Comic and podcast host Chelsea Shorte is onstage on a cold Wednesday night in a small restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. She is telling her mostly female audience about her transition from improv comedy to standup.
“I got tired of being cast as people’s moms even though I was 23,” she says. “If you’ve ever done improv with men, you’ll understand.”
The women gathered at the restaurant did understand. Most of them were aspiring comics who attended to network with one another, in an effort to skirt the roadblocks set up by a male-dominated entertainment industry.
Long before last week’s allegations of sexual harassment by comedian Louis C.K. emerged, journalist Nell Scovell wrote a 2009 Vanity Fair piece in response to a sex scandal centered around her former boss, late-night talk show host David Letterman.
“At this moment,” the article began, “there are more females serving on the United States Supreme Court than there are writing for ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ [and competitors],’The Jay Leno Show’, and ‘The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’ combined. Out of the 50 or so comedy writers working on these programs, exactly zero are women. It would be funny if it weren’t true.”
Space for women
Comedian and entrepreneur Victoria Elena Nones founded the Women in Comedy network, which was behind Wednesday night’s networking event.
“I thought it was really important to provide a space for women to come together,” Nones says. “We see a lot of improv troupes and smaller groups of women who band together or do all-female open mics, but there was no national and international network of support.”
Nones founded her network in Chicago in 2015 and it now has chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. She says she hopes the group will help women find and support each other as they make their own places in a field notorious for sexism and sometimes outright hostility toward women.
Actress and comic Diane Chernansky of Los Angeles says she was recently startled to realize one of her own jokes reflected the way women are often treated in the standup industry, where she often found herself the only woman, or one of a couple of women, in a comedy lineup full of men.
“It’s very difficult to sit there and listen to lots of men talk about women in general and how horrible we are,” Chernansky says.
One night while she waited to follow another woman comic at the mic, the emcee asked her how she would like to be described.
Chernansky quipped, “I’ll be the next pair of breasts to come to the stage.”
Later, at a roundtable of female comics, Chernansky realized, “Holy crap, I said that about myself” — and, she acknowledges, about the other woman performing. “If anyone else had said that about me, I’d be offended.”
The unhealthy dynamic manifests in the numbers, as collected by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
The number of female writers on the top 250 films of any year from 1998 to the present has stayed about the same, at 13 percent. Of directors on 2016’s top 250 films, only 7 percent were women. Only 2 percent of those top 250 films employed 10 or more women in the cast.
Minorities don’t fare any better. And the heavily male culture of the entertainment industry has a strong effect on what is expected of women — and minorities — in the industry.
Sexual harassment & labor abuse
Hollywood thrives on promises, notes E.C. McCarthy, who recently wrote a Washington Post piece that said predatory behavior in the entertainment industry is not limited to sexual harassment, or to performers. The promise of support in a difficult industry often paves the way for all kinds of abuse of power, she says.
“Harassment is one of the many ways to keep people feeling insecure, desperate, and willing to work for free,” McCarthy writes, after detailing one of numerous incidents in which a producer tried to take credit for a script she wrote. “Sexual harassment and labor abuse coexist as ugly forces in this business, and women overwhelmingly bear the brunt.”
McCarthy wrote that when she first became a writer in Hollywood, she assumed the imbalance of sexism would die out with the older generation of men in power. Instead, she says, now she gets it from men her own age. “The culture is thriving,” she writes.
“I get extremely frustrated when I walk into a room and feel like a piece of meat,” said Minka Wiltz, a black actress and activist in Atlanta, Georgia. She struggles not only with the stereotype of being a woman, but also being an African-American woman who is often asked to portray a stereotype.
“I’ve been asked to be ‘sassier,'” she says. Conversely, “I’ve been asked to ‘tone it down’ when I’ve [only] said five words.”
Wiltz says today’s entertainment culture suffers from “a sickness of manipulation.” She says the way to improve the situation, is for marginalized people to help each other tell their stories — the stories about women, people of color, LGBT and even disabled people — that are overlooked by the mainstream entertainment industry.
The problem is so pervasive that even Atlanta, a majority-black city, had no black theater collective until Wiltz and some colleagues starting working on one a few years ago.
Specialized groups, though, are nothing new in the entertainment industry.
Deaf West Theater, based in North Hollywood, in 2013 and 2015 sent productions of the musicals “Big River” and “Spring Awakening,” respectively, to Broadway theaters, winning wide acclaim.
The small Ivy Theatre Company in New York makes diversity its mission, casting women and minorities in shows that explore issues relevant to those communities. Most recently, the Ivy mounted the show “A Real Boy,” about two puppets who adopt a human son. The show is written by Stephen Kaplan, a gay man who is raising an adopted son with his husband.
In Chicago, a thriving improv comedy scene lends itself to scores of improv troupes in various combinations, including an Asian-American group called “Stir-Friday Night,” which has kick-started the careers of Korean-American actor Steven Yeun and Indian-American Danny Pudi.
One of their recent shows skewered mainstream Hollywood for casting of white actress Scarlett Johannsen in The Ghost in the Shell, playing a Japanese cyborg. The name of the show: 8 Angry Asians, Starring Scarlett Johansson.
In conservative Spartanburg, South Carolina, the state’s first gay theater company, Proud Mary, just finished a major production, “I Am My Own Wife,” about a real-life transgender German woman who survived both the Nazi and the East German regimes.
Wiltz, the Atlanta-based actress, says these groups and many others are supporting the work that the mainstream entertainment industry overlooks.
“I really hope that people realize you have no more excuses for your own success,” she says. “I want people to realize that the Hollywood myth, like the American myth, is just that. You can create your own story.”