I’m sitting in an empty comedy club with three comedians who start huffing and puffing when I ask them about how they got started in the industry. The pressure is on.
“I f---ed a guy,” says Bonnie McFarlane, the comedian and writer known for co-hosting the podcastMy Wife Hates Me, when I press her on her beginnings.
“I would say just dysfunctional family dynamic,” responds Sara Armour, a regular on "Humor Me: The Betches of Comedy" tour.
“I guess I’d say… not f---ing a guy,” responds Jena Friedman, who has written for the Late Show with David Letterman and who has been field producer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The three women, who are all part of this week’s New York Comedy Festival, then segue into a conversation about women in comedy, social media, and the future of the business. We were eventually joined by the founder of the Festival itself, Caroline Hirsch, and here is what happened....
It feels like the comedy world has undergone a resurgence of sorts recently, especially when it comes to women. Do you see that change from within the industry?
Jena Friedman: Personally, I’ve been doing comedy for almost a decade and it has changed. One thing that I always found interesting [is] that it used to be: women can’t be pretty and funny. Now, it’s almost the opposite: you have to be pretty and funny. It’s still a problem that your physicality does factor into it. I don’t know if we’ve done it to ourselves or if the industry has done that to us, but you look at all the really successful female comedians and they’re all pretty.
Sara Armour: Well, even if they weren’t… Listen, Roseanne looks better than ever, so even if you weren’t always textbook hot, you get textbook hot.
Bonnie McFarlane: But that’s just being rich. That’s like every actress on the planet, though. When you see them the first time, they look kind of normal. Then, the next time, they’re like super, super skinny. They’ve got hair extensions.
Well, do you feel like men have to do that also?
Friedman: There’s probably more pressure on them, I think, to be attractive than there used to be.
Armour: I think sometimes it’s hard to be attractive and be a funny man. I do feel like, sometimes, there’s like an inter-male judgment because there’s a lot of beta males in comedy, so a really attractive man can be threatening to an ugly, funny guy.
That’s an interesting perspective. Changing gears a bit: When speaking to actors, it’s often clear that the characters they play are complete departures from who they really are. Is it the same for comedians? Do you guys feel like you’re the same person on stage and off stage?
McFarlane: Yeah, I don’t think comedians, as far as I know, are figuring out how to brand themselves—they just go with it. The whole idea is that you just go up and talk about your life.
Friedman: Personally, I’m trying to get as close to myself on stage. That’s like what I want to be doing, but maybe just a slightly heightened version of that.
Which makes sense. The follow-up question would be: Do you find that the Internet has helped you create this heightened version of your persona to put out there?
Friedman: Yeah, it’s been a game changer, I think, for people who are outside of the mainstream to get their voices out there. I’ve heard of female friends getting hired for writing jobs because of their Twitter feeds and I think that it is democratizing and, also, it’s hard for comedians to be able to be as honest on stage because everyone has a camera on their phone… But, [at the same time], now we’re also aware of police brutality. It’s a double-edged sword. Probably leaning on the side of better. I do think the Internet has been a positive game changer.
It seems like this is one of the only industries that has wholly benefited from the Internet.
Armour: I don’t know if it has helped as much as it has changed. I don’t really use social media other than to promote shows. I mean, that’s pretty much it. I’m a much more natural performer than writer. I actually think it has hurt me in some ways because people have tried to hire me for, like, a Snapchat takeover. […] I think in some ways I’m disappointing. You go into a meeting and they say, 'How is your social media following?' And you’re like, 'Well, I got three likes. I don’t know if I’m crushing it but I put something up.'
I personally feel a lot of pressure in my industry: If I don’t get a certain amount of clicks on a story that I wrote, that reflects poorly on me.
Armour: Well, you’re in the headline business.
Friedman: For journalism, it’s scary. Because now we have a click-bait culture so news is now sexy news as opposed to informative news.
McFarlane: You gotta do the title of this thing like “Female Comedians on the Best and Worst Things That Every Happened to Them… You Won’t Believe What They Said!”
Friedman: I do think that, as a society, for all of us it’s hopefully for the better. I mean, I hate to bring this up, but the whole Cosby thing is the perfect example of how, just in terms of aggregating voices and giving people who are outside of the mainstream more power and [a] community, I think the Internet [has helped].
Caroline Hirsch walks in.
McFarlane: Also, the generations before never had this kind of access to comedy or comedians. Now, everyone can just watch YouTube videos all day long, your Twitter feed can be all comedians, you’re listening to Sirius XM and it’s all comedians. That’s why, right now, especially in New York I think, there’s a really strong group of joke writers. It’s because they’ve had this Masters class that’s been going on for like the last ten years.
True, people immerse themselves in their interests. Do you have any advice for these up-and-coming comedians on how to break into the business successfully?
McFarlane: No, I don’t know. You let me know if you find out the secret.
Caroline Hirsch: Get on stage and keep going.
Friedman: Yeah, all the tools are there to just put stuff out there that you find funny.
McFarlane: I mean, in some ways, it is much easier and, in some ways, when things gets easier, then more people do it.
Hirsch: Well, there’s a lot of people that are doing it that really should have waited a while. You have these one-hit wonders with a million views and [that’s] supposed to translate into popularity but it really doesn’t sell a ticket anywhere. […] It’s one thing, the substance isn’t there.
Armour: Well, that’s why I don’t focus on it [social media]. Jenna has a great social media presence. You actually say a lot of shit that’s polarizing and/or informative and/or funny and current and it’s constantly changing because you’re reacting to what’s going on. I feel like I’m so self-absorbed that there’s nothing for me, I don’t even know what’s going on. If I were to try and intelligently comment on something that was going on in Benghazi, I would make a joke about someone I grew up with named Ben Ghazi. I’m just saying, I think for some people it’s a wonderful tool and really shows your personality.
Friedman: [For me,] it’s not to try and do anything but to [calm] my anxieties. I was at the deli a couple of months ago and some guy came up to me and he’s like, ‘Are you… Obsessed with Ebola? You’re Jenna, I follow you on Twitter.’ I don’t know if it’s like therapy or things I’m afraid of and I can make jokes about them and feel less alone… That’s what it is.
On a different note: Do you feel like you could be doing what you’re doing in a city other than New York?
Armour: I started in a different city and I thought I was a way better comedian when I was there.
McFarlane: And were you?
Armour: Oh, no. I was much worse, but I just started and it just went really well and I thought I was the greatest comic of all time and then I moved to New York [from DC] and it was a bit sobering to find out that I was just regular, and I had a lot of work to do. It’s so worth it and great and I totally understand why you need to move here to become a comedian but, man it was really nice for a while to have my vision board be in alignment with my ego and what I thought my life was supposed to look like.
McFarlane: How long have you lived here?
Armour: About a year and a half?
Friedman: It gets better!
Armour: It actually gets so much better! [When I moved here], I went to a few auditions at clubs and a lot of the feedback I got was like… someone told me I sounded like a typical woman, and a lot of stuff like that. Or like, ‘Let me see your jokes, I’ll give you notes.’ And then they’ll be like, cut this, cut this, cut this. So I think I spent the first eight months of being here like [sad, crying voice]: ‘I… am... a… joke… writer.’ I was trying to sound like the joke writers, I was trying to comment on stuff.
McFarlane: That’s a really interesting thing because I feel like I see people when they first come to town and, yeah, the audience doesn’t like them, but thye’re original and unique and you can see the potential that they have. And then I’ll see them three years later and they’re just terrible. They have become what they think a comedian is. You see the other guys getting laughs [and] the problem is, when you’re unique, it takes a lot longer to get the laughs.
Armour: [Yeah], the past six months I’m like, Oh, I’m me! I can hear myself again! I like myself sometimes, I remember why I’m doing it!
McFarlane: Not too much though…
Armour: Not enough to stop comedy!
It's obviously a good thing that you found yourself. Why would I want to go to a comedy club and see the same act three times in a row?
McFarlane: It is interesting that you can have five guys on a show that are just [the same], they're even the same height! They're wearing the same outfits and they're all pretty good joke writers. And they're not bad comics, I'm not saying that. But even if you had two girls next to each other that were even a little bit similar like that, people would be like... What is going on?
Friedman: I think it was last week [that] I did a late-night spot at the [Comedy] Cellar and someone dropped out or something and I had Michelle Wolf up right before me and I was so nervous because, especially there, they don't really have women back to back so often and we had similar jokes about Caitlyn Jenner, and Cosby, and our periods... I actually weirdly have a period joke for the first time. Not about my period, just about Bernie Sanders...
Friedman: ...It's so exciting to be able to do that because for a decade I would never talk about it, but now it feels like I can just talk about whatever, however I want to say it.
McFarlane: Well, women cheer when you come on now, which never used to happen. Somebody said to me one time, 'They're just cheering because you're a woman.' And I was like, 'Well, I've had along f---ing career [without that]!'
Catch Sara Armour at "Humor Me: The Betches of Comedy (Brunch Edition)" on November 14; Jena Friedman on "Jena Friedman: American C*nt" on November 14; Bonnie McFarlane at "Week at the Creek: Bonnie McFarlane" on November 11, 12, 13, and 14 as part of the New York Comedy Festival.