Next on Sarah’s appearance schedule is the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal (Canada), the “largest international comedy festival in the world.” Galas at the festival run July 24 to 28, with Sarah hosting two on July 27. In this pre-festival profile from the July 24 Canada National Post, Mike Doherty uses his interviews with Sarah and with comic Jen Kirkman to focus primarily on the role of women in comedy today. But Sarah also gives some other personal insights.
Long known as the last bastion of male chauvinism in the arts, comedy is starting to be run by women. So says Sarah Silverman, who believes “the game has totally changed” in recent years; looking at this year’s Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, it’s easy to agree. Five out of nine hosts of the trumpeted “strongest gala lineup of all time,” which kicks off tonight, are women, including Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Whitney Cummings, Kristin Chenoweth, and Silverman herself.
On the phone from Santa Fe where she’s shooting the Seth McFarlane film A Million Ways to Die in the West (she plays a prostitute who won’t sleep with her boyfriend for religious reasons), she notes how film and TV comedy roles are improving too – it used to be that she and other female comics were constantly typecast as quirky ex-girlfriends named “Suze.” What’s more, “The whole ‘are women funny’ question is starting to be akin to, ‘What do you think of black people in the NBA?’ It’s embarrassing for the asker.”
It’s significant that over the past two months, both Jerry Lewis and fellow U.S. comedian Adam Carolla have been resoundingly lambasted for disparaging women in comedy. The business, however, hasn’t changed for altruistic reasons. Says Silverman, “It’s not like someone went, ‘Hey, this isn’t fair! Give the ladies a chance!’ … Bridesmaids was a giant box-office success. If you can make something that’s going to make money, suits will support you.”
Up-and-coming women still face a battle. According to Los Angeles-based Jen Kirkman, who writes for and performs on Chelsea Lately and has released two stand-up albums, “Everyone sucks years 0-5, and I think when you see a sucky male comic, you go, ‘Oh, he just sucks ‘cause he’s starting out.’ You see a sucky female comic who’s just starting out, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s because she’s a woman.’” Those female comedians “might not get booked back somewhere, as opposed to your guy friend who also bombed, and you’re like, ‘What was that about?’ I just think it comes down to, dudes just don’t want girls on their playground sometimes.” Although Kirkman is “super-excited” to be part of the strong contingent of 45 women (out of 236 comics) at this year’s Just for Laughs, she has reservations: “I got passed over for being in the festival 14 years in a row, so I have a little bit of a bitter sting.”
DeAnne Smith, who started doing stand-up in 2005 after moving to Montreal from her native U.S., says that in her early years, she was one of very few women on the local circuit; sometimes, bookers would move her sets between shows, “because there was already another woman on the other show. Someone would never go, ‘Oh, we have too many white guys between the ages of 25 and 35 talking about their girlfriends on this show.’”
For Smith, “when a man gets onstage, everybody kind of concedes to his authority naturally, and then when a woman gets onstage, there’s a lot of subconscious and semi-conscious resistance to that idea.” One strategy she adopted early on was to cultivate her “very childlike energy … I’m small, and I’ve always made a point of being exactly that: non-threatening, non-sexualized, [with a ] kid-sister energy, and it lets me get away with saying a lot of stuff.” The bespectacled comic would even compare herself to Harry Potter (and apparently teenage boys, especially in Australia, enjoy her act), but over time, she says, “more and more I’m interested in exposing my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, with the hope that other people feel that same way and can laugh at me and then at themselves.”
It isn’t always easy, however, to get personal onstage. Silverman says that for a couple of years, doing stand-up, she felt “a bit identity crisis-ish” while dismantling the persona she used on her show and her breakthrough 2005 film Jesus Is Magic. She’d appear as sweet, conventionally feminine, and “ignorant and arrogant,” approaching taboo subjects seemingly guilelessly, with jokes such as, “I was raped by a doctor … which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” She figured, “If I say the opposite of what I mean, what I really mean transcends without having to be preachy or obnoxious.” But nowadays, she notes, “it’s less adorable to have pigtails and football shirts when you’re 42. I’m not going to be wearing a business suit, but I talk a little bit more as myself.”
Despite her notoriety, she sees herself as “peripheral” to the commercially driven engine of big-budget comedy, and cites “the chipping away state-by-state of women’s rights, little by little, that I think is important to be illuminated.” Speaking about such issues more openly, however, has made her into even more of a polarizing figure, as on her Republican-baiting YouTube video about changes in voter ID laws last year. “I’ve had security [issues] where people tell me, ‘You’re going to need a bodyguard.’ It’s like, ‘I can’t afford a bodyguard!’ I’m in a very precarious position, but I’m not complaining. It blows my mind when people describe me as offensive, because I find so much in politics and the world so much more offensive than I can ever be as a comedian.” She laughs. “I feel like I’m the one that’s shocked.”
The trick is to find a funny way of addressing serious issues. On July 30, Kirkman will appear as the intoxicated narrator of an episode of The Comedy Network’s Drunk History, teaching people about Mary Dyer, a 17th-century Quaker who argued for the separation of church and state. “There’s people getting hanged and horrible things,” she laughs. “It’s a funny one.” For a comedian, complacency is death, and it always helps to have an outsider’s perspective. Says Kirkman, “It’s the perfect job for a woman.”