Chicks With Wit

Female comics are like strippers, just smarter and less molested.

—Natasha Leggero, 2003

“Why Are These Women Laughing?” asked the cover of the very first issue of the L.A. Weekly, December 8, 1978. Los Angeles’ new free “publication of news, people, entertainment, art and imagination” declared, “This is the season of the standup young comic.” Mugging for the camera and looking like off-duty stewardesses in their platform shoes and big hairdos were, from left, Cathy Kahn, Mchen, Lotus Weinstock, Sandra Bernhard (misspelled “Bernhardt”), Ann Kellogg and Donna Jean Young.

Bernhard you know. The earth-motherly and much-beloved Weinstock, who used to say, “The Lotus in me wants to be totally free; Weinstock will settle for a discount,” passed away from a brain tumor in 1997. The other four, well, let’s just say their sitcoms were never picked up.

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Writer Marie Moneysmith claimed that at the time there were 200 female standup comics in L.A., up from fewer than 20 when Mitzi Shore opened the Comedy Store in 1972. Shore created the women-only Belly Room, upstairs from the Main Room — where comics actually got paid — specifically because the females weren’t drawing the crowds the way the men were.

“They sprang forth in all colors, shapes, hairstyles and drug preferences,” Moneysmith wrote. “There seemed to be more of them in Los Angeles than commercials by Cal Worthington.” Today there are more women comics in L.A. than hooker ads in this very paper.

From tiny coffeehouses in the Valley at midnight to a Laundromat in Silver Lake, there is live comedy all over town on any night of the week, and it’s the female comics who are getting braver and braver in their subject matter, tackling dating, body image and screwed-up childhoods, not to mention more neuroses than Woody Allen ever divulged to his therapist.

“There’s a well-known double standard between topics male and female comics can get into,” says Harriet Matthey, who’s on the comedy prowl regularly. “It’s fascinating to watch how certain men avoid blue material, and inventive women like Rebecca Corry sneak up on it. What fan doesn’t speculate on Shaquille O’Neal’s apparatus? Corry gets right in there.”

In the beginning, of course, there was Phyllis Diller haranguing hubby Fang. A generation later Roseanne Barr was rebelling against housework, and then came the dating and dogs routines of Elayne Boosler (what ever happened to her?), along with Cathy Ladman and Rita Rudner and Ellen DeGeneres and Stephanie Hodge, which led to the “alternative” Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman and Maria Bamford and Beth Lapides’ Un-Cabaret folks and the gals you see at Largo and M Bar, and, well, hell, let’s just hear from some of the cream of 2003 now:

Jessica Golden: “If my dad had told me I was pretty when I was little, I wouldn’t be up here trying to make you laugh.”

Natasha Leggero: “I used to think I liked older men, then I realized I was just hungry.”

Single mom Theya Sbrocca, looking straight outta Silver Lake in thrift-store chic: “I know how to do cocaine off your ass, but I don’t know about playgroup.”

Lesley Wolff, who produces “She She Comedy” Wednesday nights at the Comedy Union on Pico: “Why do guys have to be so eager-beaver when it comes to orgasms? ‘Are you there yet? Are you there yet? Are you there yet?’ What are you, my little brother on a road trip? Here’s a travel Scrabble . . . keep yourself occupied.”

Wendy Wilkins: “It took me until I was 33 to fall in love. I had a feeling it was going to take that long because in college I wasn’t the girl that guys called for a booty call. I was the girl that guys called to help them move a couch.”

Melinda Hill: “Can we please have a moratorium on people who bum cigarettes? I have exactly enough cigarettes in my pack to not burst into tears during the course of the evening. I need them all. I have a friend who’s always like, ‘Can I have a cigarette? I’ll give you 25 cents, I’ll buy you a drink.’ That’d be ‰ 95

like me asking, ‘Can I have one of your Zoloft? I’ll give you 25 cents. Can I have some of your insulin? I’ll buy you a drink.’”

Laura House: “Love is like a beautiful, exotic bird that you’ll only see once in your life, if you’re lucky. Marriage is like taking that bird and placing it gently in a tiny, cramped cage (that no one’s ever going to clean).

And here’s Christy Murphy, who runs the comedy show at Lucy’s LaundryMart: “I’ve lost 17 pounds, and my goal is to lose 35 more, because I want to be so thin I never have to try to be funny or nice again.”

Paula Poundstone, who has been on the road practically nonstop touring comedy clubs since the early ’80s (well, except for a little visit to j-a-i-l, but that’s old news), called in from the Comedy Zone in Charlotte, North Carolina, to say she’s never really felt she was treated differently for being a woman comic. Still, she’s had her share of running up against shock comics favored by guys who tend to drink a lot. She started her career in Boston, with its “strutting pride in idiocy,” as she calls it. “I had to follow somebody whose last line was ‘. . . so I was eating out the cunt of a bear,’ and the crowd went insane, and then it was ‘Please welcome Paula Poundstone!’ Needless to say, I ate it.

“I’ve always said I’d have to isolate the variables and come back as a man to know for sure if bookers have treated me differently,” she says. “A lot of us are workaday comics who just go onstage and do really well. Ultimately I have remained on the road. That’s my job. Sometimes I feel frustrated by this, but on the other hand, what a great job to have. I go onstage and tell my little jokes and people laugh.”

And what did ever happen to Elayne Boosler?

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