When it comes to comedy, the most renowned household names in the business are men. This is partially because of the gender divide and the suffocating patriarchy, but also, because men are funnier, right? Women are a little too serious, a little emotional. They don't appeal, per se, to the wider audience, hence why the men make the big bucks, own the late night show slots and dominate the global comedy stage scene. In fact it would appear that the root cause of all the men's success, is wholly due to the fact that women really just aren't funny, at all.
LOL, JK. Women are absolutely hilarious.
Last year was a significant one for women in the comedy world. Amazon's The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, a look into the very young female comedy scene in New York in the 50s, was released to critical acclaim and a deluge of awards. Chelsea Handler and Chrissy Teigen made a name for themselves as comedic antidotes to the Trump White House. Oh, and Queen Latifah's Girls Trip received 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was a good year for women in comedy.
With the change in gears for women in the workplace at home, there has indeed been a shift in the right direction for females in this industry, very traditionally cherished and centred around, male leads. "It's better than it's ever been," says Felicia Madison, a comedian and owner of Laughing Affairs, a company dedicated to bringing female comedians in front of a female audience, that hosts lunchtime gatherings featuring mostly female comics and a hearty amount of midday martinis.
Madison started her comedy career after she'd had children. A good friend of hers was doing standup, and she decided she wanted to try it. “I used comedy in social settings, with my friends, I was always the joke teller," she remarks. "[Before long], I was hooked. I just love it. I haven't stopped taking classes, and performing 2 or 3 times a week."
Felicia Madison, Laughing Affairs owner, mother and Upper West Side comic who stoically makes fun of all of the UWS ladies and her own family. Photo - Jimi Celeste/PMC
The mother of two, having completed her first round of classes, was instructed to bring some friends to shows she would feature in as part of her course.
"In the beginning you had to bring your friends, and the shows would inevitably be in the evening times, when those mothers would be dealing with their homelife, kids etc," says Madison. "Also the humor didn't suit, it was a lot of young people, at night, downtown. So I wanted to bring comedy to them." With this, Madison came up with the concept of a rolling all-female comedy luncheon which would serve as a comedic break for mothers and Upper West Siders alike looking for an outlet whereby both husbands and kids would be the butt of most jokes. "I decided that lunch time would be a great change of pace from everyday life," says Madison.
Jessica Kirson, a featured comic at Felicia Madison's latest laughercise, and a professional face-maker
With this, the host was then tasked with rounding up female comedians to perform at the lunchtime events, which proved an interesting exercise. "I try to stay away from vulgar comedians and from comedy that I don't think would hit that well with my friends," she remarks. "Being it's daytime comedy, people aren't drunk and rowdy, you need a certain type of comedian, who's upbeat. The dry, rye comedians don't work as well (but are still funny)." She began scouring hours of footage from comics online and rounded up her favorites until she had her first line-up in 2016. Since then she's done 10 similar lunchtime events called Laughercise, with 40 female comedians. "I wanted to keep it just women performing for women. It's such a difficult career for women. They have big families, working all day and all night." To introduce some diversity, there has been a few male warmup acts that have delighted in poking fun at the femme-forward crowd.
Madison hasn't just stopped there however. Outside of Laughercise, she works events, travels, and picks up entertainment gigs as they come. It's during these outings that she's had most interaction with the men of the comedy world, and it's these very occasions that gave her pause to expand on the Laughing Affairs agenda.
"They say semen is anti-aging which is great... Because I'm going to have a very young looking lower back"
- Olga Namer, featured Laughercise comic
When it came time for her to book men for a gig or special she would be working that required a male counterpart, Madison was quick to realize the difference between booking men and booking women on the comedy circuit. The responses to her reaching out to male comics were astronomically different to their female counterparts. Where women on the receiving end of a booking were either indifferent to payment, or would ask only the day before the show if and how much they would be receiving, the men were entirely different in their approach. “When I called the men, [they would say] 'call my manager, call my agent,'" she laughs. "And they're charging like three times the amount as the women, even when the women were equally, if not more established. It's not that the women are less business-savvy, it's just that they're nicer."
With this is mind, Madison has set up a recurring panel for women under the Laughing Affairs umbrella to come chat (and joke) about their experience in the comedy world, be it good, bad, or sensational. Her impetus for the talk? Women aren't talking to one another. "The other big thing that I'm trying to achieve is to get more women to help each other," she comments. "There are some women that are very good at reaching out and helping but I find my personal experience in the business so far, is that men are more willing to be helpful than women. I think that [the business] is more competitive [for women]."
Women not helping women is something that has been highlighted across every industry in recent weeks and months, with mentorship programmes sprouting up across the board. So while that aspect is easier to address once identified, it's a woman's attitude and confidence within a certain field that has proven to be more difficult to rectify. “Men ask for stuff," says the comic. "Men call the booker, they email the booker. Women don't ask. So that was the impetus [for the panel]." Charged by what she's seen over the past two years, Madison hopes to change the overwhelming underestimation female comics are suffering from, and to encourage a more open dialogue about pay, terms of service and industry rules. All indeed, in a day's work, with a little laughter to boot.
During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.