In 2007, Vanity Fair published a piece called “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” in which the author, Christopher Hitchens, casually and blatantly throws out sexist generalizations as he meditates on women and their capacity to be funny. Hitchens unabashedly asserts that women are “backward in generating” humor and that the best female comedians are “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” It’s hard to believe that the lines he penned came out of the 21st century. Yet they did — and even a quick look at the lineup of late-night talk show hosts tells us that that women still face an uphill battle in the comedy world. It’s this kind of casual and often latent sexism that the newly established Tufts Funny Ladies (TFL) works to counteract.
Spearheaded by Ilana Hamer, Isha Patnaik and Jehan Madhani, the group is open to all female-identifying students interested in comedy. Although the group only began holding weekly meetings this semester, TFL has been a presence in the comedy community for over a year. According to juniors Patnaik and Hamer, Aliza Small (LA’15), who headed sketch comedy club The Institute during the 2014-2015 school year, created a Tufts Funny Ladies Facebook group during the fall of 2014.
“[It was for] all the women comedy….to get together and bond and talk,” Patnaik said.
Upon its founding, the group was an informal one and not geared towards creative output. Still, it became a space, both online and at a couple get-togethers, where women felt they could share their experiences in comedy.
“We [talked about] how generally we weren’t as encouraged as [much as] the guys were encouraged,” she said. “[TFL] was kind of born out of this inherent mentorship in women in comedy and how we wanted that to [exist] across groups [at Tufts].”
When Small graduated, she handed the reins of the Facebook group off to Patnaik and Madhani. Over the summer, Hamer, Patnaik and Madhani, a fifth-year dual degree student, started talking about what it would mean to make TFL a more formalized group, but it wasn’t until the fall that they decided to begin having weekly meetings the following semester with the goal of putting on a show.
“That was when we were definitely going to do a show [and] really going to make this a group,” Hamer said. “No more messing around.”
Although the group was in part born out of their frustrations with the comedy community, both Patnaik and Hamer say that TFL’s new status doesn’t affect them participating in the other comedy groups they are involved with.
“[We’re] forever in love [with those groups], but…going to TFL meetings is so great and really just proves that this group that we’ve created can be everything that we want it to be,” Hamer said.
Despite the youth of TFL, it is already firing on all cylinders. The group has planned a show for April 7 and is currently in the midst of plans and preparations for that performance. According to Patnaik and Hamer, the show will be a combination of sketches — of both the live and video variety — and stand-up. At a pitch meeting on Sunday night, members presented their sketches to the group and then voted on which ones would be performed in April. (Stand-up pieces will be decided upon later in the production process.) With the sketch lineup now mostly finalized, TFL will move on to casting and then to general show preparation.
In addition to the April show, TFL has also collaborated with TUTV on their project “Lady D8” (the first episode was released on Wednesday) and will be opening for comedian Natasha Leggero, who will perform at Tufts on March 16. Patnaik and Hamer also said that they hope to publish a zine.
“It’s [going to be] kind of like our Federalist Papers,” Patnaik, an ardent “Hamilton” (2015) fan said jokingly. “[It will] kind of [say], ‘This is why the group should exist.’”
The zine, they hope, will also serve as an outlet for women interested in writing comedy but not necessarily in acting or performing.
“We haven’t worked much on it yet, but we want it to be something like…a mix of comedy and more serious stuff where people can talk about their experiences being a woman, being a woman in comedy,” Hamer said. “Or [people can contribute] funny short stories or comics.”
Publication of the zine, however, might have to wait until next fall when the group hopes to secure recognition and funding from the Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senate. Although they don’t feel particularly constrained without money, both Patnaik and Hamer said that a budget would allow them to expand the group’s horizons. In addition to covering the cost of costumes or publishing, funding would allow TFL to travel to and participate in comedy competitions and showcases, according to Patnaik and Hamer.
Elaine Bledsoe, a senior who joined The Institute in 2014 and is also a member of TFL, has found new creative outlets with the newly established group.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to write much during my time in The Institute, and so having a really welcoming, friendly environment [in TFL] to helped me get the courage to try my hand at it,” she told the Daily in an email.
One of Bledsoe’s sketches secured a spot in the TFL show, marking the first time her written work has appeared in a comedy show at Tufts. Experiences like Bledsoe’s are exactly the kind Patnaik and Hamer hope TFL will foster. They, along with Madhani, are working to create a democratic space in which the mutual support that made the Facebook group so vital can continue to thrive.
“We’re really trying to make it so that it’s not just me, Isha, Jehan and then everyone else,” Hamer said. “We want…people [to be able to] come up to us [with ideas] and be like, ‘We want to do this.’ [Our response is] ‘Okay, great. We’ll support you in that.’”
Part of the effort to make TFL a creative safe space has involved encouraging writers to delve into any topics they wish, be they related to gender-politics or not. Many of the sketches pitched at Sunday night’s meeting were in line with the kind of humor often found on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer” (2013-present). They skewered conventional gender roles and one-dimensional depictions of women, while slyly poking fun at behaviors of men and women alike. And, like Schumer’s show, some of the sketches that received the most laughs were entirely unrelated to gender. Striking this balance is crucial for TFL’s leaders.
“I think the goal of our group is to confront [sexism in comedy] in a funny and original way, which is why we constantly tell people you don’t have to write sketches about being a woman,” Patnaik said.
At the same time, they feel that it is equally important to use comedy — which historically has been, and in many ways continues to be, dominated by white men — to explore what it means to be a woman and to validate women’s experiences.
“Any time you face an oppression, you bear the burden of having to explain yourself,” Patnaik said. “It’s okay to want to confront being a woman [through comedy]. Don’t feel like you have to, but when you’re asked about it, it’s who you are. You can’t ignore it.”
This, in turn, brings up a host of questions about women and comedy that can be hard to grapple with. Patnaik listed some of these concerns.
“Is comedy a good agent for feminism?” she said. “Why do people say women aren’t funny? … What does mean to make fun of women as women? Are you making fun of the patriarchy or are you making fun of certain women who are playing into the patriarchy? What does that mean?”
Although wrestling with these issues is not easy, both Patnaik and Hamer said that being women in comedy is often a blessing in disguise.
“The thing about being a woman in comedy is you have a lot more on your shoulders — you have to be smarter, better, faster, stronger,” she said before breaking into a brief rendition of Kanye West’s 2007 hit “Stronger.” “You’ve [got] a legacy to hold, which sucks, but it’s [also] amazing.”
“It’s such an opportunity,” she said.
TFL may have opened up a new kind of comedic space at Tufts, but Patnaik and Hamer recognize that TFL is only an initial move towards bringing more voices into comedy.
“TFL is step one in diversity in comedy — it’s step one,” Patanik said. “We are…almost entirely white, cisgender, heterosexual, pretty affluent.”
Both Patanik and Hamer are aware that these demographics might be alienating for students of color and those in the LGBTQ community who don’t see themselves represented in TFL.
“How can you be comfortable in a group of people who don’t look, talk, act like you?” Patanik said. “The goal of TFL is to have a space that is subversive in nature so that…people who subvert the norm [will be encouraged] to join.”
The leaders of TFL have made efforts to reach out to communities of color and the LGBTQ community at Tufts and plan to open more dialogues about intersectionality as the group begins to take shape. They hope to have conversations with center directors before casting begins for their April show about how to make TFL a welcoming and inclusive space for all students.
“I really just [want] to reach out to the Group of Six directors,” Patnaik said. “How can we [make our group] a space for people who don’t necessarily feel like they fit in with the rest of comedy?”
Patnaik and Hamer are also cognizant of the perils of tokenization. For Patnaik especially, one of two women of color involved in TFL (the other is Madhani), that feeling has not been entirely absent from her own comedy experience at Tufts.
“Though, Jehan did write a sketch about two moms of color,” Patnaik said, referencing a sketch written by Madhani about a lesbian couple’s teenage daughter who becomes infatuated with white culture — Whole Foods, ABC Family shows and Dave Matthews Band.
“Who are [the moms] going to be played by?” Patnaik asked with a grin. “Us two.”