Writer and comedian Celey Schumer on being a woman in comedy. (Photo: Celey Schumer)
Being an awkward, chubby kid is tough. Being the female version of that kid is tougher. Growing up as one of those kids, I, like so many of us, instinctually felt the need to be the “funny one.” For those of you who never struggled to fit into Abercrombie shorts or spent four years behind spectacularly unflattering spectacles, it all starts somewhere around age 11, and I think at its heart is a way of justifying your inclusion in the crowd. “I may not be the cutest, but dang it, I’ll be the funniest.”
As that uncomfortable teen, making people laugh was how I got in the door. I’m sure my parents’ pool helped, but constant jokery was how I made friends, how I related to people, how I (subconsciously) defined my self-worth. As an almost-grown-up, this is still largely true. My sense of humor — and my ability to make people, a person, a room, a stuffy cocktail party laugh — is a damn big chunk of who I actually am. (That high: It’s real, and it’s spectacular.)
Today, I am an actress and a comedian and every casting director’s quintessential “sarcastic best friend.” I’m not mad about it. It started as a way to prove I deserved to hang with the Cool Kids (I have no idea how I befriended the Cool Kids … sarcasm probably). But being a comedian has become my greatest source of empowerment. I am a woman in comedy, and at the moment, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
What stands out about comedy is that when you drill down to its core, only one thing matters: Can you get laughs? If so, it doesn’t matter who you are and what you look like. (Yes, I know of course it maaaatteeerrrs, but particularly in improv and standup, it matters just a bit less.) And that nugget of freedom, that pinch of meritocracy, makes it a heck of a lot easier than being a lady in comedy than anywhere else in the entertainment industry. It also, for me at least, makes comedy validating as hell.
In many ways, comedy is still a boys’ club. At the small gigs, the open mics, the improv jams, women are nearly always outnumbered. And, yes, a sexist comment/action/idiot comes flying at us every now and again. Yet, boys’ club or not, sexist or not, right now, in the world of comedy, the women are killing it. Amy Schumer is having what can only be described as a meteoric year. Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler are bestsellers. Jessica Williams was arguably The Daily Show’s buzziest correspondent. Cameron Esposito was hailed as “the future” on the Late Late Show, and Tig Notaro’s heartbreakingly original Netflix special is downright Important. None of these women are the modelesque figures we’ve come to expect from our female celebrities. They are simply creating work that is so good it demands our attention. I mean, sheesh, Melissa McCarthy is the third highest-paid actress in the world! And she didn’t do it by being a size 0; she did it by being awesome. There may be more men, but the women are the ones making headlines and inspiring articles, GIFs, conversations, and even controversy. They are movin’ and shakin’— and that is what makes an art form evolve.
The bummer comes for women who want to be actresses. Then your appearance matters so much. You face questions like “Does she look young enough/tall enough/ethnically ambiguous enough?” Spoiler for that last one: I don’t. Or “Is she believable as a love interest?” or “Is she too big to be a female firefighter?” (Um, have you seen female firefighters? Those chicks could bench-press their onscreen counterparts.) Heck, being an actress is the only reason I learned how to apply makeup. It’s not easy on the ego.
So for me and so many women I know, comedy is where my “not model looks” can take a backseat. Whatever I’m wearing, however much makeup I’ve put on (or forgotten), it’s not the focus. I just have to do the funny. It frees me from all the things we women obsess about. Instead of obsessing, I turn them into jokes. My terrible photo face: joke. That time I ate a whole sundae alone and was embarrassed: joke. The fact that I will never, ever have a thigh gap: summertime joke! And the beauty of it is, when I tell these jokes, I embrace these things about me. The feedback loop created when the audience laughs with me about my insecurities. It’s “Yes! Us too!” The key is, I told you about it. I packaged up this thing of mine (about which I’m not proud) and let us mock it together. I made you empathize while you snorted your two-drink-minimum gin and tonic out your nose. And I loved it. We loved it. It’s like therapy but cheaper.
It is easy, as a woman in the entertainment world, particularly a woman who does not look like an effortless goddess to feel isolated and unemployable. But I take heart in the fact that comedy doesn’t care. You will be rejected. Sometimes it may even be based on your looks. But at the end of the day, if you’re funny, there is a place for you. A place you can create yourself.