Don't Call Them Comediennes
"If you're a woman and you make mediocre shit, people suddenly say women aren't funny. If a man makes a bad thing, it's that one dude made that one bad thing."
BY ELLE AND WANDA SYKES, MARGARET CHO, ABBI JACOBSON, ILANA GLAZER, AND RACHEL BLOOM
JUN 21, 2016
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of ELLE.
Stand-up legends Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho sit down with three newly minted comedy stars, Broad City's Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's Rachel Bloom, and talk idols, feminism, and how to hit the trolls where it hurts.
ELLE: Who was the person who first made you want to be a comedian?
WANDA SYKES: Moms Mabley—Jackie Mabley. Didn't give a damn about her parents, and she actually was making herself look drab, like this old woman.
MARGARET CHO: Joan Rivers. She had so much power over the audience, and when she'd say, 'Can we talk?' they knew what that was. She'd be like our mom's age or your grandma's age—and she was so dirty. I went to see her many times over the years; I couldn't believe how filthy she was—I'm pretty fucking dirty and I was really embarrassed. She proved to me that women could be funny, and it was powerful.
ABBI JACOBSON: I was big into Gilda Radner. I would watch Gilda on Comedy Central—stuff she did in, like, '75. She was using who she was; these characters were offshoots of her.
RACHEL BLOOM: As a young girl, if you do something funny—especially if you're Jewish—someone says, 'Oh, have you seen Gilda Radner?'
ILANA GLAZER: This is so dur, but I watched a ton of Lucy when I was a kid, and her phases—the [city apartment] set; then they'd move to the country; and then there's no more Ricky. It was such a downward spiral.
YKES: And The Lucy Show, when she was working at the bank.
GLAZER: Yeah! I went back as a teenager and watched the show, and it was so sexist and gross. Ricky's like, 'Shut up, you stupid bitch.' It was so painful to watch.
JACOBSON: But also, isn't she the boss?
GLAZER: Another one is Whoopi. She was so animated and genderless and ageless—this almost animated figure. She was dramatic, too. She goes from being an actor to being her hilarious self, seemingly so effortlessly.
BLOOM: She spoke at my Tisch [NYU] graduation and was like, 'You're going to be broke. A lot of you are going to quit.' It was great, but I was so depressed. Also, this is a little different, but my grandpa was an amateur stand-up comic when I was growing up. He was this old dude from Brooklyn, and all of his jokes were clearly stolen from a book. I'd go with him to perform at convalescent homes around Southern California. There was this one joke he had where a woman got glued to a toilet seat and put a cowboy hat on top of her vagina, and the police came and she says, 'What do you think, police?' And they're like, 'I don't know, but that cowboy's a goner.' Or he'd have me come up onstage with him to deliver a punch line: 'Why is your nose in the middle of your face?' 'Because it's the scenter.'
GLAZER: We went on Ellen yesterday for the first time. We geeked out because of her stand-up. We were trying to redo her bits. Her stand-up was amazing. That special—
BLOOM: The HBO special, right? With the Go-Gurt?
CHO: I used to open for Ellen. I see Ellen, and I'm like, Oh, I'm on in five minutes! You never lose the connection from what you had before. You'll see as you grow. It's a weird business: A lot of the actresses who were around when I started, I don't know where they are. Comics stick around.
SYKES: Good comics stick around. There are people who have TV shows that might be successful, but comics can't really fake it. If you say, 'Hey, I love what you guys are doing—you're funny,' then you're in. It's legit.
GLAZER: Comedy is legit. Nicki Minaj is like, 'I'm not lucky, I'm blessed.' [Hollywood] is obviously so fake, but then comedy is this little carve-out of sincerity. I love it. I get to be funny and do this.
BLOOM: A year ago I thought I had a dead pilot, and I was broke.
GLAZER: You were at Showtime first?
BLOOM: They passed, and I went back to writing at [Comedy Central's animated half-hour show] Robot Chicken, and then CW picked up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It was all really unexpected. The show was dead—I mourned the show—and the reason I'm at this table right now is not because I got more talented. It's because one person at a network made a decision. Nine times out of 10, you don't have that one person.
JACOBSON: You had the one person, but also you write and develop and make this amazing show, so give yourself some credit.
BLOOM: I give myself no credit. I think about all the talented people I know who are still waiting for that break. I've seen their UCB shows or their web series.
GLAZER: They didn't give you the show; you made the show.
SYKES: Whether you have a show or not, you can still be somewhere being funny.
ELLE: Is anything off-limits in your work?
BLOOM: Hurting other people, using my personal knowledge of somebody. I'll tell you anything about myself. I will show you my bare butthole. When it comes to selling out someone else, because other people have boundaries that I don't, that's the one thing.
ELLE: Are other celebrities fair game?
SYKES: I'm like, If you do something dumb, I'll write about it. If you put something out there, to me it's like you're kind of asking for it.
JACOBSON: We talk a lot about celebrities on the show.
SYKES: Will and Jada.
JACOBSON: Yes! Someone just told us that Jada watched the show, and I freaked out.
CHO: I think she'd love it.
JACOBSON: It's what we hope would be true about her. We fucking love them. Their openness. It's like a through line of the show. It's only out of love for them. We did this JonBenét Ramsey joke that was a little touchy. It was kinda making fun of the Beanie Baby culture: They made these tributes to people who've died. They had a Princess Diana Beanie Baby, so we were like, We're going to have the JonBenét Beanie Baby.
BLOOM: I tried to get the Princess Diana Beanie Baby for the pilot of Crazy Ex-Girlfriendbecause we wanted Rebecca to have one. Beanie Babies did not give their consent.
JACOBSON: We had to make the Beanie Baby, construct a whole thing that looked enoughnot like a Beanie Baby.
CHO: I think if somebody does something stupid, it's okay to make fun of them, but [celebrities] have also gotten very conscious about social media, kind of like the Catholic Church in the 1500s. You have to adhere to a certain morality, a certain level of decorum, or else you'll be punished and labeled. It's all the trolling, but it's also the gossip sites.
SYKES: What gets me is when celebrities aren't allowed to have an opinion on anything political. There's the whole 'Shut up and sing' thing. That's pretty much our job. If you make an opinion, Hey, hey.
JACOBSON: It's really scary on Twitter, too. I'm like a cutter, because I look at the responses. People will say so many nice things, and I'll find the one or two who say I suck.
BLOOM: The night the show premiered, I was getting such beautiful messages, and then one person said in all caps, 'YOU AREN'T TALENTED'—it cuts right to the fear of every artist. I don't remember any compliments from that night. I don't remember the reviews. I remember that one person. What is that?
CHO: That's part of being an artist; you have to be that sensitive. I'm really bad with trolls because I have a lot of really intense friends who are not necessarily doing things so legally. If I get trolled, [my friends will send me] an email with the person's Social Security number, phone number, pictures of his family, his business, his spouse. I see this person in his totality, and I feel so bad. I shouldn't have that power. I have done some stuff where I'll fuck with a troll, and I'll say their real name in a tweet or what their business is. I stopped doing that because it's so fucked up.
SYKES: I love that!
CHO: But it's also that they're people. They're not sane people; they're people who are so miserable, they think your life is so good because you're creating and expressing yourself, and you're up there and people love you. And they want to take that. It's like theft—they took your joy. You can't allow that to happen because you worked so hard for your joy.
SYKES: What if you do it, like, a little passive-aggressively: 'Well, I'm sorry, you feel like that,Tony…. I'll be praying for you and your wife, Carol…. Oh, and by the way, happy birthday.' [Laughs all around]
ELLE: Do you take revenge on high-school bullies?
CHO: I became a comedian because I didn't want to be bullied anymore. Onstage I was safe. Now on Facebook I have all these 'friends' who used to bully me, and they're like, 'We're so proud! We love you!' They come to shows and want to take a picture, and they're like, 'Don't you remember us?' And I'm like, 'I'm sorry, I don't.' And I feel bad, but I feel good.
BLOOM: I was bullied a lot in middle school, and my bullies have since all apologized. One came to a live show two years ago. She was like, 'Can I take you out for coffee?' She was four years sober but had been doing a lot of porn, and she wanted to get out of porn—
BLOOM: We were talking about middle school, and she was like, 'I'm sorry the way I was; I was unenlightened.' I said, 'You know it just didn't help me—I was so unhappy.' And she said, 'Oh, I was so unhappy, too.' That coffee date really humanized every bully for me because I saw in it this snaking tail of pain.
GLAZER: Wanda, do you get any hate?
GLAZER: How do you deal with it? That's surprising to me.
SYKES: I block it. Like you said, the one thing that you remember was bad. It's hate on so many levels. It can be race; it can be because I'm a woman or I'm a lesbian. Especially after the [2009 White House] Correspondents' Dinner, when I did the Rush Limbaugh joke. [Editor's note: She compared Limbaugh to Osama bin Laden, saying he'd have been a 9/11 hijacker had he not been "so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight."] It got to handwritten letters being delivered at different venues I'd perform at, like, 'I'm going to rape you.' It was like, Okay, I need a big dude to travel with me.
CHO: It gets to this level of bomb threats. They have to bring in a bomb dog.
BLOOM: Is that a thing that happens when you're famous, or is that a thing that happens when you're a woman?
SYKES: Kinda political jokes.
GLAZER: Did one joke ever have a clear impact where you were like, I'm going to step off this for a second?
CHO: No. The worst is that I did a joke at a Move On thing. It was right after 9/11 and people were really into George Bush. And I said, 'George Bush is not Hitler. He would be if he applied himself.'
CHO: Somebody threw a poisoned steak over my yard, and my dog ate it and almost died. I didn't feel safe in my house…. I have nightmares about that Correspondents' Dinner; I never want to do that.
SYKES: But you can't say no. It was President Obama's first one, and then also being invited to do it? I'm lesbian, married. I have to.
BLOOM: How do you guys deal with hecklers?
SYKES: Fortunately I don't get them now. But if there's someone who's had too much to drink and wants to be a part of the show, that's harder than a heckler. Because this person is enjoying himself, but he's just being disruptive. So it's: How can I shut them up? But I don't want to be the schoolmarm—'Stay in your seat!'—and go back to being funny. I try to get the audience to do it for me.
CHO: I just scream, 'Get the fuck out!' And I will stand offstage and make them leave.
GLAZER: Do people watch you like this? [Places cell phone in front of her face]
SYKES: I'm shutting that down, especially right now because I'm getting ready to do my [Epix] special. I have to hire an extra guy to really watch the room.
GLAZER: Right, someone could film it.
SYKES: It's weird, because you're not even free to just be creative now. You're canvassing the room like, There's a phone; there's a phone. You're in your head about: I can't even try this joke.
ELLE: Tina Fey recently said it's a terrible time for women in comedy, since men are still making money for garbage and women are hustling and doing amazing work for less.
BLOOM: I think it's a great time. Now women in comedy is a trendy topic, and people are hungering for women's voices in a way that they haven't before, which felt like it really started with Bridesmaids. That suddenly made it cool in pop culture. It feels like being a woman now gives you a slight advantage.
JACOBSON: I would probably suspect not money wise, though.
BLOOM: Yeah, it wasn't until I read Lean In that I was like, 'Oh, I'm supposed to ask for a raise?' Thank God I have representation, because the idea of being like, 'Thanks for the job, but this is what I want'—I've realized it is not in me to do that.
JACOBSON: Women right now, we can't make mediocre [stuff]. Men can and do make tons of mediocre stuff, but I feel like women…
SYKES: …Sofia Vergara?
GLAZER: That is an accomplishment for women, honestly.
BLOOM: If you're a woman and you make mediocre shit, people suddenly say women aren't funny. If a man makes a bad thing, it's that one dude made that one bad thing. Also, you'll see articles about different female comics where it's like, 'Step Off Tina Fey! Back Up Amy Poehler!'
JACOBSON: There can only be, like, 20.
BLOOM: There can only be, like, three.
JACOBSON: Every show that comes out that's female driven is compared to the last female-driven show, as if it's taking over.
BLOOM: One of the ways that my show has been most successful is when it's dealing with women's issues, like Spanx and plucking and having heavy tits. That's why it feels like, creatively, an advantage.
CHO: I would love Jennifer Lawrence's money. But I'm just so grateful that I'm not cleaning fish, which is what I would be doing. [Group laughs] When we're talking about feminism, I get sort of lost in the argument. Because as a woman of color, I don't know where I belong in this argument. Where do I say, 'I would be happy to have less money'? How do you fight for your rights when I'm super-grateful to be here at all?
SYKES: Yeah. I'm just happy to have a seat at the table.
BLOOM: That quality is what makes women great collaborators; we understand it's a team effort. Even if it comes from society telling us to be polite.
CHO: I just think women are funnier than men. There's a lot of guy comics who I think are funny, but I generally am more excited about a special or a show where there are females.
ELLE: Do you like being called a 'woman comedian'?
SYKES: Just a comedian. It's demeaning when someone comes up to you and goes, 'Oh my God, you're my favorite female comic.'
GLAZER: It's interesting, gender versus race. I think people say that to women more: 'Oh, you're my favorite female.' They wouldn't say 'favorite black comic.'
BLOOM: Also, who came up with the comedienne thing? The female comedian.
SYKES: I thought it was a French thing.
BLOOM: Oh, is it?
GLAZER: Well, I don't like it. Even the actor thing. Someone said recently, Do they call them doctresses? What are we doing? This is a fake thing.
CHO: I always think of Shari Lewis's Lamb Chop. That's a comedienne…. I like stand-up comicbetter. Just comic.
ELLE: Do you think you can be a feminist and also make jokes about women's looks and outfits?
CHO: I'm not a body shamer. The word fat has been used to hurt me my entire life. I could never make a joke about somebody unless I could say it to their face and they'd laugh. I don't want to hurt anybody because of their looks. That's been used to hurt me so much.
BLOOM: Being good at fashion and beauty and girly stuff has been such a point of insecurity for me; I'm not good at coming up with jokes that make fun of other people for that, because I don't feel like I have a mastery of it myself.
SYKES: What does feminism mean to you? [Sykes nods in the direction of Glazer and Jacobson.]
GLAZER: For our show, it's the balance of talking about it and not talking about it. Sometimes I want to forget my gender. But other times it's like, No, I'm a fucking wo-man and my comedy comes from it and my experiences come from it. Eventually, hopefully, we find some space where we're not talking about all our checklist things, but instead more about our personalities.
BLOOM: Aline Brosh McKenna, my co-creator, says that feminism is for female characters to get to be assholes. But [Rebecca Bunch] is a character we've created; she doesn't have to be a symbol for feminism. If I could create my own utopia, it would be this genderless world where we didn't have to talk about it. There is so much more to me than my parts and what I wear, what my clothes are.
SYKES: Which takes us back to Will and Jada.
SYKES: When you say you're just trying to be: You're not thinking about things, you're just going to be yourself, right? And not thinking about being a woman. And then you always get this, if you're at a bar or something, they'll say, 'What can I get you, sweetie?' All of a sudden. It's like, You motherfucker! You just came in and patted me on the head. You're not being a gentleman. You're just putting me beneath you. 'Hey, sweetheart, what can I get you?' I don't know you!
JACOBSON: Okay, so we had just sold the show script. I'm like, Life is changing! We're going out to celebrate; we sit down at this bar, and [my friend] Bethany goes to the bartender, 'We're getting drinks to celebrate.' And the bartender goes, 'Oh, did you get engaged?'
[A collective ah/ugh/sigh]
BLOOM: I got married a couple of months before Crazy Ex went to series, and I kept getting questions at press conferences that were like, 'So, your husband wasn't expecting this, right? How's he feeling?' It was such a weird question; I didn't know what to say.
GLAZER: You say, 'Fuck you.'
BLOOM: I guess you say fuck you, but at the time I was like, 'He's fine!'
GLAZER: Yeah, in the moment I'm like, duhhhh duhhhh.
BLOOM: The guy who directed the pilot for my show and I were interviewing someone. They were talking about a mutual friend—'Oh yeah, my friend Brad.' And then [the man being interviewed] turns to me and goes, 'You probably dated him.' It was such a weird bit, so I was like, 'Ah yes, we spent a lovely summer in Hawaii, and we wrote a novel together but then we burned it'—just yes-anding his bit. And he was like, 'No, that guy doesn't commit.' Like, he couldn't even do the bit. And then he walked out. My co-creator and line producer were like, 'He just sexually harassed a woman who would be his boss. No way is he getting this job.' Have you ever had a background guy call you 'sweetie'?
GLAZER: This one [background actor] was like, 'Great tits.'
GLAZER: I know. Have you seen the show? I know. Now you're not in the scene anymore.