“This next comedian is a female,” the host said, “which is exciting for us here.”
Being the only “comedienne” in the club, I knew he meant me. So, I stood up.
The host, Toll McGrane had introduced the seven previous comedians as hilarious guys, good friends or visiting comics. But it was my first open mic; so, I guess “a female” would have to do.
“Our next comedian,” McGrane continues, “Hey, we could be great friends in the future, who knows?”
In retrospect, I probably could have done something clever here, jumped on stage when he said “female” and introduced myself as “Token.” But all my clever was banging around in my quaking knees, so I just stood there.
“I bet she’s hilarious. Put your hands together for Miss Rachel Weeks.”
The first time an audience laughed at me, I was the court reporter in the Naperville Central High School rendition of Hello Dolly. I had one short line. On the day of our first show, I dutifully delivered that line and—much to my surprise—the audience laughed. It was soft and grumbling, but it was a laugh. I was electrified.
Years later, I discovered stand-up and I fell in love. I spent hours scouring the Internet for comedy shows, listening to Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, Dana Carvey and others. I exhausted Pandora and Spotify’s comedy options, but I never considered getting on stage myself.
Sketch comics and comedic actors like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy have opened doors for funny women and a new generation of female sketch comics has come rushing in. But ladies are still vastly underrepresented in the stand-up world.
“It’s strange to say it’s a boy’s club, but it totally is,” aspiring Chicago comedian Ashley Huck said, “Not to say the guys aren’t nice. They’re not going to not include you, but they’re not going to include you in the same way.”
It turns out, being introduced as “a female” is not uncommon even for veteran female comics. “You get a lot of the hosts that say, “This next comedian is a lady.” Or they’ll make some comment about it, as if it’s just a room full of blind people and they wouldn’t be able to tell by your voice,” Huck said. “You would never introduce anybody as, ‘This next comedian is a white guy with a beard,’ or, ‘This next guy is wearing a comic book t-shirt.’ You don’t pull that for guy comedians.”
Something about stand-up makes it difficult for women to succeed. With a male-dominated audience, Huck calls the difference a “cute factor” or, more bluntly, “fuckability.” Christopher Hitchens says simply, “Women Aren’t Funny” in his infamous Vanity Fair essay. But it seems the answer is more complicated than that, and I wanted to experience it for myself.
In order to fully understand the current state of comedy, I went from occasionally listening to comedy to exclusively listening to it. I listened to John Mulaney while I worked and Ellen DeGeneres while I cleaned. I listened to Tig Notaro in the car and Aziz Ansari before bed. And, of course, I went to see a live performance.
Michael Malone, a stand-up comedian from California, headlined at the Funny Bone in West Des Moines, IA. He tours the country nearly 50 weeks a year and is constantly creating and testing new material, so I hoped he’d have a few pointers. Look for potential jokes everywhere, he told me. So I started a note on my computer to compile my ideas; it was originally titled “Humorous Ideas,” but I changed it to “Potential Bits” because it sounded more legitimate.
Any time I was alone in the car, I was working through material. I pulled some of the more solid “humorous ideas” from the list—Grandma’s keg toss, water park tattoos, and modern Jesus—and recorded myself telling the stories over and over until my ideas fell apart or something came together. Nothing much came together.
Malone, a practiced improvisational comic, is known for his spontaneity and crowd work. “If I have an idea or a loose structure in mind, I take it to the stage to sink or swim,” he said, “I find out pretty quickly if it has legs.” He recommended I do the same.
Unwilling to jump into a stand-up ocean without a life preserver, I sat down with Des Moines comedian Jack Lewis, hoping he had a magical foolproof joke structure. Although, I would’ve settled for a copy of Stand-up Comedy for Dummies. Instead, Lewis had similar advice to Malone. Don’t write out the whole joke; stay loose and flexible on stage. “If you write it out, people know you wrote it,” he said. “It’s like you’re reciting it, not talking. The best comics are just talking.”
When I asked him if there were any female comics in the area, he said, “The funniest one just left. There’s a new girl here who just started, but she’s only done it a couple of times. I don’t know her name.”
After talking to a number of comedians, I was more nervous than ever. Malone told me, if I crushed it on my first try, comedian lore states I will have two more good shows. But “then you will eat dick onstage so fucking bad, it will make you cry,” he said. “It’s just something weird in the universe.” He also mentioned that sometimes, you “eat dick” first and the three success come after.
Soon, the open mic was only two days away. And my nerves were working double shifts; the countdown had begun. I ignored Lewis and Malone’s sage advice and sat down to write out the bits I’d chosen—I am a writer after all. The stories I chose detailed my grandma’s giant purse and my mom’s triathlon car stickers. I wrote everything out, down to the “Thank you very much. My name is Rachel Weeks.”
Later, I recorded my voice, reading through it until I was comfortable getting the camera out. I took a number of videos of myself pacing around my room and speaking into a deodorant stick.
The night before the big day, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed up all night running the set list through my head and watching Louis C.K. interviews from the ‘90s. Eventually I gave up on sleep around 4 AM; in an early morning stupor, I decided to rewrite my entire set, cutting the bit I had planned to be my closer. I spent an hour or so in a panic. I’m going to be that new girl without a name. I’m going to forget everything I’ve practiced. I’m going to shame to the great name of Tina Fey. Etc.
I drifted off sitting up against a wall with my heavily edited set list in hand.
I started to get ready two hours before show time. Knowing I would be one of few women onstage, I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself by wearing a frilly dress. I wore my best male-inspired clothing: maroon corduroys, a navy-striped shirt and ankle boots. But I put on my best bright pink lipstick. I am woman; hear me roar.
As we pulled up to the venue, I was doing my best to appear calm. Lewis had said there might be fewer than 10 people in attendance; approximately 30 showed up. There were only eight women there, including my small entourage and the bartender. I bought a Corona before we even sat down.
After three 6-minute sets, I got another.
After seven male comics, the host welcomed me to the stage.
Unwittingly, my brain kicked into autopilot. I started with the same line I had practiced so many times: “So, my grandma’s 78th birthday is next week…” And I closed on the same line, “If I ran 13.1 miles, I would expect a fuckin’ parade, and a sticker.” But I don’t remember if people were laughing or even listening. Half the audience could have left the room and I wouldn’t have known.
It was not until I watched the recording of my performance that I realized I had forgotten my drink at the table and twiddled the microphone cord around my fingers throughout the set. It wasn’t until I watched the recording that I realized one of my biggest laughs was after an improvised line: “the sticker proves to all the other suburban moms that she is more awesome than they are.” Or that I didn’t check my set list once.
My set was shorter and slower paced than others, likely because I over-explained and talked fast. But after we turned to leave, the host, Toll McGrane, patted me on the back and told me I was very funny. Which was the greatest thing I heard all night.
After my first open mic, I asked Ashley Huck what her best show was like. She told me about a time that she performed at the Civic Center with a group of local male comedians. “I had a girl afterwards come up to me and say, ‘I just want to let you know that you were really funny, and not like, just for a girl. I’m not saying you’re funny for a girl. You’re funny for a person. It was inspirational to see that,” she said.
Comedians like Huck are fighting a hard fight; networking is more difficult for women because they aren’t treated like the male comics. “It’s weird to put your foot in the door because you don’t know how that’s going to be perceived.” Huck said. “Some dudes are like, ‘Oh, yea, this girl’s into comedy.’ Other guys are like, ‘Dude, I think she’s into me.’ You’re just going to get that."
I returned to the open mic stage a few weeks after my first with a new set and a new sense of confidence. It went better the second time around. I was aware of the audience. I filled my time. I got bigger laughs. And I was thrilled. A number of comics came up to me after my set to tell me they enjoyed it. One comic handed me a folded, paper napkin ring and told me it contained “tips.” I opened it, confused.
It read: “Poop jokes? Way to give us all boners.”