How queer women continue to break boundaries in comedy

the voice and vision of a new generation

How queer women continue to break boundaries in comedy

September 9, 2019

We might, might have finally accepted that, despite all the stereotypes and old hack jokes, women are funny. Female comedians simply need the platform to prove their talent, and an increasing number of women are getting past the white male gatekeepers of the comedy industry. In the words of queer comedian Eman El-Husseini, “That’s the beauty in comedy: Once you get undeniably funny, no one can touch you."

The comedy scene is changing. Previously, there were many topics which were seen as too girly or only for women — read: made men uncomfortable — and therefore not considered 'funny.' Now, female comics have pushed the boundaries and are finally able to speak about these topics in the mainstream; topics such as periods, feminism, sex, and assault. 

Standup comedy has taken a stylistic turn towards the honest, autobiographical, and often quite dark. Humor is an oft used coping mechanism, and people who have faced many challenges hone their humor over time. There is of course the age old, slightly tired adage of “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Being systematically disadvantaged and discriminated against is certainly a tragedy. Therefore, it stands to reason that female comics have a lot to joke about — especially queer female comics, and especially queer women of color. That’s not to say all queer comedians only make sad jokes or jokes about being queer, but rather, that people who have had challenging experiences are often the funniest people.

Historically, a sizable portion of the female comics in the mainstream are queer women, and many are lesbians. One of the first well known female comedians, Moms Mabley, who did standup in the 20s and 30s, was a Black lesbian.

Until very recently, speaking about queerness on stage used to cause comedians to be pigeonholed, and often made audiences uncomfortable. In order to rise in the comedy world, queer comics typically remained closeted until they found success in the mainstream comedy world. This made it challenging for queer comics to break boundaries because they could not risk discussing their identity or queer culture until late in their careers. 

Ellen DeGeneres was well established when she came out in the 1997 so-called “Puppy Episode.” She still faced significant backlash, and her career suffered for years afterwards. Wanda Sykes was already famous when she came out in 2008 in a political speech about Prop 8. Both have gone on to incorporate their identities into their more recent work.

Moms Mabley, Ellen Degeneres, Wanda Sykes

Comics who came out early in their career, like Lea DeLaria, were considered gay comics and tended to perform for queer audiences. DeLaria used to bill herself as “That Fucking Dyke,” joking that if people were going to yell it at her on the street anyway, she could at least wonder if they were fans — a perfect example of using humor when faced with tragedy.

Following the path paved by openly and proudly queer comics of all genders, there are now many comics who have been out for the entirety of their comedy career. Not only are these comics out, but they speak openly and casually about their sexuality and identity in their standup.

Today, speaking about minority experiences makes for brilliant, touching, complex standup performances, such as Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette and Cameron Esposito’s “Rape Jokes.” Gadsby and Esposito artfully depict their experiences with homophobia, sexism, shame, and assault. Their stories of assault and trauma are not new stories, but they are telling them in a new way: holistically, not just briefly, ending with a meaningful punchline, and from the perspective of survivors, which is extremely powerful. This version of comedy demonstrates the impact of good storytelling as well as the power of laughing at the painful parts of life.

The personal is political, and the personal is heartbreakingly, devastatingly funny.

Lea DeLaria, Hannah Gadsby, Cameron Esposito

Rhea Butcher is another example of a queer comic using challenges to fuel their humor. Butcher is a nonbinary lesbian, and uses they/them pronouns. Butcher does not identify as a woman, but has cultivated a strong queer and lesbian following by creating relatable queer content. Butcher speaks freely about their sexuality as well as their gender identity. They use their platform to educate audiences about nonbinary folks while simultaneously cracking jokes about how uncomfortable people get when they can’t tell if Butcher is a man or a woman.

Not all queer standup comedy is tragic, though. Tig Notaro’s latest special, “Happy To Be Here,” is a sweet, heartfelt, and joyful conclusion to her two previous specials, “Liveand “Boyish Girl Interrupted.” In “Live,” Notaro infamously discussed her mother’s death and her breast cancer diagnosis in an unplanned set the day of her diagnosis. “Boyish Girl Interrupted” is a wry and genuinely goofy follow-up to the devastating brilliance of “Live.” Through these performances, Notaro has proven her talent and comedic range, demonstrating her ability to turn deeply personal tragedies into groundbreaking comedy, just as much as she can turn her marriage and home life into goofy, sweet bits.

Tig Notaro, Rhea Butcher, Margaret Cho

The aforementioned women — along with others like Gina Yashere, Margaret Cho, Sabrina Jalees, and Kate McKinnon — are currently reshaping the world of comedy. Collectively, they demonstrate the ability of queer women to not only turn the challenges of queerness and womenness into hilarious, incisive social commentary, but also, the ability of queer women to be funny about anything and everything.

Audrey Black is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and a rising junior at Connecticut College. She is an English major and Event Coordinator at Conn’s LGBTQIA Center.
the voice and vision of a new generation