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#MoreFemaleHeadliners – An Update to Comedy Sandwich

Christine Horvath Christine Horvath #MoreFemaleHeadliners – An Update to Comedy SandwichChristine Horvath performing standup comedy. Photo by Chris Croft.
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Comedy was my first crush. Before my sexuality blossomed into curiosity about boyish lesbians and sad young men, I fell for comedy… hard. As a tween, I would sit in my parents’ basement unabashedly cackling to the jokes of Wanda Sykes, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook, and to be completely transparent, America’s Funniest Home Videos’ montages of people falling down.

Stand-up comedy was my true love, though. I devoured every episode of Comedy Central Presents and Premium Blend, a ravenous appetite reminiscent only of the first time I heard a Destiny’s Child song. After which, I needed to hear EVERY Destiny’s Child song. 

As a young, comedy-loving girl in the early 2000s it was very difficult to find funny women to look up to. When I found them, I held onto them tight. I quickly became disheartened when, on the days following Saturday Night Live, I wanted to discuss my favorite sketches starring Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, and my classmates would offer a curious, “WHO?” It was frustrating to be required to explain that these are the women playing opposite of Will Ferrell in The Spartan Cheerleaders or The Culps. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for young girls of color, who had even fewer funny female role-models who looked like them. 

Because of the cold reception to my love for funny women, I grew up thinking “women aren’t funny,” and I ASPIRED TO BE A FEMALE COMEDIAN. My internalized misogyny, didn’t come from outer space. Fewer people knew about female comics because they were less visible. My negative association with women in comedy came from the minds and mouths of the people with the purse strings, the booking power, and the comedians themselves.

These days, things are better than ever for women in comedy. Our capitalist media outlets are finally starting to realize that marginalized folks have money, too! And they want to spend that money to hear stories that represent them. However, by doing the math, I have found that women are only booked in a headlining capacity in major clubs approximately 15-20% of the time. More simply, if you go to any comedy club in the country, there is an 80% chance that the face on the marquee will be a man. 

When I realized this, I became upset with clubs and bookers with lazy or outright discriminatory booking practices. For example, many comics can name at least one club that insists on booking the same white dude whose jokes about his weird dick make female audience members visibly uncomfortable. I was furious about these booking practices because of the domino effect they incite. The current model holds back young women from achieving their full comedic potential or even entering the field in the first place.

The snowball effects that occur when female comics are only being hired to headline 15% of the time are insidious. Girls quickly understand from a young age that there are fewer comics like them being seen and talked about. This contributes to an overall idea that their voice is not as valuable as the people whose voices they hear more frequently (read: men). So, going forward, these girls love comedy, but outdated concepts like the ones invoked in Christopher Hitchens’ taunting article “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” discourage her from pursuing this passion. Thus, we continue to have fewer women in comedy, which means fewer women qualified to headline, which means fewer female headliners, which means more young girls will continue to silence their comedic dreams and aspirations.

Cool.

I’d like to point out that I am doing my best to communicate this message to you in a way that is both ballsy and likable, however, if I’m honest, the likable part has been tough to navigate. To the folks who disagree with me that this topic needs to be spoken about, I challenge you to imagine loving a thing so deeply and feeling utterly unwelcome to take part in it. What do you love? If you love role-playing games, imagine that role-playing game groups are run by people who, for some unconscious reason, just don’t think that [insert your identity marker] are very good at role playing games. So, the opportunities for you to participate are few and far between, and incredibly socially intimidating. That’s how comedy has felt for me for many years. 

Columbus Comedy was not always a community I felt welcomed into. It was incredibly difficult for me to talk to people. I was so young; I was fresh out of a long-term abusive relationship, and I felt like this stupid little kid trying to be seen among people I wanted to be my mentors. I was so desperate for someone to take me under their wing; to make me feel like I mattered. I could tell that a more seasoned comic wanted to be that person for me, but both of us were so crippled by anxiety that it never had a chance to come together. My enormous insecurities created an unending struggle with an instinct to quit comedy entirely. 

I don’t know why I kept doing comedy, but I’m glad I did. Throughout my years in comedy, I have temporarily quit, come back, freaked out, quit again… but I keep coming back. Each time I’ve come back, I’ve come back with a clearer intent to show up for the young female comics who are trying to live their dreams. Just saying hi to a young female comic still feels like an act of support, as there were times I wished older comics would just take a minute to look me in the eye and make me feel like a human being. 

Luckily over the years, I’ve made friends with a few women who kept me going, and I think they know who they are. I have shared my insecurities with these women, telling them I didn’t feel like I belonged, that my voice mattered, or that my contribution was at all valued in my very own community. These women encouraged me and kept me coming back to the stage. 

Comedy has no HR department, which allows us to continue making inappropriate jokes amidst co-workers, but it also keeps us from evolving the way other, more regulated industries have evolved. Title IX exists in schools. Non-discrimination policies exist in corporations.

Comedy is the Wild West. 

If we don’t start showing up for each other and taking our marginalized friends with us when we reach the top, stand-up comedy will collapse. If it fails to evolve to meet the ever-growing demands of audiences, stand-up comedy as we know it will go the way of Google Plus and Unicorn Frappuccinos. 

That brings me to the whole reason why I’m writing this article. Many years ago, a local comedian co-wrote two articles about comedy in Columbus, published on Columbus Underground. The articles are colloquially known among comedians as the “Comedy Sandwich” articles. You can read them here and here

The articles were written from the frustrated perspective of Columbus comedians who couldn’t understand why the audiences of Columbus weren’t willing to pay $5 to see their shows. They predicted that if Columbus audiences don’t start valuing comedy enough to go see free or low-priced ticketed shows that Columbus Comedy was headed to its final resting place. That resting place would have inevitably been the haunted tomb of the third, fourth, or fifth restaurant to occupy the old Surly Girl space. Surly Girl once housed one of the longest running comedy open mics in the city, which now has its home at Barrel on High (reopening soon as Fours on High). When I overbearingly offered my comedy nerd math about the abysmal numbers of female headliners in comedy on my social media feed, my old boss at CU asked me to write an update to these articles.

When these articles debuted, I was fresh into my comedy career. I read them ferociously while tenuously tiptoeing around the comments section and my Facebook feed so as not to further stir the pot. I remember feeling so uncomfortable and unseen in the Columbus comedy community at the time. Unfortunately, I was not in a secure position to yell into the noisy herd “DIVERSIFY YOUR LINE UP. IF YOU DIVERSIFY IT, THEY WILL COME!” Frankly, I probably didn’t even realize that then. Hashtag Comedy did, though, as they were exploding with popularity among paying audiences at the exact same time these articles were being written, leaving shows that were continually booking the same white, male comics in the dust.

“Comedy Sandwich” predicted the imminent death of Columbus Comedy, but several years later, this community is stronger than ever. These days, it’s being run by strong women. Columbus’s stand-up matriarch, Nickey Winkelman, is kicking an enormous amount of ass at Up Front at Shadowbox Live. Nickey brings people with her. She gives people chances to put up quality shows at Up Front. She puts on shows that make comedians and audiences feel valued and seen. Not to mention, these shows generate revenue.

Sarah Storer is at the helm of the improv company Hashtag Comedy. Sarah’s leadership and kindness makes me want to keep improving to better serve my community. Sarah has literally stepped aside and created space for comedians of color to produce BrownProv, for queer comics to produce QueerProv, and to showcase other local talent through their large audience draw. 

Amber Falter runs Growlin’ Gremlin at The Daily Growler in German Village. The comics on her shows are diverse, fun, and always have a packed crowd to laugh with them. What Amber has created is something truly special, where members of many communities come together to share a laugh over beer. The next one is July 2n, and Gwen Sunkel is headlining! I’ll be on the lineup, too. Come out! 

Personally, I run an all-female comedy show called UpRoar at Wild Cat Gift and Party (formerly Wholly Craft). This is not your average comedy show, and the ticket and payment structures reflect that. I set out with intention to pay the comics a fair wage, and split the money equally between comics. I’m transparent about my payment practices because one ticket for the show costs $10. It’s a unique, curated experience in a craft store, and I’m very proud of it. 

Columbus Comedy is thriving now more than ever because we’re a team working toward a common goal: to be a city where you can do a lot of comedy and do it well. Largely gone are the days when one had to move to Chicago, New York, or LA to be a comedian. You can do it right here at home, because that’s what we’re cultivating. Yes, our Columbus Comics Facebook group is notorious in the state of Ohio for being “dramatic.” But honestly, we argue about things because we care deeply, and then we use those ideas to improve.

The comedians who predicted the end to Columbus Comedy in Comedy Sandwich left a legacy. The truth is that we could never have grown this gorgeous scene without the discomfort of its past. I could never have grown up to be a strong voice in this community without facing the hardship and loneliness that pushes me to be a better community member today. 

Alternatively, mainstream comedy clubs are struggling to remain relevant and profitable. We cannot wait for this floundering patriarchal establishment to let us in; women and minority comics must create alternative routes to success. Those routes are being born in comedy communities like ours. Comedy shows in craft stores, cat cafes, book stores, and various other random, non-traditional venues are becoming more common. In 2017, I founded a platform called BabeRoar to support such endeavors. My goal is to uphold and celebrate marginalized comedians and give them the resources they need to hone their skills. I have lofty goals about how to get this work done, but it all started with the #MoreFemaleHeadliners awareness campaign. 

The #MoreFemaleHeadliners campaign is a grassroots movement to create opportunities for more female comics in headlining roles. We’re fed up with the “comedy is a boy’s club” mentality. “Headliner” is the role that commands the most economic and social power in comedy, and we ought to be diversifying our lineups to shrink the uneven, gendered power dynamic in comedy. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Maria Bamford, one of the few female headlining comics I looked up to as a kid. She is working toward similar goals by supporting academic research around women in comedy. She gracefully accepted a More Female Headliners t-shirt from me, and put it on her Instagram. Out of sheer joy and pride, I cycled between loud sobbing and giant smiling on my way home from work that day. I was blown away by the opportunity to show one of my early influences my gratitude. By the way, if you want a More Female Headliners t-shirt, you can get one here

Through doing the work it takes to make gorgeously diverse lineups the norm, we can create opportunities for more young kids to see themselves reflected in stand-up comedy on their parents’ basement TVs. Right now, I am creating awareness around the work of marginalized comedians. I will do much more, but I’m just one person. What will you do?

To support a local comedy show, please check out the following shows: 

Nickey Winkleman’s regular shows @ Up Front at Shadowbox Live

Amber Falter’s Growlin’ Gremlin @ The Daily Growler

Hashtag Comedy shows @ UpFront Stage

Cleveland’s Mary Santora headlining the Low Dough Comedy Show at Woodland’s Tavern on July 2

Christine Horvath’s UpRoar: All Female Comedy Showcase @ Wild Cat Gift and Party. Tonight! Wednesday, June 26, doors open at 7:30 p.m.

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