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Standing up to traditional gender roles

by Kirsten Humbert March 10, 2015
Standing up to traditional gender roles

Open Michelle breaks glass ceilings, one joke at a time

There’s a great new trend in Montreal comedy. I’ll give you a hint: you enjoy them as litigation experts, plumbers, professors, and that nagging character on your favourite sitcom.

Sure, women are still paid less for the same jobs, but we have generally made great strides in virtually every industry—save one. For whatever reason, comedy is one of the few remaining occupations for which the notion that women aren’t up to the task is still a pervasive attitude. Famous names like Adam Carolla, Christopher Hitchens, and Artie Lang have declared that women just aren’t as funny as men.

The brains behind the first Open Michelle (from left) Peter Radomski, Bianca Dominique Yates, Tranna Wintour, Emma Wilkie, Natalie Willett, Ellie MacDonald, Kate Conner, Nour Hadidi. Photo credit Reese Turner.

Full disclosure: I am an (amateur) comedian. Within the Montreal comedy scene I’ve had overwhelmingly positive experiences. It’s not unusual for an open mic producer to send me a text along the lines of, “we don’t have any women on the line-up tonight—are you free?” Despite the generally excellent attitudes among comedians and producers in Montreal, I still hear from regular folks that women aren’t entertaining.

Women Aren’t Funny (2013) is a testament to the gender barriers that still exist in comedy. The film features comedian Bonnie McFarlane, who interviews professional comedians and the general public on whether or not hilarity is linked to testosterone levels. In the film, comedian Wanda Sykes comments, “if you’ve got a bunch of guys on the show, maybe four aren’t funny. But you just have one woman and she’s not funny, everybody’s like, ‘Ah! women aren’t funny.’”

By some logic, this is true: if there is only one woman on a line-up, and you don’t enjoy her performance, then 100 per cent of women that evening weren’t funny. The guys are winning by sheer numbers.

But the latest developments in the Montreal comedy scene work toward changing the stereotype of women as shrill and unfunny estrogen-ridden humans. Earlier this year, two initiatives celebrating women in comedy had their inaugural events.

I recently attended “Hey Gorgeous!,” an open mic produced by Women in Comedy Montreal’s founders Katie Leggitt, Lar Vi, and Erin Hall. After attending the Women in Comedy panel at the New York City Sketch Fest, Leggitt returned to Montreal inspired to build the comedy community and bring attention to the funny ladies of the city. What sets their show apart from the usual open mic? “There is a safety factor [at our show]. It’s such a supportive atmosphere performing with other women,” said Leggitt.

Indeed, there was something different in the atmosphere at “Hey Gorgeous!” The crowd received every performer warmly. Additionally, there was a delightful variety in the material and in the styles: meta-humour, and bits about stardom, poverty and hair-dryers were delivered through classic stand-up, song, and characters. While there are some spectacularly crafted dick jokes out there, it was refreshing to experience such a diversity of performances.

The other remarkable thing about the event was the absence of the usual “triggers”—cues that can flood someone’s senses with memories of past trauma. If you consider the statistic that one in six women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, attending the usual open mic can be a minefield of triggers. As a performer (and generally sensible person), I support free speech as a fundamental human right. But I’ve also heard way too many trite, unoriginal, and flat-out bad jokes that trivialize sexual assault, homophobia, gender-based violence, and female stereotypes. Just because I support your right to say it, doesn’t mean I’m obliged to enjoy it.

Promoting an atmosphere free of the usual triggers and full of acceptance is the raison d’être of Open Michelle, the new monthly women’s open mic at Comedy Nest. I asked Peter Radomski, a comedian and one of the co-founders, the reason for creating an event that features exclusively female performers.

“The bitter reality is that at open mics, guys who are just starting out often feel like they have to be edgy—which can quickly turn into misogyny,” Radomski explained. “It’s also a response to the tired cliché that women aren’t funny,” he said.

What kind of audience do these events cater to? Anyone who likes to laugh will enjoy the show. While it’s exclusively women on the bill, Radomski reports that their first event attracted a healthy mix of men and women. So don’t worry boys: coming to this show does not mean entering a festering den of aggressive feminist chanting. As proof, Radomski assured me that at the last Open Michelle he wasn’t burned at the stake or tied up with biodegradable tampon strings.

A comedian first and a financial mind second, Radomski engineered a hilariously appropriate twist on the production side of things: the host of Open Michelle is paid 20 per cent more than the host for the usual open mic, in reaction to gender-based pay discrimination. We’re breaking the glass ceiling ladies, one joke at a time.

Ready to get your laugh on? Check out these upcoming events:

Open Michelle: Sunday, March 15 @ 8 p.m. at the Comedy Nest – $5. Visit the Open Michelle Facebook page to apply for a spot, or get the deets about upcoming shows.

Laff!: Saturday, March 21 @ 8 p.m. at Theatre Ste. Catherine – $8 students/$10 regular. An evening of sketch, improv, stand-up, and more! Visit the Women in Comedy Montreal Facebook page for more details.

Hey Gorgeous!: Tuesday, April 21 @ 7 p.m. at Theatre Ste. Catherine – $5 students/$7 regular. Visit the Women in Comedy Montreal Facebook page to apply for a spot.

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