Is It Possible to Tell an Actually Funny Joke About Women’s Sports? Ask Mo Welch.

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Being a fan of both stand-up comedy and women’s sports is tough. The conflict might not be readily apparent, but it’s there—and so prevalent that I dread stand-up sets when I’m not familiar with the performers beforehand because I know what’s coming. A show will be going along fine, then, seemingly out of nowhere, a comedian doing an unrelated set will bring up, say, the WNBA, only to immediately bash it. Women? Playing basketball? How manly! How absurd! How gay! Comedy gold, apparently.

So I was heartened, and very amused, when comedian Mo Welch, a queer, sports-loving woman—she plays guard in her three rec basketball leagues—performed the following bit when opening for Brett Goldstein, the Ted Lasso writer and actor, in Manhattan last fall:

“I love all sports, but it’s hard to watch men’s sports after watching women’s sports. Men’s sports is now just cute to me. Oh, LeBron has to leave the game with a sprained finger? Well, Skylar Diggins-Smith gave birth three months ago and just posted a double-double.

“Women’s sports have something for everyone. Some of the players are dating. Married with kids. Divorced. Divorced with kids. Some players have to guard each other for 40 minutes and then go home and say, ‘What should we watch on Netflix, babe?’ ”

The kicker: “So that’s why I don’t watch men’s sports as much anymore. Call me when there’s a love triangle in the Dolphins defense.”

For the better part of the past decade, Welch, who recently put out the special Dad Jokes, has been trying to sell a WNBA-related TV show, alongside her friend and fellow comedian Langston Kerman (of Insecure and High Maintenance). Slate caught up with Welch to talk about the art of punching up, that time she sang on Conan, and what makes women’s sports so funny. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: What is your personal relationship to sports?

Mo Welch: I started playing basketball when I was maybe 10. And I played basketball pretty much every week of my life until the pandemic. I’ve made so many friends playing basketball. I’ve gotten jobs from playing basketball. And also, it’s just one of the only things that I can do and be in the moment doing, because even in stand-up, I will be thinking about the next joke, like, Oh, this one isn’t going well. I should pivot.

It’s probably helped me do comedy because I would always just go to a court and play with strangers. I’ve never made that connection, but it probably in a way helped me know it’s fine, I’m doing something new. These are all strangers. I don’t know these people, but it’ll be fine.

Do you play any other sports?

I used to have a lesbian softball league, and our team name was called Hide Your Wives, which didn’t go over that well, and we were the worst team. We were so bad. We thought we were going to be good, but it was just all-stars [on the other team]. These softball players, they were just hitting home runs on us. We’re like, What the hell?

My wife and I tried pickleball, and we thought it was going to be our thing, and then one day we woke up and we were just like, “I don’t ever want to play again.”

We’ll do hiking and stuff. I try to do something while I’m on the road with Brett because I wish I could find a basketball game everywhere I went that was people who are out of shape with two knee braces. That’s what I want.

Something you address in your sets is being a queer woman. Do you feel like there’s a connection between your queerness and your love of sports?

When I play sports, I play with so many queer women. I do find that because I’m in queer sports with women and then there’s a good amount of queer people in comedy, I think it’s a confidence thing. I think I’m drawn to people who are confident and who are putting themselves out there.

When I’ve seen comedians—honestly, male comedians—joke about women’s sports in particular, the jokes tend to be derogatory and mean.

Punching down is a huge topic in comedy, and you have to be aware of it. Sometimes it’s worth it, and other times it’s not. And I think with the WNBA, I made a conscious decision to say, I would love to make a joke that is more pointing out. In my joke [on Conan], I’m pointing out: “I know that you guys don’t know all the names of the WNBA teams, but I’m going to teach you them.” As opposed to almost every joke about the WNBA that comedians make that is always that same low-hanging fruit of “Nobody watches the WNBA” or “They all look like dudes” or whatever.

It’s hack shit. It’s just stale. It’s not creative. I’m not saying everyone needs to go up there and wave a WNBA flag, but if you’re going to make a joke about the WNBA, at the very least be creative.

Women can’t dunk. Women can’t be funny.

Exactly. And the thing is, then a woman dunks, but then there’s something else. Then it’s like, “Oh, well, a woman can dunk, but that’s because she barely touched the rim” or “This guy from a B team could beat her.” And if a woman’s funny, then it’s like, “Well, yeah, but she used all sex material.” There’s always a caveat.

When you started telling jokes about women’s sports, especially on big platforms like Conan, did that feel like a radical or scary choice to you?

I think the feminist part of that joke is scarier for some people than the WNBA part. I can feel, sometimes, crowds turning on me when I’m talking about women’s basketball for a little while because they don’t care—and I don’t care that they don’t care because that’s what I want to talk about. But I think, back then with Conan—you know what? I think it’s a creative joke and I put a lot of time into it, and I can’t sing and I’m doing a song. So, I think I was probably more nervous that I was going to forget a team name or fuck up the song.

What do you think is so funny about women’s sports?

I mean, I had a baby, and I started to try to play pickup basketball three weeks later. Oh, my God. And you have to wear a diaper. Straight up, your shot is so off and you’re peeing your pants every time you jump. So their joints are so messed up. And so what they’re doing is absolutely miraculous. Serena Williams too. I’m just like, I cannot believe you did that.

It’s horrifying but amazing.

Yeah, I think a lot of people too will be like … well, the question that we always get as comics is: “Is it hard? Is it hard being a female comedian? Is it hard being a gay comedian?” And usually you’re just like, “Oh, no, it’s fine.” And then, when I think about it, I’m just like, yeah, it was hard leaving my newborn to [do] stand-up again, which is my choice. And also, it’s hard when I’m on the first day of my period and I have to go onstage and be funny when I just want to be in my bed. I’ll find a way to talk about my period in any interview.

What’s next for you in the sports-comedy realm?

I went over my full set and realized I have at least 15 to 20 minutes on basketball. I don’t put it all in my set because I can’t be known as the basketball comedian. Although, maybe then the Sparks would let me open for them on the road. Be brave and hire a basketball comedian, WNBA!

I’m working on a joke right now about how upset people get about trans people in sports. That subject just makes my blood boil.

Do you have a hot take about either the WNBA or soccer? Any predictions for the year or about an athlete or a team?

I see the trades in my feed, but it’s kind of crazy when there is so much hype about a player, with [Iowa point guard Caitlin] Clark. Any hype is great. Something’s happening right now where female athletes are getting more respect, even with brands and players like her having endorsement deals allowed in the NCAA now. So it’s really cool to see female athletes leveling up in that way because it’s happening right now. And I love it because, obviously the salary cap for the WNBA isn’t that high still, but my hot take is that I don’t even know how that business works, if it’s a subsidiary, but my hot take is that they should pay the women as much as the guys anyway. And I don’t give a shit that they don’t make as much if the league doesn’t make as much money. I just think it would be really fun to see WNBA players pulling up in Ferraris and living that life.