Beaten to the Punch Line

Maria Bamford, above, a California-based comedian, says the unspoken rule of having no more than one female comic on a bill is
Maria Bamford, above, a California-based comedian, says the unspoken rule of having no more than one female comic on a bill is "a prejudicial hiring practice." Comics such as Lisa Lampanelli, left, and Sarah Silverman, right, have taken a more male-oriented approach to their acts. (By Marsaili Mcgrath -- Getty Images)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Maria Bamford, a stand-up comedian for the past 14 years, knows the rules of the laughter business. And one of the rules of comedy-club booking goes like this:

Only one female comic can play on the bill each night. Few clubs will ever exceed that quota.

"It's just a prejudicial hiring practice," says Bamford, 36, of the unspoken practice. The only exceptions, she says, are special "theme" nights, when women or non-white comics are featured as "The Ladies of Laughter," "Urban Night" (for African Americans) or "ChopShtick" (as one Los Angeles club promoted its all-Asian American bill).

The one-woman rule may help explain a striking fact about the state of stand-up comedy these days. Although there's never been a great time to be a female comedian, fewer women are breaking through to stand-up's top ranks.

Most every comic deals with aspects of the job such as constant travel. And working nights in boozy joints. And the nonexistent job security, wildly variable pay and isolation from friends and family. But for female comics, there's also the facet of being in a culture -- and a business -- that's uneasy with the idea of a woman generating laughter.

Bamford, a California-based comedian, says that after any performance, female comics "will have at least five guys coming up to [them] and saying there aren't many funny women, that [they're] the funniest woman they've seen.

"It's sort of a compliment, but" -- she pauses and sighs -- "okay."

Such encounters might help explain why there are far fewer women than men on the comedy trail -- and why relative to their male counterparts, few women have ever become nationally known as stand-up comics.

Excepting comic actresses, which is a very different thing, the list of famous female stand-ups is a short one.

Almost all the best-known from the past couple of generations can be listed in short order: Joan Rivers, Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, Minnie Pearl, Elaine May and Moms Mabley in the Sullivan era. Lily Tomlin was a comic queen of the 1970s. Then came Whoopi Goldberg, Elayne Boosler, Sandra Bernhard, Roseanne Barr, Rita Rudner, Brett Butler, Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres. Then there's Caroline Rhea, Joy Behar, Margaret Cho, Rosie O'Donnell. Also emerging largely in the '90s: Janeane Garafalo, Wendy Liebman, Kathy Griffin and Wanda Sykes, as well as Sarah Silverman (whose Comedy Central show is a new hit). Add in a few up-and-comers, such as Lisa Lampanelli, and you've about covered the field.

Just 25 names. In 40 or so years. The equivalent list of male comics would run almost as long as Bob Hope's or George Burns's careers.

A few years ago, Comedy Central surveyed a panel of comedians to draw up a list of the 100 "greatest" stand-up comics of "all time." Despite the admittedly subjective nature of the exercise, a limited time frame (the list was heavily weighted with names of the past 20 years) and absurd omissions (Tomlin, Steve Allen, Danny Kaye, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), the results seemed to certify a chromosomal dominance in comedy:

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