by Alexa Fitzpatrick, executive director
It’s a complicated question and one I’ve found myself pondering recently as I sit in comedy clubs waiting for my chance to perform.
To pass the test you need a conversation between two women that’s not about a man. I would argue that good stand up comedy is a conversation between the comedian and the audience. How they respond determines where you go next. As a female comedian, this is something to think about. Are your jokes pitched at the men in your audience or the women? With whom are you having your conversation? And then the follow up, what is your conversation about? (Sorry guys, you can’t technically pass this test, but the big questions of to whom you are speaking and what you are saying are still pretty important.)
It’s a tricky balance when you’re starting out. Open mics tend to be predominantly male and it’s easy to default to the easy laugh from the guys. I’m guilty of it. I have a joke about driving a friend to the airport and then I go on to say, “I’ve decided that airport rides are the blowjobs of friendship because you don’t really mind, with the right person it can be fun but eventually if it isn’t reciprocated you’re probably going to revaluate that relationship.” It always gets a laugh from the guys.
Even after watching me do an hour long set about tending bar, living in a ski town and waiting on celebrities, that’s the joke men most often quote back to me. I can’t begin to count the number of men in my life who have offered me (or asked me for) a ride to the airport (mostly in jest) after hearing that joke. I asked some female friends what about the joke makes them laugh and they pointed to the idea of reciprocation and the truth in the one-sidedness of some men’s approach to that activity.
It seems that, with an audience, more than one conversation can be going on at the same time. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” I think the comedy corollary might be, “We don’t hear jokes as they are written, we hear them as we are listening.” But then, how can we be sure what conversation is happening?
Maya Angelou said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” So, if stand up comedy is, at its highest form, a conversation between an artist and an audience, it seems the most interesting conversations involve the artist telling the audience about who they are. Sure, it’s a persona, but it’s the character you’re choosing to play for the span of your comedy career. It’s the character you find the most interesting and entertaining. (Otherwise, why are you wasting our time?)
Rodney Dangerfield was the master of persona. He could walk on stage and say, “I get no respect” and get a laugh. He was the underdog and we rooted for him because he was being honest with us about his character. He was telling us who he was. Did Rodney Dangerfield, towards the end of his career, really get no respect? I’m guessing when he walked into restaurants and comedy clubs people knew exactly who he was and treated him quite well. His no-respect shtick was about representing how he felt as the everyman who can’t quite measure up. His success (counter to his persona) showed the world that there’s no reason for self-pity if you have the right attitude. (He's a guy, he's the subject of his jokes, and he's talking primarily to other guys, so he doesn't pass...but he's still amazing, especially from a persona perspective.)
So, what about Amy Schummer? (I promise I’m not going to write every one of my posts about her, but she fits this one, too.) She's definitely talking to the women, but about how she likes to have sex “like a man.” It surprises all of us when a young fan tweets about spending the night with her and she gets upset. You just spent an hour at the Apollo telling me that you have sex with anyone in any position, you listed all the potential positions available to you, why on earth are you insulted when a young fan repeats that back to you? He felt like he knew her in that context because that is how she introduced herself to him through her act. When she told him how to treat her character, he believed her.
It can even get dangerous. Years ago, I remember hearing a female comic who was auditioning at The Comedy Magic Club in LA say, “I moved to LA because I wanted my life to be like the movies. I just wasn’t expecting it to be The Accused.” The audience gave a nervous chuckle and all looked at each other uncomfortably. Did she just tell us that she’s been gang raped? That was the punch line - are we supposed to laugh? And, for those of us in the audience who have never been raped, maybe it’s not such a big deal, a self-identified victim of rape just told me it’s okay to laugh at it. By setting it up as a joke, she told me that rape is an okay way to treat her.
Did that entire thought process consciously happen in the minds of any of the patrons of The Comedy Magic Club that night? I hope not. But on a subconscious level: if the end result is funny to the comedian, maybe the experience wasn’t that big a deal. And, hearing a joke like this one time, we might see it as an anomaly, only relevant to this one woman, but what happens when women everywhere start telling jokes about rape being funny?
I heard a young woman recently comment that she’s 18 now (set up), so good luck statutory raping her (first punch line), but good news: you can still regular rape her (second punch line). She’s a super cute girl. I hope nobody ever hears her joke for a suggestion. Unfortunately, on some level, even though she is "joking," she is also telling people (men) how to treat her (and women like her).
I’ve also heard male comedians say to women in the audience who weren’t paying enough attention to them, “I hope you get raped.” Wait, what? That’s not even in the form of set up and punch. Some of the men in the audience laugh (some are horrified) and most of the women get uncomfortable, even the women who aren’t being targeted. You just told me that you are the kind of person who thinks rape is a fair punishment for not paying attention to you. I don't like you so much anymore.
Even in the non-extreme, we’ve come to a place where comedy is largely about sex. Humans are sexual creatures and, on some level, having been a taboo topic for so long it feels like the last frontier. Sure, men make us crazy, we make them crazy…men and women are different. “Let me tell you about my wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/this dude I met…”
I’m not denying the value of any of that, but it's starting to feel too easy. I miss the days when Ellen Degeneres cracked us up by talking about shampoo. They say to talk about what you know. As a woman, I am an expert on many subjects. Some might even say that, as a single woman, men clearly don’t fall under my area of expertise. It’s time to find some new topics and to take some responsibility for the ideas that I am putting forth.
So, is it important to pass the Bechdel Test in stand up comedy?
It’s kind of a trick question that depends on who you are and who you want to be.
Certainly many people succeed without it, just like many $100 million summer blockbusters are considered huge successes even though their female characters’ primarily responsibility is to get into trouble so they can be saved by the male hero.
But, even more than the movies, stand up is personal and the question should always be asked, to whom are you speaking and what do you have to say to them?
As I create a persona and tell the world how to treat me (and other women like me), I know people are going to hear what they are more clearly than what I say, but, for me, the Bechdel Test feels like a good framework for starting that conversation.
UPDATE: I just got selected to be in SOLOCOM at The PIT and the challenge is to write 45 new minutes of stand up about being a woman and the state of womanhood. I'm going to do my best to make it pass. You'll get more info, but the show is November 17th at 8:45 pm.
The Bechdel Group
Working to challenge the portrayal of women in film and on stage.