If we’re drawing a Venn diagram that shows the intersection between women and technology, the overlapping portion remains small. Add in a third circle, comedy, and that overlap becomes smaller still. That makes the careers of the women who do occupy this important space all the more important, since they have emerged — bearing jokes — from work in industries in which their participation remains limited.
And last Thursday, New York City coworking space Alley NYC honored the funniest women in the Big Apple at HER, an event that asked four incredible women to dig through the “archives of their online lives and share their most ridiculous and surprising experiences in cyberspace.”
Focusing on female comedians Lauren Kaelin, Emma Willmann, Ashley Gavin, and Katrina Braxton, the event highlighted the enormous impact that the Internet and the rise of technology has had not only on society at large, but on comedy as well. And for women, this impact has been slightly different than for their male colleagues.
Comedy, while recently made more female-friendly with the rise of stars like Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Mindy Kaling, and of course the unforgettable Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, has long been dominated by men. Still, no major network has ever had a female host of a late-night television show, and by and large, it seems that Comedy Central’s lineup remains dominated by those with both an X and a Y chromosome.
Allison Goldberg and Jen Jamula, co-creators of the hit sketch comedy show Blogologues, and who were recently named among Time Out’s Top 10 Funniest Women in NYC, have noted that the disparity between men and women in comedy is rooted in differing expectations when it comes to gender roles.
Even from a young age, the dynamic duo told me, women are told that to be respected, they have to be taken seriously, which often means that they, well, can’t be funny. When electing class presidents, they noted, young men can rely on their reputations as class clowns, entertainers, or their charismatic antics to gain popularity. But for women, the same approach isn’t quite as effective. “Women, from a young age, are told that they can’t be the same kind of funny,” Jamula said. “Between the ages of 16 and 18, in particular, girls are trying not to mess up and look their best. But in comedy, it’s not about being pretty.”
And when it comes to comedy on the Internet, not being pretty can be a scary thing. As Katrina Braxton joked, “My biggest fear is that my future husband will see this horrible picture of me [online].” Not only does the Web allow for material to be taken out of context, but it also allows it to live forever. Suddenly, a bad jest becomes immortalized, and a snippet becomes a summary of a career.
“Everytime I see a thread on reddit I wanna have children a little less,” said Lauren Kaelin, a multitalented individual who is not only the author of “When Parents Text,” but is also the creator of BENJAMEME, oil paintings of Internet memes, and the creative director of Ample Hills Creamery. And even though Kaelin purports to “love the Internet,” (it is, after all, the foundation of much of her career), she admits, “It can be really scary.”
Much of the fear, Emma Willmann says, stems from the absolute lack of context that often makes for the most interesting Internet fodder. “Online, you can get the nucleus phase of the conversation,” Willmann says. With a quick screenshot, the worst parts of an interaction are captured and circulated, and dialogues that might’ve otherwise proven productive are truncated for the sake of proving a point. “It’s scary when you’re not in control of your words,” she continued, and in the public domain that is the online environment, this happens all too frequently.
For comedians in particular, Ashley Gavin says, the Internet makes self-censoring a necessity, which can be problematic in a profession where toeing the line is not only acceptable, but indeed necessary. “Things you can do in a show,” Gavin notes, “You can’t always do online,” forcing comedians to consider how their material will translate in sound bites or after the fact. That being said, Willmann adds, the existence of the Internet shouldn’t be a catalyst for being inoffensive. “It’s always the most privileged people who are saying ‘I don’t wanna be politically correct'” anyway, she notes.
Still, the Internet has certainly proven to be useful in and of itself for these comedians. From the provision of instant gratification to its provision of endless material, the Web is as much a boon as it is a bane for not only these women, but for most of us living in this century. So take it as it is, friends. Because the Internet, with all its benefits and horrors, is here to stay.