Laughing matters: How and why female comedians crack jokes about sexual harassment

    “Shirtless Mondays start right now!” Janet said to Stephen. “You go first, and you better like it.”

    Janet and Patricia are interviewing Stephen for a job.

    “Pick up that pencil over there, but do it real slow,” Patricia directs him.

    Maya Armstrong, School of Communication senior, wrote and performed this sketch for a live audience at Northwestern comedy group Mee-Ow’s show in 2017. She used role reversal to highlight ignorant or absurd questions women are often asked, particularly in the workplace.

    Armstrong is one of a growing number of Northwestern comediennes using humor to target sexual harassers and sexists, without poking fun at victims. In the era of #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh, Northwestern students are increasingly using pointed comedy to talk about rape and campus sexual harassment.

    “You can’t do knock-knock jokes when the president has kids in cages or when a sexual abuser is on the Supreme Court,” Armstrong said.

    Historically, men have outnumbered women in writers’ rooms, even as famous comedians such as Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin entered the scene in the second half of the 1900s. Actress and comedian Phyllis Diller first broke social norms by making fun of her fictional husband, Fang, and Mary Tyler Moore starred in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one of the first sitcoms featuring an independent woman in the workplace.

    However, using comedy to talk about sexual harassment and assault was rare, until recently. Today, late-night television shows such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Late Night with Seth Meyers regularly use satire to advance women’s rights.

    When Sara Taksler started working at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2005, she said she saw typically only two or three women out of approximately 30 people in writers’ meetings.

    “I don’t think any of the male writers cared in a negative way, by which I mean I felt welcome,” Taksler said. “I think it more played a role in the sense that few stories about women or women’s issues would get pitched.”

    There was hesitancy to cover topics such as sexual assault on campus, rape and abortion, Taksler recalled. She said she thinks writers were afraid of mishandling those issues.

    “I think people pitch stories that they have a visceral feeling about,” Taksler said. “So the less diverse a group, the fewer voices that are going to be represented in the story selection, because the people pitching and the people picking the stories are picking the stories that most personally resonate with them.”

    As time progressed, writers pitched more stories about women’s issues.

    “More people, including male writers, started feeling comfortable pitching those things, and having opinions on those things that they would say out loud, and being allies,” Taksler said.

    The number of women working at The Daily Show has increased. According to the end credits of recent shows, approximately one-third of writers and producers are female. In 2013, Taksler became a senior producer of The Daily Show. From 2017 to 2018, she served as a supervising producer of The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, where women comprised about half the people in the writers’ room.

    To create more diversity in writers’ rooms, studio producers and researchers at The Opposition with Jordan Klepper asked organizations for under-represented groups such as African Americans, Asians and Latinos to tell their membership The Opposition was hiring. Comedy show staffs typically fill up quickly, so employers tend to hire people whom they already know and trust, Taksler said.

    “If one show was not diverse, then the next show is not going to be diverse,” Taksler said.

    Many Northwestern comedy groups are approximately 50 percent female, although that was not always the case. Women compose about half of the writing staff at The Blackout. Alex Fecteau, co-head writer and School of Communication senior, said despite The Blackout’s supportive environment, she still experiences insecurities about writing comedy as a woman.

    “It’s this constant fear that if I pitch a joke that doesn’t land, if I direct a sketch that isn’t great, it proves to the men that maybe I don’t deserve to be there, or it kind of validates the idea that, still, women aren’t funny,” Fecteau said.

    School of Communication senior Grace Dowling, former host for The Blackout, acknowledged a double standard for female comedians in writers’ rooms.

    “I have felt that I have had to act in a certain way in comedy spaces to adhere to male perceptions of female comedians and have had to fight harder to hear my voice heard in writing spaces,” Dowling said.

    School of Communication junior Sarah Evans, the film segments producer for The Blackout, said the “bossy woman” stereotype sometimes affects the way she produces material. She does not want to be seen as the person who shuts off creativity and stays strict to an agenda, but her job as a producer is to make sure The Blackout finishes the segments, Evans said.

    “Sometimes it’s so hard to be the one that wants to get shit done because you get labeled ‘bossy,’” Evans said.

    Armstrong, the co-director of Mee-Ow, explained why it may be intimidating for some women to want to go into comedy if their co-workers consist primarily of one demographic.

    “I don’t want to be the only woman in a room. I don’t want to be the only black person in a room,” Armstrong said. “It’s uncomfortable.”

    Armstrong and her co-director made a large effort to improve outreach for Mee-Ow. She emphasized verbally and persistently encouraging diverse groups of people to audition. However, this can prove difficult.

    “No one likes to be part of a quota,” Armstrong said. “And that’s never what you want anyone to feel like.”

    As diversity levels improve, many female comedians use comedy to call out sexism or sexual harassment.

    Jen Spyra, a staff writer for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a former senior writer for The Onion, wrote an article for The Onion titled, “Campus Tour Guides Reminded To Use Official Name For Rape Hall.” She said she liked making fun of the “cosmetic sort of work” universities do to sell themselves during a sexual assault epidemic.

    “I personally love jokes about abortion, rape...I love that because I think that the reality is that dark, shitty stuff happens, and I think that it’s completely not therapeutic to not work on it and work it out,” Spyra said. “I think it’s weird to say that something is off-limits.”

    Some people, often outside of the comedy industry, believe jokes about topics such as rape are never funny, Spyra said. She disagrees.

    “I think it’s sort of already been proven that, of course, any  like, any  of those extremely hot-button topics can be totally funny if they just are dealt with deftly,” Spyra said.

    On a network late-night show such as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, when the central topic of a story involves a particularly dark issue, Spyra might address funny spokes surrounding the story, rather than attack the topic head-on. In other cases, writers sometimes avoid using certain words such as “abortion,” and say “reproductive rights” instead, as to not violate the sensibility of the show, Spyra said.

    “It’s very much editorial picking and choosing what is too dark and too upsetting, and what are the things that are sort of more tangential that we can make fun of and circle,” Spyra said. “We don’t actually have to talk about rape, because that is not proven to be reliable or appropriate fodder for late-night audiences on a network show.”

    In a sketch on The Daily Show from 2014, correspondents Jordan Klepper and Jessica Williams talked about campus sexual assault. When creating “The Fault in Our Schools,” Taksler and several women sat in a room for a few hours and broke down interesting and scary aspects of the subject. Then they developed themes and pitches.

    “We tried to think of the most extreme examples of what a woman might do in her everyday life, and how a guy might just have no clue that that’s a part of her experience,” Taksler said. “And that was the thing that was kind of funny, that disparity between those two things.”

    In the sketch (above), Klepper and Williams list campus safety tips.

    “Okay, bros!” said Klepper, wearing a polo shirt with an upturned collar. “Party commandment number one: Beer before liquor, never been sicker!”

    “Ladies, never lose sight of your drink! Ever!” Williams said. “Don’t be a doofie, watch out for a roofie!”

    Jenny Hagel, a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers, explained her approach to a joke depends on the topic of the story and the statement she wants to make.

    “Either you make an analogy or a metaphor, and that becomes the best way to approach that topic,” Hagel said. “There are some topics where just saying exactly what you’re talking about and exactly what you mean is the best way.”

    When The New York Times uncovered that Harvey Weinstein paid off sexual harassment accusers for decades, Late Night with Seth Meyers writers Hagel, Amber Ruffin and Ally Hord decided to address the issue in two distinct ways.

    “We got to both make a jokey video about it that kind of hit it from the side, but then we also got to sit down and look directly at Seth and directly at viewers and say, ‘Hey, this is what we think,’” Hagel said. “So we got to both take a direct and an indirect approach.”

    The recurring sketch “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell” features Hagel and Ruffin. Meyers sets up the joke, and Hagel, a gay woman, and Ruffin, a Black woman, say the punchlines. The writing staff is diverse, but Meyers is a straight white man, so some jokes would be difficult for him to deliver, Meyers explains in the sketch’s introduction.

    Hagel emphasized the importance of determining the target of a joke when dealing with sensitive issues.

    “I think it’s less about appropriate or inappropriate and more, like, what is your joke trying to say? And is your joke trying to poke fun at and undermine harmful people and harmful institutions? Then great. That’s what satire’s for,” Hagel said. “Is your joke trying to harm and undermine somebody who already doesn’t hold a lot of power and who’s already the victim of those institutions? Then that’s not joking, that’s just bullying.”

    Northwestern students like Dowling used comedy to discuss issues such as the administration’s handling of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. In 2017, Northwestern suspended SAE for alcohol violations a few months after allegations of druggings and sexual assaults at the SAE house.

    “[Perpetrators] should be punished for their actions, and if that doesn’t mean legitimate university or legal repercussions, then that means getting roasted onstage by a mouthy woman,” Dowling said, laughing.

    Dowling’s jokes targeted the fraternity and the administration.

    “Unfortunately the [SAE] fraternity is still recruiting new members,” said Dowling during her opening monologue in The Blackout’s fall 2017 live show. “New SAE recruits include Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and, of course, Brad from your gender studies class who ‘totally believes in equality, but, I dunno, just thinks that feminists can be, like, a little too aggressive about it.’”

    Her SAE jokes were not a one-time endeavor.

    “I think I made at least one of those per show, just ‘cause it’s a recurring thing, and it’s not like the administration gives a shit. And I had a platform, so I may as well use it, you know?” Dowling said.

    For some shows, The Blackout posted trigger warnings on places such as doors to warn the audience that performers would talk about sexual assault.

    Under the reign of School of Communication junior Julia Tesmond as editor-in-chief, Sherman Ave, a Northwestern satirical publication, featured an article titled, “SAE Brothers Relieved to Hear Supreme Court is Still a Potential Career Path.

    Sherman Ave waited to publish the article until after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing ended.

    “It feels so hollow if you start to make fun of something when it’s happening because it’s very emotionally tolling,” Tesmond said.

    The theater and film communities at Northwestern are very cognizant of women’s issues, especially given the #MeToo movement, said School of Communication junior Amanda Lifford, who writes and performs for several comedy groups. She acknowledged Northwestern’s “super liberal, tries-to-be-really-woke” atmosphere may contribute to students’ awareness.

    “I think humor is automatically so much more palatable than other types of communication,” Lifford said. “I think if you can make people laugh, they’re much more likely to want to listen to you and hear you out.”


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