Women purchase half of all movie tickets, yet less than a third of speaking parts in films go to women. And for comedy, it’s worse: the top 12 earners in comedy are all men, and of the 200 top grossing comedy films from 2003 to 2012, women directed nine.
Michael Jeffries, who teaches courses in American culture, race, and ethnicity at Wellesley College, set out to write a book about where comedians get their material and how they work. But during the course of interviewing comics, he began to realize that the comedy industry, while tough on everybody, throws up particular barriers to women and people of color.
The book he ended up writing, Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy, digs into some of the reasons why those statistics are so stark. He shared some of his insights with Emerson students and faculty Wednesday, February 28, during the Spring Honors Lecture, “#MeToo: Sexism and the Business of Comedy.”
“Value [in culture industries] is determined…by taste,” Jeffries told a packed Cabaret. “Once you start talking about taste, especially in comedy, you’re talking about something that is fundamentally social. You’ve got to look at social dynamics, social life, and power. You have to look at social class, gender, and race.”
Sexual Harassment and Assault
When accusations of rape first were leveled against Bill Cosby, people had a hard time reconciling Cosby’s public image as a TV dad and his private life as a sexual predator, Jeffries said.
But the public life is what allowed the private life, because his reputation as a respectable elder statesman of comedy is what gave him access to women.
“The public life and his industry standing enables and sustains his private life that he’s living as a predator,” he said. “He leveraged his power in the industry and women’s desire to work with him and be mentored by him.”
Similarly, for years, women were afraid of accusing Louis C.K. of sexual assault because they worried that exposing such a “progressive” comedian would ruin their careers.
And generally speaking, there are no human resources departments in comedy, even in institutions and training programs such as Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), where instructor Adam Glaser was accused of rape.
“There is no set policy at UCB for what you’re supposed to do as an employee or student if you experience harassment or assault,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries said he talked to more than 60 performers, both men and women, about how they think about physical appearance in their work. The men said things like, “I wear a suit because I’m a professional comedian,” and “I just want to be comfortable on stage.”
The women said they think first and foremost about “managing their body and appearance as a sexual object.” They also said they feel obligated to work their appearance in their act, in order to preempt any judgment and meet head-on what they assume (male) audience members are thinking.
“Sexism demands that the actual material they recite on stage is different, because if they don’t address the way they look, they’re not going to be able to connect with the audience,” he said. “The kind of material they produce is driven by the male gaze and sexual objectification.”
The Boys’ Club
Regardless of what area of comedy they were working in, women told Jeffries they constantly felt like they were trying to join a boys’ club, which affects the way they interact with their colleagues off-stage.
Women are often put in the position of “trying to gain the favor of industry gatekeepers,” he said.
“The way to do this is not only to make [those gatekeepers] laugh, but sometimes it requires that you laugh at this person’s jokes even if you don’t think they’re funny,” Jeffries said.
And it can be difficult for women to find a balance between protecting themselves personally and advancing their careers professionally, he said.
Alexis Wilkinson, the first black woman editor of the Harvard Lampoon, and now a writer on the HBO comedy Veep, said when she was starting out in standup in New York, men in the business would invite her out for drinks. Colleagues warned her that their aim in hanging out with her wasn’t entirely professional or platonic, and she thought they were probably right but didn’t want to burn any bridges.
“Women become anxious and don’t want to overread the situation,” Jeffries said. “They second guess what could be completely viable mentoring opportunities.”
Race, Class Dynamics
Wilkinson said she had a hard time feeling completely at home in the New York standup scene. When she played at “black” clubs, “she felt as though they wanted a very specific version of black womanhood”—very physical and raunchy—that wasn’t what her act was about. But her style didn’t exactly fit in “white” clubs either.
The experience turned her off of standup, she told Jeffries. “I want to be off stage, because when I’m writing, no one looks at me that way.”
Class can also throw up barriers to comedy, because many of the training programs that produce a lot of successful comedians charge a lot of money to go through the program, with no guarantee of advancement, he said.
Some sketch and improv theaters and training programs are taking steps to close the diversity gap, by offering lower-cost courses and women-only nights and all-woman shows, he said.
The bottom line, Jeffries said, is that comedy is a brutal business for everyone—white men included.
But, “the unfairness and inequality is because people who have resources are hoarding them and protecting their own position,” he said. “What we need, then, is a much broader discussion of what a fair comedy business might look like.”