Historically, comedy's been a tough business for women. Chauvinist club owners and prejudice audiences spread the mistaken belief that women aren't as naturally suited to comedy as men. That conversation is so over. Women have been and always will be funny and if you need further proof, you should see the amazing women who perform every day in Chicago.
I got in touch with four of the best in the city: Holly Laurent of The Second City's 100th Revue: Who Do We Think We Are? and Tawny Newsome, Andel Sudik and Punam Patel of the Jeff Award Winning We're All In This Room Together to see what they thought about being a woman in Chicago comedy.
How did you know you wanted to make performing your life?
Holly: I've always known I was a performer. In some of my earliest memories I was doing characters for my mom while she worked in the kitchen. It took me a long time to commit to making it a profession, but there's nothing I'd rather do.
Tawny: I grew up with friends in the arts. Dancers, actors, singers, pianists... I wanted to be everything they were. I'd go with my friend to her ballet studio and I'd try to dress just like her, and I was rotten. So I'd go with my other friend to audition for plays at the community theatre and I was a mess. At 13, I auditioned for Pippin with a monologue from Hamlet. The director was, uh... perplexed. So I'd follow my friends to choir rehearsal and did alright there... stayed with that for a bit. I guess I just was always searching for something that fit.
Andel: When I was a kid my dad came back to Chicago to do Singing in the Rain and we got to come visit him. I remember thinking the city was magical, and knowing I wanted to live there. Then I saw The Second City Alumni Jam on the Santa Monica Pier and lost my mind. Then it was just a matter of getting back here and jumping in.
Punam: I've always been a huge attention hog. I used to perform Bollywood dances for my family that were elaborately choreographed, and I'd be super into it all the time. I always had to be the guy too because I was chubby and had a boy cut. But I think I just really truly enjoyed being able to be whoever I wanted and do whatever I wanted while on any sort of stage, and to just make people happy and laugh. Then I took my first improv class in college and immediately fell in love. I always loved joking around and when I found out there was a venue for that where it was actually applauded and not considered just plain annoying, I was ecstatic. When I moved to Chicago three years ago, it really came full circle and I think that's when I decided I seriously wanted to pursue this as a career.
Is there a difference between men and women in comedy writing and performance?
Holly: Nah. That's always been something people bring up, and hopefully it's a point of view that will go away.
Tawny: I'd have to guess there is. Though I wouldn't know what it's like for a man. I do believe that women have a rougher go of it in general. That's why when I meet women that are tough to work with I try to give them a few extra chances before developing any strong opinions. Hopefully they'll do the same for me. For some reason we're bred to believe we're in competition with each other.
Andel: There's a difference between every individual who writes, so this is a hard one to answer. We all write from our experience so that's shaded by who we are. I think as a women you'll get into situations where people expect certain things from you because you're a woman and that's frustrating. I was reading about Cosby the other day about the backlash he got about "not doing enough for the African American community." And how that's how he ended up doing so much. By doing comedy that people related to. That he didn't have to say "I'm black and I'm just like you." That he just said "I'm just like you." Then he filled his show with African American artwork and music and actors. And I thought, that's what it is. That's what I want as a women and as a comedian. And that's how I perform and write.
Punam: Of course! I don't think it's a matter of one being better than the other, but I definitely think each has its own strength. I think the great thing about women is that we naturally emote more in lots of situations. I never think of being emotional as a bad thing. I love that I'm so emotional. Sometimes it may come off as a crazy whiney hissy fit because I'm hungry and don't feel like cooking or it may be me being overly excited about any sort of baby animal, but I think those emotions in my real life translate to the stage and help me create more interesting and compelling characters that people can still relate to. When I write, I'm writing female characters of all walks of life. The main point of the character is never that she is female, but more about what makes her special as a human being. I don't always like to point out that I'm a woman doing comedy. I'm just another person on stage doing what I love.
Is there a difference between what men and women in the audience enjoy?
Holly: This is a more interesting question. I do think that females grow up ego-identifying with both male and female characters. (It's changing, but when I was young the hero was almost always male.) So girls can automatically put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist regardless of their gender. I think males have a tendency to observe female characters/experiences without automatically identifying with them. I think at Second City when a man walks onstage 100% of the audience identifies with them. When a female walks onstage 50% of the audience does. But thats the fun part... winning over everybody, so we're all having an experience together.
Tawny: Who knows... working in comedy has taught me that people who work in comedy have very strange ideas about what's actually funny.
Andel: I think people see women and men differently. I can't even list the amount of times I've been told by men and women they were surprised by how funny I was because I'm a women and they don't usually find women funny. And they mean it as a compliment. And I take it that way. When I first started improvising people would say "Man, you play like a guy!" and it pleased me because I knew they meant "You are just as aggressive and funny." I think comedy's comedy, and if you're funny you leave the audience no choice but to laugh, whether or not they have a penis. I notice political leanings more that I notice gender as far as what an audience finds funny.
Punam: I think it all depends, but sometimes I notice men getting a bit uncomfortable with women doing extremely vulgar or very powerful things on stage and then other times, I see men really intrigued by seeing women with a strong presence on stage. It all depends on the people again. I definitely hear lots of women giving a "You go, girl!" type cheer in the audience when I rant in a show about accepting that my body isn't perfect and enjoying food no matter what people think of me so that's always fun.
Has being a woman made your career easier/more difficult? If so, how?
Holly: I try not to focus on it much. In some respects girls have more work to do in terms of proving themselves to the people who don't think women are as funny as men. But in this type of work its always going to be challenging regardless of your gender. It requires a lot of confidence, and all you can do is keep going. I do know there have been times I've gotten gigs because of my gender so I guess at the end of the day it all evens out.
Tawny: No more easy or difficult than it's made breathing or walking around a mall or getting elected to political office.
Andel: I think anything that takes you out of the pool of being a 'white guy' makes it easier simply because there are more of them, so some of the funniest, most interesting 'white guys' will have to work way harder. Other than that, I don't know. Certain places I've worked/played have been real boys clubs, which either makes you stronger or run away. And either way, you learn something about yourself. It's like anything; it'll close some doors and open some other ones, but it's up to you what doors you break down.
Punam: I think it's made it so enjoyable to be a woman in comedy, especially an Indian woman. I'm not always doing Indian accents or bits on stage, but because I was raised in an Indian household and am still very close to my family, I bring a unique perspective. Sometimes there are certain references I don't get because I didn't grow up with them. Or I'll call something by a different name that most people don't, like calling a bathing suit a swimming costume. It's lovely. But yes, I'd say being a woman has helped my career in the sense that we automatically look different than the average white male a lot of people usually see.
Is the Chicago comedy community different for women than other places?
Holly: I think the Chicago comedy community is different period. It creates space for patient play, and allows for artful work. People who come up in this community have distinctive chops. We're taught to respect a sophisticated audience, and we're taught to believe the best and hold our partners in high regard. Both women and men who come up in the Chicago scene are built to be the best in the world.
Tawny: Chicago is an unbelievable arts community. For everyone. Above all, what matters is the work. It has to stay that way, or I'll split.
Andel: The Chicago comedy community is supportive and warm and amazing, for women and for anyone. It's what I love about this city; people are here to do the work and so when people succeed within it (male or female) they applaud it and encourage it. The number of people who are responsible for any success I've had and for all the things I've learned is overwhelming. I don't know if that happens anywhere else, I'm lucky to have found it so early.
Punam: I've only really ever performed professionally here, but I will say I feel like we're in an age in comedy in general where women are really being seen for their strengths and rising to the top, at all levels. I think we're seeing a wave of more confident women. So while I can't really compare my experience to other cities, I think Chicago is a great place to cultivate any form of art, either gender.