By Pamela Ross, Contributor
The multi-talented Anna Fields holds a law degree and an MFA in Dramatic Writing and has worked as an author, television writer, and producer. For her newest project The Girl in the Show, Fields interviewed over 50 female-identified comedians to research the relationship between feminism and women’s ascendance in American comedy. Several high-profile endeavors recently covered the “women in comedy” subject, including Yael Kohen’s oral history We Killed, the PBS documentary series Makers, and CNN’s The History of Comedy. However, Fields specifically examines how the feminist movement’s fight for gender equality has shaped—and continues to shape—women’s comedic creative expression and careers. What originated as a documentary also became a book, which will be released on August 8. Here is a condensed version of my stimulating conversation with Fields.
PR: Given the fact that you are an historian – that is kind of the angle from which you’re coming at a lot of this – and I read a few years ago Yael Kohen’s book We Killed…
AF: We Killed! It’s a great work! Came out in 2012 – yeah, it’s a good one!
PR: …yeah! I enjoyed that a lot and I learned a lot about, you know, women’s contributions to comedy and entertainment that I had never known about. So I was wondering why sometimes women’s contributions to comedy and pop culture are forgotten to history or maybe not even acknowledged at the time? How can people best exhume that history and keep it alive in the present day?
AF: I think that women’s contributions, first of all, to pop culture are more celebrated in my opinion – or at least more examined; more heavily, intensely examined – than their contributions to other areas of our world. I don’t think that women’s contributions to science, women’s contributions to mathematics, women’s contributions to our basic political social structures – I don’t think that those contributions are known. They’re neither celebrated nor are they criticized; they’re simply not told. And I think that women’s contributions to pop culture, while they’re examined, in my opinion and in my research, are much more heavily scrutinized than men’s contributions to pop culture. We just hold them to a much higher standard.
And I think that that’s always been the case, but I think that, for better or for worse, pop culture has closed that gap of examining how women are contributing. But it would be nice to have that same gap closed in terms of women’s other contributions. Because I think comedy sort of exists in pop culture, but comedy exists in the political sphere, it exists certainly in the social sphere, and many would argue in the scientific sphere. The act of physically laughing can change the chemical balances in the brain and can create peace, can create joy, can create happy moments – that release of serotonin. And so comedy has a lot to do with that. So I don’t think that we’re necessarily exploring the way that women have contributed to our world in quote-unquote more “substantive” areas than perhaps more temporal pop culture.
But in terms of increasing that or encouraging that, I think we’ve just gotta tell these stories that aren’t told, and haven’t been told, that have been – not necessarily suppressed – but… Historically, because women were not legally allowed to publish works under their own name, they had to take on male pseudonyms or publish under their husbands’ names or their fathers’ names or their brothers’ names or even their sons’ names. So we haven’t heard their histories in other avenues of the world. And that is clearly changing, but we have forty-thousand years of quite literal legal, physical, social, emotional, and political subjugation to make up for. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.
PR: For this retrospective, why did you choose Gilda Radner’s national debut on SNL as a jumping-off point?
AF: So I rewatched that pilot which premiered before I was born, but I grew up watching reruns and loving Gilda especially because she loved to play childlike characters and that really appealed to me as a child. I started doing more research about Gilda herself and I discovered in my research that when she was asked to join the Not Ready for Prime Time Players by John Belushi – and part of this is rumor and part of this is legend – that the Not Ready for Prime Time Players attracted an audience by using the then very novel hook of “There’s a girl in the show.” You know, the idea that a girl would be in a comedy troupe, it was entirely new at that time, and she was literally the only girl. Harold Ramis was there, John Belushi was there, and other individuals were there, but she was the only girl. And when I noticed that, I really started opening my eyes to the fact that even twenty years later when Amy Poehler started Upright Citizens Brigade, she was the only girl in a four-person comedy troupe. She was also “the girl in the show.”
Having so many talks with comedians, I’ve learned how often it is that in a five-person troupe, there’ll only be one girl. Or in a seven-person comedy lineup, there’ll be two girls. And they try to space out the women, because they think that all women have the same things to bring to a group. And so it’s still sort of this novelty of “And there’s a girl in the show,” “Oh, it’s a ladies’ night,” “Oh, it’s a women’s show!” It’s sort of like that’s the hook that makes it a different kind of comedy. And that sort of in a way subjugates women even more, because it places them in a show category: “Here’s the standard comedy, here’s the standard comedian, and here’s the deviation from the norm. Ooh, isn’t that interesting, isn’t that weird?” That’s how the idea came to me, that I really wanted to take a look at what being the girl in the show has looked like over the last approximately ninety years of women engaging in comedic acting for television and in films, and in improv comedy and standup comedy. How being a girl in any show has changed in the past few generations.
“We don’t need to be the subcategory of a category. We don’t need to be female senators, female doctors. And you’ve got lady writers and lady reporters. We need to be fifty-one percent of anything, just like we are fifty-one percent of, quite frankly, everything—in our nation, at least.”
PR: What would need to happen so the average person could see, you know, women in comedy, instead of labeling them a “female writer” or “female comic”?
AF: I know I said this a lot in my book, so a little bit less than book-length for you: we all need to be visible. And I think that there need to be more women wholly and completely participating in every aspect of life. We don’t need to be the subcategory of a category. We don’t need to be female senators, female doctors. And you’ve got lady writers and lady reporters. We need to be fifty-one percent of anything, just like we are fifty-one percent of, quite frankly, everything—in our nation, at least. So when there are fifty-one percent of comedians who are female, perhaps we’ll be seen as “comedians” over “female comedians.” But those things take time. There needs to be more comedians who also happen to be female and there needs to be more of everything that also happens to be female. I think that there’s almost like this ourosboros of the snake eating its own tail. We need more women to sign up, and to join the team, and to start leading it. We need more women to be there and for more people to see women doing it. And then they will stop seeing us as an aberration from the norm and simply as the “norm.” But of course for more women to want to join the team, they have to have inspiration and role models to feel safe and welcome and encouraged to join the team. It’s one hand washing the other. We’ve got to have women who are the gatekeepers; not just in the show, but running the show, writing the show, organizing the show, creating the show. Not just being the actresses, but being the directors and producers and CEOs. Because those people are going to determine what content is created and what content the public is seeing.
PR: How can women in comedy support each other most effectively, based on what you’ve learned?
AF: I wrote a whole chapter called “Yes, And” about this, and I think we all need to “yes, and” each other. It’s a very basic, common – you probably know all about it, as a comedian yourself. A basic tenet of improv comedy is to “yes, and” each other, which means you take the contributions of your partner and you say yes, and then you and it. You add your own contribution to her contribution. And in that way you build something together, rather than tearing each other down or criticizing each other or rejecting each other; you’re collaborating rather than competing. Because in patriarchy, one of the basic techniques is a divide and conquer technique, and it’s been useful in every war ever. And it’s also useful in oppressing minorities. And oppressing silent majorities, like women are.
Patriarchy makes us work to compete with one another, to divide us from one another, so that we see each other as competitors for men, competitors for money, competitors for attention, for approval, from patriarchy and male supremacy. So instead of collaborating and “yes, and”-ing each other, we see each other as competitors for that one or two slots in the show, rather than questioning why there’s only one or two slots in the show. Maybe there should be all the slots for us in the show. Let’s focus on the things we can “yes, and” about each other, the things that we share, the things we have in common, the way we can build each other up in really valuable ways, rather than focus on the things that are going to divide us.
Because that is something that is bone-marrow deep. That she is out to get you. She’s gonna steal your man. She’s gonna steal your job. She’s prettier than you. She’s skinnier than you. She’s funnier than you. Let’s just recognize it for what it is: it’s a tactic to keep you oppressed. It’s not gonna help you. Because at the end of the day, if anybody knows what you’re going through, she does.
Pamela Ross is a Boston-based comedian, writer, and producer. She co-produces the weekly showcase The Mendoza Line and writes/performs sketch comedy with Magenta Strike Squad. Her writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Higgs Weldon, and Points in Case, among other places.