Funny Girls

Women aren’t funny. That’s the impression you get from watching them in
comedy shows at Yale. But as a seven-year veteran of an all-female education,
I knew women could be talented comedians. I hoped that I would find the
same in college. But here, humor seems to be a man’s domain in the performance
world. When Marisa Bass told me she was starting an all-female comedy group,
I was thrilled. The first show’s sketches were diverse, spoofing everything
from a cappella singing to Jesus Christ. It wasn’t the funniest show I’d
ever seen, but it was a good start. Bass’ ensemble-the Sphincter Troupe-is
a first step in liberating the Funny Woman at Yale.

As it turns out, the group wasn’t trying to liberate anyone. Rather, when
they decided to start an all-female group, they were only trying to do something
fresh. "The Fifth Humor was here first, so anyone else has to do something
different to have a reason to be here," says Bass. Founding the Troupe
was in part a reaction to the Fifth Humor. "[Co-founder] Jessica [Cohen]
and I would go to Fifth Humour shows and see that the guys wrote all the
sketches and the women didn’t have any good parts," Bass says. "It
didn’t seem to me like it was because the girls weren’t funny, but because
the parts that were written for them didn’t allow them to be funny."
Unlike any other comedy group at Yale, in the Sphincter Troupe women write,
direct, and perform their own work. And in an all-female rehearsal environment,
they can relax, be creative, and have fun. "What really works about
our group is that everyone listens to each other," Bass says. "We
like each other, we spend time together, we don’t have internal fights in
the group, and I think it comes across in our shows that we’re having fun,
which makes the shows funnier."

But taking men out of the equation may only perpetuate the problem by suggesting
that women can’t match men joke for joke when they share the stage. The
fact remains that in co-ed performances, women aren’t quite pulling their
weight. Take the Fifth Humor as an example. As a general rule, Humor women
don’t write sketches and have not yet directed or produced any of the group’s
shows. The women play the parts of wives or daughters or talk show hosts-mere
supporting roles. Adam Wells, president of the Fifth Humor, says this is
because "the sketches are written by males for males. Sketch ideas
are hard to come up with, and when you think of an idea you want to write
it. You don’t want to put it off just to write a sketch with girls in it."
According to him, the process is not a conscious attempt to exclude women
from comedy. Rather, it’s a response to the fact that most comedic archetypes
are male. "When you’re looking to make fun of a historical figure or
a certain profession, you’re going to think of a guy, because it is so much
more common for those figures to be men." Wells argues further that
letting women play these roles complicates what could otherwise be straightforwardly
funny. "A big part of the success of a sketch is figuring out what
your joke is and sticking to it. Adding other layers can sometimes distract
from what you’re really after." Humor is the first priority, even if
success requires alienating half the members of a group.

This male-dominated stage dynamic is also apparent when improvisational
comedy groups perform. The women often seem inhibited. And nothing is less
funny than someone trying to be funny when she obviously thinks she’s not.
Often, the funniest topics seem taboo for women to joke about. "Girls
can rarely pull off dirty humor," says Molly Worthen, a junior who
is a former member of the Viola Question. "We were playing one of the
line games," she says, describing an experience she had as the only
actress performing in vq’s twelve-hour improv marathon. "One of the
guys was like, ‘Alright, our topic is . . . vaginas!’ I was so alienated.
As a girl, I just can’t make those jokes."

What’s clear to Worthen, Bass, and other aspiring comediennes is that women
can’t just wait around until it’s okay for them to be crass on stage. Women
can be funny, but perhaps not in the same crude ways as men. They need to
discover the comedic vocabulary that’s natural to them. The Sphincter Troupe
is an important first step in allowing women to do just that, and Yale audiences
may soon be more comfortable with funny women. But before that happens,
they must learn to crack a new kind of joke.

* Jessica Cohen is managing editor for TNJ..

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