When touring comic Jamie Kilstein performed at The New Movement comedy theater earlier this month, Sophie Johnson opened for him. Johnson, a New Orleans writer, comedian and illustrator, got down to business. After telling a few jokes to warm up the crowd, she announced, "I've had an abortion. You can calm down, it was a rape one."
She looked at a man in the audience. "Did you say 'awwww'?" she asked. "I didn't say I have a kitten. I said it was a rape one."
Johnson is a tall, lithe woman with big blue eyes who delicately rounds out every word between her teeth, and wearing a sundress, she doesn't seem as cutting as the persona she adopts onstage. But the audience laughed, and more important, they listened and connected with her.
"I want more people to feel like comedy has this incredible power to bring people together, to make people laugh about things that are really hard," she tells Gambit. "This is a hard life. Life is hard. Humanity is really difficult. ... Comedy has done so much for me as a woman. It's been so healing, and I want other women to feel that way. I'm sad that our comedy shows have so few women attending them and performing in them."
A few months ago, the dearth of women in comedy shows, the sexualization of women in comedy and the treatment of the word "feminism" in general became a frequent topic of conversation for Johnson and New Orleans comedian Molly Ruben-Long. The two wanted to talk about feminism without feeling bad or old hat or whiny, and they wanted to do that with comedy.
The result is 77 Cents: An Unapologetically Feminist Comedy Show and Coloring Book Release Party, which opens May 15 at Hi-Ho Lounge. The show features six comics, a band, a dance party and a coloring book — Johnson and Ruben-Long created a coloring book featuring their favorite female comedians, and pages from the book and crayons will be spread out so people can draw while they listen and laugh.
"We want it to be a huge celebration of funny women," Johnson says.
Comedy shows in New Orleans fluctuate in attendance. "I've been at shows that have three people in the audience," says Ruben-Long, who performs standup and sketch comedy locally and around the country. But 77 Cents already has sold several dozen tickets, and almost 600 people have confirmed their attendance on the event's Facebook page for a venue with a capacity of 250. "So, that's pretty cool," she says.
Ruben-Long and Johnson make it clear that men are invited to the show and included in the roster. Puneet Lakhmani is the only male comic in the show, and he says he's up for the challenge.
"There's part of me that's kind of terrified," Lakhmani says. "Obviously they're not going to see me and immediately throw fruits at me. ... They just want to have a show that's not, in its inception, gross to them. They want to be in a safe space. They're rational people. I don't want to let them down because they're doing this really cool show for all of these really cool, smart ladies and for everybody."
"We specifically asked any person involved in the show if they identified as a feminist, and they had to answer yes to be booked on the show," Ruben-Long says. "But by showing up, we're going to have, hopefully, a couple hundred people who, just by being there, are kind of implicitly saying that they are (feminists) too."
"So far there's this crazy amount of interest around it, which suggests to me that there's this hunger for comedy to be more than just comedy for a lot of people," Johnson adds. "That people want comedy to represent them, and women especially want to feel safe at comedy shows. Not that all women don't, but the fact that so many people want to go to this show makes me think there must be a real thirst for this."
Part of the idea of making a comedy show dedicated specifically to women, both comics agree, is to inspire more women to participate.
"The comic that I saw that made me think, I can do that, is Amy Schumer, which is pretty recent," Ruben-Long says. "Since then I've become more educated. There are a lot more women who do standup, but she was sort of the first one who I was like: 'Oh my God, I agree with her and I feel like I relate to her.'"
Ruben-Long says that's the magic of female comedy, and it's obvious in shows like Broad City, a show about two young New Yorkers (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson), which began as a web series before being picked up by Comedy Central. Closer to home, the comedy troupe rude. (Colleen Allerton and Lauren LaBorde) has found success with its own web videos, including My Purse, My Choice, which has been viewed more than 400,000 times and featured in The New York Times.
Christopher Hitchens tackled the men-are-funnier-than-women trope in his essay "Why Women Aren't Funny," published in Vanity Fair in 2007. In it, he argues women's roles as childbearers put them too close to life to find humor in the darker corners of human existence:
"Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is," Hitchens wrote. "Humor, if we are to be serious about it, arises from the ineluctable fact that we are all born into a losing struggle. Those who risk agony and death to bring children into this fiasco simply can't afford to be too frivolous."
Almost a decade later, the hyper-sexualization of female comics is still in full force. Where once women couldn't be funny because of the unique role they play in the human life cycle, women today are objectified before their senses of humor can even be detected, according to Ruben-Long and Johnson's experiences.
"One time I did a show — it was not here, but it was in the South — where I was introduced as the female comic," Johnson says. "It was, 'Here comes the girl comic, so even if she's not funny, at least there's something to look at for the next five minutes.' And I talked to the host afterwards, and he said I was overly sensitive and that I shouldn't have said that and that he wasn't going to book me again."
"I went to this one show (in New York), and a woman booked me on it but all the other comics were male," Ruben-Long says. "Before the show started, all they were talking about was sexualizing women."
Johnson adds that she's never had a conversation with a male comic about a female comic that didn't involve talking about whether the male comic would sleep with the female one.
"That's never part of the con-versation when you're talking about other male comics," she says. "For the most part, even if he's super-hot, you lead with, 'He's a really great comedian.'"
"Last week, somebody got catcalled during her set here," says Lakhmani, standing outside of Bear With Me, an open-mic show that Ruben-Long hosts with Julie Mitchell every Monday night at the Mid-City bar Twelve Mile Limit. "There's no rope you have to cross to get into these shows. It's an open bar, anyone can walk in."
Jodi Borrello has been performing standup in New Orleans since 2002. At 45, she's part of an older generation of female comics, and she believes the game is changing, even if progress is slow.
"People come up to me and say, 'I've never really liked female standup until I heard you,'" Borrello says. "Women say that, too. Women will come up and say, 'I don't really like female comedians, but you were really good.' I think it's a whole mindset of people that is changing."
Still, Borrello says she doesn't see a lot of the issues that Johnson and Ruben-Long witness from show to show. "I'm very fortunate, in a sense, that in my working with hundreds of male comedians I've been fortunate enough to work with those who don't see me as a woman first," she says. "Maybe because I'm not hot."
Borrello — who plays Harrah's New Orleans May 16 with Cayne Collier, Gina Gomez, Allison Hotard and Becky Allen — says mentors have advised her that, as a woman, she has to be careful not to distract an audience from listening. That includes her wardrobe choices, she says.
Johnson says she's hesitant to air any grievances because it's easy to get shunned. "Nobody's allowed to have hurt feelings about anything," Johnson says. "Sexism or racism — neither of those things, I don't think, are allowed to be talked about in the community, or you won't get booked on shows."
But feminism is a topic whose taboo extends beyond comedy. "We don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole," Johnson says. "We want to say things like, 'We love women, so we hate feminism.' It's a very scary subject for people."
"I'm sure that this article will elicit that response too," Ruben-Long adds. "Uprooting gender norms — these are the most deeply rooted structures in human history. It's not a simple task to make people understand what gender equality is. It is very difficult and it's like looking at the world upside down for a lot of people."
Recently, an article on nola.com about a conflict between local comedian Brittany Hunt (who will appear in Friday's show) and the owners of a Magazine Street retail shop that posted a "Male Help Wanted" sign drew more than 200 comments, with the majority of the commenters criticizing Hunt for being offended by the sign. "She saw a sign and got upset. SIT DOWN little girl," one commenter wrote, adding, "If you're so easily offended, New Orleans isn't for you."
"A lot of people thought it was me crying over spilled milk, and in the grand scheme of the world, yes, the hiring practices of a flag store don't matter," Hunt says. "But I'm still going to say something, because small things matter, and I do think that there's a lot of people, who just kind of think these movements are petty and see feminism like, 'Everything's already happened, things are fine now,' and that's not that case.
"In New Orleans, there is definitely a vibrant feminist scene of people young and old," Hunt adds. "But I also definitely think that there are a lot of people who reject any sort of change, even if it's change that, if they thought long and hard about, they would be totally on board with. And I think there is just a group of very vocal people who are very set in their ways."
Part of our reluctance to be comfortable with the moniker Feminist is that women are socialized to be anti-feminism, Johnson says. She suggests it's common for women to feel like they are competing with one another, especially in comedy.
"I was on a show elsewhere where there were two girls ... and like six guys," she says. "And a girl came up to me after my set, and my set went well, and she said, 'F—k you, I wanted to be the funny girl on the show.' Like there could just be one funny girl on the show. And I was like, 'It's so crazy that you think there can only be one funny girl.'"
But comedy also can be a place where women bond.
Ruben-Long and Johnson both say the comedy scene in New Orleans is welcoming to women. The problem is there simply aren't enough women performers to level the playing field.
"Most of the male comics in this city, even if they don't identify as feminists, are [feminists]," Ruben-Long says. "They just care that you're funny. Together with women being very talented, that creates the environment."
Borrello agrees. "For the majority of men," she says, "funny is funny."