Beth Stelling and the World of Female-Dominated Standup

bethstelling“Standup comedy is very female dominated,” says comedian Beth Stelling, as she takes the stage at the Royale in Boston for the filming of her Comedy Central Half Hour. She follows that statement with a charming tale of attending a comedy festival and receiving a gift bag, wherein the main present was a Fleshlight. It’s little gestures like these that remind Stelling that there’s still work to be done on the gender equality battlefront. But Stelling approaches such issues with an intimidating level of cool and calm. She knows where she is, where’s she’s going, and what she needs to do to get there. Her career has already been dotted with highlights like being named Chicago’s Best Standup Comedian in 2010, appearing as one of Just For Laughs New Faces in 2011, and performing on both Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live. Stelling shows no signs of slowing down. Today marks the debut of her second album, Simply the Beth, and tomorrow night her Comedy Central Half Hour premieres at 12:30am. I chatted with Stelling about the album, the special, her attempt to keep her comedy clean, and her quest to reach the glass ceiling.

Most of the comics I’ve talked to before the premiere of their Half Hour haven’t seen it yet. Have you seen yours?

Yes. I got it the other day in an email from my manager while I was driving somewhere. To be safe, I watched it while I was driving, glancing down every now and then. My mom would kill me. I didn’t actually… I heard the material that was in it, but I wasn’t really watching much of my face. I assume my face is ok. I’m happy with it. I had fun doing it. I will say, for being a fairly clean comic, there are three “fucks” and a “fucking.” That will be interesting for my mom.

I was reading an article about how you got inspired by Jim Gaffigan. You kind of wanted to be a clean comic. While I was watching the special I was wondering what happened in between now and then?

[Laughing] Oh no, that kind of makes me feel bad. Not that you meant to. Was it pretty dirty to you?

No. It’s just that for me personally, I associate clean comedy with the material staying kind of light. You usually go dark, while still keeping it PG-13. But when they were hitting the censor bleep in this special, I was like, “Oh, this might be her thing now.”

I think what happened there was that I find that story kind of important and funny. I had two young women come up to me after a show. They were very complimentary and everything they said was meant well. They were both kind of opposites. One of them was like, “I love how you can be up there and just be kind of gross and dirty, but still hot.” The other one was like, “Don’t you feel that you have a responsibility to talk about issues that would further women and use your platform to discuss feminism?” My response to that is that being a comic who is a woman, that is my little feminist crusade in itself. That story kind of encompasses that topic, which is that the main gift for comics at a festival was a male sex toy. That’s fucking ridiculous and hilarious. Fleshlight is a great company. They’ve been very good to me and treat their employees well, so it’s not like I’m trashing them at all. But that’s why I opened with that. One of my favorite things to say is, “Standup comedy is very female dominated.” It gets a laugh, which is very telling and kind of awesome.

I guess that was a long way of answering, “Am I blue now?” No. I just really wanted to tell that story and it involves a fake pussy. I don’t want to be afraid to tell anything. When I first started, it was important for me to be clean. I found it more challenging to not cuss, or rely on a cuss word to make the punchline funnier, because it absolutely can. I also didn’t want to be describing graphic sexual acts. I had seen that a couple of times when I was casing the joint in Chicago. I thought, “I don’t want to do that. What’s funny about that? It’s more like exhibitionism.” I’ve done colleges where you can’t talk about sex or drugs or whatever. I can do it, but I think this is where this topic hits me: I want to be able to do it. I just don’t want to rely on that type of stuff. I guess that’s the root of all of this. Me seeing comics early on being really graphic and disgusting and relying on cuss words and me not wanting to do that, I think it scares me when it’s like, “Am I not clean? Can I not just be funny?” Yeah, I’m not the cleanest. But I’m also not the trope of, “I’m a pretty girl with a dirty mouth.” That’s not me.

I’m looking at your currently pinned tweet and I love it so much. It says, “I’ve been called a ‘female comic’ so many times, I’ll probably only be able to answer to ‘girl daddy’ when I have children.” I know that when you started out… actually, I read that when you were on the debate team you realized it was male-dominated and that you would have to deal with that through most of your career. How do feel things are now compared to when you first started?

I did an interview yesterday and I said, “I’m a female comedian.” I literally fell over backwards laughing. I couldn’t believe I did that, calling myself a female comic. But in the past it sort of felt like, “One at a time please.” Now we’re seeing more female-driven shows. You’ve got Amy Schumer backed by Jessi Klein. You’ve got Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome heading that show together. We’re seeing a lot of women working together and that’s amazing. It’s not that it hasn’t been happening. It’s absolutely been happening. I’ve never felt animosity from any female comic, especially one that was above me in terms of careers. No one has ever been aggressive or unwelcoming to me. We definitely pat each other’s backs. And a lot of male comics have stepped up and made an effort to support female comics. That’s how I’ve felt. Even with the special… on Monday I tweeted “5 Days Until This” and did a picture of my hair veil, where I say that if I get married I’m going to use my own hair as a wedding veil. I didn’t ask anybody, “Hey guys, my special is coming out. Can you help?” I noticed people — women comics and a bunch of male comics — retweeting that for me and spreading the word and using their following to help me out.

I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. I know a lot of L.A. shows try to put an equal amount of men and women on the lineups. I don’t want to say, “Oh, our work is done.” I know there’s still a struggle. I’m also not at the height of my career. I’m not hitting any glass ceilings because I’m still on the middle board. I can’t speak to what it’s like dealing with huge production companies and networks at this point in my career. I’ve certainly been pitching shows. I go out for things. I’ve experienced all of that. Of course there are negative stories that I could tell. “We’re not looking for any more female comedy at this time,” or whatever. But for every one of those statements there’s three other companies who say, “We’re looking for female driven comedy.” I feel positive.

To add to your point, I submitted to a festival this summer and in the submission form it specifically said that in an effort to diversify they weren’t actively seeking straight, white, male comics.

Now it’s your turn, Isaac! Feel the burn.

What else do you have coming up?

On Friday I have an album coming out with Comedy Dynamics called Simply the Beth. I’m very excited about it. It will have anything on the special that wasn’t on my first album and a lot of new material. It also has the extended story that I told on The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail and a longer version of my mom’s Sprint story.

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