Not that type of funny bone: being a woman in comedy at UNC

By Ellie Rodriguez

Hannah Jones’ dream for women in comedy is to one day be able to go up on stage and pretend to masturbate as a cisgender woman actually would, rather than the typical fake cis male jerking off on stage.

Jones is the treasurer of False Profits—an improv, standup and sketch comedy group on campus— as well as one of the directors of Instruction for the Disciples, its incubator team.

Women in mainstream comedy are becoming more noticeable. Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck” was a huge summer hit, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the Golden Globes three times, and Mindy Kaling created her own critically acclaimed show after having written at least 22 episodes of the much beloved series, The Office.

Still, as Jones pointed out in response to Amy Schumer’s Saturday Night Live monologue, “to say that now is an exciting time for women in comedy is like saying that the 1920s were an exciting time for women in politics.” In some of the most well-known and most highly viewed comedic platforms, there is a gross underrepresentation of women writers, producers and comedians in general. Stephen Colbert’s late night show boasted only one female writer on a staff of 16, according to IMDB. Buzzfeed pointed out that Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show for having women fill less than a third of the positions on the show’s writing staff.

“We all exist in a very heavily male-focused comedic climate… that’s just the reality,” said Jones. In her first practice as a profit, Jones made a joke about her vagina, “which a couple of [her castmates] took as license to make a lot more jokes about my vagina in a really terrible way.” A few months later, she finally decided to bring the circumstance up and explained that it wasn’t the appropriate thing to do. “When I did bring it up to them they were like ‘oh yeah, of course not. Of course we shouldn’t make jokes about an 18-year-old’s vagina in a work-performance environment.’ The fact is that until you bring that up that the world of male-centric comedy, they’re going to bring that up until you tell them not to,” Jones explained.

Jane Curtin, the first female co-anchor of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, mentioned in an interview with Oprah that John Belushi said that “women are just fundamentally not funny.”

Heather Wilson, also a director of instruction for the Disciples of False Profits, remembered that in high school a guy told her that she was funny but that “haha you know, most girls aren’t.”

You could have gone your entire life without having seen a sitcom or a comedy on the silver screen; you could be new to standup or irrationally terrified of comedy clubs, but by talking to Jones and Wilson you recognize that these ladies are hilarious.

“When giving people fliers for Fall Fest, a lot of people and especially young women would say, but I’m not funny. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that,” Wilson said.

Both women went on to explain that defining funniness is more than just cutting up – it’s a tricky balance and one rooted mainly in self-confidence. The answer Wilson gave, intending to be funny and comforting was, “if you think you’re funny, I don’t want you trying out. Because the people who say they’re funny outwardly are the ones who bullied me in high school.”

Amy Schumer, in an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, considers herself “one of the lucky women in this country who can look in the mirror” and like what she sees. “I remembered who I was and why I wrote the jokes and chose to say them out loud: because I thought they were funny. No, I knew they were funny… I wasn’t up there seeking approval. I was celebrating my work and myself. And once again, I was killing.”

Jones explained that part of the glass ceiling thing with sexism across the board is that “women are affected a lot more internally by sexism than they are outwardly. I was sort of blessed and sort of cursed with a personality of just like being loud and bold and never questioning whether I was allowed to do something before doing it. You can ask my mom. It caused a lot of problems when I was five. But I’m lucky because I’ve never questioned myself in that way. I’ve always been like fuck yes I’m funny.”

She said that when you have that attitude, people are willing to let you have it because you already claimed it as yours. Wilson added that being funny is ingenuity, silliness, and insightfulness. She thinks “it’s important that we reform what we think funny is. None of it is as scary as you think it’s going to be. You do have a voice and something worth saying.”

“It’s crucial that you constantly remind yourself that it is yours for the taking and that you should be willing and open to try anything. Once you get past that mental hurdle and the media ingraining those terrible rules and expectations, once you get past those internal struggles, you can do so many things,” Jones said.

“Specifically right here, right now in Chapel Hill there are so many comedy communities that are [incredibly conscious] of women in comedy and the struggles we might face.” Both Jones and Wilson consider False Profits to be one of those communities. As of right now, three out of the seven Profits are women.

One of the things Jones really appreciates is “they always make room for my obsession with sketches with mostly women. Not because I don’t think the men I work with are funny. Every show I always pitch a sketch, that’s always welcomed with open arms, and it always centers around two to three strong women characters… It’s one of the things that has made me most secure in the place of women in comedy. Obviously it’s not about seeing men fall and excluding men from comedy, but every so often just having three minutes on stage having just girls talking about girls stuff.” Wilson—who had been eating dinner for the last three hours—wholeheartedly agreed.

“That’s been huge,” she added, “I think I need to get just a few more fries. But off the record I will take four more fries.”

The strides women in comedy have made are undoubtedly important and have shown tremendous growth from the once all-too common standup joke: “are women even funny? You never see them doing standup!”

Starting in January, Samantha Bee will have her own Late Night TV show, the first late night show ever to be hosted by a woman. Still, both Jones and Wilson agreed that there are standards for women in comedy that simply do not exist for men.

Jones explained, “The fact is that one of the biggest examples that persists in comedy is that whether or not you’re hot is still relevant to your comedy career. You can be the lesbian comic or the hot comic who everybody wants to fuck, but you have to maintain an agonizing self-awareness of what number you fall on from one to ten that you base your comedy on. [That way,] nobody thinks you’re too confident or too prudish.”

Wilson added that that spectrum just doesn’t really exist within male comedy. Jones explained that Louis CK is allowed to talk about “fucking someone” and does it all the time, and it’s hilarious. Meanwhile Amy Schumer does the same thing and uses that to build her character as a slut or loose woman. Comedy is not only a platform to air out one’s issues with the world, but also a stage to create positive change and ways of thinking.

Amy Poehler cofounded Smart Girls at the Party with Meredith Walker to help “young people cultivate their authentic selves.” Mindy Kaling was included in Time’s annual list of the one hundred most influential people.

Jones said that it’s important to her and to her troupe to ask, “if we’re bringing up touchy topics, are we advancing these issues in the world or not? Whose side are we on? Consciousness is sort of like just kind of tiring and boring espesh [sic] when you’re in a situation where you just want to be writing hilarious things, but I think we’re all really proud of it.” Wilson explained that in her opinion, improv “leads to a more positive type of laughing” because of the principle of saying “yes, and” to as much as possible.

Wilson added that although she loves standup because it “has a ton of potential for social commentary, and is an artful way of writing… it’s easier to make stand-up that’s in some way destructive of norms. In improv, being funny means building something kind of crazy. It’s just been a really powerful force in my life. I feel like I became a happier person, woman even, because of comedy.”