CAMERON ESPOSITO is one of the most exciting young stand-ups in the country: a side-mulleted, proudly denim-clad lesbian who's becoming equally known for writing and podcasting as for her ferociously funny comedy. Janine Brito and Aparna Nancherla write and perform for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, an FXX show that provides some of the slyest, cleverest commentary on race and politics you'll find anywhere. Stand-up Calise Hawkins has a friendly, girl-next-door demeanor that's underpinned by a ruthless sense of humor. And the women of Wild Horses are accomplished improvisers from LA, with credits ranging from Comedy Bang! Bang! to Orange Is the New Black.
These women don't have much in common, besides being funny. They're different races and sexual orientations; they specialize in different kinds of comedy, and are at different points in their career. But they're all women, of course; and they're all performing at this weekend's All Jane No Dick comedy festival.
All Jane is a tightly curated, four-day comedy festival founded by comedian Stacey Hallal. A veteran of Chicago's Second City, these days Hallal runs Northeast Portland's Curious Comedy Theater, which hosts regular improv, sketch comedy, and stand-up shows. She founded the all-female All Jane No Dick festival last year, because she wanted to showcase the work of female comedians—not because she's got anything to prove.
Like women in the US in general, women in comedy still live in a world of "firsts." (First female chair of the fed? Stay tuned!) It's impossible to come by hard statistics about the percentage of women working in comedy as a whole—it's like asking, "How many women are musicians?"—but it doesn't take much digging to unearth institutional examples of a gender imbalance.
The only glimpse we've had of a female late-night talk show host was Joan Rivers' 11-episode run on The Late Show in the late '80s. Paula Poundstone became the first woman to host the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in 1992, and only two women have hosted since. Fourteen men have done the honors since 1992, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien more than once. Three of the 28 credited writers who've written for Craig Ferguson's The Late Late Show over the years are women; it's six to 64 on the Late Show with David Letterman. Locally, we've never seen a woman win Portland's Funniest Person contest, and for the last two years even the finalists were all dudes. And of the touring comics who come through town, Portland's Helium Comedy Club booked 30 shows headlined by men from May to October of this year—and four by women.
These numbers don't mean that women are less funny than men, any more than a gender gap means that women are less qualified to program computers or write newspaper articles, or work in any other field in which they're historically underrepresented. It just means there's still some catching up to do.
That's where All Jane comes in: The festival provides an opportunity for female comics to do the sort of professional networking that's hard to come by when you're the only woman on a bill. And, more importantly, it's a chance for audiences to take in a diverse, high-profile selection of some of the best female comics working today.
It's tempting, when discussing All Jane, to entirely ignore the question of whether women are funny. (Because, seriously?) But comic and filmmaker Bonnie McFarlane, a Last Comic Standing competitor, was surprised when she set out to make a sarcastic documentary examining that very question.
"It started out really tongue in cheek," says McFarlane. "I wanted to make fun of the idea that people would think women aren't funny. But it was interesting, because when I started making it, I didn't really realize that there were people out there who really didn't think women were funny. I kind of thought it was ball-busting, a way to get under our skin, all that kind of stuff. That was kind of an eye-opening thing—people really don't believe it." Her documentary Women Aren't Funny, which features interviews with comics ranging from Maria Bamford to Adam Carolla, will screen on Sunday as part of the fest.
In general, though, All Jane takes the funniness of women as a given, focusing instead on showcasing the quality and diversity of women currently working in comedy.
(It's worth noting here that unlike, say, the Michigan Womyn's Festival, which requires attendees to be both born biologically female and to identify as female, All Jane isn't a trans-exclusionary event. "We don't have an official policy on what the boundaries of 'female comedian' are yet, but I'm sure we would welcome anyone who genuinely identifies as female to apply to the festival," says Hallal. "I would be excited at the possibility of adding a transgender perspective to the mix.")
When Cameron Esposito was living in Chicago, she started a class for women called the Feminine Comique, where women could practice jokes and work on their stand-up. "Even then, very early in my career looking at what the numbers were like, I absolutely thought that was something I wanted to try and help change," Esposito says, "for other women who would follow me, and also just for myself—to make it a more comfortable environment. Part of it is about wanting to change the landscape, part of it is wanting to provide opportunities for other women, and part of it is really selfish—having women in comedy shows and in stand-up makes stand-up better. If you have a show where there are eight bearded white dudes in a row, it gets very repetitive for the audience. And I think it's harder for those white dudes—why would you want to be the seventh male comic?"
Esposito is probably going to be famous soon—she's funny enough, and smart, and appears to have her career utterly in hand. (When I spoke with Esposito, she was touring with one-liner shock-comic Anthony Jeselnik, who agrees with her opinion that diversity is good for comedy, she says.) She noted, "When you get to a certain point in your career, you don't get to spend a ton of time with other comics, because the art is a solitary art. But festivals are a chance to all hang out together in this almost forced, summer camp kind of way. And when you add that everybody on this particular festival has something in common, which is that they are women, there's an extra benefit to it. Especially when there are so few women, just numbers wise, that getting those women together is rare."
With All Jane, fest founder Hallal is tackling the numbers gap head on—not by arguing with bigots, or trying to out-funny the ghost of Christopher Hitchens, but by putting on a really fucking good comedy festival.
"Our focus isn't to prove that women are funny," she explains. "It's to raise the visibility of women who are funny. There's always going to be sexist and hateful people in the world, and I don't know how much you can change their minds, but I do know that the system has a disparity in the number of men to women, in writing rooms and festivals. That's a fact we can track, and it's something we can change."