Eight Women of Color Comedians On Sexism, Racism and Making People Laugh
Full disclosure: this article is basically an excuse to give press to my funny friends. Just kidding! Kind of! I am a standup comic and a woman, and I face unique challenges in comedy because of my gender. But I’m also white and benefit from white privilege in the comedy world.
I rounded up some of my favorite women-of-color comics because, like most of life, comedy is dominated by white men. I interviewed these women to highlight unique, funny voices that are often overlooked in the scene. All of these women are hilarious, accomplished and badass. I asked these amazing folks about the unique challenges they face as women of color in comedy, their thoughts on activism and what advice they have for newbies.
I have the privilege of producing a monthly queer feminist comedy show called Man Haters with Irene Tu. She identifies as “gay and Asian, but mostly a comedian” and is my favorite comic with whom to process big gay feelings.
On being a woman in comedy, she says: “Comedy is a boys’ club, like most things, so it can feel lonely at shows and mics. At most open mics, you hear a lot of dick jokes, misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. It’s not necessarily the most welcoming place to start out in comedy if you’re a lady. You have to overcome all that, plus the usual stage fright, writing lots of terrible jokes, bombing and doing shows for a handful of other comedians that are only half paying attention.”
“There aren’t as many people of color in comedy, and even fewer women of color. What gets to me the most is hearing people complain if a person of color talks ‘too much’ about being black/brown/Asian, etc. It’s like yeah, sometimes we talk about it because that’s a big part of how we experience life. Our experiences are rarely represented accurately on screen or in comedy. I talk a lot about race and gender in my comedy because I’m very interested in people and how we interact with one another. I guess you could call me an activist, if telling jokes is considered activism. Race and gender are things that everybody can relate to because we have to deal with it on a daily basis, whether consciously or unconsciously. We’re going to continue to struggle with this until the day we all die in the apocalypse.”
Irene asked me to inform you all that: “I’m still trying to meet Ellen one day, so if anyone out there can help me with that…”
Dhaya Lakshminarayanan is a badass feminist Indian-American comedian. She recently performed in my and Irene’s Man Haters show and, despite being the only straight woman on the lineup, she had the audience of over 150 mostly queer people cracking up.
On being a woman in comedy, she says: “It’s hard to see the struggles of my female colleagues and often feel like I can’t do much about it. For me personally, it’s the narrow constraint of what is considered a ‘camera friendly’ face when auditioning for television roles. I often get unsolicited feedback from men about what I am wearing, how I am on stage or what I need to do to be more successful. Backstage, I frequently deal with men flirting with me when I am just trying to get ready to do my show.”
On being a POC comic: “During Chris Rock’s Oscar monologue, he bravely took on the whiteness of all of the Academy Award nominees. However, he stooped to the lowest common denominator by taking aim at Asian-Americans with some cheap-shot Asian jokes. Chris Rock is one of my comedic idols, but I still disagree with his targeting the ‘safe’ minority as the butt of jokes. In general, being a person of color has challenges, but there are unique challenges as a South Asian woman. We have very few role models and I can’t begin to tell you how many people ask me if I am just like Russell Peters onstage, which is offensive, narrow, limiting and, after the tenth time, kind of annoying. There is a stigma: if you talk about your heritage, your parents, your immigrant experience, many people look down on that because you are not doing comedy in the white way — a.k.a. the right way — which is to talk about your own neuroses, low self-esteem and difficulty finding someone to date. I wish there were more opportunities on television for South Asian Americans that do not involve being the token nerd, the doctor, gas station attendant or IT professional. I am really happy this is beginning to change with Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari.”
On whether she’s an activist: “No, because some of the activists that I’ve met in the past are just as self-centered and narcissistic as a Fortune 500 CEO. I find activists to sometimes be in it for themselves and condescending. They are saying they’re in it for the people, but no way. So I don’t like that label. If you’re perceived as an activist, people tend to think you are not good at your craft. I prefer more low-key labels like rabble-rouser or bigmouth or opinionated or someone who won’t take shit. My ideal descriptor is: ‘Dhaya is hilarious and she should be on every show and on TV and also don’t mess with her.'”
When I asked Faith Choyce how long she’s been doing comedy, she told me: “since I was born.” In 2014, she submitted to a queer comedy festival I produced. I booked her in two shows, she kicked ass, we became buds and I’ve been booking her as much as I can ever since.
On the challenges she faces as a woman in comedy, she says: “Getting put on pink flyers. Being asked to do shows that are marketed in such groundbreaking ways as ‘Chicks Are Funny Too,’ ‘Broads, Beer, and Belly Laughs.’ Being introduced as ‘a lovely lady.'” She identifies as “queer and don’t call me ‘lady’ or ‘sweetie.’”
On the influence of her identities on her standup: “Some comedians tell jokes that have nothing to do with their life experiences. I used to be that way, and creatively, I was holding myself back by not getting personal. I think it had to do with getting comfortable with actually being vulnerable on stage. Obviously, being a person of color, a female-bodied human, a queer person, affects my day to day life and the interactions I have therein, so it’s only natural that it will end up in my standup if I’m really being honest and open with myself and the audience.”
Karinda Dobbins is a badass Bay Area comedian who has toured with W. Kamau Bell and opened for Trevor Noah and Greg Proops. “As a woman in comedy, my challenges mirror almost every job that is dominated by men; I have to work harder for visibility and legitimacy and listen to a lot of sexist chatter along the way. As a person of color, I just try to do the best I can when I am given opportunities. I think this is a great time for comics of color to create their own content outside of traditional mainstream vehicles, because audiences are hungry for things that mirror their experiences. In standup, I talk about my life and being a black woman affects how I am perceived in this world and consequently, I am able to make quite a bit of comedy from that.”
Are you an activist? “Hard question. I have a lot of causes I am passionate about and I support them in various ways. I have heard the term ‘artivist’ and I don’t know the definition but I try to use my art to bring attention to things I care about.”
Clare O’Kane is a Los Angeles-based comedian and writer who was recently the first woman to get a solo writing credit on an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. So, in addition to being funny and awesome, she’s kind of a big deal.
On the challenges of being a woman in comedy, she says: “It’s more of an indignation than a challenge, but people using the phrase ‘female comedian’ as opposed to just ‘comedian’ is very odd to me. I guess it’s not so much a challenge that we will overcome, per se, but more like something that will change over time while women work to conquer the actual challenge: equality with men. It’s not that I’m not proud to be a female comedian, but the addition of gender to the title only creates more of a division between us and male comedians (who are never referred to as such). My gender shouldn’t matter when it comes to what I want to do as a profession. It’s only used as a way to say, ‘Hey so this next comedian is a WOMAN, so now you know what to expect! Period jokes and shit!’ All women are different, obviously. We talk about different things. Lumping us all together like we’re all the same and assuming we talk about the same shit is annoying and tiresome. Like, Marissa Mayer’s official title is not ‘[former] female CEO of Yahoo Inc.,’ it’s just fucking CEO OF YAHOO INC. YEESH. So yeah, that and bunch of other challenges that make my head hurt. But DON’T CRY FOR ME, ARGENTINA!”
On being a person of color in comedy: “Because I’m half-Filipino and half-white, my ethnicity is very much ambiguous, so people don’t seem to inquire too much about it or expect anything specific from me, like ‘jokes about my Asian mother’ or whatever. I do believe, though, that many people of color in comedy tend to be pigeonholed into representing their entire race as opposed to being accepted for who they are individually. Same goes with typecasting in TV and movies, like ‘ALL Asian people have the same accent,’ etc. My race doesn’t influence my comedy as much as my gender does, partially because I’ve never felt totally connected to my heritage on either side. Whereas gender plays a huge part in my comedy, one of my main goals is to express what it’s like to be a woman in her 20s today and make that relatable to not just other women, but everyone who watches. I want people to connect with that experience and, hopefully, if that happens, they’ve gained a better understanding of women in general. I want to close that gap for men and other women alike.”
On activism: I’d like to consider myself an activist! But I think that requires taking more direct action. Doing standup still seems a bit selfish to me, when it comes to helping others. But, who knows! Maybe I am doing something good and just. Time will tell, I’M SURE.”
Last summer, I had the pleasure of seeing Luna Malbroux perform at Hysteria, Irene Tu’s San Francisco open mic for women and queers. She was so funny she made my stomach hurt and I couldn’t wait to start working with her. We’ve become good buddies and I’m constantly inspired by her comedy, activism, and general badassery.
On the challenges she faces as a black woman in comedy, she says: “The same challenge I face in larger society as a black woman. When people think of femininity or ‘woman’ they think of white women, when they think of ‘black’ people, they are mainly talking about black men — so I feel like the challenge is constantly lobbying against the invisibility of women in color in general. Like many young black women, I was told as a child I have to be three times better than anyone else to get the same recognition. I feel the same pressure exists in the comedy world, if you’re trying to be universally accepted. However, the great thing is at this point I don’t care about being universally accepted!”
On identity: “I identify as me! I’m black, a.k.a. African American, and my ethnicity is Creole. I also identify as queer. I’m all those things.”
On the influence of her race and gender on her comedy: “My race and gender have shaped my experiences in life and I share those experiences in my comedy. I never forget that the stage is also a platform, so I want to use humor as much as possible to raise up issues that affect women and people of color in a way people can understand. I’m a laughtivist. The work I’m most proud of — my comedy talk show, Live Sex SF, my comedic app, EquiTable, the articles I write — are all about using humor to discuss larger issues: identity, consent, economic discrimination. I just prefer to do those things with joy and love and laughter. I work to challenge the notion of ‘impossible’ by using art and dialogue.”
Allison Mick is a locally beloved, hilarious comic in the San Francisco Bay Area scene. She is also one of my favorite folks to brunch and taste wine with.
On being a woman in comedy, she says: “I think it’s a lot better in San Francisco for women than other parts of the country, so it’s less about facing ‘challenges’ than annoyances that male comics don’t have to deal with. For instance, being the only woman on a lineup is frustrating. Like producers don’t think two women can have different experiences even though the rest of the show is a veritable parade of straight white dudes talking about their dicks and sociopathic behavior and wondering aloud why no one will fuck them.”
Allison is biracial, and mused about her experiences as person of color: “Because I’m white-passing, I don’t deal with a lot of obvious racism, especially not in comedy. There are microaggressions, sure. A producer once said ‘I’m glad you’re on the show because now we have a woman and a black person,’ which really says less about me and more about that producer, namely that that dude is a moron. Also I am asked to explain black culture a lot, which is frustrating to no end.”
On the influence of her race and gender on her comedy: “I talk about it A LOT. My race and gender have been the source of a lot of pain in my life so I use humor to reassert power over the things I feel least funny about. Every couple of shows, a biracial person will come up to me and say ‘thank you for talking about being mixed.’ because we never get to hear about that and representation is important, even if the representative is a drunk comedian in a basement.”
Chey Bell self-identifies as “a female bisexual comic with the sweetest tomboy chic swag ever.” We’ve done several shows together and she is funny, warm and delightful to talk to.
On the challenges of being a woman in comedy, she says: ”Physically, I can’t effectively land a solid right hook, which would come in handy the next time a guy feels it’s okay to fondle me or hug me a little too long. I’m constantly told that my material is too blue, that my jokes contain extremely vulgar language; never mind it’s the exact same language men use in everyday conversation.” On the challenges of being a person of color in comedy: “Consistently not being measured by the same rules. As a black comic, I have at times felt invisible. The biggest challenge I face is frequently not being considered; the comedy community is dominated by men, white men in particular, and I often question how many times they actually consider the importance of booking comics who are different from themselves. I’m pretty confident that my race doesn’t influence my comedy at all but rather, my comedy is influenced by how people view me, as a black woman in general.”
On the challenges of being a person of color in comedy: “Consistently not being measured by the same rules. As a black comic, I have, at times, felt invisible. The biggest challenge I face is frequently not being considered; the comedy community is dominated by men, white men in particular, and I often question how many times they actually consider the importance of booking comics who are different from themselves. I’m pretty confident that my race doesn’t influence my comedy at all but rather, my comedy is influenced by how people view me, as a black woman in general.”
On activism: “As a comic, I have a platform and an opportunity to bring people together. It’s all about being able to share stories about myself and mix in new ideas and encourage conversations around current happenings. It’s a great great opportunity to push forward conversations about history, gender and race. If, at the end of the day, someone in the audience goes home with a newly shaped perception about humanity, then I would definitely call myself an activist. The most important thing to remember is we are one, and until we all realize that, then we fail at humanity. If a black kid gets shot and killed, everyone should be stepping up in condemnation. The majority of those protesting should not just be black, but people from every community, because it doesn’t matter that the kid doesn’t look like you, he’s a kid, a child who should not have been shot and killed, period. We are all human being who deserve to live at a certain level of integrity.”
Advice for women of color who want to do standup comedy:
Karinda: “Get as much stage time as you can and find mentors.”
Irene: “If you’ve ever thought about doing comedy, just go out and keep doing it. Go to an open mic, write jokes, and be confident in yourself and what you want to say.The only way we’ll have more women of color in comedy is if more women in color do comedy.”
Luna: “One: You belong everywhere that you are and everywhere you want to be. Never question that. Two: Focus on creating and owning your own art. Create the content you want. produce the shows you want to be in. Three: Don’t wait around for anyone to discover you. Discover yourself.”
Allison: “Your experience is unique and important to share. You already have a leg up on all these fuckboys, because your experience isn’t the same thing that eight other guys on the show are talking about. Use your difference to stand out. Also, record your sets and listen to them even though you hate the sound of your voice. It’s the only way to get better.”
Clare: “Work hard and be yourself. Don’t let anyone make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. Be proud of who you are.”
Chey: “Be well-versed. Make sure you can talk about anything and to any audience.”
Faith: “Don’t take advice from anyone who’s not insanely successful.”
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