Welcome to the year 2016, where, in a world of Amy Schumers and Tina Feys, women in comedy seem to be having a moment.
And yet, welcome to the year 2016 — the same year that's seen headlines like, "Another Female Fox News Ex-Host Claims Sexual Misconduct" and "Ugly loophole lets firm's hire 'pretty people.'" No matter how good women are at their professions, they are often still marginalized, festishized, and isolated, simply because of their gender.
So, as redundant as it may sound, we ask, What's it like to be a female in comedy right now? Four local comedians help answer that question.
"It's changed a lot," says Brandy Sullivan of Charleston's comedy scene today. "And females being involved has grown with the scene." Sullivan is one of the founders of Theatre 99, downtown's only improv theater. She, along with her partner in the improv group The Have Nots!, Greg Tavares, started doing improv in Charleston over 20 years ago. They opened Theatre 99 in 2000, and started holding classes in 2003, and Sullivan says that she sees equal interest from men and women.
"It's not something I ever really think about," says Sullivan of being a woman in improv. "The leadership [of Theatre 99] has always been one-half or one-third female." That isn't to say that she doesn't experience sexism on occasion, especially during her sets with other women.
In acts like Little Miss Co-Dependent, which she performs with fellow comic Jessica Mickey, Sullivan says that she can sense male audience members' surprise when two women walk onto the stage. "I think they have lower expectations," she says, laughing, "And I think, 'Well then, you're gonna be nothing but pleased.'"
Sullivan says she isn't offended when an audience member comes up to her after the show and says, "I wasn't expecting that." "If it's positive, it's great. I'm glad they had a good time, and maybe next time they won't have those preconceived notions."
Mickey, who performs both improv and stand-up, sees these preconceived notions as well, but, like Sullivan, she shakes them off. "People can still have that old backwards-ass opinion that women aren't as funny as men, which is just fucking dated and stupid anyway, so you've already lost them," she says.
Because Mickey performs in two different comedy worlds, both in improv with acts like Little Miss Co-Dependent, and at stand-up shows, she has insight on both scenes. "In stand-up, you're putting yourself out there by yourself. You don't have the added bonus of an optional facade that you can switch on and off," she says.
And while Mickey has performed in all-female lineups, she doesn't know if that's necessarily what the comedy world needs right now. "I just want people to be judged on being funny. I want to be judged on being funny," she says, adding, "I do think there is a certain responsibility for male comics to showcase women, but not because they have to, but because they're funny, too. Book them because they're funny, but don't use their gender as a reason not to."
Both Mickey, who has a full-time job as an editor and proofreader, and Sullivan, who works full time at Theatre 99, understand that discussing women in comedy is, as Mickey says, a tricky subject. "Being put on a show because I'm a woman is a cop out, but it happens," she says.
"Gender is part of our world and our life, [but] there's such an equal opportunity here [at Theatre 99], that I never want gender to be a factor," says Sullivan.
The new guard
Gender is, inevitably, a factor in Girly Bits Comedy, a local comedy group, and it's not just because of the name. Founded by Genesis Gonzalez earlier this year, Girly Bits showcases an all-female comedian lineup.
Gonzalez, who's been performing stand-up in Charleston for a year now, thinks that the city of Charleston is full of talented female comedians. Girly Bits has hosted two shows so far, deemed Holy City Ha-Ha. As host, Gonzalez introduces the comedians, some local and some from other cities, at Park Circle spot, The Sparrow.
Like Mickey, Gonzalez has some mixed feelings about all-female lineups, and she's open to expanding Girly Bits to include men, too. But for right now, it's all about the ladies.
"It's empowering to talk to other women and see what their struggle is," says Gonzalez. She and fellow comedian Shawna Jarrett started doing stand-up in the city around the same time, and they've both succeeded in locking down a lot of comedy nights in the Holy City.
"I mic'd really hard all year," says Jarrett, who made it to the semi-finals of the 2015 Charleston Comedy Festival Stand Up Competition at Theatre 99. Jarrett says that after months of "barking comedy into the void," she landed some of her own showcases — you know, the ones people pay to see.
Unlike her past, free-to-attend open mic nights, Jarrett was pleasantly surprised to see crowds come out for admission-based shows. "I was like, 'You weren't brought here against your will?'" she says. There are several places throughout the Charleston area that consistently offer comedy nights, be it open mic, or organized shows. Both Jarrett and Gonzalez, though, would like to see a designated spot just for stand-up nights. "I want the Commodore," says Jarrett (and she means it, if y'all are reading this). "Any comedy show with a dance party after is gonna be good."
It's the idea of a post-party, something seemingly simple, that both Gonzalez and Jarrett want to help foster in the city. Basically, they want people to view going out to a comedy show as just as much a Saturday night staple as going out to a bar. And going out to a Girly Bits show should be included in that Saturday night roundup. "We're not just catering to girls night," says Gonzalez. "We want everyone."
The next step
Part of attracting a broader audience is offering a broader range of comedy. Each female comedian we talked to spoke about the benefits of bringing in comedians from neighboring cities. In her past Girly Bits shows Gonzalez has had performers from cities like Nashville and Charlotte, and she wants to keep 'em coming. "Everyone was different. You're connecting to the audience on a different level," she says.
"Getting out-of-town folks is great," says Jarrett, who, like Gonzalez, will travel to other cities to perform, too. "There's a certain kind of personality that does this," says Jarrett of meeting similar people on the road. And at the end of the day, she says, "People who love comedy want to hear good comedy."
The next step for Charleston comedy, according to the comedians we spoke to, includes the aforementioned networking, as well as more exposure. Gonzalez, for one, would love to see a woman's name on the next ballot for City Paper's Best Comedian in Charleston. She's also hoping to help comedians, male and female, with the videos she's creating with Resound Media Group, which record comedy shows from more than one angle, giving people a professional-looking video resume. "People on the cusp need a 30-minute reel," she explains.
So far, Gonzalez thinks that Girly Bits has done exactly what she set out to do: make people laugh. "We want people to talk about it," she says, mentioning a show that involved an audience member wielding her very own dildo. "It's an experience. You want to feel involved."
"People wanna escape all the drudgery," says Gonzalez. "They think, 'Let's watch someone else's life unravel.' After a show someone will say, 'Thank you for making me laugh at that. Before, I couldn't even think about it.'"