Now that this blog is streamed on to the front page of PhillyImprov, the articles section of the site has basically become an archive. So over the next few days I’m going to be posting some of the archived interviews. Some are still relevant, while others provide an interesting look back at our history.
Female & Funny
Contributed by: Matt Holmes
Originally published: February, 2006
For years I’ve heard about how women in comedy struggle with being pigeon-holed into certain roles, not getting respect for their ideas or abilities, or being treated like tokens. If you look at comedy groups from the past and present, you do sometimes get the feeling of a boys’ club, with women often being used only for sexy parts. I’m probably one of the few people whose early background includes a group where men were often in the minority. I interviewed some hilarious improvisors who just so happen to be ladies to discuss what it’s like to be a female improvisor.
Jill Bernard is the Director of ComedySportz-Twin Cities‘ workshop program. Her one-woman improv piece, Drum Machine, has been a national stand-out, and she recently taught improv comedy on MTV’s MADE. She points out the matter of numbers. “There are more men in the work, which means you often end up the only woman on a team. When we talk about “group mind” we really mean “prevalent ideas.” Being the only woman on the team means that the “group mind” won’t really reflect much about, well, being a woman.”
She also pointed out that women have kind of an advantage over men in at least one area. “We have societal permission to be emotional. No one’s going to call me a “fag” for doing something sensitive. Also, because there are less women in improv, good female improvisors can basically write their own ticket. They’re in demand.”
Karen Herr, one of the original members of the all-female improv group, goga , which stands for ‘girl-on-girl action’, says that improv is thrilling in a way for women that it probably isn’t if you’re a guy, because people expect guys to do crazy/wacky things. Audiences expect Will Ferrells and Bill Murrays. They don’t expect, even now, to see Elaine Mays or Lilly Tomlins. “It’s amazing but I still meet people who are surprised when women are funny and physical, and are stunned when women do comedy that has nothing to do with their menstrual cycle. The biggest reward has been traveling with my all-girl group to other countries and seeing afterwards that we’ve not only entertained, but that we even inspire women in the audience to be freer, and maybe bolder and more willing to break out of the rules about women having to be less goofy than men.”
Mary Carpenter, of Philly ComedySportz and 13 Skirts, an all-female sketch/improv group, talked about audience expectations. “An audience sees a woman and makes automatic assumptions, whether conscious or not, that the girls won’t be as funny as the boys. Also, they make an immediate assessment of her looks; is she pretty enough to watch, but not so pretty as to be threatening. If you’re working in comedy, it seems that women have to work twice as hard to convince an audience that they deserve to be there.” Mary says she’s been blessed to work with people who don’t box her in or use her on stage.
Kelly Jennings, also of Philly ComedySportz, as well as LunchLady Doris and Killer Pussy, a duo with Karen Getz, says she’s also been fortunate to work with men who have a great deal of respect for women. “I have on occasion worked with men who seem compelled to block every offer they receive from a woman. They want to stereotype women into the ‘girlfriend” or the ‘mother” with subsets of ‘bitch” or ‘saint.” These men have no trouble playing multiple characters of any gender or personality but when a woman tries to do the same they immediately endow her as a lesbian or Helga the Russian gymnast or maybe both. Again, I count myself really lucky to have crossed paths with not more than three or four men like this in over 15 years in improv.”
Kennedy Allen agrees about typecasting. “One thing that does bug the hell out of me is male improvisors have a tendency to ignore your character decisions. I can’t count how many times I’ve committed to a male character and been referred to as lady or she .” Kennedy has years of theater experience, but is new to improv as a member of Philly’s N Crowd . She says she’s seen two extremes from females: bonding together to show the men a thing or two, or the unfortunate occasional competition.
Kelly Jennings talks about improvising with women. “Working with other women is a blessing and a curse. For me it all comes down to experience, training, and talent. I find that the women who have limited experience or talent tend to typecast themselves…especially if they are working with men. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with how their male counterparts are treating them. They do it to themselves. Playing with women who have more experience and/or a lot of talent is like playing with your telepathic twin. Neither of you need to work hard to try and understand the other person and you are free to really experience the moment-to-moment thrillride of creating something on the spot with no idea where the ride will go next. I have had that experience with male improvisers as well, but it took a little longer for us to really discover a level of trust and understanding so we could get to that point. Working with all women in a group of varying talent and experience is challenging because there is an unspoken code between women that we “hel p each other” and “support each other.” The ways in which that code is carried out is sometimes counterproductive to growth. “
Just as much as dealing with audience perceptions and expectations, it seems that women often have to overcome the perceptions of other performers and limitations that they place on themselves.
One thing that I heard again and again is the difference in temperament between women and men.
Jill Bernard – “This is something I learned in the He Plays/She Plays workshop that Mark Sutton and Stacey Hillal teach – male improvisors need to understand that women have the courage to create slow comedy with emotional depth. Men sometimes want to barrel through that with ha ha fast and funny, instead of making room for it. The show is richer if both exist.”
Karen Herr – “I think women can be more patient than men, again, I’m stereotyping but the advantage of that is more discovery-less invention in scenes.”
Mary Carpenter – “In a comic sense, we don’t always need the laugh every line; we’ll wait and build a scene with stakes that heighten to a point where the humor comes from situation and recognition, not quick jokes. Plus, we can always show them our tits and put them off balance.”
Another common statement is that comedy works best with a lot of different kinds of energy and input, and that improvisors should be improvisors, regardless of what else they are. According to Jill, “A lot of the complaints that are put into the “women’s issues” column really cross over into the “sucky improvisors’ issues” column, so you need to make sure you know from which you’re drawing. If you’re a good improviser first, you won’t run into any problems.”
I asked each of these phenomenal performers what they would say to women who are interested in getting into improv.
Mary Carpenter – “Go for it. When you’re scared, be the pioneer and venture out first. Don’t get backed into a corner or let people put you in uncomfortable situations-give back as strong as you get. Don’t be afraid to let your creative genius out.”
Jill Bernard – “You may meet men who are dicks. Don’t worry. Eventually no one else will work with them and they’ll be a bunch of white dudes performing for a bunch of other white dudes, a ridiculous percentage of which are wearing backwards white ballcaps. These are not our people. We can afford to let them go.”
Kelly Jennings – “Take classes, watch a lot of different types of companies perform, be open to learning new styles or ways of performing improv, but in the end pick what works best for you not what some guru or website or performance group says is the ‘right way.” Always strive to improve your techniques. Learn to tell your mind to be quiet and listen, really listen with all five senses. Don’t wimp out!”
Kennedy Allen – “If you’ve got your sights set on improv, do it. Especially in this city, where the gettin’s still good. There are workshops that will help hone their skill and troupes hungry for talent. It can be intimidating at first, like with anything new, but I can think of a ton of other reasons more reasonable to quit than being a woman in a male-dominated art form.”
Karen Herr – “The world needs to hear what you think is funny or horrible or outrageous. Don’t keep it waiting.”