Speaker discusses role of women in stand-up comedy
Courtney Becker | Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Mary Beth Haralovich, a professor of theatre, film and television at the University of Arizona, spoke Tuesday on the progression of women in stand-up comedy in a lecture sponsored by the department of Film, Television, and Theatre and the Gender Studies Program.
Haralovich said as women’s roles have evolved throughout history, the type of comedy female stand-ups are able to perform has changed, as well.
“The kind of characters stand-up women can be changes over time with the historical circumstance,” she said. “This comedy expresses women’s experience and women’s history, and it opens doorways into our national, cultural heritage.”
Female comedy usually falls into one of three basic categories, Haralovich said, the earliest of which was a critique on the stereotypical housewife role.
“The first popular female comics are these housewife roles,” she said. “A performance about domesticity, linking female comedy with the home and women’s identity as a homemaker, and I feel as if these women are a response to that old male comic shtick, which is ‘Take my wife, please,’ those kind of jokes.”
Haralovich said this comedy developed into a more neutral form of comedy, in which gender roles are not necessarily defined.
“The second type of comic riff is … the standup woman comic as a person, not especially gendered, but reaching across to kind of embrace the human condition,” Haralovich said. “She’s not necessarily self-defined as female, and she doesn’t necessarily do women-oriented characters or women-oriented comedy.”
The most common form of female comedy now, Haralovich said, is comedy about societal issues impacting women.
“The final comic riff is an exploration of what’s happening today,” she said. “These women today, they’re diverse women, they’re desiring women — they do comedy now about women’s desires, women’s sexuality — their voices come from the margins, they’re not necessarily [the] mainstream housewife position.”
Haralovich said one challenge female comics have faced throughout history, and are still facing today, is needing to be accepted by the male “gatekeepers” of the comedy industry before being granted access to an audience.
“There are performers, especially late-night TV hosts and industry executives, who grant access to the TV audience,” she said. “They allow this self-critical, self-demeaning character to have access to television audiences. They invite the content of this comedy to enter into the mainstream discourse. … The gatekeepers also have a lot of power in the industry.”
Developments in television have allowed female comics to play a more active role in the field, Haralovich said.
“HBO is a significant force in allowing comedians and what they consider to be uncensored comedians,” she said. “On HBO, through paid subscription, viewers were able to see performers who were open to diverse sexuality and a diverse presence.”
Haralovich said this is important in recognizing that comedy is a profession for women as well as men.
“It’s a profession. They’re actual, working women,” she said. “They’re creative professionals in the entertainment industry. They have the courage to do performance. … Their routines are, of course, they’re developed, they’re practiced, they’re worked through, but it’s still a live performance in front of strangers.”
Many of these women are choosing to create their own roles instead of having men write roles for them, Haralovich said, allowing them to confront the issues they want to discuss.
“Stand-up women comics, they write their own parts,” she said. “I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for someone to express [herself], but also that can be really meaningful to people in the audience who are listening and learning from it.”
Haralovich said female comics are starting to call for change and address societal issues through humor.
“Stand-up women today, there are so many of them, and they’re social interpreters,” she said. “Comedy has the power to confront restrictions, to confront stereotypes and to turn negativity into the joy of humor. I think that’s what is one of the greatest parts about all these women comedians. They joyful in their critique, they’re joyful in pointing out patriarchal systems of oppression, in pointing out conventions that affect women’s self-image.”