Talking About Things Other Than Whether or Not Women Are Funny with Bonnie McFarlane
It’s been almost eight years since Christopher Hitchens penned his 2008 op-ed for Vanity Fair that said women aren’t funny, and a lot has changed since then. Bridesmaids happened. Broad City is a hit. There are now two black female cast members on SNL, Amy Schumer reigns supreme, and we’re even getting an all-lady Ghostbusters movie for good measure. But that doesn’t mean the stigma against funny women has disappeared.
In the four years since comedian Bonnie McFarlane and her husband Rich Vos produced Women Aren’t Funny, the documentary response to Hitchens article, things have continued to improve for women in the industry. As McFarlane says, funny women might be having a “moment.” But since the documentary found new life on Netflix just last year, it’s clear that the issues it explores — like the lack of national female headliners, outdated club practices, and other challenges — still resonate.
I spoke to McFarlane on the phone ahead of her week of shows at The Creek & The Cave (11/11-11/14) as part of the New York Comedy Festival, where she’ll be working on her new hour for an upcoming special. Her upcoming memoir, You’re Better Than Me, will be published in February 2016 and is available for preorder on Amazon.
Read on to hear McFarlane’s updated thoughts on the documentary, her husband-and-wife podcast, going on the road with her 8-year-old daughter, and why she’s thinking about calling her new special “Trigger Warning.”
What do you think has changed the most about women in the industry since you made your documentary in 2012?
It’s still one of the top documentaries on Netflix, so obviously the issues are still there. But I think it’s a good time to be a female comic right now. It feels like we might be hot right now [laughs]. We might be having a moment.
But yet again, at this year’s New York Comedy Festival, there’s a panel about women in comedy discussing “Tales From The Dark Side.”
Yeah, I think some of those “women in comedy” panels should be changed to shows. I think people want to go see women in comedy, so [panels] like that are still the events that have the most female comics in them. If you want to see a funny female comic, you’d go to something like an, “Are women getting their fair shot at comedy?” discussion. We should be having shows rather than a panel talking about it.
Did you notice a bigger response to of the documentary after it hit Netflix?
Huge. Huge. I didn’t expect that kind of a jump but it’s been pretty amazing. I feel good about having it on there — I want people to see it, and I think it’s really funny and holds up — but the conditions have changed a bit since then. [The idea of women not being funny] came into the zeitgeist back then and it all happened so fast, but I don’t think that women not being taken seriously in comedy is not a relevant issue anymore. There are still some old holdouts, some old club owners who are still jackasses about it, but for the most part, I think it’s a pretty good time.
Do you still experience sexism, say, when you’re performing out on the road?
I don’t know if it’s sexism. I do still feel like I don’t get a fair shake — I don’t know if it’s because I’m a women or because I’m an asshole — but a lot of clubs are still doing things the way they were doing them in the 80s. Things have changed but they’re not changing with it. There are still these club owners who think if they put a women up, they’re not going to get as many people through the door. Which is absolutely crazy.
On Judy Gold’s podcast you mention the “hangback” effect: that thing where men are naturally expected to say something funny, but women are not, so people hesitate to laugh at them.
Yeah, [the audience] doesn’t always know if [women] are funny right away. You have to say like three funny things in a row until they’re like, “Oh I think she’s being funny!” I also have a theory, which I think still holds true, that a lot of times a man will think you’re funnier if you laugh at him. You can say 87 hilarious things in a row, but if you laugh at him, he’ll say, “Ahh, she gets it.”
So maybe the problem is just that women aren’t laughing at men enough.
I think that’s it! [Laughs] In order to change it — if you want a man to think you’re funny — just start laughing.
In your upcoming memoir you talk about growing up on a farm in Canada, chopping chicken’s heads off, and riding horses, among other things that make it sound like you grew up in the 1800s. I’m surprised you don’t joke about any of this in your act.
I know. It’s weird. First of all, I’m not a very autobiographical comic. I talk about issues and things and the world more than I talk about myself or even my husband or my kid. It seems like it would be a one-woman show if I was going to talk about [my childhood]. It’s not something you can approach in say, a 10-minute set. It’s just a lot.
Right, and you’re much more of a joke writer than a storyteller.
I do try to be real and true to my experience, or whatever, but a good joke will win. I’ll sell my own story out for a better joke.
Conversely, the podcast/radio show you do with your husband Rich, My Wife Hates Me, is very personal. It often feels like you’re talking as if no one’s listening.
I know. Lots of time it’s too real. I often want to not put it out, But then [Rich] will say, “Well then we have to record another one,” and I’m too lazy so I say, “Okay fine, put this one out.” Like I was saying, I’m not autobiographical, and Rich is very autobiographical, so he doesn’t care. He wants to talk about everything. Sometimes it’s torture, like we’re having a therapy session in front of everyone.
It’s interesting that you two are such different comics.
Well that’s the thing, sometimes when Rich and I do the road together, he talks about his family life a lot so people think, “Oh, she’s going to talk about him, he’s going to talk about her.” But it’s not. I have my own thing that I’m doing. It’s always hard to convince people that it’s not going to be this he-said-she-said ad.
I can imagine that’s intensified when you’re opening for him.
Yeah, people always want to bill us as a married couple. I don’t like there to be anything about us being married on the poster or anything, for that reason. And sometimes the club owner or whomever will put up a picture of Rich and I that they just found on the Internet, like on Instagram or something, of he and I just standing together, like with his arm around me. They’ll use that for our poster picture and I’m like, “Oh my God.”
It’s as if they think you’re going to share a mic or something.
Yes! [Laughs] They just seem way too into it for a standup show. Someone said to us once, “Oh you guys are very similar, in your cadence and how you present your jokes.” And we were both appalled. It was the worst thing anyone could have said to either one of us.
What’s the best thing about being married comedians? Or the most challenging thing?
The best thing is definitely being able to talk about comedy all the time if we want. Neither one of us is ever like, “Hey, can we talk about something else?” We never have to curb it, so we talk about comedy a lot. We make fun of shows. We never offend each other about anything we say, so that’s good. And the bad is that we have no boundaries. We have fights in front of our friends; it can get embarrassing. Neither one of us has any control over our emotions. Like, we’ll have fights in Wal-Mart. We don’t care. And later I’ll be so embarrassed, but it is what it is.
Does your eight-year-old daughter like standup or does she have opinions about comedy?
Oh, yes. She’s fully allowed to watch all the comedy she wants. She’s not that into it, but when she comes on the road with me to like a comedy club, where she has to hang out in the green room, she does listen to the jokes and she knows who’s good and who’s not. She’ll repeat jokes that are good — she’s told me jokes that other comedians have said, that I didn’t know they did, that are really funny. She’s really aware and she herself is very funny. I don’t know if she’s going to peak at nine and then become a really weird, alternative comic [laughs], but she’s gotta be way ahead of her peers as far as joke construction goes, at least.
She’ll probably end up on Last Comic Standing season 30, or something.
Right [laughs]. Rich has taken her on the road a couple of times, but it’s usually her and I going on the road together. If I go without her, it’s just too awful. It’s soul-destroying. I need her there. And I always think it’s boring for her, but she loves it. She wouldn’t want to do it any other way.
Tell me about your Week at the Creek, what kind of set are you working on?
Well, I want to do a televised hour, I don’t know where yet, but I have been talking to some people. And then after that hour, I’m going to do a CD. I’ve never done a CD and it’s going to have completely different material — more home and family stuff — but at the Creek, I’m working on what I’m putting together for the hour special.
What are some of the themes of that hour?
You know, just what’s going on in our world. Stuff like, making mistakes using pronouns when referring to someone who’s transgender, having everyone telling you to get off your phone all the time. Binge-watching. It all sounds so awful when you list it like that, but it’s mostly along the lines of the silliness of trigger warnings. I’m thinking about maybe calling the special Trigger Warning, but I’m not sure yet.
It’s difficult for comedians to approach transgender topics right now for that reason.
It’s one of those areas where people get nervous, but I think when I start doing the bit, you know that I’m on the right side of it, so I haven’t had any trouble with it. But I like jokes where you get the tension really high and then you relieve that tension. To me, those are the best jokes — when people think you’re going to say something really racist or negative, but you make them laugh instead. I think a lot of people feel like they’re micro-aggressing people by accident, you know, saying the wrong thing. And there needs to be a little room for humans to make mistakes.