Stop Asking if Women Are Funny
A new book traces the history of women in comedy but almost gets derailed by that stupid question.
Illustration by Laura Terry.
The crowd at that East Village stand-up show in February of 2011 was small but the host riled them up. By the time I got on stage for my eight-minute set, the audience was loose, so I riffed a bit about the comics who’d gone before. I engaged one audience member whom the host had teased for being preppy.
Then I started my planned set. My first two jokes, both fairly clean, were met with smatterings of laughter. I did another, more solid joke about being bisexual, which went well. I launched into the setup for my next joke, about my then-boyfriend. From the back, someone yelled, “Does your boyfriend know?” referring to my bisexuality. I laughed and said that he did, keeping the atmosphere loose and attributing the heckling to a nonmalicious person just having fun. Thanks to the bright lights up on the stage, you can’t really see the audience, so I had no idea who was yelling.
I continued the joke, and the same voice yelled again—this time, something homophobic and misogynistic. On stage, I was confused. I said, “Sir, if you’re gonna talk to me, you need to come to the front because I can’t see you.” It was a huge, rookie mistake.
I could definitely see him now. He was a crazy mess of a man, a smirking ball of smarm with jagged hair and dirty hands. He started to get on stage with me but I quickly gestured for him to sit in the front. Throughout my set, he continued talking to me, making lewd comments, leering, and completely derailing my act. At one point, he took out a digital camera and asked if I wanted to see some photos.
“Sir,” I said, just barely keeping it together. “I’m going to do my last joke and it’s going to be great and you’re going to shut the fuck up, OK?” He nodded, but then as I started my joke, he shouted more disgusting phrases.
Despite being kicked out by the hosts, the heckler waited for me at the bar after the show. In a panic, I texted my boyfriend to come get me at the venue, and went outside to wait for him. When my boyfriend got there, I grabbed his hand to walk away, and the door to the bar opened. From inside I heard the heckler’s voice: “Byyyyye.”
That night, I was enraged and defeated. In an attempt to feel less helpless, I posted on my personal blog:
Right now, I feel: beaten, destroyed, helpless, weak, ashamed for being so scared, shocked, worthless, less than, and terrified. I feel like maybe I overreacted but then it’s that concept of Schrodinger’s Rapist, where I don’t know what would have happened. I also feel like I never want to do comedy again…I suspect I can’t be the only female comic who’s felt threatened by an audience member, but I’ve never heard of anything like this before.
The next day, a fellow comic suggested I watch the Jamie Kennedy documentary Heckler. In it, I heard stories as harrowing as mine and worse from comics of both genders, and I realized my scare wasn’t necessarily a female problem. And now, months later, with the perspective of time, I really regret framing it as one.
For every Amy Schumer telling off some loudmouthed idiot, there’s Bill Hicks getting into fistfights on stage. My heckling had gendered elements—the specific content of his taunts, for example—but it’s hardly a unique story for a comedian to be belittled and verbally assaulted while performing.
The more women are encouraged to think they are merely a subset of comedy, and not an equal part of its world—the ups and the downs—the more of a disservice we do to them and to the art form. As a female comic, I’d taken a default victim stance, blaming my gender and feeling sorry for myself because of it, when I needed to do the opposite. In that moment and afterward, I needed to be a comedian.
I was reminded of my own heckler experience as I read Yael Kohen’s book, We Killed: The Rise Of Women In American Comedy because the introduction to this oral history, citing Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair and John Belushi’s “Fire the Girls” campaign, paints the book as a definitive answer to the noncontroversy that will not die: “Are women funny?” To that question I give a hearty eye-roll and a Gob Bluth-style, “Come on!” Of course women are funny, because people are funny. Gender has nothing to do with it, and to say this book answers the question “Are women funny?” does Kohen’s work a disservice and implies it’s a question worth answering or acknowledging, which it is not. Maybe it’ll sell the book, but it mostly sells the book short.
Gaby Dunn is a writer, journalist, and comedian in New York City. She regularly contributes to the New York Times Magazine and performs every Wednesday at the People's Improv Theater.