Culture & Conversation

Women comedians create space in a man’s world

Cruising the comedy festivals of Montreal this year, I experienced my yearly excitement at the Just For Laughs line-up and the fledgling talent at Zoofest. This year, however, I focused my spectating on female-identified performers to see who was being represented. I found myself in the company of some extreme talent, some rookie floundering and a sea of bare-breasts. My week traipsing around Just For Laughs and Zoofest illustrated some of the creative ways these women move through the male-dominated humour industry.

I saw the heavy-hitter of the season on a Friday night. Maria Bamford is a long-standing and widely feted comedian, appearing most recently in Arrested Development as the meth-addled DeBrie Bardeaux. Opener Jackie Kashian brought her brash, mid-western socialism to the stage and warmed up the crowd with ease. Kashian has been featured frequently on the Conan O’Brien show and her professionalism shone through, reassuring the audience that they were safe in her sturdy, work-worn hands.

When Bamford took the stage her stand-up was razor-sharp and bizarre. Using her deft skills at character impersonation to put human behaviour under a microscope, she reflects us back upon ourselves in all our weird and superficial glory. Her emphasis on mental health places her comedy into a different realm, somewhere between educational autobiography and Mel Blanc (the inimitable Looney Toons voice actor). She gives the audience a way of opening this taboo subject socially, comically and stripped of stigma.

The same evening, I attended Ivana Shein’s Faking It, a one-woman show based on her life in Los Angeles and her application for a U.S. artist visa. While the piece could be viewed as a scathing look at status judgment in Los Angeles, her struggle to fit into this world and her romanticizing tone gave the piece an air of desperation.

Shein’s generalities about L.A. life came in stark contrast to Bamford’s incisive reflections on the city (Bamford also lives in L.A.): people wear Hawaiian beach shirts and spike their hair; people are skinny and eat carrots. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, I found her observations surface-level and ultimately thought the piece was overwrought. I will say that Shein’s piece came too soon in the after-glow of Bamford’s performance for me. Shein is a young performer and her presence on stage, though uncertain of itself, had magnetism.

On the following Monday night I attended Bridget Everett’s show Pound It, a musical, comedic and sometimes dramatic romp through key moments from her adolescence. Everett typically plays with her band, The Tender Moments, but this evening she flew solo. She is a queen of paradox, using her own body to attract and repel you, forcing you to question your own sexuality and innocence and the judgments we all hold.

Like Bamford, she tells a story that runs deep, using substance abuse, nudity, death and family to explore where our limits of comfort lie. Everett’s use of her body is an act of aggression and vulnerability, exposing her genitals to an unprepared audience and even titty-slapping spectators in the face. Somewhere in this space between extreme discomfort and intimate revelation, Everett cultivates a judgment-free environment where excess is expected and we could all fall in in love every instant.

In a similar vein to Everett’s bizarre striptease, I saw local favourite Deanne Smith MC a burlesque/comic night entitled Stand Up, Strip Down. The evening’s roster was jammed with comedians and burlesquers Kitty Vanderbilt, Bonbon Bombay and Montreal’s infamous Miss Sugarpuss. Smith stood at the centre of the night and charmed the crowd with her quirky but professional demeanour, assuring us all that though the lineup was divided most decidedly along gender lines (she was the only female comic), this was a feminist event.

I honestly enjoyed the evening, applauding the beautiful women as they strutted on stage in their pasties and laughing at the comedians (Andy Kindler was a favourite), but always find it strange when an event has to preempt the audience’s intuition by claiming the event stands upon a political line. Whatever the motivation, the evening was a success and Smith transitioned between acts like a pro.

My send-off show was the Midnight Surprise performance at Théâtre Ste-Catherine. I arrived hoping that the late night roster would be filled out with female comedians I had missed (Tig Notaro, Amy Schumer, etc). While the talent was certainly captivating, there was only one female comedian in the mix, Debra DiGiovanni. I had never heard of DiGiovanni before, but her boisterous, self-deprecating humour was hilarious.

Overall, I found the female talent incredibly creative this year at JFL. My biggest hope for next year is to see a big spike in women of colour represented at the fest. Sexuality was a prominent theme with many female performers, sometimes used as misdirection, sometimes as the main attraction; however, I have no instinct to find connective strands in these diverse routines. Each performer was busy carving out a distinct place within the comedy world.

Sometimes that interstitial space, the stage presence that hasn’t been pioneered yet, makes for the most interesting work.

  • 2 Responses to “Women comedians create space in a man’s world”

    1. Michael Black

      It's worth remembering that in 1998, Martha Chaves organized some evenings of women performers at The Comedy Nest. She was pulling in varied performers, like Skidmore as the MC (actually it was "Bob Loblaw", the sleeziest "man" I know, I swear at one point "he" pinched a performer as she left the stage). Another time, one of the performers was Dayle King, who at the time ran a gym and and had ads in The Mirror with quite an explicit photo of herself.

      As I wrote at the time it was safe to sit in the front row at those shows. You might get pulled into the performance but you wouldn't be attacked, like I gather can happen with men comics.

      I felt I laughed more with the women comics, but I could never decide if I was reacting to them being women comics, or the material and humor was somehow different. One doesn't often get that chance to sit back and have the women tell the jokes.

      And that year or the next, the Comedy Festival bought into the concept, and had "An Evening at Eve's Tavern". I can't remember if Martha was supposed to be the MC or they didn't even ask her, but by the time of the actual show, she wasn't there. And that went on for a few years, though it was more like part of the sideshow of the festival (whatever they were calling it at the time, today it would be "zoofest").

      It didn't seem fair, she had been organizing such things and they take the idea and she seemed excluded from it.

      I was thinking about it again two years ago, seeing Jessica Solomon performing at the Fringe Festival. And let's not forget, that the local women comics like Jessica have been organizing evenings of women performers in recent years, though I'm not sure if it has tapered off.



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