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The Arts
11.04.09

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Phaedra

TWELVE FUNNY WOMEN: The semifinalists in the second annual Women in Comedy Competition met at BrainWash in San Francisco. Six of them survived to make the trip to San Jose for the finals this Wednesday night.

Dangerous Women

Six female comics will gather in San Jose this week to battle for the crown as the Bay Area's funniest

By Colleen Watson
Photographs by Felipe Buitrago


TWELVE jaded, sarcastic women crowd between washing machines as the host explains the rules of the competition we are about to compete in. Oddly, none of us has noticed that being lectured in a Laundromat is at all odd.But then that's BrainWash. Every wannabe comic in the Bay Area has performed at BrainWash next to real comedians on national tour, local pros and the occasional homeless person who walked in off the street. BrainWash is a San Francisco cafe/Laundromat, and on Wednesday and Thursday nights it also sidelines as a comedy club. On this particular Wednesday, it is the scene of the opening night for the second annual San Francisco Women's Comedy Competition. A dozen women, from a total field of 36, are prepping to perform in front of friends, family and a few tables of uninterested diners and folks from the neighborhood washing their clothes.

I am scheduled to perform second. And I have to admit, I am a bit discouraged by the competition. I have seen most of these women before, and I know I am screwed. Comedy is often a lesson in humility.

Caitlin Gill, the host of the once-a-month Ladies' Night at Club Deluxe, another comedy club in the city, introduces each woman as "my favorite." Now, the thing about Gill is that she has a very expressive face, especially her eyes. As she introduces her "favorite" comic, she widens those eyes and stares down a member of the audience—seeming to go from cute to crazy in less than point-five seconds. It's a strange talent not many posses, and it is creepily funny.

As I get onstage I stare at my dad, who was kind enough to come out to cheer me on, and my mind blanks. For about a second, my grasp of the English language completely fails me. I fumble with the microphone and try to find my voice. For seven minutes I stutter through a set I've rattled off hundreds of times.

"I recently had to give up going to the gym. I just got too traumatized by what I had seen. And it had nothing to do with the weights or equipment. No, it was the ladies' locker room.

"And I hate to destroy any male fantasies but it's not filled with a bunch of beautiful women helping each other off with their bras."

Small chuckle (probably from Dad).

"No, it's filled with 200-year-old women, way too OK with their nudity, just bouncing around."

A slightly bigger chuckle, and my palms are slick. I'm starting to feel sorry for whoever comes on after me.

"Which was disturbing but I had gotten OK with it. I mean, one day I will be old and saggy, too. But I was in the locker room, and I was tying my shoe, when an old naked woman came up and asked me a question. So I slowly look up ... and that was my first mistake. Because my eyes got stuck in her groinal region, and I couldn't look away."

Yay for genital jokes! Those always get a laugh.

"She asks her question again, and my mind breaks with reality, and suddenly it's no longer her asking me this question, but it's her vagina asking me the question."

Laughter again, and I start to unclench just a bit.

"And so this vagina is asking me this question, but I can't figure out what it's saying 'cause I don't speak vagina. Because I'm straight."

And believe it or not, that is the high point. I go on to do more material I won't share here. I finish my set and get off the stage. The woman right after me kills—she has the whole place laughing. As the night wore on, many women get on the stage, some hilarious, others not so much.

Shockingly, I didn't move on in the competition. My dad said he felt that I got robbed.


Ladies' Man

The San Francisco Women's Comedy Competition was initiated two years ago by comedian Al Gonzalez. "I started it at a time there were a lot of funny women coming up, and I thought it was a good opportunity to make that known," Gonzalez says.

His inspiration for the event, he explains, was his mother. "My mom is very influential in my life. She had just come down with breast cancer. And she's a big fan of comedy."

This year's competition started last month. The original 36 women have now been whittled down to a final five, with a wild card position that was added by Internet voting. The final contest will be held Wednesday, Nov. 4, at The Improv in downtown San Jose.

"I'm excited about it, because it's the best talent group I've seen—period," Gonzalez says. "All the women are funny at a level that wasn't there years ago."

For the semifinals last week, Club Deluxe was packed to watch eight women sling punch lines. Friends and family crowded around tables near the stage while local comics filled up the bar area.

Is comedy different for women? Have we come far enough that gender does not play a role in standup? No, and we probably never will. Standup comedy is still overwhelmingly a boys' game, and it's a bastion of racism, hatred and misogyny—even if it brings to light why these things can be funny because of the complete idiocy that lies behind them.

In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, Christopher Hitchens makes the argument that women just aren't funny. He posits that women don't need to be funny—that it isn't a necessary trait for us, as it is for men. But these six women prove him wrong.


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The Angry Woman

Chris Burns walks onto the stage with confidence and an attitude. She makes subtle changes in her voice, sounding masculine one minute and childlike the next, and then all breathy—and with each switch, she gets funnier.

"I'm just gonna take a moment to get centered here. I like to do some affirmations before I start. So everybody try to find that sacred place within you."

She takes a deep breath and in a calm soothing voice, with her eyes closed, she intones: "Without me bringing the joy of laughter the audience is nothing.

"Airplane food sucks."

"Cats are different from dogs."

"Me living in my parents' basement on an air mattress is just part of the journey of standup comedy."

"White people do that, but black people do this."

"I'm not racist, I'm hilarious."

She opens her eyes and smiles. "You guys feel that, you feel that energy? That's how you know it's gonna be a good show."

The crowd by now is in stitches.

Offstage later, Burns tells a story that might explain the half-angry edge on her humor.

"My dad doesn't really think I'm that funny," she says. "He's very cerebral. One night he came to my performance, and afterward he said, 'Well Chris, you might want to tell some jokes when you're up there.'"

She pointed out to him that the crowd seemed to dig her act.

"Yeah, they're gonna laugh when you stack the audience with friends," he replied.

Burns, who says she found comedy while going through graduate school in 2007, says she kind of agrees with Hitchens.

"Oh, you're just talking about the other chicks," she says. "I kind of suffered from that bias, that prejudice, a bit myself. But that was when I was first starting out. Supercute girls looking really cute, they seemed to be doing [standup] to be seen, vs. really doing it to be a comic. Which means they didn't have the requisite freakishly fat or skinny look. I'm still kind of biased that way."

"Which is kind of mean," she suddenly adds, seeming to catch herself, "because there are a lot of really good pretty comics."


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The Pretty Comedienne

Pretty really isn't a part of female comedy. Comedy icons from Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields to Rosanne Barr and Whoopi Goldberg were/are not exactly lookers. Liz Grant, however, is pretty. And the 38-year-old brunette kind of works that fact as she riffs on her failed marriages and the joys of Internet dating.

"You know what, here's the thing—I'll fantasize about a younger guy, because you're hot, right? I'll think about you, but then I get distracted because I have an arthritic knee. And that's not gonna work, is it? No, it's not.

"And he goes, like, 'What arthritic knee. You don't have a ..."

"Yes."

She then puts the mic to her knee and grinds it around to the groans and laughs of the audience.

And then in a deep sexy, lisping voice, "Soon as mama gets warmed up, she's gonna dance for you."

Peals of laughter.

She addresses a young man in the front row. "Then it conjures up this image of me as an older woman holding a young guy like you captive in a chair. But I can't move around very much because ... ow! Fuck! My knee!

"But I'm holding you in a chair. Captive."

Grant begins a bad Tina Turner imitation, swaying her hips clumsily, bent over geriatrically, and starts to sing, "I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money/ Shhh, do what you want me to doooo. Any old music will dooo."

"And he's texting his friends, 'Get me the fuck out of here.'"

Grant admits that she's found being an attractive woman in comedy can be a bit of a hindrance—almost a handicap. "Everyone just assumes you're well adjusted," she says, "and that's just not true.

"I definitely noticed women actually dogging me. But I would say honestly this last year and a half or so, I dyed my hair darker with the hope of getting less resistance, trying to fight against that 'pretty' thing."

But she also says that once she gets onstage, she can win the crowd over. "I do a lot of unattractive things onstage. So once they're able to see that contrast they're not so resistant."


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A Class Act

Yayne (rhymes with shiny) Abeba is Ethiopian, but talks like she grew up in Atherton. With a confident stage presence, you get the impression that she knows she's funny, and if you're not laughing, it's because there's something wrong with you.

She admits that she's had some difficulty as a female minority standup, but more with black audiences.

"I'm not a Def Jam comic," Abeba says. "I'm not a 'White people is crazy' kind of comic. I just don't know how to do that. That's not where I come from. And I've done a lot of black rooms where they're like, 'Oh, you don't do the Def Jam formula, so you're not funny.' They don't even want to listen. 'Oh, you talk like a white girl.' And when they finally do listen, they're like, 'Oh! You're funny! You made me think. I didn't understand all the shit you were saying."

A San Francisco native, Abeba's been in comedy for about nine years. She says she does feel that it's difficult for a woman to catch a break in comedy. "I'm tired of men telling their anal sex jokes and their predictable relationship jokes and then saying women aren't funny because they talk about their periods.

"There's a lot of original women in comedy, and there's a lot of strong women in comedy, and they are underappreciated."

Abeba grew up in a nice part of the Haight-Ashbury, which, she says, might explain why she doesn't come across as "black."

"I don't know much about being black," she says. "You know, they don't teach you much about being black at French-American International School.

"I've been thinking about it, and I've been trying to figure what are the differences between black and white people. And I realize: There are things that you are not gonna hear a black person say. Like, you're not gonna hear a black person say, 'So my therapist says ...'

"You're not gonna hear a black person say that.

"Not gonna hear a black person say, 'Son, you can trust the police, they're your friends."


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The Funny Feminist

Janine Brito looks a little dorky in her tweed jacket with elbow patches and glasses, but she also comes off as very likeable. She smiles throughout her set and draws you in, as if she's talking only to you, telling you this random story, which includes sodomizing a panda bear, which makes you laugh so hard you pee yourself the tiniest bit.

Even on a rant about feminism, she comes off as barely, and justifiably, annoyed.

"I have to talk about this," she begins. "This is gonna be a little hateful—but I was hanging out with a friend on Saturday. And she said, she actually goes, "I'm all for equality, but I'm no feminist ... ew."

"Fucking really!!??

"Are we still fighting over this? Women? 'Feminist' is not a bad word. You're just putting yourself down for the very people oppressing you.

"That would be like me going up to a straight person and being [in a cutesy voice] like 'I want equal rights, but I'm no homodykequeerfag ... icky. I can be a part of your world. Please let me be a part of your world?

"If you're a woman, and you've said, 'I'm not a feminist,' I hope you choke on the dick that you sold yourself for.

"Take that ... you dumb bitch." The last line can barely be heard above the laughter.

Somehow, despite the harsh words, Brito appears easygoing. She says being a lesbian gives her a different perspective on life and relationships, but it's not the point of her act.

"I don't really think of myself as a gay comic," she says. "I'm just a comic who is gay.

"I think the way Western society is set up, everyone thinks that every single-woman's goal is to get the ultimate partner. And being funny isn't a quality trait. And I feel like as a lesbian, I'm taken out of that whole game."

Brito says she likes the comedy community in the Bay Area because there are so many women. And the competition underscores that. "In St. Louis, there was me and two other women in the tri-state area. Here, I don't even know all the women in comedy."

And though she is very upbeat about the state of comedy, she still sees a few problems with it.

"A lot of people don't believe that whole sexism thing in comedy, but it is a rampant problem," Brito says. "I have been groped by staff people and bookers at clubs. I've had really disgusting things said to me. People need to stop writing it off. I feel like people never believe what women have to deal with in standup."


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The 'Evil' Feminist

Emily Heller looks like the quirky best friend in a stupid romantic comedy, the friend who is much more interesting than the main character. She got her start by taking a standup class at UC–Santa Cruz. She took the class because she wanted to give a good speech at her sister's wedding.

Onstage, Heller seems almost awkward, but her delivery and timing make you listen and laugh.

"I am a feminist," she says, drawing a "Woooo" from the crowd.

"No, no. I use it for evil, not for good.

"Because for me feminism isn't really about making the world a better more equal place for women and all people, as much as it is about being lazy and disgusting.

"Because I stopped shaving my legs for a while, and someone was like, 'What are you, a feminist?' And I was like, 'Uh ... would that ... explain it?"

Heller says that she believes there aren't as many women in comedy as there should be, not because women aren't funny, but because people don't expect women to be funny.

"When people don't expect people to be funny, a lot of their humor tends to go under the radar," she says. "I think it's based more on what our society values in women."


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The Wild Card

Of course the Internet has affected comedy as it has everything else. Comics market themselves on Facebook and MySpace and share video clips of themselves to reach a larger audience. Dane Cook rose to fame by promoting himself aggressively on the Internet. Closer to home, Sheila Bryson, the wild card in this competition, used her connections on Facebook and Twitter to get back in the game.

As someone who works in public relations, she is familiar with creating demand and driving traffic. "So I spent a lot of time," she says, "I individually emailed a lot of my friends, and I have 900 friends on Facebook."

Bryson has been a comic for about a year and says she still gets butterflies before she performs.

"I'm so nervous, I always feel like I'm gonna crap my pants. [But] once you get that first laugh you're like, "Oh yeah, I forgot. I love this."

Why work so hard to get back in the competition?

"Well, my main motivation was that I really wanted to perform at the Improv, and I'm really excited because I'm getting to perform with some of my favorite comedians is a really big deal to me as well."

"It's the biggest night of my standup career so far, so I'm really excited about it."


The final event of the second annual WOMEN'S COMEDY COMPETITION takes place at 8pm at The Improv, 62 S. Second St., San Jose. $16 at the door; two-drink minimum. In addition to the contest, the show features a performance by Jackie Kashian of Comedy Central and NBC's 'Last Comic Standing.'


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