“Women aren’t funny.”
This sentiment has historically pervaded the discourse and practice of comedy in America: from Christopher Hitchens’ controversial 2007 Vanity Fair column, to a UNCG-sponsored research study that claims men exhibited “higher humor creation abilities than women on verbal humor," to a 2017 article that reports in comedy, women "account for only around 10 percent of the industry."
But in spite of the obstacles they routinely encounter, female-identifying comics are garnering traction and visibility in the comedy business at large – and in the expanding, ever-diversifying comedy scene at UNC.
“Anything that you wouldn't want to say in front of your mother”
That’s senior Tyla Gomez’s brand of comedy, says the professional actress, Instagram influencer (@_tylagomez) and stand-up comedian.
“I'd say it's pretty storytell-y stand-up,” Gomez said. “Not really quick punches – mainly like a story. I have a darker sense of humor,” she added with a laugh. “Very adult content.”
The summer before her junior year, Gomez had resolved to try stand-up. The opportunity struck when she saw a post advertising Comedy in Color, a showcase presented by the student organization Creatives of Color. She attended the workshops and said she felt comfortable learning and growing.
She performed in the show, and then she went on to perform twice with I Just Said That, a showcase that features the work of UNC’s women and non-binary comedians.
Gomez said that as the comedy world becomes more diverse, so does the range of experiences and topics available to cover. And as topics become more inclusive, so too do audiences, because they can find stories that reflect their own experiences.
"I think it's just overall making the space more inclusive, more diverse, and funnier, you know?" Gomez said.
“Naturally, weird stuff happens to me”
“…and then I just tell a lot of stories about that,” senior Sydney Peregoy said.
A stand-up comedian and aspiring screenwriter, Peregoy sees storytelling as her specialty. During her first stand-up gig, for example, she recounted the time she attended a Mormon Halloween dance. She has performed her routines with Triangle-area comedy groups like The PIT and Eyes Up Here Comedy.
On campus, Peregoy heads I Just Said That. Peregoy said the group accepts comedic submissions of all forms, including stand-up routines, sketches, poetry and songs.
I Just Said That was created several years back to provide a platform for performers of marginalized gender identities to share their work, Peregoy said.
Peregoy said performing comedy can boost self-confidence and self-awareness.
“I think it's just a cool way to examine yourself and see what you're capable of doing, and taking what you've experienced and sifting through that, and then being able to churn it out into something others can enjoy,” she said.
“Yes, and …”
That's the first rule of improv — something to which Emma Haseley, UNC senior and vice president of I Just Said That, is no stranger.
As a comedian, she specializes in spontaneity.
Haseley is a member of False Profits, an on-campus troupe that performs stand-up, sketch comedy and improv – her favorite comedic form. She calls it an act of mindfulness.
“Improv really allows you to come into your own and interact in a space and time that will never happen again,” Haseley said.
False Profits’ brand of comedy requires quick thinking – Haseley said that while certain themes and games provide a basis for a scene, the actors must ultimately work with whatever topic the audience throws at them.
“The biggest rule in improv is ‘Yes, and …,’” she said. “So, if you say something, you just have to roll with it and keep going. It’s really about engaging in the world that you’re in.”
Haseley said that historically, the main comedy troupes on campus have been white male-dominated, but the comedy scene at UNC has become more inclusive in recent years. Now, her comedy troupe is majority female, she said.
“To cross boundaries”
Performing improv with False Profits taught Pavani Peri how to think on her feet and set up narratives, the senior linguistics and peace, war and defense major said.
But she quit.
Peri left the group so she could focus on developing her craft as a stand-up comedian. She performs her work at open mics in bars, as well as with the Comedy in Color and I Just Said That showcases.
Like Peregoy and Gomez, Peri weaves storytelling into her routines. She draws on a variety of experiences, including middle school moments and her childhood in an immigrant household – “things that everyone talks about and wants to hear about, but nobody really brings to stand-up,” she said.
Peri said women in comedy face the widespread perception that their words are inherently political. She added that audiences perceive them not simply as comedians, but as female comedians.
She said it’s difficult for women comedians to speak freely and deliver honest material without it being considered inappropriate.
“Breaking down those barriers to language that I think women have,” she said. “Because we’re taught and raised to be polite and accommodating instead of, like, funny and rowdy, you know?”
“You got it, buddy!”
Junior journalism major Maia Guterbock spent last semester studying abroad. But she’s back in business for the spring, resuming her involvement with False Profits and I Just Said That.
“I use improv almost as a way of battling my perfectionism, because it kind of forces you to put your raw, unfiltered self out there,” she said.
But stand-up is where Guterbock thrives.
As a Delta Advocate – a woman in Greek life trained to assist survivors of sexual violence – Guterbock holds a passion for gender issues. Guterbock said she highlights social phenomena in her stand-up.
For instance, she highlights a conundrum she faces at her job as a waitress — using gender-inclusive language while adhering to the standards of Southern hospitality. She notes that it’s difficult to come up with gender-inclusive alternatives to “No, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” that customers will find acceptable – she jokes about the concept of saying, “You got it, buddy!” to an old gentleman.
Guterbock also uses stand-up to point to issues of race. She described herself as “a pretty ambiguous-looking individual.” She said that although she is of Greek and German descent, people would mistake her as Latina growing up – and they would direct their racism toward her.
“It's just interesting that as an ethnically ambiguous person, I've gotten a small taste of what that's like,” she said. “And so, I tend to talk about myself in that context, but in the larger context of how stupid that is – that why does anyone care what my race is?”
“Prove it to me that you’re funny”
For Joey Richards, stand-up comedy isn’t just their hobby, or even just their job – it’s their field of study.
A first-year graduate student, Richards is pursuing a doctorate in the department of communication. They said their research focuses on how stand-up comedy functions as a space for the creation, emergence and sharing of identity.
Audiences tend to view a female comedian more skeptically than they would a male comedian, Richards said.
“I think when people see a female-identified comedian,” they said, “an audience or even other male comics still kind of have this mindset of, like, 'Prove it to me that you're funny.'”
Richards said the field of comedy is always the better for diverse voices. They added that female-identified comics have experiences that, in the comedy setting, should be discussed.
“It's a place where people can get on stage and talk about issues around race, around violence, around sexual assault, around patriarchal attitudes, around feminism, around political practice," Richards said. "And so for me, it's a space that expands the dialogue that is happening, and allows for us to not only question what we're doing, but to imagine futures that are better for everyone.”
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