Five women strut onto a makeshift stage with a smug swagger. The audience that fills the auditorium in Yale’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall is already laughing. With their baseball caps tilted sideways on their heads—and scratching their nether regions—the performers lumber to a line of chairs.
“Do we really think it’s a good idea to be taking ‘men’ out of ‘comedy’?” asks Ned, played by Raffi Donatich, in an aggressively deep voice.
“Then it would just be ‘Cody’,” Fred, played by Sarah Al-Shalash, replies, screwing up her brow, so slack-jawed she’s almost drooling. The other characters nod vigorously.
Then, from Luke, Emma Chanen’s character: “Your mum’s a chode!”
Donatich and Chanen pantomime a ‘snip’, scissor-banging their fingers in celebration of their joke.
So began the ‘cold open’ of Disast-Her, an April 13 sketch, stand-up, and improv showcase featuring 20 women from Yale’s comedy scene. The opener imagined a group of Yale’s male comedians devising a rival showcase. The sketch skewered bad dick jokes, misguided allyship (hoisting a woman up on your shoulders does not “elevate her voice,” guys) and problematic icons (Daniel Tosh, anyone?). But eviscerating the patriarchy wasn’t the night’s only aim. Other improv scenes invited the viewers to worlds strewn with dead cows and broken treehouses; stand-up comedians told tales of study abroad misadventures and medical mishaps.
Two months prior, a newly-formed stand-up collective for women and non-binary comedians hosted its first event, The Coven Presents: We Just Said That. Jokes ranged from the cure for catcalling to being called out at the Colbert Report. This event, too, was a smashing success: stage managers had to turn away a long line of would-be audience members at the door of the Jonathan Edwards Theater.
Yale has a grand total of six sketch groups, five improv groups, two stand-up troupes (including The Coven) and a plethora of regular stand-up open mics. With the notable exception of shows by the Sphincter Troupe, a non-male sketch comedy group founded in 2001, rarely does a comedy line-up at Yale feature zero dudes. To The Coven’s founder, Chloe Prendergast, the two new non-male comedy line-ups that cropped up in a semester emerged from a new consensus about problems in Yale’s comedy scene. “The show proved that this kind of night had value,” she said.
Entering the Scene
Chloe Prendergast didn’t consider herself funny before coming to Yale. But when she became the Art Director of the Yale Record, the country’s oldest college humor magazine, she was told she didn’t need to be. Anyone can pitch a cartoon; she just needed to approve the image.
Prendergast said it’s unlikely she would have said yes to stand-up without the encouragement of an experienced woman comedian, the Record’s then Editor-in-Chief, Rachel Lackner. Lackner was one of the few recurring woman performers at Yale’s amateur open mic night, the Cucumber, and encouraged Prendergast to perform. Today, Prendergast is both the Record’s publisher and a staple on the Yale stand-up circuit.
She’s not the only one. Grace Wynter, a stand-up comedian and member of the Sphincter Troupe, said, “When I was 14, I told my friend that I want to be the Black Tina Fey. I didn’t consider myself a funny person; I was just someone who liked comedy.” A personal outreach message from Sphincter motivated her to audition.
Zoë Loewenberg, the former director of musical improv group Just Add Water (of which I am also a member) was discouraged from comedy for another reason: “Improv is not cute. You don’t look hot doing improv. It’s high risk. Comedy is counter to my gender role.”
Just this year, at one set of auditions for stand-up troupe The Opening, fifteen men and one woman turned up. Lane Unsworth, director of the Cucumber, didn’t find that surprising. “I get reached out to by guys but I need to reach out to girls [when recruiting for shows],” she said. “Being a woman in charge made recruiting women much easier.”
And stand-up isn’t the only comedic extracurricular facing concerns about representation. A meta-scene performed by the sketch troupe Fifth Humour last year highlighted similar issues. The scene began with Addee Kim trying to recall her favorite sketch from a previous Fifth Humour show. She told cast member Zoe Ervolino that one of the performers was this “white guy, darkish hair and sort of Jewish.” That description didn’t narrow it down. So, on the command of her whistle, Ervolino summoned the male members of Fifth Humour to march shamefacedly onto the stage. The group resembled a police line-up: nine white, dark-haired men. While the bit was specific to Fifth Humour, the point it made speaks to racial and gender disparities in Yale’s comedy scene at large.
According to Prendergast, Last Comic Standing was the final catalyst in the creation of The Coven. Organized every year by the Yale College Council, Last Comic Standing offers any undergraduate comedian the chance to open for an established comic. The winners are determined both by YCC judges and popular vote. In last’s year’s competition, three of the seven finalists were women, but not one made it into the top three. “I very much disagreed with the outcome of that show,” says Prendergast. “And I wasn’t the only one.” For her, this result reinforced a truth about Yale comedy: Women aren’t just underrepresented, they’re underappreciated too. That same night, the idea for The Coven was born.
“That’s Not A Phone, It’s A Banana”
Not only are women discouraged from entering the Yale comedy scene: once they join, they often face unique difficulties. To foster collaboration and world-building onstage, for instance, many improvisers have been taught a cardinal rule: “Make your partner look good.” But woman improvisers at Yale say they can’t always count on their male counterparts to follow it.
In a “long-form” game at one group’s show a few years ago, the premise was a madcap one. To tie up the ending of the story, one character needed another character’s eyes. But a male performer had developed a joke about his character refusing to give away his cornea. A woman improviser tried to end the story, but the male performer denied her because his ‘cornea’ joke was getting a lot of laughs, making the woman the butt of the joke rather than its architect. Zoe Ervolino, the brains behind the Disast-Her showcase, a member of Fifth Humour, and director of an improv group, The Viola Question, said this is a common phenomenon. “‘That’s not a phone, it’s a banana.’ The person who says that is a man in my mind,” she said.
Sometimes audiences only reinforce this dilemma, according to Ervolino. She came up with a theory about what she calls ‘the frat boy laugh.’ “When a joke ‘goes well’, we’re listening to the loudest people laughing,” she said. And, according to Ervolino, men are often the loudest laughers. When an audience is dominated by male laughter, a joke at men’s expense might not go over well. In one case at a Just Add Water improv show last semester, a group of men in the audience audibly live commented the show, pointing out the women they found unfunny or unattractive.
In a sign of progress in Yale’s comedy scene, women’s leadership of comedy groups has been on the rise. Last year, four of the five mixed-gender sketch groups on campus—Red Hot Poker, Fifth Humour, The Good Show, and Odd Ducks—were directed by women, along with four of the five improv groups.
On a Wednesday evening in April, five female comedy directors trickled into a room in the Center for Teaching and Learning. They greeted each other with warm smiles and generous laughter. And as our conversation about directorship warmed up, they nodded eagerly at their shared experiences.
“I’ve never seen a message in the GroupMe from a woman asking what time or where rehearsal is,” said Emma Chanen, director of the Good Show. “The men struggle to consult resources and make it happen for themselves.”
Raffi Donatich, then director of Red Hot Poker, jumped in: “Literally last semester, one member of my group––whom I love––goes, ‘When is the show?’ and I’m like, ‘Tonight! In hours!’ We’d been rehearsing all week!” As they laugh, it’s clear this is all too familiar.
“It’s hard because I’m so bad at logistics,” Tessa Palter-Poston, director of improv group Purple Crayon, confesses. “But at least I have frequent shame about it.”
Then, there’s the question of how women should go about leading in majority-male spaces. Chanen again: “I take up a f***-ton of space in Good Show. I’m unapologetic about that. They’re welcome for the feedback.” However, when she finds that members of her group have been talking over her for ten minutes straight, “I wonder if that would be the same if I were a man.” Hums of agreement emerge from the other directors.
“I take up a f***-ton of space in Good Show. I’m unapologetic about that. They’re welcome for the feedback.”
Donatich also noted that the family culture of Yale comedy groups led to ‘mommification’, a term for when women directors are treated as maternal figures rather than leaders.
Outside the meeting, Ervolino voiced concerns with how men and women handle sensitive material. The burden of initiating discourse often falls on women.
“When anything is available to be made into a joke, there are a lot of opportunities to mess up,” Ervolino said. “It’s hard to be the only one bothered [by insensitivity]. Just because a space is comfortable and everyone is close doesn’t mean that certain things are allowed.” As rush season began this fall, Ervolino asked to withdraw a sketch about gay women, written by a straight man, that she felt could alienate the audience and prospective members. She also started conversations on ensuring women get funny parts on stage and using gender-neutral character names.
For a non-male group like Sphincter, these types of problems are rarer. “The language [of Disast-Her] had an element of ‘wouldn’t it be so nice and new,’” said former member Anna Piwowar, who graduated this spring. “To Sphincter, it’s not. This is our lived experience of writing sketches. It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like in a room where that’s not the case.”
In Sphincter rehearsals, every suggestion is applauded; no idea is shot down. “We’re not writing for the intention of being funny to everyone. We write to the intention of what we believe in,” said member Yuni Chang, who graduated in May. Members still joke about a Bulldog Days Show where they performed a sketch about hypermasculine culture at Goldman Sachs and another about a woman getting eggs sucked out of her uterus—to radio silence from the audience.
More than half of Sphincter’s line-up is made up of women of color. But improviser Lillian Ekem, a member of Purple Crayon who participated in Disast-Her, expressed some concerns about the showcase’s lack of racial diversity. “As a woman of color going to these rehearsals of improv, it’s been mostly white,” she said. “At a place where I’m supposed to feel part of the majority, I’m still a minority.”
Ervolino and Prendergast are aware of that the spaces they’ve cultivated still reflect issues of representation within the comedy scene. “It’s a very white group of women. That’s something about comedy in general and comedy at Yale,” Ervolino said. Similarly, despite their efforts at inclusivity, neither event has hosted a non-binary or trans performer. “It’s weird to know that this is already a failure, in some aspects,” Ervolino said. But, she added, a more inclusive comedy scene “needs to start somewhere.”
The night of Disast-Her, LC101 was packed to the brim. The line outside snaked to the basement toilets. Audience members cheered performers’ names before the show had even started. Backstage, Ervolino anxiously paced between rooms. Improvisers were warming up, sketch performers were fine-tuning, and the stand-up comics sat in the audience, nervously reviewing their sets. But once Ervolino sat down to watch, her anxieties dissipated. “The whole point of the showcase was that these women knew what they were doing,” she said.
At the warm-up, even the woman house manager joined in. Much like at the very first meeting, no one introduced themselves by what group they were in. Performers from each group shared their respective warm-up rituals, something comedians at Yale are often fiercely secretive about. But not tonight. These performers were part of a community.
Just before the improvisers took to the stage, a growing ruckus echoed from the corridors of LC. It was one word being repeated over and over again: “Women. Women! Women! WOMEN!” As they ran out onto the stage, the crowd roared, then sat back to listen.
– Max Himpe is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College.