Feminism & Co.'s Funny Women: Can you be too much of a woman on stage?

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Friday night's installment of Feminism & Co., the third in this season's series at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, was titled simply "Funny Women." But as the MCA has shown itself to be very good at doing, the museum had booked an expert in the field of funny: comedian Cory Kahaney. In turn, Kahaney offered some valuable insight into the history of women in stand-up comedy.

Kahaney -- a veteran comedian who has hosted her own HBO and Comedy Central specials, as well as a finalist on NBC's Last Comic Standing -- opened with a reference to a quote from Jerry Lewis: "A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world," Lewis famously said at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in 1998.

At that quote, so early in Kahaney's talk, many in the audience were visibly -- and audibly -- taken aback. She then paraphrased from Christopher Hitchens' 2007 Vanity Fair piece,"Why Women Aren't Funny," and those comments sounded as absurd as the Lewis quote. With slices of historic sexism now on the table, Kahaney took the opportunity to highlight some of the women who'd faced this attitude decades earlier.

She showed clips of such early shock comedians as Pearl Williams, Belle Barth and Totie Fields, several of whom were cited and charged with lewd behavior for their routines -- long before any male comedians had gotten into legal trouble, Kahaney noted. I had never heard of the half-dozen women she chose to showcase, which made this particular edition of Feminism & Co. an even greater learning experience than usual. (The audio clips Kahaney played from Williams and Barth's comedy albums from the '50s were indeed salacious and really raunchy, even in present-day context.)

Between the brief history lessons and wonderfully curated clips, Kahaney played to her own routine -- she told jokes about life before marriage and the age gap between her kids, and also offered a little background information on her career. While Kahaney's brand of humor did not particularly resonate with me, the response from the crowd was overwhelmingly the positive.

But when she took questions from the audience, she remarked that women weren't necessarily encouraged to talk about "being women" on stage. And then she told an anecdote about how Janeane Garofalo's stand-up often led to clubs not booking women for a long time after. In telling that, it seemed Kahaney was saying that Garofalo's content came off as "too feminine" for mainstream audiences.

Kahaney also spoke to the idea that often, women have to choose between a comedy career and having a family -- if a woman does choose to take time off from her career to focus on having and raising a child, Kahaney emphasized, she may have a hard time getting work when she re-enters the scene years later. And she also referred to Louis CK's ability to do so easily as a man, in effect because his now ex-wife could take care of his daughters -- meaning he didn't have to leave the game for so long.

I could see the definite merit in her argument, but I felt her way of thinking was part of the barrier: Sure, women can and do have a harder time in the entertainment industry in general -- but the women she presented as pioneers persevered in (in some ways) in a much harsher social environment than today's. So I didn't understand why women in stand-up would have to tone it down now, in 2012.

Coincidentally, from this lecture I headed to Comedy Works to see Amy Shumer's sold out 10 p.m. show. In the ninety-minute set, she talked about many forbidden, "feminine" things -- oral sex, the morning-after pill and abortions, not to mention fisting and sexually transmitted diseases. It seemed as though she was indirectly disproving Kahaney's message -- that women can, in fact, be dirty and graphic and feminine, and make audiences of both sexes laugh their asses off. Equally.

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