The Soapbox: Comedy Still Sees What Men Think Is Funny As The Default Human Experience

Recently, London comedian Jenny Collier tweeted a screen grab of an email she received from a booker informing her that she was kicked off a show because there were too many women already on the line-up.

Yes. That’s right.

I believe my reaction then was something along the lines of Pfffffffffft, what, still this? Jesus fucking Christ, again huh? Not surprised — RAGE — [changes tab to puppies … changes tab to Gilt … refreshes Twitter … goes about day trying to forget that another same old stupid sexist thing happened]. (To survive as a sensitive person, sometimes I must brush shit off until I’ve calmed down, otherwise I start to wither into a Plath-like waif, listening to Cat Power on repeat and swearing off men forever.)

In our Internet age, there is an established script for when sexist stories like this pop up: we have some short-lived, appropriate amounts of outrage, retweets by famous people, and expected feminist critique whereby the ol’ “women aren’t funny” debate gets picked-up again and dusted off to be thrown into the thinkpieces once more. Soon, it dissipates and we get back to living our humdrum lives. But I can’t let this one go;  I’m still disgusted, annoyed, frustrated, and pissed off. I am a “female comedian” after all.

But why by this one in particular? Wasn’t this just like the other stupid ones? Why this particular email, and not Adam Carolla’s last statement about how women aren’t funny, or Daniel Tosh’s rape shit?  It wasn’t Christopher Hitchens booming down from his lofty soapbox, or ol’ Jerry Lewis squealing through his dentures. Those types of men spew inflammatory statements that are blatant and passionate misogyny. They are voices of revolt and conviction; old boy sexism that rumbles out of the echoes of their man caves.

But this email had a different tone. This was written in such a way that it wasn’t intentionally provocative in the slightest and because it was sexist tokenism. This email was done in a flatly apologetic tone.  This email was more along the lines of “Um, so yeah, we’re gonna need you to not do our show cause you’re a woman, and there were already some there, and I’m terribly sorry for this, but hope you still have a good day, k thx bye!” That is why it’s so stunning: it was quite possibly unintentionally sexist.

Sinister non-thinking misogyny is always extra infuriating to me. It reminds me a lot of dudes lately who are like “Omg I’m TOTALLY a feminist!” and then you see them later blaming a woman for her own rape or some other nonsense.  I do think changes are happening, slowly, but then again, I said this years ago. The reaction when I go on some rant about a wildly sexist occurrence is usually: “But Katrin, things are changing! These are just a few dumb idiots! It’s better now for women in general! think about that!” Maybe it is better now for women in general, I tell myself out of hope. But then shit like this crops up and I realize change is happening so much slower than any of us think or would like, because sexism is insidious. This man was probably some “normal” dude, the venue run by “normal” people who run comedy shows. They just happened to be wildly unintentionally sexist. There is a chance they are all “nice people”. This is what scares me so much: it reinforces my dreaded fear that sexism really is truly engrained into the grooves of many people’s brains, that it’s second nature, that they literally do not even think about it. I would rather have an old man at a bar call me sweet cheeks and ask me to be a doll and get him a napkin than this kind of eerie aloofness.

The last line of the email and its flippancy encapsulates this disturbing tone: “I hope it doesn’t inconvenience you.” Let’s ponder that word for a bit shall we? Inconvenience. That’s right, buddy, it INCONVENIENCED ME JUST LIKE IF I GOT MY PERIOD DURING MY SET, LOL! Seriously, though, this tends to be the attitude that so many men (and women, actually) think we should view these kinds of experiences this way — as an, inconvenience. An inconvenience that I wanted to walk to the store but I got a disgusting remark about my ass. An inconvenience that I get paid less than my male counterpoint. An inconvenience that a show I was legitimately booked on because of my job as a working comedian, decided to actually kick me off because of my gender.

Let’s also unpack the question of why having too many women booked for the show was a negative in their eyes in the first place. Was it because of her possible “female-centric” material, or was it the “look”? I can’t even define the layers of sexism because there are so many of them. The first problem is that comedy which comes out of a woman’s mouth is incredibly gendered: people see “woman” first and not “comedian.” But why is gendered material from a woman scoffed at in the first place? A few controversies ago, some bad, bad woman wrote a piece about how she hated that all female comedians ever talked about was periods and vaginas. This is wildly inaccurate by the way. Having booked many different female comedians in my producing days and witnessing the largest range of material I’ve ever seen, I have no idea who she was watching, but it’s just not true. But even if that was true, WHY IS THAT BAD? It’s another branch of sexism, the thought that our body parts, experiences and issues as women are not meant to be discussed in front of co-ed audiences. It’s not hard to see how keeping down the number of women on a comedy bill is an extension of the idea that women should only be seen and heard in small doses.

Our society says it’s okay for men and women to listen to the gendered experiences of men, but men and women together shouldn’t have to hear about just women’s issues — that’s just for women. This extends beyond comedy. Look at Hollywood for heaven’s sake: there, male is still the default human. To this, I have actually rolled my eyes for years. I do actually like some dick jokes here and there, and sure, I also enjoy a period joke here, too I also like jokes about death, parents, politics, iPhones, relationships, kids, food, THINGS THAT HUMANS EXPERIENCE, BOTH MEN AND WOMEN AND ALL OF US IN BETWEEN. I can’t even listen to some sets by reputable heterosexual male comics like Daniel Tosh or Bill Burr because of their non-stop “male material”, that frankly I don’t find particularly funny. There, I said it!

When I ran an open mic for a year in NYC’s East Village, it was the same exhausting shit I heard week after week: My dick is like this, my dick made me do this, porn porn! MOMMY, I CAN’T GET LAID, women are so dumb, don’t you all want to hit them with a bat? Hahaha I won’t but how funny that I want to!!! THEY ARE NAGS, BOOBIES BOOBIES and it goes on and on. Sometimes when you watch comedy specials on TV, there is a sexist comedian talking ad nauseum about their male issues and they pan to the audience. The women always look like they’re laughing nervously. Maybe I’m projecting, but I can’t help feeling like they are somehow mildly uncomfortable. Personally, I have some material about being catcalled, and I do talk about some feminist issues in my sets (so what, I make it funny! ), but I also talk about universal human anguish, my weird European parents, politics, work stuff, and everything in between. But, even if I did only talk about my cervix, the point is: if it’s funny, WHO THE FUCK CARES AND THANK YOU FOR MAKING ME LAUGH, human being!

See you at the next “women aren’t funny” controversy. I’ll be waiting!

Katrin Higher is a standup comic in New York City. Follow her on twitter at @katrahigher