At Catharsis Productions, we break ground by meeting people where they are. Being prepared for anything the audience might throw out comes from the ability to sense the temperature of a room. It’s one of the big the secrets to our success in sexual assault and bias prevention education: we’re not just joke tellers, but keen listeners. If a student needs to break down victim blaming, we are there with material to suit the need. If an audience asks questions about false reporting or gender stereotypes, we’ve got material for days. If a client wants to understand the effect of micro-aggressions in the workplace, we have examples and data to back it all up. Adaptability to the needs of the moment is a huge part of what makes our mission possible.
But this technique isn’t new. It comes from a longstanding tradition of change makers radicalizing the ability to think on their feet. In honor of Women’s History Month, we want to shout out some of the most exceptional trailblazers of all when it comes to meeting people where they are: women in comedy.
Who decides what’s funny? For years, at least in the professional scope, the answer has been men. Playing to an audience that has already decided the role they wish to see is not without its challenges, but female and femme comedians have proved time and again that if you can earn an audience’s trust, they’ll accept new ideas with ease. Before you can tear a house down you must first know how to build it, and funny women have been taking the temp of their crowds and using the results to their advantage for ages. Take any of these pioneering women in comedy:
- Jean Carroll, who was known widely as the “First Lady of Comedy,” disguised her wicked, dark sense of humor in stories about childrearing, vacations and husbands. One of our favorite clips includes this zinger: “the dog loves children, he eats one every day.” In an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1991, Carroll explained: “The trick was to get the audience — especially the women — to feel I wasn’t a threat” and to get past men’s resistance that women weren’t and shouldn’t be funny.”
- Phyllis Diller was a master of self-deprecating comedy, usually about her looks and housekeeping abilities, but this acted in many ways as her foot in the door. Was Diller able to perform for Bob Hope and write books because of these choices?
- Elaine May’s most famous sketch to this day involves a depiction of a nagging mother, playing on all kinds of stereotypes about aging women. Like with Diller, this begs the question: would audiences have opened up to May as much had the roles been reversed?
- Joan Rivers began with self-deprecation centered around her own sex life, playing the slut stereotype to its fullest. But today she’s considered a revolutionary – take this clip of her making dirty jokes at men’s expense in 2013 Live at the Appollo for instance.
- Margaret Cho, whose initial work All-American Girl premiered in 1994 as the first primetime TV show depicting an Asian American family in the spotlight. While this concept alone broke new ground, the program also leaned heavily on racial stereotypes. Through criticism of that she rebirthed a new voice and now spends her air time knocking those clichés down.
- Whoopi Goldberg has been responding to the audience’s reactions in the room from day one. At Manhattan Community College, where she brought Spook Show to 70 students, she reacted in character to their nonplussed faces at the references she was making. Goldberg’s quick-witted response kept the integrity of her set intact while reading the room to a tee, and because of this her writing was made accessible to new audiences.
These and other remarkable women and femmes in comedy lend inspiration year-round, but March is a perfect reminder of the innovation they brought to our medium. Their example makes us wonder: how much other material are we missing out on because marginalized artists are limited in how people are willing to hear them?
Taylor Barton is a professional actor, dramaturge, and director, and holds a B.A. in Theatre from Columbia College Chicago.