’m the entertainment,” she responded. Of course, the comedian turned the experience into a joke as soon as she took the stage.
Alfa uses humour to talk about the colour of her skin and the size of her hair. “It’s just the way it is,” she says. “I love that I’m female and mixed-race. I love when people are talking about me. I deal with it, I embrace it, I gain from it. It’s more material.”
Edison feels the same way about being trans. “It can be tough to find a unique hook for yourself,” she says.
While a lot of male comics limit themselves to ranting about airplane food and public transit, she gets to tackle “possible vaginas for surgery.”
“Nobody wants to be pigeon-holed,” says Edison, “but people always remember me because I’m not just another comic or even just another female comic.” Plus, she’s starting to develop a loyal trans fan base. “I get a couple
of emails a month from people who say thank you for putting comedy out there that’s intersectional, that won’t hurt them or trigger them,” she says.
For her part, McCormick has started up a weekly comedy show at Toronto’s lesbian bar, Slack’s. Called Laughs at Slack’s, it only allows female and LGBT comedians.
“I’m basically trying to make new comics who are women,” she says. “My goal is to have 50 new women or LGBT comics by the end of the year—or at least have 50 new people try it.”
McCormick says some straight guys have complained about being excluded from Laughs, but she’s unapologetic.
“I don’t think they understand what oppression is,” she says. “Oppression isn’t not getting what you want one time.”
Besides, McCormick adds, the guys should be getting used to it by now, as female-dominated comedy spaces become a bit more common in Toronto.
Between Laughs and a few other occasional nights (including one for moms),
McCormick says, “You can perform in mostly women spaces at least twice a week in Toronto.”
Bitch Salad takes place four times a year, with a rotating cast of comedians. Alfa, Edison and McCormick, participating for the first time, pronounced it liberating.
Edison is the most effusive in her praise. “It’s probably the best comedy show I’ve ever done,” she raves. “I think it’s good to have a signpost that says women are welcome here.”
“Straight men were in the minority in the audience,” says McCormick. “When it’s majority straight men you have to cater to the way they see the world. But if you flip that, suddenly you’re taking off oppressive forces right off the bat.”
Alfa says she felt so comfortable at Bitch Salad that she wound up ad-libbing most of her set. “There were no boundaries,” she says. “Pop the lid off the top and go, and that’s how I’m naturally funny.”
All of the women agree that it’s more fun to perform for a crowd that doesn’t start by questioning whether women can tell a joke. “The best compliment you can get is when someone says you’re funny,” says Alfa. “Not funny for a girl—just you’re funny.”