Jim Gaffigan (MSB ’88), Mike Birbiglia (COL ’00), Nick Kroll (COL ’01) and John Mulaney (COL ’04) — all names that could sell out comedy clubs across the country. At one point, they called the Hilltop their home. And, incidentally, all of them are men.
The overwhelming maleness of Georgetown’s famously funny alumni stands in stark contrast to the comedic talent evident among women on campus. In fact, during the second annual Funniest Human at Georgetown competition Feb. 16, six of the 10 contestants who took the stage were women.
But while some Georgetown women have broken into the industry — notably comedian Alison Becker (COL ’99), known for her role in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” — none have acquired the star power of Georgetown’s famous male comedians, who have gone on to star in Broadway comedies, host Netflix specials and headline shows in Madison Square Garden.
In the meantime, Georgetown’s women in comedy are battling the stereotype that women are not funny.
Women have long faced an uphill battle in achieving equal representation in comedy. Of the top 10 highest paid comedians each year, only one woman — Amy Schumer — has made the list, first in 2016 and again the following year.
The industry has also been historically riddled by sexism, from the late Jerry Lewis asserting in 1998 he does not “like any female comedians” to critic Christopher Hitchens penning a now-infamous 2007 piece in Vanity Fair speculating “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” More recently, since November 2017, the industry has come under the scrutiny of the #MeToo movement as comedy stars such as Louis C.K., T.J. Miller and Aziz Ansari have faced allegations of sexual misconduct.
Nevertheless, by baring their souls onstage in stand up and bringing laughter to campus with their improv troupes, a new generation of stand-up women at Georgetown hope to inspire others to join the ranks of female comics and begin changing the scales so the number of women in comedy — and the overall impression of female comics — tips toward equality.
The comedy scene at Georgetown is composed of groups including the Georgetown Improv Association, the Georgetown Stand Up Society, GUerrilla Improv and the satirical newspaper The Georgetown Heckler. These groups teamed up with the Georgetown Program Board to host the Funniest Human at Georgetown competition Feb. 16, which featured a majority of female contestants, up from three women out of 15 competitors last year.
Recognizing the challenges that precluded women from taking the stage, from societal pressures to stereotypes, GPB collaborated with the student organization Georgetown University Women in Leadership to organize a comedy workshop that helped women prepare for an audition for the Funniest Human competition.
Megan Howell (COL ’18), who led the workshop and is a member of the Georgetown Improv Association, said she believes one of the most significant problems confronting women in the industry is a lack of representation, which contributes to a self-fulfilling prophecy that further prevents women from entering comedy.
“Women are funny as hell, but it is hard to join a community [or] industry that is predominantly white men,” Howell said. “It is difficult to ‘see’ yourself doing something if you don’t ‘see’ people like you doing it. I hope that fellow women see me perform and think, ‘Awh hell yess. If she can do this, then I can do this!’ And then she does the damn thing.”
Olja Busbaher (SFS ’18) felt empowered to audition for the competition after attending the workshop — even though she had no experience with comedy before. Using the routine she developed in the workshop, she was able to get into the competition.
“Before the Women in Comedy workshop, I had never done anything in comedy on campus,” Busbaher said. “Thanks to the workshop, though, I was encouraged to audition for Georgetown’s Funniest Human and was lucky enough to participate in that. I always enjoy entertaining people with stories, so trying comedy felt like a natural, albeit terrifying, move.”
Busbaher finds that while women confront less stigma in comedy today than in the past, they still may feel confined to only broach certain topics in their routines.
“I do think women still tend to confine themselves to certain topics, such as their dating life or self-deprecation, Busbaher said. “For example, Funniest Human this year actually featured more women comedians than men, but many of the sets covered topics of dating, mine included, while the males had a wider range of material.”
Julia Usiak (COL ’19), another member of the Georgetown Improv Association and the third-place winner at Funniest Human, echoed the sentiment that expectations for women in comedy often do affect their experiences onstage.
“I felt very unconfident as a performer last year in improv because I felt like everything I was doing I was doing with the assumption that I was the girl character in the scene,” Usiak said. “I made jokes to myself that it was like ‘Julia Usiak in roles such as girlfriend, wife, or mother.’”
Helen Whetstine (COL ’21), a member of the Georgetown Stand Up Society and The Georgetown Heckler, said she feels part of the stigma lies in the fact that women are often treated as a punchline.
“As a woman in comedy, I think that comedians of all genders need to be more conscious of how they’re portraying women in their sets,” Whetstine said. “There is nothing inherently funny about the concept of women, so we need to pay attention to the jokes that women are telling, rather than treating women like they are the joke.”
For Taylor Green (COL ’20), a two-time participant in Funniest Human, the intersections of her identity as a black woman add another dimension to the hurdles she faces as a comedian.
“Not only are you a woman but you are black,” Green said. “Which is a double whammy. It is like having to battle racism and sexism at the same time.”
Green said there are also discrepancies in black comedy and white comedy in both expectation and representation.
“I’m a black feminist and it shows up in everything I do,” Green said. “I often say that I have to be ‘white-people-funny.’ Which is my way of saying that white people have a different humor and different cultural references that I wouldn’t understand.”
A Humorous Home
While female comics on campus such as Usiak and Howell may be making waves, they are certainly a minority in the improv scene: The Georgetown Improv Association, which typically has fewer than 10 members, has only ever had one to two women at one time.
However, Usiak remarked this underrepresentation is a trend replicated on campuses across the country.
“The fact of the matter is, when you go to different schools and you are in improv competitions with other societies or other troupes, there will be groups of seven people and only one or two of them are girls.”
Usiak also reflected on the fact that the other members of the improv team are deeply supportive of women. She said they have even stood up for her and felt frustrated on her behalf when she was heckled during an improv group tour.
“I don’t want there to be a negative connotation about women in comedy because I think that the guys on the team are some of the biggest feminists and most supportive human beings that I know,” Usiak said.”
Howell, who had never done improv before attending Georgetown and now serves as a role model to comedians like Usiak, has carved out her home in the Improv Association.
Smitten with comedy after attending the Georgetown Improv Association’s shows, she auditioned her sophomore year.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow. These people are the most witty, clever bunch I’ve ever seen. I want to be a part of this,’” Howell said.
Howell has flourished in improv ever since, – throwing herself into any scene, ready to whip out an accent and invent a character. Her involvement with comedy is among her defining experiences at Georgetown.
“The Georgetown Improv Association has been like family at Georgetown,” Howell said. “I’m so blessed to spend so much time with such amazing people.”