How To Yes, And Each Other: The 6 Rules of Female Comedy Collaboration

By Anna Fields, Columnist

Recently Women’s eNews republished Roxane Gay’s 2014 list of “13 Rules for Female Friendships.” It’s an astoundingly funny, truth-be-told collection. And since comedy, as we all know, is rooted in telling the truth, I immediately recognized that – with a few minor tweaks – this list perfectly applies to women in comedy collaborations.

There’s this weird thing where, as a “female comic,” (a term I hate, since men aren’t labeled “male comedians,” but simply “comedians,” leaving the rest of us in the “other” category), we’re given more responsibility. We can’t simply be funny. We have to be strong and brave and insightful and progressive. Obviously, when men place these expectations on us, they’re being sexist and ridiculous. But women do it, too—to ourselves and to each other. Every once in a while, I’ll receive a response from a woman who’s just read my latest book, with something along the lines of, “I didn’t like the way you wrote this.” Comedians who also happen to be women experience this after their shows every single night. Their fellow women will nitpick what they say and how they say it as opposed to remembering that progress works in stages, and that we can only accomplish it by working together through a series of attempts. These attempts will be imperfect. Every bit of progress has been imperfect. But we have to remind ourselves (and each other) that such imperfection builds upon itself, and that pursuing imperfection is the only way to grow. That’s how we all evolve. That’s how we all get better together. That’s how the theory behind “Yes, And” works to create some of the best comedy—and through it, the best society—we’ve ever had.

To get where we want to go—as comedians, as women, as friends, and as a world—we have to remember to “Yes, And” each other.

Sometimes, I’ll forget to do it, too. As Aparna Nancherla confessed to me behind a wall at the Magnet Theatre in NYC, “I’ll see another girl at a show, whom I’ve never seen before, and then I’ll sort of want to size her up. She’ll jump out to me simply by virtue of the fact that she’s the only other girl. But then I’ll sort of check myself on those thoughts and be like, ‘Why are you feeling this way?’

“Do you think that might be part of the narrative?” I asked.

“Yeah. Like, at some point, someone decided that there will only be one or two girls—maximum—allowed in the show. They decided to make that an unspoken rule. And thus, they’re going to force any women who want those slots to duke it out amongst each other…”

“And then,” I added, “we’ll get super distracted. So distracted, in fact, that we won’t have time to question why there’s a rule at all or who exactly decided to go along with it in the first place.”

And then she nodded. Because, she and I agreed (and I hope you do, too): that’s utter bullshit. But this rule still exists, and it still works, and it always will… until we stop working it. Until we start truly working with rather than against one another. So here are a few rules for How to “Yes, And” Each Other into Amazingness:

  1. Give each other a break. Feel compassion for each other. Sure, of course: You can be mad at your collaborator when she fucks up. You don’t have to give her an automatic pass just because she’s a woman. In fact, you can (and likely should) be mad as hell when she does something that hurts your feeling. And you can (and likely will) be hurt by other women in general! But remember: If anyone has been where you’ve been… if anyone has had the same problems you’ve had… it’s her.
  2. Abandon the myth that all comedy collaborations between women must be bitchy, toxic or competitive. If you EVER doubt that women working together can be AMAZING, please see Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley, Tina and Amy, Abbi and Ilana… etc. to infinity.
  3. If you are the kind of comedian who says anything resembling, “I’m just one of the guys,” or “I’m funnier when I perform with guys,” or “Guys are just easier to deal with,” and you actually believe these statements, do yourself a big favor and STOP to THINK for a second. Do you actually hear yourself? It’s okay if most of your friends are guys, but if you’re willing to champion these statements because you subconsciously think they’re a true reflection of either your or other women’s comedic talents, then you’re simply regurgitating the sexism you’ve been force-fed your whole life. You’re infected with Patriarchy and you need to go home. It’s like having the flu, but you don’t know it yet, so you just keep walking around coughing up all sorts of toxic nonsense in public without covering your mouth. Go to bed and read some Audre Lorde before you make everyone else sick, too.
  4. Want nothing but the best for your fellow comedians who also happen to be women, because when your fellow comedians who also happy to be women are happy and successful, it’s probably going to be easier for you to be happy and successful one day, too. As I’ve often found: Talented, hardworking women utilize the talents of other hardworking women. And on that note:
  5. If you and your friend(s) are both comedians, and you can collaborate or help each other, DO IT NOW. Don’t be ashamed or nervous or weird about this in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER. It’s not your fault that your friends are awesome. Comedians who also happen to be men invented nepotism and practically live by it. It’s okay for comedians who also happen to be women to do it, too. And finally:
  6. When you totally, completely, 100% flat-out BOMB onstage, and you need to talk to your friends about it, and they ask you how you are, don’t say “Fine.” They know you’re lying and it irritates them and a lot of time is wasted with the back-and-forth of “Are you sure?” and “Yes?” and “Really?” and “I AM FINE.” Tell your lady friends the truth so you can talk it out and either sulk companionably or move on to other topics… like the next show you’re all going to put on together, which will be flat-out THE bomb. (Yes, I made a corny ‘90’s reference, so just take a moment to yourself to deal with that.)

As Emily Nussbaum once wrote for the New Yorker, “There’s a poem by Sharon Olds called ‘The Elder Sister.’ In it, the narrator talks about how much she used to hate her sister, ‘sitting and pissing on me.’ But then she learned to see that the harsh marks on her older sister’s face (her wrinkles, the frown lines) were ‘the dents on my shield, the blows that did not reach me.’ Her sister had protected her by being there first—not with love ‘but as a / hostage protects the one who makes her / escape as I made my escape, with my sister’s / body held in front of me.’

“Maybe that’s also true of [comedians who happen to be women, like Joan] Rivers: her flamboyant self-hatred made possible this generation’s flamboyant self-love, set the groundwork for the crazy profusion of female comics on TV these days, on cable and network, cheerleading one another, collaborating and producing and working in teams, as if women weren’t enemies at all. (Everywhere but in late-night TV: decades after Carson, there are still ten men on that list.) Rivers came first—and if her view darkened, if she became an evangelist for the ideas that had hurt her the most, she also refused to give in, to disappear. ‘I would not want to live if I could not perform,’ she once said. ‘It’s in my will. I am not to be revived unless I can do an hour of stand-up.’ That’s its own kind of inspiration. We can celebrate it without looking away.”

Anna Fields is an author and independent filmmaker, whose various works have been published, produced, developed, and awarded by Penguin Putnam, Skyhorse/Arcade, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Forbes, Marie Claire, Bunim/Murray, PB&J Television, CBS, ABC, Turner/Cartoon Network, LaMaMa Etc., and the Austin and Toronto Film Festivals. Her latest book, The Girl in the Show, is available now wherever books are sold.