“Women aren’t funny.” Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, the statement has become a misogynistic cliché to the point that it only serves as an effective red flag for those still saying it publicly.
However, this mistaken cliché still has an effect on whose voices do and don’t get lifted up in comedy. In Charlotte, several women are doing their part to strengthen the scene through their work not only as performers but as show producers in the Charlotte comedy scene.
Queen City Nerve recently spoke to four such women who are building their own names through performance and production to hear their thoughts on where Charlotte stands and how they are creating their own paths.
Olivia May followed a familiar path to Charlotte, moving here from New York City as part of a job relocation in the banking sector. Despite coming from one of the most well-established cities for stand-up comedy, May sees potential in Charlotte’s smaller scene.
“Women are starting to lead,” May said. “I feel like there are much more people out there that want to get into it.”
Other comedians have migrated to Charlotte to take advantage of that growth, such as Gayle Murray, who is from Memphis, Tennessee by way of Lansing, Michigan.
Murray, who said she was “born to be a storyteller,” began her comedy career at Michigan State University after some classmates read her plays and found them funny.
“So, I tried doing stand-up because I felt like I don’t have a whole team of actors to do my plays,” she said.
Like May, Murray believes women have lately been pushing to the forefront of the comedy scene. She said Charlotte is working on being more progressive, but “underrepresentation is its own form of prejudice.”
May added that comedy in Memphis was a matriarchy and the city made a point to make her feel welcome there.
Stand-up comedian and show producer Kaya Allyn agreed with Murray that there are about five men for every one woman in the local comedy landscape. Because the comedy scene here in Charlotte is so small, most of these women know each other and have worked together at some point in the past.
On the other hand, some feel like a recent push for more representation may have had the opposite effect as intended. Cheyenne Boozer, a local improv performer and stand-up comedian who began writing comedy at UNC Charlotte and started performing live last summer, never bought into the “Women aren’t funny” trope.
“Being a woman is never not associated with doing comedy,” she told Queen City Nerve. “Sometimes it feels ostracizing to count how many women are at an open mic. Some producers want to be inclusive to the point of painting by the numbers. That practice invalidates our hard work but it also gives women in comedy a few more opportunities than the average guy.”
Despite Charlotte’s history, there’s hope that it can become a sprawling arts hub with the proper amount of representation.
Make a production out of it
In addition to performing onstage, all four women Queen City Nerve spoke to produce shows, which involves booking comedians for gigs, selling tickets and other responsibilities to ensure everything goes well.
“Producing is a great way to be seen in more ways than one. First, people will see you promoting shows, so other comics are more likely to reach out and form a relationship,” Boozer said. “And booking comedians is a sure-fire way to be seen by them, so they can recommend you to other producers and comics.”
While the comedians we spoke to agree that producing can detract from the real reason they’re playing a show — to hone their stand-up skills — there are perks.
“I wanted to have a say in a show where I got to choose who I was on with,” May said. “And also I think it lets you develop skills as a host that you don’t really get unless you host your own show.”
“I’m much further along than I would have been if I didn’t know how to produce,” echoed Murray.
Still, it’s a stressful job that adds to an already nerve-wracking experience.
“The anxiety of a paid show, it keeps me up at night,” Allyn said.
The need to produce while simultaneously performing stems from a lack of representation. Male comedians don’t often double as producers because they either don’t need to or they feel it will take away from their performance.
Men in this field can afford to make that choice. Women can’t.
“I think women are more likely to produce and perform because we are willing to put that work in,” Boozer said.
“I want to show up and just be like, I’m the star,” Murray said. “I don’t want to be the backend.”
Still, these four women are making the best of their respective situations. Allyn has several shows she produces in Charlotte, including an Open Mic at Triple C Brewing; Truth or Dare Comedy, an unscripted event at Birdsong Brewing; and Bold and Beautiful, a comedy showcase at Protagonist Beer. May will soon launch a program called Fun and Flirty Comedy Show, a women-and-queer-only open mic show at Petty Thieves Brewery.
These women are versatile onstage, too; three of the comics we spoke with do improv shows as well as stand-up.
The main difference between stand-up and improv is that stand-up comedy is a more traditional comedy routine with a scripted set of jokes while improv is … improvisational. There’s no script, the comics have to work with what they have.
In addition to working off the cuff, improv performers have to work together onstage, which can be a much different experience from performing stand-up alone. This can work out well for some, but not so much for others.
Boozer, for example, participates in improv from time to time, but the dependence on others — focusing on her relation to her colleagues and their location onstage — can take away from the experience, she said.
“Improv can be funny but my level of self-awareness keeps it from being fun,” Boozer said.
On the other hand, it is that heightened sense of self-awareness that led Murray to do improv and thrive at it. Producers and mentors had been telling her that, while her content was great, she was “hiding from the stage” while performing stand-up.
“So, I took improv to help my performance skills, but in the process, I learned a lot about listening,” Murray recalled.
Because the comics have to work with other people, listening is a key component of improv, as is trusting people. In stand-up, the comics rely on themselves. With all the moving parts associated with improv, it allows one to further develop their skills, which is why Allyn thinks all stand-up comedians should try it.
“I think of it as expanding your skill set. With improv you’re having to be hyper-flexible, creative, and imaginative. It helped with my confidence and there were countless times it helped with writing new jokes or thinking about scenarios differently,” Allyn said. “Even if you feel like you inherently have all these things, improv will make you better.”
Allyn has performed improv in the past, but hasn’t been dedicated to it lately because she feels it’s a bigger commitment than stand-up. Her Truth or Dare show, however, does blend the two mediums, which allows her to keep things fresh.
Plenty of comics don’t even venture into the improv scene, as stand-up generally dominates live comedy in pop culture. Many are also reluctant to try something as unfamiliar as improv.
“I felt like I was more of a stand-up person than improv because I’ve never been a theatre kid and I feel like improv is very theatre kid,” May said.
Despite her misgivings, she added that she does want to take an improv class in the near future to see how it goes.
Murray believes more people would try comedy if there were more arts programs for youth and adults. In addition to drawing inspiration from sketch comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live and Whose Line Is It Anyway?, most of the women we spoke to were inspired to become comedians after excelling at creative writing programs or something similar.
“It sucks how easily the arts have been cut in this country,” Murray said. “Thanks, Reaganomics.”
Despite having the cards stacked against them, these comedians are going to keep working hard.
“I have this feeling of making Charlotte a matriarchy,” Allyn said. “I’m just going to do as much work as I can to make sure that happens.”
As hard as these women are working to represent and be represented, they are in agreement that they would like to see more like them joining the field.
“If people are interested in starting comedy, women especially, they should try it out,” May said. “There are a lot of really great women in the scene, and a lot of really great men in the scene, too, but the more the merrier.”
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