Conan O’Brien. Jay Leno. David Letterman. Jimmy Kimmel.
Since Steve Allen went on the air in 1954, the late-night comedy talk show has been the sole province of men, with very few exceptions. It’s still that way today, which, frankly, kind of bugs Dana Buchwald.
“One of my favorite shows — although I probably watch it too much right now — is ‘The Daily Show,’” Buchwald said, referring to Jon Stewart’s faux-news show on Comedy Central. “You know, they only have one female correspondent on that show.”
She had the same complaint with stand-up and sketch comedy. On TV and on the stage, male comedians seem to vastly outnumber their female counterparts.
“[Comedy] is still very much a boys’ club,” Buchwald said.
With “Women Stand Up! A Comedy Cabaret” Buchwald has carved out a space for women performers from all the comedic disciplines. Nearing the end of its second season at Bryant-Lake Bowl, the series features an ever-changing lineup of women doing stand-up, performance pieces, slam poetry, storytelling, improv and sketch comedy.
Since opening in November 2006, the cabaret has hosted veteran performers like Maxine Jeffris — who has multiple appearances on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” under her belt — as well as newbies like Macalester College student Molly Jane Knefel.
Knefel was only in her first year on the local stand-up comedy scene, performing mostly at open mics around the metro area. Still, she was familiar with the stereotypes in the male-dominated comedy world.
She said audiences often “see women comedians more as women than comedians.”
In March, Knefel shared the stage with Tammy Nerby, a comedian with 15 years of experience on the comedy club circuit. Nerby said it wasn’t unusual to encounter sexism on the road.
“I’ve literally had club owners say to my face, ‘Women aren’t funny,’” she recalled.
Audiences, too, can arrive at shows with preconceived notions — that women just aren’t funny or that they only tell jokes that appeal to women.
“It’s not all period jokes, OK?” she said. “I don’t even hear people do that anymore.”
“The range between female comics is just the same as it is for male comics.”
Both Nerby and Knefel said most Twin Cities stages welcome women performers. And everyone interviewed for this story pointed out that any of the “Women Stand Up!” performers can play with the boys, and regularly do.
The cabaret wasn’t created as a place for comedians with nowhere else to go, Buchwald said. Rather, she hoped to highlight established and up-and-coming female talent.
In March, that meant short sets by Nerby, Kneffel and Mary Kelly, another stand-up comedian (who also happens to run a small trucking company). Character actor George Keller parodied sleazy daytime TV talk shows, and performer Courtney McLean ranted about early-onset midlife crises.
The audience — close to a 50-50 split between men and women — ate it up.
Buchwald said she chose the cabaret format because she thought a variety of acts made for a more interesting evening than a show of only sketch comedy or stand-up. Also, it reflected her interests as a theatergoer.
“A lot of this show is what I wanted to see as an audience member,” she said.
After assembling more than a dozen cabaret evenings, Buchwald came to an interesting realization: In a typical comedy show, there might be one or two women mixed in with the men, so they tend to stand out, she said. But when it’s all women on stage, their gender is almost beside the point.
“Yes, it’s only women on stage,” she said. “But if I put only women on stage for an hour, an hour-and-a-half, then they get to be human.”
Go See It
The next “Women Stand Up! A Comedy Cabaret” is April 12 at Bryant-Lake Bowl
810 W. Lake St.
The series runs on the second Saturday of the month.
Tickets are $10–$14. 612-825-8949.