We shouldn’t have to live in a world where we need to make a point of creating female-fronted festivals, nor should we ever have to utter the phrase “female-fronted” when it comes to bands. But here we are, swirling in a stagnant pop culture stew that often circles back to the same white dudes over and over again.
Despite the trend often going unnoticed, or worse, just straight-up ignored, men are usually handed the lead in the entertainment industry, particularly in festival lineups. Just as reporters have been noticing the highly unflattering and upsetting male-to-female performer ratio in major music festivals (hat tip to the writer who coined “Brochella”), comedian Michelle Barbera says that she and her colleague Maria Ciampa noticed the same ratio issue in Boston comedy lineups, which often featured one or two women in a lineup of seven or eight men.
Eight years later, their Boston Women in Comedy Festival -- a concerted effort to shatter the glass ceiling in comedy -- is still drumming up the laughs, spearheading the message, and expanding fast. This year's edition kicks off this week on Wednesday (April 19) and runs until Sunday (April 23), featuring familiar faces like SNL’s Rachel Dratch and comedian and actress Rita Rudner, as well as hand-picked talent from Boston and all over the world.
“I had the idea to start our own festival and just flip that ratio so that our lineups would be mostly women,” Barbera says, "and Maria and I pulled the first festival together with the support of one of our favorite comedy venues -- ImprovBoston, a nonprofit comedy theater in Cambridge."
Since then, the Boston Women in Comedy Festival has expanded from its initial invitation-only format for selecting performers to a worldwide application system that takes place online the fall prior to the fest. Over the span of five days, the 2017 festivals boasts more than 90 events, ranging from a comedy short film contest at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge to a “Millennials vs. Gen X” stand-up showcase at Pavement Coffee House in Boston.
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Despite the fest’s name, performer applications and workshops are open to everyone, but women dominate the lineup; females make up 89 percent of the 2017 Boston Women in Comedy Festival performer list. The flipped male-to-female ratio has been one of the first steps for women to take back their rightful place in the entertainment industry.
“Comedy was always a boys club, because for centuries, women weren't even allowed to do comedy in public -- all Shakespeare's plays were performed by men and boys during his lifetime and for many years afterwards,” Barbera says. “Comedians like headliner Rachel Dratch would never have been able to try improv in college like she did if she hadn't been allowed into college because the policy was men only. When I think of all the creativity we've missed out on throughout history from the minds of women who didn't have access or who didn't get credit for their achievements, it boggles my mind.”
Kendra Cunningham, a Boston stand-up comic who runs the blog Blonde Logic, returns to the 2017 festival for four different events, including a stand-up showcase at The Comedy Studio in Cambridge. Cunningham reflected on the ways that women have to work harder to achieve a fraction of the opportunities that men have in comedy -- just like in any other industry.
“Being a woman in comedy is tough," Cunningham admits. "Trying to be recognized in any male-dominated industry is a struggle. It's hard to not succumb to the urges to adapt and fit in and become more ‘manly.’ It’s a boys club that hasn't changed much in the past 30 years. Most shows still have one female per line up, maybe two but rarely do you see an 80 percent female line up without being forewarned with ‘female line up’ or ‘women are funny show’ or something. It's like you have to tell the audience first before they make their decision. You never see ‘Dude Comedy Show' because that is just understood. Women are fighting hard for fewer opportunities. Never mind the fact the lifestyle blows.”
Cunningham’s film partner Vicky Kuperman once did research on 80 different comedy clubs who had weekend headliner shows. Out of the 80 clubs, there were only five women headliners -- hence, a male comic was front and center 94 percent of the time.
“How many men do we want to listen to? And let's call a spade a spade, are they all headliner material?” Cunningham says. “It is hard to keep an audience engaged for 45 to 55 minutes. Are men really better at it? I don't think so but I think, culturally, we are programmed to give them our attention and not ask a lot of questions. That's another topic altogether.”
She also attributes some of the issue to male comics always recommending their male friends to share gigs, much like she usually does with her female friends. With men already being most of the acts on a bill, the male-dominant trend continues and spreads when men recommend their male peers on a regular basis.
“I'll be honest, my closest friends in comedy are female and when I am asked for recommendations, I say their names first,” Cunningham explains. “I haven't done the research, but let's just say for every 20 male comics who are recommending their three BFFs for gigs, there are two female comics being asked for their recommendations. That means 60 male comics will be recommended for a gig per every six females that get recommended.”
Comedian Nicole Byer (pictured up top), of MTV's Loosely Exactly Nicole and Girl Code, reflected on the importance of representation in media and the effect that it had on her career as a comic in particular. Byer joins Keisha Zollar and Sasheer Zamata for a comedy showcase at the Somerville Theatre on April 19.
“Representation fucking matters," Byer says. "The more women you see the more you think you’re capable. I grew up watching MoNique, Queen Latifah, and Whoopi Goldberg... all women who resembled me and were funny in a way I wanted to be. So I'm so fucking thankful for them.”
On the surface, things seem to be on the up-and-up for women in Hollywood comedies; Barbera cites the success of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Amy Schumer and Kate McKinnon as proof that women are pushing their way to the upper ranks of comedy. Still, that’s only a handful of examples, almost all of which are white women. Out of 10 major music festivals that Barbera examined in 2016, a total of 31 women were featured in the lineups, of which only 10 were women of color.
“That's a lot to overcome," Barbera says. "We've made tremendous strides through the hard work of pioneering women in all areas of gender equality, and they all feed into each other.”
In the meantime, The Boston Women in Comedy Festival doesn’t chip away at the representation dilemma, it comes in with a goddamn sledgehammer. Because women in comedy -- or any field -- should never be viewed as special; it should be expected.